Review: our history in stone – A Castle in England

A Castle in England,

Jamie Rhodes, with art by Isaac Lenkiewicz, Briony May Smith, William Exley, Becky Palmer, Isabel Greenberg

Nobrow Press

Castles. There’s something wonderfully evocative about castles, our shared history in stone, some ruined, some, beautifully maintained, all evoke a sense of visual delight and a sense of wonder as we ponder what those walls have seen, great sentinels to centuries of history. They are visible history, history we can touch, walk around, take in, and in our small islands we are blessed with more than our share, from Highland tower houses to vast medieval castles. Every day on my way to work I pass a huge one, Edinburgh Castle, and every time I see it I consider how lucky I am that my commute to work – normally a mundane event for most of us – takes in this impressive piece of solid history standing above my city, still commanding after all these centuries.

Jamie Rhodes clearly understands this, and a spell in residence at Scotney Castle in Kent has doubtless impressed even further on him the fact that our castles are full of stories from across the centuries, from the everyday lives of those who lived or worked in them or around them to the Big History events of dramatic battles, they’ve marked their time through all the changes in our society across those years. In A Castle in England Jamie has written five stories, each drawn by a different artist – Isaac Lenkiewicz, Briony May Smith, William Exley, Becky Palmer, Isabel Greenberg – and taking in a different event in a different period in this Kentish castle’s life, from the medieval peasants of the castle’s earliest days through the religious strife of the reformation, the family drama of dynastic succession, smugglers and women emancipating themselves. It proves to be a lovely series of snapshots out of our shared history, and the use of different artists on each story works well here, giving each historical setting its own look and style.

One of the things Jamie and his collaborators do throughout is to give us stories which give us a sense of a distinct period in history while also showing how often events then are relevant to the here and now (which as a history buff I heartily approve of; history is never just past, it suffuses the present and is part of the tapestry of tomorrow).  The very first tale, set in 1381, as the castle is being completed, and the growing discontent of the mass of the population, the serfs, is about to explode into open rebellion (lead by the famous Wat Tyler, one of the original folk heroes). It’s a glimpse into a very hard life – today we are (justly) outraged at the inequalities in our society, the gulf between the super-rich minority and the rest of us, but for the serf it was even worse. Their rebellion, while unsuccessful, shook the small, ruling elite to the core and would in time lead to changes for the mass of ordinary folks that we benefit from today (and concerns from the powerful over what an angry mass, pushed too far, can do – still something rules and elites try to control today in their fear).

(the Medieval period with The Labourer,  art by Isaac Lenkiewicz)

The Priest, with art by Briony May Smith, takes us into Tudor period and the religious turmoil caused by Heny VIII’s break with Rome. Scotney is now home to the Darrell family; Catholics in a country where that is not just (very suddenly) a minority religion, but one suspected – to be a devout Catholic is to be suspected of being a possible deviant, a traitor, more loyal to a religious leader abroad than to your nation and monarch, dangerous, subversive. It leads to suspicion, persecution, division. It sounds, sadly, not too dissimilar to some of the troubles stalking modern Britain… William Etsey gives us a rollicking tale of smugglers – far from some cut-throat bunch though, most of these are locals, struggling in a depressed economy after losing one of their main industries, doing a bit on the side (and also subverting unfair taxes), against a background of unrest with the status quo of Britain coming from Jacobites in Scotland. Again there are echoes to some of today’s tensions, while the characters are well handled, they feel like real people, people we could know, neighbours, friends, not distant historical characters.

(above The Priest, art by Briony May Smith; below – The Smuggler, art by William Exley)

Becky Palmer’s The Widow brings us to the rational, sensible Victorians, although it opens with a rather less than rational suicide – by blunderbuss, no less… It’s an age of remodeling, the old Castle not so desirable in this modern age, the family now in a fine manor house, much more comfortable, but with that Victorian love of a romanticised past (something we’ve inherited today) the old castle is deliberately partially ruined to create a form of picturesque folly for them to enjoy on their walks round the estate, nicely depicted by Palmer with a giant figure of the lord of the manor, Edward Hussey III, pushing over blocks, blowing them down. There are some lovely scenes of Victorian domesticity too, with touches that made me smile – he showing off the fine, new manor house “this will be the billiard room” he tells his male friends, nearby his new wife chats to her girlfriends “I have plans for his billiard room”. How many couples have had that argument to this very day?!

(enter the Victorian era in The Widow, art by Becky Palmer)

The final piece, The Hunter, is illustrated by one of my favourites, Isabel Greenberg in her distinctive style, and brings us into the twentieth century, the highpoint of Empire, of the last great period of the rich gentry in their great houses before the calamity of the Great War helped hasten the end of that way of life for most. Times may have changed, but some societal rules are still stiff and divisive, the brother allowed to indulge in expensive travel  (which mostly takes the form of lording it over the natives and shooting every animal he sees), the sister stuck at home, not allowed the same privilege of travel but at the same time her station won’t allow her to join in more simple pleasures (she would like to join the working class families who come for working holidays to do the hop picking, but her mother considers this far too beneath her). Here Rhodes storytelling is playing right to Greenberg’s strengths, as the women, supposedly held in their rigid place in the pecking order, use their own guile to exploit circumstances to achieve what they want (the impish smile of success Isabel gives the sister is delightful).

(the twentieth century arrives in The Hunter, art by Isabel Greenberg)

Each story comes with a quick introduction to give some setting to the historical period, and a longer set of notes afterwards, explaining more about both the period, to give some context, and about the family resident in the castle during that time. All in all it’s an utterly charming delight, snapshots of British history viewed through the people who have lived in and around this castle for almost seven hundred years, a reminder, if one be needed, that these magnificent structures are more than just our architectural heritage, or reminders of Big History (kings, queens, civil wars) but the same everyday life each one of us, the loves, deaths, marriages, children, the struggle to get by in difficult times. These great walls have seen all of this and more. When I pass Edinburgh Castle on the way to work it never fails to spark ideas in my head, stories, pieces of history, there is, for me, a real sense of that past right there in the present, alive, not just a monument, and that’s what Rhodes et al do so very well here, remind us that these buildings aren’t just structures, they’re part of our lives and those who came before us, our collective history, our changing society (and the elements which never change, because, well, human nature…).

All delivered with a delicious variety of art styles by Rhodes’ collaborators, and bound in a handsome small hardback (Nobrow really do pay attention to the book itself as a lovely object, not just the contents), this is a lovely and unusual addition to British comics shelves, and a charming read for both those well-versed in history and those who are only dipping their toes in, curious to know more.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

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.

The Bridge

Burntisland 01

Since I have a few days off to use up, I took the train up the coast, crossing the mighty Forth Rail Bridge and round the coastal rail route to get off at Burntisland for a wee while. The railway runs right by the beach there, on a raised embankment above the promenade and the beach (quite a bit of this line hugs the Fife coast so you get some good views on your trip). There are tunnels under the line leading from the parkland behind it to the promenade.

Burntisland 02

Being early afternoon on a weekday in March it was pretty quiet, mostly either parents with very young kids or senior citizens and the odd dog walker – tends to be a bit busier in the warmer weather of spring and summer!

Burntisland 010

Burntisland 011

Standing out (braving some seriously heavy wind, especially in an exposed position!) on a jutting bit of headland that projects out by the bay where the beachfront is I could just barely make out the volcanic bulk of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh across the Firth of Forth, but it was too hazy to get a decent shot. Looking up river the haar had settled in too, and the bright light had turned grey (one of those days of sun, overcast, sun, overcast, always changing), and the bridges were barely visible through the mist and haze, although the iconic shape of the Forth Rail Bridge (often just referred to around here as “The Bridge” and everyone knows you mean the rail bridge and not the nearby road bridges) was just apparent, the diamond-shaped cantilever section like the humps of some vast sea serpent rising from the waters. Here you can see it and the 20th century suspension road bridge a bit further behind it, although the new Queensferry Crossing, now almost complete, is hidden by the mist. In the foreground you can just make out Inchcolm and the shape of some of the buildings on this island’s 12th century abbey (which you can visit via a Forth cruise – well worth the trip):

Forth Rail Bridge 014

Forth Rail Bridge 015

On the ride home I decided to jump off at North Queensferry for a while before heading back across river to Edinburgh, and walked down the steep slope to where the village nestles around the northern base of the Forth Rail Bridge, right by the banks of the Forth.

Forth Rail Bridge 01

At this side of the river you can walk right under the end of one of the vast “diamond” shapes of this massively over-engineered cantilever structure, and despite the now bitingly cold wind it was worth the chill to walk down by the lapping waters of the Forth past this iconic piece of engineering that has become a landmark.

Forth Rail Bridge 02

Forth Rail Bridge 07

This was the view standing right under the northernmost diamond, looking straight across the river through the Meccano Set of girders – you can see the next diamond shape behind it through the forest of red steelwork:

Forth Rail Bridge 08

It’s a massive Victorian structure, hugely over-built (a reaction to the earlier failure of the Tay Bridge), and you know it is large, I mean you can see if from parts of Edinburgh for goodness sake, you can see the top parts of the diamond shapes from the main Edinburgh-Glasgow railway line. But there’s nothing quite like going underneath a structure like this to really get a sense of the sheer size and strength of it. It’s like standing under the Eiffel Tower, but turned on its side. Magnificent piece of history and engineering.

Edinburgh from above…

Recently on a day off the sun came out to play – a low-in-the-sky winter sun, soft and golden light and long shadows. So I decided instead of going off to the cinema I’d go for a photo-walk, originally planning to walk up Calton Hill (which Robert Louis Stevenson wrote was one of the finest spots to take in views over our city) to take some photos looking out over Edinburgh. But on the way there, on a sudden whim I diverted into Princes Street Gardens and did something I haven’t done for years – climbed the Scott Monument. Several hundred narrow, spiral stone steps winding their way up over two hundred feet. Pretty exhausting, and, especially in the final third, pretty claustrophobic – the final couple of twists of the topmost steps is so narrow I couldn’t fit unless I turned side on! Not for anyone who gets dizzy easily, or fears enclosed spaces (and obviously not for anyone with no head for heights). But worth all the effort and discomfort, because two hundred feet up you get tremendous views over the ancient, volcanic geology and cityscape of Auld Reekie:

Edinburgh from above

Edinburgh from above 01

Jenners old department store with its richly carved facade normally towers over me as I walk along the street, peculiar to be looking down on it, rather than up…. As ever, click on the pics to see the bigger versions available on my Flickr page to see more details.

Edinburgh from above 04

Looking towards Saint Andrew Square and the tall column of the Melville Monument – normally I have to look up at this, but from the top of the Scott Monument I could zoom in and take a pic of the statue at the top from a straight-on perspective rather than angled up from the ground. In the background in the distance you can see some of the modern apartments which have sprung up in parts of the old dockside areas down in Leith, by the mighty Forth.

Edinburgh from above 05

Edinburgh from above 08

Looking eastwards towards the huge Scots-Baronial architecture of the Balmoral Hotel, which started life as one of the great Victorian railway hotels. The clock tower, a landmark on the Edinburgh skyline, has a timepiece which is actually set a few moments fast, by tradition – to encourage travellers to hurry down the stairs in front of it in time to catch their train in the station below. As with the Melville Monument I normally have to take pics from an angle looking up from far below, but from this vantage point I could zoom in and take a photo looking pretty much straight on for a change.

Edinburgh from above 09

Edinburgh from above 014

The great bulk of Arthur’s Seat, the enormous extinct volcano which sits right at the heart of the city, with the palace and parliament nestled at its feet, the whole lying in a royal park – you can go not just for a “countryside” walk but a decent bit of hill-walking here without leaving the city centre! And the views from the top are pretty spectacular too. Part of the ancient volcanic topography which gave Edinburgh its unique cityscape, it is also one of the places which inspired the modern science of geology, with Hutton wandering around Arthur’s Seat as he began to form some of the first understandings of how our planet is shaped over vast eons of time. And it’s a pretty spectacular piece of scenery to have right in the middle of a capital city – I rather enjoy looking at it each day on my way to work.

Edinburgh from above 018

The low, now rapidly setting winter sun casts shadows and warm tones across the western side of the New Town, with the tall, triple spires of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, more landmarks on the city’s skyline, almost silhouetted in the declining sunlight.

Edinburgh from above 019

And the view looking downwards towards Princes Street below!

Edinburgh from above 020

looking up

And here’s what I had to clamber up to take those pics – over two hundred feet of a Gothic rocket, like a stone version of Thunderbird Three. I have always thought it exceptionally civilised that this enormous monument – the largest monument anywhere in the world to a writer – is not dedicated to some king or general, but an author, a teller of tales, of stories and books. Given that my Edinburgh is built as much of the printed pages as it is history and geology and architecture (look here, Robert Louis Stevenon’s home, there the Sherlock statue marking where Conan Doyle’s family house was, there the pub where Inspector Rebus drinks in Ian Rankin’s novels, there the spot where the early encyclopedias and dictionaries were published, there a cafe where a then impoverished single mother huddled for warmth and wrote her tales of a boy wizard, here the Writer’s Museum, there the Storytelling Centre, over there the largest literary festival on the planet). The Scott Monument itself boasts dozens of sculptures from top to bottom, characters taken from Sir Walter Scott’s many books. Literature in stone.

“These are the times…”

As Brexit Britain and Trumpian America seem hell-bent on descent into bigoted, hate-mongering, ignorance-fuelled darkness, not for the first time I find myself turning to dear, old Tom Paine.

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

This has never meant the simple analogy of military service, but the standing up for the values that your nation and society is meant to represent. It can be a march like the million of women we saw protesting in cities in the US and around the world last weekend (sorry, Piers, I know that offends your pathetically inadequate masculinity, you poor wee ball-less thing) or something as simple as standing up against targeting ethnic and religious groups and saying no, you’re not treating my fellow citizens that way, it’s unfair, it’s illegal and morally wrong.

Also I suspect Tom would have given Trump a kick in the arse if he’d met him…

Magic Lanterns

Magic lantern 01

During the Edinburgh International Film Festival last week I saw a film called Cinema, Mon Amour, a documentary about a group trying to save an old cinema in Romania. Afterwards the Filmhouse very kindly gave us a short tour of the main projection booth – we had to be quiet and I couldn’t use the flash as another festival screening was going on below us (we could see it through the wee rectangular window in the booth). The pair of decades old cine projectors are named Kenneth and Sid – even in this bastion of arthouse and international film, the Carry On movies have influence!

Magic lantern 02

Quite nostalgic for me to see these and hear them – the whirring sound of anaologue projectors is part of my childhood memories of cinema, and at home we had a Super 8mm cine camera as well as our 35mm still cameras, and we screened them quite often on long winter’s nights for the family. There’s something satisfying about old analogue tech like this, you can see it moving, see how it works. The Filmhouse must be one of the last cinemas in the city that retains the ability to show actual film prints as well as digital and properly trained projectionists. They were telling us about their skills, from being able to change from one projector to the other seamlessly mid-film, fixing broken celluloid to adjusting focus, ratio and even speed for different formats and eras (early films shot on hand-cranked cameras require a lot of skill to adjust the film speed, since their shooting rate varied as cameramen’s arms got tired. Lovely to see these magic lanterns which paint stories on a screen using nothing more than light…

Magic lantern 03

Magic lantern 04

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

red_virgin_mary_bryan_talbot_cape_cover-628x886

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.

red_virgin_mary_bryan_talbot_cape_08-628x891

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.

red_virgin_mary_bryan_talbot_cape_01-628x925

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).

red_virgin_mary_bryan_talbot_cape_02-628x938

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.

red_virgin_mary_bryan_talbot_cape_03-628x930

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.

red_virgin_mary_bryan_talbot_cape_05-628x501

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.

red_virgin_mary_bryan_talbot_cape_04-628x888

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:

repainting the Fingal 02

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.

Dazzled 01

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.

Dazzled 04

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

last_man_on_the_moon_film_poster

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?

last_man_on_the_moon_film_cernan_apollo_spacesuit

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

last_man_on_the_moon_film_cernan_apollo_spacesuit_with_tracy

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.

last_man_on_the_moon_film_cernan_on_moon

(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)

last_man_on_the_moon_film_earth_from_apollo

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.

last_man_on_the_moon_film_cernan_apollo_spacesuit_in_LEM

(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.

last_man_on_the_moon_film_cernan_launch_pad

(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

City built on books

Reading today that the vast knowledge the great consulting detective Mister Sherlock Holmes displayed was due largely to his Edinburgh author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attending classes at the Royal Botanic Gardens in his teens. One hundred and forty year old records show a young Conan Doyle’s signature for attending his classes, where he would have learned about a number of interesting plants, including the deadly Belladonna, which would prove very useful several years later when he began writing the Sherlock Holmes tales, along with the already very well-known inspiration for Holmes himself which Doyle had in the shape of the remarkable Edinburgh lecturer Doctor Joseph Bell.

Sherlock Holmes 02

This is one of the things I most love about living here in Edinburgh – not just the very long, rich history, not just the culture (like having the largest arts festival in the world), the amazing architecture, perched in turn on top of even more astonishing geology (giving Edinburgh a skyline like no other and wonderful walking opportunities along streets which curve down and up, and around), it’s the books: this is a city built on literature as much as its geology. Books are everywhere here, and I’m not just talking about the obvious form of bookstores or the Edinburgh International Book Festival (again largest in the world), it’s the way so many corners of this old city are deeply tied to authors and writing, from Robert Burns, Hume and Scott, Stevenson and Doyle to publishers like Chambers with their great reference works.

Robert Burns on the Mile

Home of Robert Louis Stevenson 2

Home of Robert Louis Stevenson

Today you can still see Robert Louis Stevenson or Conan Doyle’s childhood homes, drink in pubs they visited… And it goes on, from the mid 20th century “poet’s pub” in Milnes, where rhymers and bards got together (the Portrait Gallery here has the wonderful painting of them all together in the pub, for where else should a Scots bard be?) to the cafes where a struggling single mother was writing what would become the Harry Potter novels which so galvanised the reading habits of millions of children (and adults!) or a drink in the Oxford Bar where Ian Rankin’s bestselling Inspector Rebus enjoys a jar or three, and indeed it is not unknown to bump into contemporary Edinburgh authors when out patronising one of our city’s many fine drinking establishments, enjoying a small refreshment. It’s a book-lover’s city.

An Iain and an Ian go into a bar

A serious head-trip through billions of years: Jen Harder’s Alpha

Alpha Hardcover,

Jens Harder,

Knockabout

alpha_jens_harder_knockabout_cover

I’ve very much been looking forward to Knockabout publishing Jen Harder’s Alpha, the first of a projected three graphic works which aim to take in one of the grandest themes a book can tackle: life, the universe and everything, from the fizzing, bizarre microseconds around the Big Bang when even the universal laws of physics and nature hadn’t yet taken effect (in fact they didn’t yet exist as we know them) through the slow birth of stars, planets, whole galaxies, then the molten lumps which would grow and reform to become one planet in particular, our own beautiful Earth.

In Alpha Harder takes us on a mind-blowing head-trip through some four and a half billion years (give or take) from the “let there be light” moment to formation of the Earth, the endless ages of changes, the first sparks of life, the astonishing spectacle of evolution, of great geological processes, from the beginning right through to the Anthropocene era, the “human era”. And as a subtle reminder that humans are not as special as we like to think we are, we come in only at the very end of this volume, comparative latecomers in the great book of life on Earth.

alpha_jens_harder_knockabout_08

alpha_jens_harder_knockabout_07

The Beta and Gamma volumes are aiming to look at the rise of humans, form primitive ape-like forms to modern humans and establishing civilisations then potential futures, but those are stories for other days, and while I very much want to read those, Alpha offers up more than enough imagery, spectacle, amazement and food for thought for any reader to mentally digest.

At first only a germ exists, the singularity. From this infinitely hot and dense original state, no bigger than a football, the Universe expands. An inflation commences. The beginning of Space-Time.”

The breadth and scope of Alpha is remarkable, and Jens has the confidence to trust his readers and their own ability and knowledge, frequently giving us entire pages without text, just images, trusting his readers to participate with him, to be an active part of this story telling experiment. And what a story – the great story, the one philosophers, sages, religious leaders and scientists alike have explored since… Well, for as long as humans have been capable of thought. The first section come across very much like a fantastic voyage, spectacular images splashed across our retinas, from the infinitely small world of sub-atomic physics, quarks, of matter and anti-matter springing into being and annihilating one another, then to the much larger scale, to the cosmological scale. Hydrogen gas accumulating, gravity starting to exert its power billions of years before Isaac Newton would lay down his laws. Atoms are formed, stable substances, they start to group together under the influence of gravity.

As they clump together they are changed, enlarged, spinning, turning, growing. From simple dust and gas will come the most massive of structures: swirling gas spins before our eyes, faster, faster, heat generated by the friction, the rotation, pressures building from being so squashed together until heat and pressure pass the point of no return and this accumulation of matter ignite: nuclear fusion takes place at their heart and the first stars burn into existence, fuelling in turn the creation of more elements, while around these new stars more rocks come together, slowly, oh so slowly forming what will become the planets. It will take billions of years, but these cold rocks smashing together will one day become vast, complex ecospheres of their own, especially our own remarkable world.

alpha_jens_harder_knockabout_09

We move from the cosmic to the Earthly, to a world we wouldn’t recognise, one we couldn’t actually live on – the atmosphere, such as it was, poison to us and to most other life we know of, no water yet, the surface crust just the thinnest covering over raging magma, constantly bombarded by debris from the formation of the solar system. And yet this volcanic hell-world is destined to become the richest and most diverse source of life in our entire solar system. Wind and water start to form on this embryonic planet, shaping it as much as the geological movements do, that spinning metal core starts to generate a magnetic field, deflecting the worst cosmic rays, an invisible umbrella that will encourage and protect the endless variety of life to come.

And that life too will change the form of the Earth, the earliest lifeforms breathing the foul atmosphere and excreting oxygen. We can even still see some of those incredibly ancient lifeforms, such as the Stromatolites off the coast of the great island continent of Australia. We know that mighty oaks come from a humble acorn, but here Jens graphically shows us the almost miraculous formation of worlds, stars and life, from the most primitive bacteria which would eventually lead to swimming creatures, then backbones, eyes, legs. Giant sea scorpions, massive dinosaurs, the rise of the mammals, the waves of extinctions and the new forms which would emerge to take their place, a never-ending cycle of death and new life while around that life the Earth itself, seemingly so solid to short-lived beings like us, is continually changed, altered, mountains rise, erode, entire continents move and reform…

alpha_jens_harder_knockabout_06

alpha_jens_harder_knockabout_05

Jens doesn’t just offer up imagery of these events though – throughout the entire book he constantly inserts frames from much, much later, from our own human culture era, into the events. The slow coalescing of gases into the spark of nuclear ignition that forms a living star comes across like a NASA countdown. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, we have ignition, and appropriately this sequence is intercut with the mighty blast of human-built rockets defying gravity to launch a spacecraft beyond our world. The growing power of the young sun bathing the early planets is intercut with more human imagery, Egyptian pharaohs and their children beneath the all-powerful sun-god Ra (or perhaps it is the Aten sun-god of the heretic king Akhenaten). Early creatures experiencing celluar division are contrasted with mythological beings from Incan and Mayan civilisations.

Sequences depicting the first order out of chaos as the laws of physics establish themselves following the Big Bang are intercut with human desires to impose order on nature, the swirl of the subatomic coming together to form the larger-scale reality intercut with the creation of the great Pantheon and its wondrous dome by the Romans. The embryonic seas form in a sequence intercut with Hokusai’s famous Great Wave artwork. Depictions of continental drift are contrasted with delightfully inaccurate and yet still so beautiful medieval Mappa Mundi, the amazing new life forms of the great beasts contrasted with woodcut images from a bestiary, the era of the giant “terror birds” with Alice meeting Dodo, the evolutionary adaptation of skeletons to move from sea to land with the structure of the mighty Forth Rail Bridge, nature and human culture and invention entwined repeatedly.

alpha_jens_harder_knockabout_04

alpha_jens_harder_knockabout_02

It’s a remarkable experience; this journey across unbelievably vast tracts of time and creation is mind-bending. It puts me in mind of The Light of Other Days, a collaboration between Stephen Baxter and the great Arthur C Clarke, in which wormhole technology allows humans to look anywhere in time and space, one character following his own family line back, back, back, his mother, father, grandparents, following them visually all the way back to early hominids and further back. But here, unlike Clark and Baxter, we are moving forward, not back, sailing through space-time and history and evolution.

And while the concepts are as vast and complex as the timescales and lifeforms they depict, this counter-cutting the story of creation with human images puts a scale on it we can understand, while also reminding us strongly that we’re not different, we’re not apart from all of this, we are an integral part of this magnificent chain of creation. It also subtly hints that out of all of those billions of years and different lifeforms, we are the only ones we know of who have established an understanding of these things, and even then only comparatively recently.

alpha_jens_harder_knockabout_03

It’s only a few hundred years since Hooke explored the microscopic world we never even knew existed before that period, even more recent since we started to understand world-shaping concepts like continental drift or stellar physics or sub-atomic physics or the Darwinian notions of evolution, barely half a century since we discovered DNA or set foot on a surface that was not part of our own world, but another celestial body. And yet all those new discoveries and knowledge are all connected with what went before, standing on the shoulders of giants, our precious knowledge showcased so wonderfully here also part of that same great chain of circumstances across billions of years which allowed the conditions for these things to happen, these creatures to be, these people to exist, to think…

It is both incredibly humbling, putting us in our place, just another part of a long cycle of life, and yet also exalting humanity for being the only life on Earth to be able to comprehend and celebrate this knowledge. Humans are a part of this creation, not aside from or above it, but a part of it, the latest in a long, oh so long chain of events leading to the conditions for life, then for that life to slowly evolve into beings who could regard this universe and start to read it’s history like a book, to start lifting back the heavy curtains of Dark Matter to peer at the very structures of the universe or to explore the book of life through DNA or the extensive fossil record our remarkable world has furnished us with and start putting together those stories. Which are our stories, the stories of all life.

This is a spectacular book, a ride through the creation of everything, leaving the head spinning, flooded with ideas, imagery, offering new lenses to look again at the world around us and marvel at it all. It’s combination of physics, cosmology, geology and evolutionary sciences is like a terrific mixture of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and David Attenborough’s Life on Earth. Ultimately though, Alpha offers readers something truly special, that beautiful feeling that comes simply from the sheer sense of wonder.

Don’t ask me and don’t tell me. I was there.
It was a bang and it was big. I don’t know
what went before, I came out with it.
Think about that if you want my credentials.
Think about that, me, it, imagine it
as I recall it now, swinging in my spacetime hammock,
nibbling a moon or two, watching you.
What am I? You don’t know. It doesn’t matter.
I am the witness, I am not in the dock.
I love matter and I love anti-matter.
Listen to me, listen to my patter.

Oh what a day (if it was day) that was!
It was as if a fist had been holding fast
one dense packed particle too hot to keep
and the fingers had suddenly sprung open
and the burning coal, the radiant mechanism
had burst and scattered the seeds of everything,
out through what was now space, out
into the pulse of time, out, my masters,
out, my friends, so, like a darting shoal,
like a lion’s roar, like greyhounds released,
like blown dandelions, like Pandora’s box,
like a shaken cornucopia, like an ejaculation –

I was amazed at the beauty of it all,
those slowly cooling rosy clouds of gas,
wave upon wave of hydrogen and helium,
spirals and rings and knots of fire, silhouettes
of dust in towers, thunderheads, tornadoes;
and then the stars, and the blue glow of starlight
lapislazuliing the dust-grains –

I laughed, rolled like a ball, flew like a dragon,
zigzagged and dodged the clatter of meteorites
as they clumped and clashed and clustered into
worlds, into this best clutch of nine
whirled in the Corrievreckan of the Sun.
The universe had only just begun.
I’m off, my dears. My story’s still to run! ” Planet Wave, Edwin Morgan (excerpt)*

(* = apologies for such a lengthy quote, but Alpha put me in mind so much of the poetry of the great Edwin Morgan, who often showed a fascination for real science and for science fiction in his work, and I had to include the opening of his Planet Wave verse, which celebrates the creation of the universe, the world, people and life, much as Alpha does, although in very different ways. Carcanet have it in his collected poems, should you wish to read the full thing)

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog