When we remember…

The Remembrance Garden is open in Princes Street Gardens, serried rows of small crosses and poppies lined up in silent regiments around the enormous pillars of the Scott Monument. I took a few photographs last weekend as it was just opening ahead of the Remembrance Sunday weekend this weekend, volunteers from Poppy Scotland were still hammering a few more of the small crosses into the ground:

The smaller crosses are made for people to leave personal messages on – families of the fallen, old comrades and friends, some from conflicts long gone, a relative fallen at Arnhem in WWII, but not forgotten. There is a special section this year for more recent conflicts such as those lost in the Afghanistan campaign, bearing photographs of the fallen:

And there was one which had the simplest but most touching, hearbtreaking message that brought tears to my eyes:

A reminder, if any ever was needed that behind Big Historical Events, behind the bloody-handed politicians who make the decisions but never risk their life or that of their own, always someone else’s son or daughter or husband or wife, behind all the media pundits and their endless analysis filling the 24-hour rolling news discussions, behind all of that, individuals, ordinary people, taken from those who loved them, leaving them behind with a hole in their lives, in their hearts, a grievous wound that they will carry all the rest of their days, those left behind as wounded in their own way as any harmed on a battlefield. Again we can only wonder when the human race will learn.

Two hundred years of Waverley

The Edinburgh City of Literature campaign is celebrating two hundred years of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley, and the huge Edinburgh railway station which shares that name is currently peppered with quotations from Scott to mark the bicentennial of the famous Scottish novel:

The blood red fortress of the night

Crossing North Bridge (which spans the deep valley between Edinburgh’s Old Town and the Georgian-era New Town) a few nights ago I noticed that the Castle was illuminated in this deep red shade – as it turned out it was to mark the annual Poppy Appeal leading up to Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, although given it was the week leading to Halloween the colour scheme worked quite well for that too… I was going from work to my book group, so didn’t have the tripod with me, so improvised, setting up a long exposure on the camera, setting the timer then sitting the camera on the parapet of the bridge. Not ideal – it is angled and with double decker buses rumbling over it frequently it vibrates, not what you want when trying to take a long exposure night shot, took three or four but only this one came out reasonably (click to see larger versions on my Flickr):

Supercrash: Darryl Cunningham’s fascinating comics exploration of the great financial meltdown

Supercrash: How to Hijack the Global Economy,
Darryl Cunningham,
Myriad Editions

Or: “How I stopped worrying and learned to love the financial timebomb…“*

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I’ve followed Darryl’s work for years, from his run as our resident cartoonist-in-virtual-residence right here on the blog through his developing work on the brilliant Act-I-Vate online comics collective, then his books, starting with the astonishingly powerful Psychiatric Tales, the insightful Science Tales and the fun of his Uncle Bob Adventures (a second volume of which will be heading our way from Blank Slate, yay!). Equally at home with humour or adventure strips, Darryl is however perhaps best known for tackling some pretty heavyweight, very serious subjects (mental health issues, the growing anti-science attacks by some, climate change and more) and through a massive amount of research being able to distil this research into complex – and often sensitive – issues and then creating an incredibly accessible explanation in comics form. In these endeavours I don’t think it is hyperbole to say Darryl has, for me, become to this explanatory branch of reportage comics what Sacco has become to war zone reportage, in that he shows all sides of a problem in a way the reader can understand, while never losing track of the human aspect in the complex issues involved, and all delivered in a way that only the comics medium can do.

With Supercrash he turns his attention to the global financial meltdown, the myriad causes that lead to it, the reaction of shocked governing bodies to it and the dreadful effects it had, not just on the companies but on millions of struggling individuals and even entire nations and continents (and indeed the effects it is still having, not just in economic austerity but in the attitudes that have come from it and which are affecting present and future political policies). It’s an extremely confusing, complex set of issues, and yet again Darryl manages to take those subjects and not just explain them in a manner any reader could absorb and understand, but equally crucially, he shows thenumerous links between many different causes, influences and events which lead to this dreadful meltdown, giving the reader a much fuller understanding of the various effects because they are now more aware of the causes.

No one helped me, nor do I think it was anyone’s duty to help me...”

The book is broken into three main chapters: Ayn Rand, The Crash and The Age of Selfishness. Rand is a name probably familiar to many readers for her novels such as Atlas Shrugged, although many will not actually have picked up those novels and read them (I don’t recommend them, I have to say). But Rand was more than a novelist and screenwriter, she’s not only included here but given the entire first third of the book because of her political ideology and the cult she built up around it and herself, an ideology which influenced a number of people who would in later life be in influential positions of power, such as Alan Greenspan, a long-serving chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States (from 1987 right through to 2006, a period when many of the protections and regulations created years before, some after the Great Depression, to protect the financial system from abuse, were systematically gutted, contributing directly to the great crash). Rand is a hugely divisive character, her personal ideology praising selfishness and attempting to justify it as a way for the ‘superior’ person to realise their potential without being ‘held back’ by the great mass of lazy and uneducated, and owing no responsibility to others (naturally she counts herself among the superior types).

It’s a very elitist stance and also seeks to explain why taxation is immoral, why someone who chooses to be a social worker is wasting their time and more that many people will find distasteful at best, downright repulsive and amoral at worst. Of course, others, including Greenspan, found her reasoning compelling, and a cadre of core supporters helped spread her message and, as with Greenspan, as they got older some of them found themselves in positions where they could actually influence national policies and put some of her teaching into practise, not least with a lot of deregulation in the financial markets which, it was argued, were not needed to protect markets and institutions and were in fact hampering progress and growth.

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Despite the many flaws in both Rand’s reasoning and her personal character though, Darryl somehow also manages to portray a very vulnerable human being behind all her hateful rhetoric – this is not a character assassination, but an examination, and while many of her beliefs may be vile to many (although again he makes it clear she’s an icon to others) Darryl tries to give her some personal context, from childhood through to old age, personal relationships, money worries and other influences that shaped her and show why she was as she was, when a lazier author might have simply drawn her in simpler, starker terms that justified their own agenda, but Darryl is too good a writer for that. I also suspect the fact he is a person of great personal empathy drives him to try and depict her as an actual, complicated, imperfect, sometimes contradictory human being, whatever his own feelings on her views.

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What makes this a far more fascinating and compelling book however, isn’t just Darryl being able to explain historic and contemporary root causes of the great crash, it is, as I indicated at the start, the fact that he shows the links between the different factors and influences and shows how they converged and evolved to create the fiscal tsunami that the world is still recovering from. More than that though, he shows how those causes such as Rand’s belief system – despite its many inherent contradictions (the powerful individual should thrive, those less able should perish, despite the fact those at the top require the work of those at the bottom and the society – hospitals, schools, infrastructure – that ‘despised mass’ makes happen, or her belief you make it on your own, no help, despite being helped repeatedly herself) – are still being used and still evolving with new generations on the right, with what I suppose we could term the children of the Thatcher and Reagan eras (we’re talking about the sort of top flight City workers who waved bank notes at a passing demonstration of public service workers protesting austerity and wage freezes fairly recently), and how some of these ideas have percolated into the far right and feed back into a general contempt for the have-nots (ie most of us), an overwhelming sense of superiority over the mass of the population and a crushing lack of human compassion, which we also see not only in the high finance business but in the political and media demonising of ‘welfare scroungers’ damaging the economy and straining public finances (at the cost of the ‘ordinary working family’) while ignoring those at the top who make enormous bonuses in businesses bailed out by the same public purse (so much for stand on your own with no help and the decrying of state intervention), or the dozens of top London Stock Exchange listed companies who use a complicated system of entirely legal methods to pay almost no corporate taxes, losing exchequers millions, if not billions, and yet the main political and media discussion still seems to settle on easy targets such as the disabled, long-time unemployed or immigrants, and, more worryingly, seems to be convincing a lot of regular people that these are indeed the main problems ruining our countries, a spiral of hate and distrust, bigotry, arrogance and lack of compassion that is breathtaking and which we are seeing and having to deal with right now in everyday politics, as well as in high business where those same attitudes helped foster the environment that encouraged the risk taking that helped fuel the financial disaster .

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But this is not some tirade against Big Business or the rise of the Right. While Darryl does take a stance, he spends a considerable amount of time, especially in the final chapter, examining some of the main characteristics of the Liberal and Conservative (in political ideological terms, not the actual political parties), and he is commendably even-handed here, explaining some of their main thoughts and ideological planks to their side of politics and how there are both good and bad aspects to both, such as a family focus, strong law and order, personal discipline and so on which are hallmarks of the Right and the belief in the community spirit, the creative abilities to think outside the box and the adherence to personal liberties that are more associated with the Left, but also showing how both can be ideologically blinkered to simple common sense. I have to say he’s much more balanced here than I would have been, and again I commend Darryl for taking that sensible and mature approach. This isn’t to say he doesn’t indicate his own leanings and views, but he does so in a very thoughtful and balanced manner, backed up by a ridiculously huge amount of research, which he conveniently documents in the appendix along with a handy glossary of commonly used terms in the book (hedge funds, toxic debt and other phrases that have become common use through media reports yet which many of us probably only have a very basic understanding of).

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I’m not going to get too far into the depths of the historical causes and arguments here, they are simply far, far to complicated for a mere review to try and paraphrase and condense, and besides, Darryl has done such an outstanding job in explaining so much of this that the best I can do is not try to explain some of it but simply advise you to read the book. All of this, as a bonus, comes with Darryl’s unique comic art, again taking deceptively simply cartooning that takes the reader easily into the heart of complex matters that have important influences on everyone’s lives and making it understandable visually as well as with words. His visualisations of Rand as she moves through her life somehow manage to be both intimidating – the dark-eyed, intense stare of someone who is sure they are always right and will brook no dissent – and yet often also suggesting the opposite, a harried, worried, frightened person behind that mask, vulnerable, needy and unable to articulate that need, hiding behind invented ideology instead which never fills that emotional void within, such that much as I despise her arguments (and loathe her badly written novels) I still found myself feeling sorry for her quite often as I read this.

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The three main chapters regularly use a distinctive colour palette to easily differentiate them to the reader – pale greys, yellows and brighter reds for Rand, darker greys and blues for the Crash chapter (although other colours come in for spot effect and for a few pages set on a tropical beach he goes pretty much full colour for a nice contrasting effect of the ‘happy times’ of the booming bubble before the collapse) and a lot of yellows and red in the final Age of Selfishness chapter. And I was delighted to see Darryl work in a few cityscape scenes too – I do love a good Darryl Cunningham cityscape! It’s a remarkable read, visually clever and inventive, as you might expect from Darryl perhaps but still always a pleasure to see, condensing and simplifying complicated inter-related causes that combined to bring the great crash and the subsequent life-ruining austerity measures that have followed in the amazing way that he manages to make seem so simple (but which we know is the result of massive reading, research and thought before any panels were brought to life). A complicated yet eminently readable work on an important subject, this deserves a wide readership, and I hope like Darryl’s previous works this is also one with much to recommend it to book folks outside of the regular comics readership. Much recommended.

* - no, not really, of course…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Indigent Gentlewoman…

I noticed this shiny brass plaque on a very posh building in a rather expensive (even by Edinburgh standards) section of the city – it is a real charity, “The Royal Society for the Relief of Indigent Gentlewomen of Scotland”, and I was hugely amused that something with such a title still existed in the 21st century…

On the BBC

To End All Wars, the World War One comics anthology I have a short story in, has a nice, big feature on the BBC site today, and yours truly’s contribution, alongside that of Kate Charlesworth who created the wonderful art for the story, is about two thirds of the way down the article. The book itself, edited by Jonathan Clode and and Stuart Clark (who cartoons under the pen-name Brick), is published by Soaring Penguin Press towards the end of this month (so I’ll have my copy in time to ‘casually’ tuck under my arm as I stroll around the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August, where I am chairing a couple of author talks again this year). Two pounds from the sale of each book will got to benefit Médecins Sans Frontières medical charity, so I hope folks will give it some support.

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The stories take in a large number of creators from different countries, with many tales inspired by real events or people and telling stories from all sides of that awful conflict which, even in this centenary year of it’s commencement, still echoes down to us, even after the last of the elderly veterans from that war have faded into history and gone to their rest, and takes in the war in the trenches, the seas, the mountains and the air, the humans and the animals who were used in the war effort, the front line and the home. I strongly suspect Michael Gove will not appreciate the sentiment of most of the stories and also suspect that most of my fellow contributors would be quite happy that he would hate it (I certainly would be). My own story is inspired by one of my photographs, of a war memorial in a cemetery just a few moments walk from my flat, a father and son war grave, the father killed in the Great War, his son in the fall of France in 1940. You can also read a special guest post by the editors talking about how the book came together over on the Forbidden Planet blog.

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

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…

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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.

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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.

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

Edinburgh After Dark

With it being dark not long after four in the afternoon now it’s a lot easier to take night shots, without having to wait till much later at night and then stand around with camera and tripod as drunks come out the pubs! I was taking a few photos in Saint Andrew Square, one of two large, grand squares (along with Charlotte Square, home to the Book Festival each August) at either end of the Georgian-era New Town part of Edinburgh. In recent years the gardens in the centre of the square have been opened up to the public again and it’s a busy spot with folks coming and going, or using the garden paths as a shortcut to the other side of the square. I had been taking pics of the column and the new, small glass coffee store all lit up in the dark of a corner of the gardens when I looked behind me and realised that the wet, glistening path lined up perfectly with the vista of broad and rather posh George Street leading west, last glimpse of twilight still in the western sky. And I thought why have I never stood here and lined up this shot before? Especially at just the right time of evening where it is dark but with that last little light of dusk still in the west:

George Street, dusk
(as ever click to see the larger versions on my Flickr)

This is a zoom in on the statues that line the top of one the large, old bank headquarters on Saint Andrew Square – shot them before bathed in sunlight but not at night, the long exposure had the side effect of giving the fluttering flag this cool sense of movement which I was quite pleased with:

statues and very fluttery fluttering flag

And here’s Sir Walter Scott, seated between the enormous pillars of the soaring Scott Monument – again I have taken various shots and angles of Watty’s statue over the years but for some reason had never thought to zoom in and line it up so the illuminated clock of the Balmoral Hotel’s tower in the background would show over it like this at night, just noticed it while taking other pics nearby and realised it would make a nice picture. Funny how I have taken night shots around there so many times before but that perspective never occurred to me. One of the nice things about taking a lot of photos is sometimes you just see something you know very well in a different way because of the time of day (or night in this case), weather, season, just looking at it slightly differently…

Sir Walter and the Balmoral Clock, winter evening

Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny #1

Chris Dingess, Matthew Roberts, Owen Gieni

Image

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It is 1804, and the United States of America is still a new, young nation, striving to create it’s own identity, expand and find its “manifest destiny”. When President Thomas Jefferson (one of the Founding Fathers of the nation) commissions the new Corps of Discovery he is already looking westward, as so many Americans and the great waves of immigrants who would pour into the new nation in the 1800s would do. Lewis and Clark have instructions to cross the vast, largely unknown continent from the new Louisiana purchase lands westwards, to explore for evidence of rivers which may offer effective transport routes across to the Pacific coast, map the territories, establish relations with native tribes, gather scientific measurements and specimens of animals and geology as they travel and, the more secretive but to Jefferson vital part of the mission, to help establish US claims to these lands in the west in the face of other powers such as Spain or the British Empire.

Manifest Destiny, however, is not a simple retelling of that expedition – one of the great voyages of exploration of an era of great explorations, and certainly the most famous of American expeditions. This is a slightly different history from what we are used to, there is a hidden aspect to all of this, and not just Jefferson’s geo-political shenanigans and schemes. In Jefferson’s vast library on previous explorations of the continent are not only records – and sometimes misleading rumours or exaggerations – of previous voyages, but also myths, stories and legends of darker things, hidden places, strange creatures, monsters…

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This Lewis and Clark are embarking on the same historical trip we know, but with the added element that they have been secretly tasked to locate and eliminate these monsters, if they truly exist, as Jefferson believes they do, to clear the way for the young nation to expand from one shining sea to the other. This aspect of their mission is known only to the two officers, however, not the soldiers who have volunteered to join the Corps and certainly not the extra hands in the form of condemned criminals promised a presidential pardon if they protect the expedition to its conclusion…

In this first issue though nothing unusual has been spotted and Lewis is confiding in his journal that he is relieved they never told the men, because after sighting nothing untoward they would have assumed they were madmen, and notes so far the only real problem has been the boredom encouraging a lack of discipline among the criminal mercenaries, which Clark deals with, but which you know is going to figure again later in the story. Of course by the end of the first issue things start to take a more peculiar turn, as a great arch of greenery – an obvious nod to the famous Gateway Arch memorial to Westward Expansion which has towered over St Louis since the mid 1960s – is spotted by the river and the Corps disembark to investigate. Is this some weird natural structure? Man made? If it is artificial then who made it? Surely, they muse, not the ‘savages’? And why such an odd structure… Who put it there, what use did they intend and… where are whoever, or whatever, those who constructed it…

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The idea of having a secret, hidden history to our own real-world historical events is not new, of course – science fiction has an entire and often intriguing sub genre of alt-history tales, from Neal Stephenson’s enormous and richly detailed works to slimmer but fascinating classics like Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee. But it is always an area ripe for further harvesting since it offers such juicy potential, taking already interesting historical events and people then adding a fictional spin to them, in the case of Manifest Destiny a supernatural take.

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That also works well for this particular tale, given the real expedition did indeed have covert purposes as well as the publicly stated aims (we see Lewis writing two journals, one secret for the president, the other a public one for Congress), so adding another secret aspect to their mission sits quite well within the real history. And of course to many in the new nation, most of the citizens of European descent, the lands beyond the original colonies were in some ways full of mysteries and monsters, a deep, dark, unknown land full of who knew what amid vast forests, great rivers and fast-flowing, mighty rivers not yet mapped. The artwork is executed in a nice, clear style, showing off these almost untouched, vast landscapes but also taking care to give each of the characters’ faces distinctive looks, helping the reader to learn who is who in the first issue, but it also deals with a sudden action scene towards the end rather well too, switching from widescreen landscape to close up, darker, more full of sudden movement and menace.  And I appreciated how Roberts made the mysterious structure no only a nod to the modern Gateway Arch memorial but also infers a gigantic tentacle like appendage, hinting at Lovecraftian monsters lurking in wait for the expedition. It’s an intriguing concept and while this first issue is a fairly sedate introduction it is a nice set-up for what looks to be a series worth following.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month…

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I usually try to take some photos of the annual Garden of Remembrance which is around the towering stone structure of the Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens each year. This year I decided to try for some night shots again as I was pleased with how they came out last year, I thought somehow shooting this scene at night (well, early evening, street nearby still very busy, but sunset is by half past four now so you can start ‘night’ shooting at a reasonable hour then be back home in time for tea – there is an upside to the long, dark nights of winter). added something to the atmosphere, so went in with tripod and left camera lens open to drink in what little light there was till they came out, then since I had the tripod I walked my way back home, pausing to take more night shots of the city as I did, but those will be for another day.

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Serried ranks of small crosses, drawn up neatly as if on drill parade, a poppy on each to remember the Fallen, many with hand-written messages from old comrades, friends and family

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