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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Going medieval

A little medieval music in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh recently (an area of the Old Town directly below the Castle, which boasts inns which were centuries old even when Robert Burns came to town), part of a wee medieval fayre which was taking place among the regular farmer’s market that takes place there at weekends, and included some re-creations of Medieval music and instruments:

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And here’s a short video if you are wondering what it sounded like:

Of course there were also some knights on hand…

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And a rather fine selection of replica Medieval swords, which they were kind enough to let us pick up and try – rather heftier than the kinds of swords I trained with in my fencing days!

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We were having a good walk about taking in Doors Open Day when we saw that this was on, a perfect autumnal day too, beautiful, golden autumn sunlight and unseasonably warm for the time of year too, nice little extra bonus seeing this as we ambled around the city.

Review: the Hartlepool Monkey

The Hartlepool Monkey
(buy from Forbidden Planet / buy from Amazon)
Wilfrid Lupano, Jeremie Moreau
Knockabout

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There is something rather appropriate about this tale born of the Franco-English wars of the Napoleonic crossing la manche from its French publisher to a British one. This is a tale born out of those seemingly interminable cross-Channel wars, based on a reportedly true event (although it is just as possible that this is a local myth that has acquired the legality of truth across the last couple of centuries). Not long after the decisive sea battle at Trafalgar a French warship is cruising just off the coast of Britain. Her captain, a very unlovable character, a virulent bigot and former commander of a slave ship, has a monkey (named Nelson) as his mascot, dressed up in a small French uniform to amuse the crew.

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The ship also boasts a young cabin boy, who bursts the captain’s good humour at Nelson’s antics when he sings an old sea shanty, a song the captain considers to be “an English song”. His furious bigotry is stoked to boiling point when the innocent lad ventures that it was just a song he picked up from his nanny, who was a Cornish woman, so he learned English as well as French as he grew up. This naïve confession tips the captain to violent action and before he knows it the young boy is being forced to walk the plank. But with all attention focused on this event the crew fails to notice the weather turning on them rapidly, as it can so often in the Channel…

The storm is upon them, the crew caught unawares, as the lad is sent into the gray waters the ship itself is suddenly floundering, then taken by the tempest. As she starts to break in the teeth of the storm the crew try to abandon ship; the mast snaps and Nelson the monkey clambers onto it, clinging on for dear life as the few crew who get off the ship flounder and drown, the captain disappearing below the waves right in front of his little mascot. Locals on shore watch through a telescope, unmoved by the loss of life, laughing at the fate of the “Froggies”, just as bigoted and vulgar as the French captain.

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However, as they always do the storm passes, the wreckage washes up upon the shore by Hartlepool, among it two survivors, Nelson and our young cabin boy. Only Nelson is spotted by the locals, provincial yokels, profoundly ignorant, so much so that they take the unfortunate simian for an actual Frenchman from the ship, and decide to capture him then try him as a spy. Fortunately our cabin boy wakes up on a sheltered part of the beach, and with his excellent English he passes himself off as Philip, a native from another town to the local kids who are excitedly playing among the debris, pretending to round up the ‘Frenchies’ and protect Great Britain’s shores from invasion in a playful fit of patriotic fever. Meanwhile a doctor travelling in his coach is forced by the storm to stay overnight in the local inn, and it is largely through the eyes of his young son Charlie, who runs off to play with the local kids, that we witness the events which unfold.

Lupano and Moreau take these events and spin them artfully into a tragical comedy of the highest order of the Absurd, as the trial is planned and carried out by the locals, from the major on downwards all pumped up with a hugely inflated sense of self importance – this isn’t just a ragged survivor, this is a spy, perhaps the vanguard for an invasion of the sacred soil of Albion itself! And they caught him! They will try to pry his deadly secrets out of him and save the entire kingdom! But blast, his French is just gibberish to them! And as for his looks? Well, of course they all know those damned French are ugly, inhuman brutes! The town’s one veteran, the only one of them who has ever seen a Frenchman, a legless old soldier, utterly mad, testifies that yes, the monkey is actually a Frenchman. A child’s suggestion that he is actually a chimp is laughed off by the locals. Unable to understand his ‘language’ they give up on the idea of interrogating him for imagined invasion plans and move instead to try him – in a very improvised, cartoonish version of a proper trial.

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As I said at the start, this is an event which has been oft-repeated as historical fact, and it may well be, but it may also be in inflated myth from centuries long gone. Or, one theory holds it may be a story to hide a much more horrible truth – the young boys, like our cabin boy shipwrecked with the monkey, were sometimes referred to on ship as “powder monkeys”. Did those thuggish townsfolk once string up a hapless cabin boy who had survived the wreck of a French vessel then mythologised it as the monkey incident to hide the truth? We’ll probably never know, but it’s a theory that lends the reader a different view of the character of the surviving cabin boy, now safely passing himself off as English and playing among the local kids, able to view the proceedings, obviously knowing Nelson is a monkey, but unable to interfere to save him, unable even to speak up in case these ignorant locals turn on him too.

The events play out their course with an awful inevitability, but in some ways this story – which to this day has left the locals to be called ‘monkey hangers’ – is just a framework Lupano and Moreau use to hang up there highly effective examination of the dangers of rank ignorance, delusion, nationalistic bombast and jingoism run rampant, the mob mentality, the nature of unfounded bigotry and the sheer stupidity that humans are so capable of. And before we settle back in our smug, 21st century, media-rich, highly educated, literate world and laugh at how stupid our dim ancestors were, that they could mistake a monkey for a foreigner and act in such a ridiculous manner, all whipped up by half-understood propaganda about ‘the enemy’, let’s just consider how this historical tale has much resonance to our modern world.

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We may all be aware of the difference between a person and a monkey, but that unreasoning beast, The Furious Crowd, or worse, The Mob (which can be as unruly and stupid even when made up of highly educated people – somehow mobs seems to atrophy our reasoning skills and revert us to bestial nature, it seems), is alive and well, still stoked by half-truths and outright lies from certain parts of the media and some groups only to happy to use them to exploit a mass moral panic, be it wild tales of mass Satanist cults in remote towns abusing children or painting caricatures of immigrants, asylum seekers, someone who wears a hijab, someone who has different skin colouring or different religion, or no religion – the number of differences perceived to differentiate ‘them’ and ‘us’ is endless and there are always those exploiting them. We all see that right now in our own supposedly more educated and enlightened era, just look at the growth of xenophobic hate groups. These people are the spiritual heirs of the monkey hangers, prepared to hate without real reason (but convinced they have solid reasons, of course) and all wrapped up in over the top , and Moreau and Lupano are, while telling their tale in an inventive manner, also offering a warning of how easily we can descend into mob mentality and commit some awful act.

Moreau’s artwork is splendid throughout, a perfect match for Lupano’s changes from high drama to absurdist farce, from laugh out loud comedic silliness (shaving a monkey so it looks more presentable for the court) to the sad and tragic. Lupano crafts some memorable characters and dialogue (also huge tip of the hat to the translation by Frank Wynne, which rather skilfully substitutes not just French for English but some great and believable vernacular terms), while Moreau seems equally at home with close up character-filled studies (giving us some wonderful close ups of their characters) as he does with large, dramatic scenes, and his skilful use of elements such as light quality to help convey scenes (such as the storm wrecking the ship). And I also have to say something about Moreau’s clever us of the quality of light, especially notable in the opening scenes where the storm clouds literally gather over the ship, panels becoming darker, grayer, colours more muted, to the following morning, and the warm light of a sunny dawn after the storm passes, or the flickering, copper light of a bonfire at night on the character’s faces. It’s the sort of delicate touch which many reader may not notice consciously but it will register subliminally, helping to create the atmosphere for each scene. It’s a lovely bit of craftwork.

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Moreau also takes Lupano’s memorable creations and gifts them with equally memorable appearances. There was also, for my money anyway, something of the Steadman about some of Moreau’s panels, especially some which showed the characters in a more grotesquely foolish fashion (and naturally I mean this as a high compliment). It’s a fascinating read, by turns comedic, dramatic and bizarre tragedy, with artist and writer working perfectly together to bring this unusual historic gem to life. As we blogged just a few days ago one of the major French historical conventions conferred an award (the Rendez vous de l’Histoire – see here) on the French edition of this tale (as with the win of the Costa award earlier this year by the Talbots this was not in some comics category, making the win all the more remarkable and laudable), and it’s not hard to see why.

It’s an astonishing story and you will find yourself both upset with injustice and anger and yet at the same time laughing out loud at the ridiculousness of so much of it and many of the characters, and the sheer absurd nature of it all – although no less absurd than many of the reasons present day people find to vilify anyone they consider ‘different’, which is, I think, part of the point here. This makes it more than a tale of a historical curiosity, making it, as history so often is for those who read it, applicable also to our modern day world. Hugely recommended reading and kudos to Knockabout for bringing us an English language edition so swiftly.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Goddam This War! – Jacques Tardi returns to the trenches

Goddam This War! (buy from Forbidden Planet/ Goddamn This War! (buy from Amazon)
Jacques Tardi, Jean-Pierre Verney,
Fantagraphics

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I’m a huge admirer of the work of Jacques Tardi – I consider him to be one of the finest creators in the comics medium in Europe, with a diverse body of work and styles, from the fantastical adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec to his hard-edged adaptations of Manchette’s crime stories, or the Jules Verne homage of Arctic Marauder. His award-winning It Was the War of the Trenches is a remarkable entry in his oeuvre, even by his high standards, a blisteringly angry look at World War One. I was so impressed with it I struggled through it with my rather poor French skills until our friends at Fantagraphics announced their English language translation as part of their very welcome series of works by Tardi. Now, years after C’était la guerre des tranchées (as it was called in the original French language edition) Tardi has returned to The War to End All Wars. I’ve been eagerly anticipating this for quite some time – Trenches was on my Best of the Year list when it came out, an immensely emotional, powerful piece of work; Goddam This War had much to live up to.

Structurally Tardi takes a different approach this time – where Trenches was a collection of short slices of life at the Front with different characters, Goddam This War is chronological, a chapter dedicated to each year of the Great War from 1914 through to the 1918 Armistice and the aftermath in 1919, plus a text section by historian Verney giving a potted chronology of the war as the appendix. This time we mostly follow the war from the perspective of one French soldier, with some digressions to show other areas of battle – in the air (a brand new development) and at sea, as well as taking in others, away from our French soldier’s unit, the British Tommies, the Australians, Canadians, the colonial troops from French North Africa or Indian soldiers from the British Empire, and, late on, the arrival of the American doughboys, and he takes in life, and death, in the German trenches. There’s no jingoistic nationalism being waved here, Tardi has nothing but sympathy for the soldiers caught in this industrial carnage, his ire – actually his virulent rage – is saved to direct against the generals and the politicians. You know, those well-dressed, usually older gentlemen who direct the war efforts of entire nations and empires, who send millions repeatedly into the meat-grinder, order the shooting for ‘cowardice’ of those who refuse or who eventually break under the relentless strain, talk of ‘doing their duty’ for their country, but of course their duty doesn’t involve living in mud with rats with a view of what had been your friend rotting away on the barbed wire of No Man’s Land and wondering when it will be your turn, if it will be quick, or if you will linger in mutilated agony.

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Yes, you can probably surmise from my tone that I am with Tardi on that score. In one scene our little French soldier wonder which is worse, the French generals, the British generals or the German generals, but surmises there is probably little difference between them.

We start, as you would imagine, with 1914: it’s the very early days of what will become a four year slaughter on a scale never before imagined. Unlike Trenches we begin not only in colour, but in bright, primary colours – vibrant blue, glowing red, the verdant greens and golds of summer fields through which our French troops march off to a war they are convinced will be finished so soon they are, as the narrator puts it, already imagining drinking a well-earned beer on the Alexanderplatz after they beat the Germans and march into Berlin. Despite this being 1914 the scene, at first, resembles the old-fashioned, large formation battles of previous centuries, and you can understand why the generals brought up in that mindset struggled to deal with the muddy, bloody deadlock of mechanised trench warfare that things would soon degenerate into (although the fact they could not or would not try to think on another strategy over the next four years as battle after battle revealed the futility of their approach is rather less excusable). Even the French troops look like something from the 18th or 19th century, in blue coats and caps with bright red trousers, uniforms more suited for drilling on a parade ground than fighting a modern battle. There are still the aristocratic cavalry units galloping around in their lordly manner as the brightly-garbed troops march towards the enemy through villages (where they are cheered) and fields.

Little August soldier in your madder-red trousers, you tried to hide but there wasn’t much cover behind the poppies. You entered the history books dressed up like a trooper in a comic opera, little August casualty.”

Our narrator, however is not convinced even at this early stage where most are optimistic – he already has the horrible feeling many are being cheered on by the civilians they pass to their certain doom. In one frame French troops are packed aboard freight wagons on the railways, all seemingly cheerful, sure they are off to deliver a quick knock-out blow and return as heroes while elderly grandparents look on admiringly and the mothers and wives carrying young children smile bravely for the soldiers, but there is fear behind their smiles: “Only the mothers really knew. They knew the babies in their arms were tomorrow’s war orphans, and the cattle cars (8 horse, 40 men) were noting but rail-mounted coffins joined end to end and headed for military cemeteries.” The page with this scene is mirrored opposite, with three large, broad frames showing the French preparing for a ‘quick’ battle and marching off to war, the opposite page in the exact same format but from the German point of view; military madness and rampant jingoism running rampant over common-sense on both sides, as Tardi shows, most caught up in it, not questioning, the few, like our narrator, who do realise they are powerless to change things, that no-one would even listen to them.

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It’s not long before their illusions about the ‘glory’ of battling for one’s country – “the old lie, dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”, how sweet it is to die for one’s country – are rudely, brutally shattered for all the armies on all sides of this massive, continent-crossing alliance of nations determined to march on one another. The peace of summer fields erupts into shocking violence and suddenly there are dead men lying on the ground, others screaming in agony from their wounds; the corn still sways, it is the men who have been reaped. The cavalry on both sides charge in a scene that could have come from the high age of heroic chivalry… Until misplaced artillery rains down blowing men and horses from both sides into butcher’s meat. It’s shocking and brutal to the reader, one panel graceful horses and riders, lances and swords drawn like knights, galloping across the frame, the next panel is a pure horror of explosions and pieces of animals and humans. The notions of grace and noble heroism vanish, and in a darkly humorous moment Tardi finishes off that misguided notion of honourable death in battle by having one poor German going behind a tree to relieve himself during a lull, suddenly finding himself face to face with a French soldier and is killed while his trousers are still around his ankles. So much for noble martyrdom for one’s country…

As we move on through that first year and into 1915 the palette slowly starts to fade, the world shrinking down for our narrator and his comrades (and those around them on both sides, for Tardi takes pains to show the universal suffering of all the troops regardless of nation), bleached of colour until it becomes almost monochromatic, the style here also making use of watercolours which, despite the subject matter, often give a softer feel than the art in Trenches, although it also helps convey the murky, muddy world of churned up earth and water-logged shell-holes and gas-misted trenches very effectively. The early mobility of those bright scenes of 1914 give way to digging in, then to serious entrenching, and the start of what we’ve all seen from the history books and early newsreels, the hell of trench warfare, where literally thousands of men could be slain in an afternoon for the gain of a few yards of mud. And it isn’t just the horrible ways the men can die, Tardi carefully articulates the mental anguish and suffering; the lice, the rats, the constant fear of a gas attack, the sight, day after day, of what had once been your comrade and friend, dead, caught on the wire in No-Man’s Land, rotting away, none of you able to pull him down without being killed yourselves, the body hanging there constantly to remind you of what happened to him and what you in turn may be by the day’s end too, a rotting cadaver flapping like a broken puppet in the wind between the lines, where even your mangled body will never know the peace of a simple burial. No wonder then that some break, succumb to shell shock, desert, try to get themselves wounded so they can be sent home, or simply kill themselves because they can endure this hell no longer.

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Moving into the final years of the war, then the aftermath Tardi switches mostly from following his French soldier narrator to individual scenes, three frames per page (much like his earliest pages of the book, a circular return to the layout of the beginning) in broad landscape form, each a window into a different part of the war, from the German observer leaping from a flaming balloon to the disaster of Gallipoli, sailors clinging to wreckage in the cold sea after their ship has vanished below the icy waters taking most of their comrades with it, the poor horses forced to drag equipment through the shattered landscapes humans have made of the world, the nurse struggling to be professional, to stay strong and care for the hideously wounded while she worries about her own husband on the front line, looking at the wounded, thinking on her own son, wondering if some day he will go through this sort of hell too, if it ever ends.

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The parades of the victors after the Treaty of Versailles is signed, the blind veteran who lost his eyes to a gas attack standing unseeing as they march past with flags and finery, the funeral parade of a French officer in a defeated, occupied Germany, the French soldiers beating any German civilian who refused to take his hat off as the funeral carriage went past, but as the dialogue points out, how hard it is for that German father to remove his hat out of respect when the French had killed his son in the trenches, and so the hatred is further sown in both sides (as with several scenes in the book Tardi has lifted this from an actual event, the picture matches remarkably closely a short piece of early film footage of this very scene which still survives to this day), or, in an ominous foreshadowing another of these scenes shows the chaos in post-war Germany as nationalistic right-wingers and far left socialist groups clash in the streets, a problem that would be there throughout the Weimar Republic and help sow the seeds for the rise of the Nazis to power and the war which would follow the War To End All Wars… A few pages towards the end are effectively a horror-show gallery of the maimed and wounded, the men with no limbs, other with large parts of their faces gone, masks to cover what remains of their visage. It’s horribly reminiscent of scenes we’ve all seen on the news of injured troops brought back from Afghanistan; the years advance, the number of casualties may be far smaller, but still in it’s fashion history repeats itself and men mangle other men with machinery, again and again, nothing learned…

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There are the odd touches of humour here and there – the French looking at the Scottish regiments and wondering if they have pants on under the kilts or if they go into battle with everything bouncing around like something from Carry on up the Khyber – and a few other places, but mostly it is of the barrack-room mentality or else of the gallows-variety, two strands of black humour that have served soldiers to help them get through probably every war in human history. But mostly this, like the earlier Trenches, burns with anger for the futility, the sheer, vast waste of human life, the treatment of the rank and file, who the powers that be never cared about in peace time but come a war their political manoeuvres and treaties had created, expect to come forth and ‘do their duty’ by a country that previously didn’t care if those same men lived in slums. His fury pours off the page, mixed with huge empathy and sympathy for the suffering of those forced into those awful events, and there in lies the key which makes this such an affecting, powerful, emotional read: Tardi takes the vast scale of the war, the unbelievable casualty rate and he humanises it, puts it on a personal level the reader can comprehend, understand, sympathise with. When the fallen run into millions we are horrified, but at the same time the numbers go beyond our individual comprehension – add in the distance of years and with the best will in the world it is hard to see more than awful statistics. But when presented at the human scale we too can bear witness, and Tardi presents this in a wars-and-all human level. It’s not an easy read, nor should it be, and you too are likely to find yourself with mounting anger at what was perpetrated on so many, so needlessly, and you should feel that anger. That’s the anger that makes us question each time a new generation of leaders try to promote war as the ‘honourable’ thing for a nation to do, it reminds us of the individual cost behind the grand rhetoric of political leaders and why we should never take them at their word, why we should consider the consequences behind such plans. The last of the old veterans of that slaughter have finally left us, next year marks a century since the start of the Great War, but the hard-learned lessons from that conflict are still relevant, even now as the various powers posture and rattle sabres once more, each claiming to be with the forces of right. Tardi reinforces the old lesson, “never forget”.

A little piece of exploration history

On a long walk on a very pleasant, warm, bright day I found myself at the Dean Gallery and decided since the light was so fine I would go to the adjacent Dean Cemetery. I’ve taken a lot of photographs there before, but it is a very large old boneyard and boasts a wide variety of different memorials and tombs in this rather posh part of Edinburgh, and I knew I had probably missed quite a few on my last visit, despite taking dozens of photos (there are quite a few famous names buried there, and some very elaborate and beautifully sculpted memorials and some very unusual ones, including to a Scots born Confederate officer from the American Civil War – not what you expect in an Edinburgh graveyard).

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And indeed I had missed a lot – in fact I will need to wander back some time to take more in – including this large memorial, a Celtic cross, which is richly inscribed with a very detailed history of the man and event it commemorates, Lieutenant John Irving, Royal Navy. Lt Irving was a member of Sir John Franklin’s famous 1840s expedition to find the fabled North West Passage. His ship HMS Terror and her sister ships HMS Erebus, became trapped in the ice of the far northern waters, with Franklin and many others losing their lives. Eventually the remaining crew were forced to abandon their ships and tried to reach a northern Canadian settlement on foot, but the cold and the lack of food would doom them. A later American expedition found the cold grave of John Irving and these explorers paid honour to their late predecessors by arranging for his remains to be returned to his native land, where this memorial was raised.

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Like many a boy when I was young I had books on the great explorers and loved those stories; that Victorian era is one of the great ages of global exploration, when the Royal Navy not only patrolled a worldwide empire as a military force but dispatched ships on missions of exploration and scientific endeavour – Darwin’s voyages on the Beagle being one of the more famous of those great world-spanning missions. Such expeditions pushed back the frontiers of our knowledge of our own world, but many of them came at great cost, a reminder that exploration and the gaining of knowledge is often demanding and dangerous. I had no idea this memorial sat there quietly in my city; it’s one of my simplest but greatest pleasures to find little historical gems like this tucked away (and to photograph it and share it) on my walks around Edinburgh, like little presents my city sometimes gives me as a reward for being curious enough to look around. And it’s always worth pausing and looking around you, because you never know when you might find treasure…

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From the other side of the Forth

Last weekend went off with chum for drive over the Forth, ended up at Loch Leven (where, among others things, the castle on an island in the loch was once prison to that unfortunate lady, Mary Queen of Scots), then over to the Fife coastal route back home, paused for the traditional bag of chips on the seafront at Burntisland, then head for home. When you follow the coastal road out of Burntisland it goes up quite high and gives spectacular views across the mighty Firth of Forth, not least towards the wonderful Forth Rail Bridge, which rises from the waters like some Victorian steel sea beast:

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That same vantage point also offers views of my home, Edinburgh, from a different perspective, viewed from the opposite side of this vast river which cuts its way right into the geology and coast of the land. In this one (if you click to go to the larger versions you can see on my Flickr pic) you can just make out Edinburgh Castle on the centre right of the photo, glimsped from the Fife side of the river looking over to the capital:

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And in this view of the harbour, docks and new buildings around the port of Leith you can also see the Royal Yacht Britannia on the far left. Images are not as clear as I’d like but on max zoom shooting through a lot of atmosphere and over water so they were never going to be as sharp as I would like. Still a wonderful view to see parts of my city from that angle.

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And here’s the distinctive shape of Arthur’s Seat, the summit and the outline of the Salisbury Crags, the vast extinct volcano which sits at the heart of Edinburgh and is visible for miles around, it and the the volcanic ridge it caused (on which the Old Town perches and the Castle sits at the highest point) and the other hills help give Edinburgh its spectacular background, like few other cities in the world. Also keeps you fit walking and cycling up and down all those slopes! That’s why we need so many pubs to take a little rest in… You can see from this why this area has been settled for thousands of years – Edinburgh Castle is an ancient and imposing fortress, but millennia before it was built our Iron Age ancestors – and probably even earlier peoples – had fortifications on the side of Arthur’s Seat, offering them security, natural fortifications and views across the land and river to Fife, and even down the coast to North Berwick. You can see from this why an early people would choose to settle there.

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Scott Monument, spring evening

Walking home from work a few evenings ago, chilly and yet such gorgeous light quality – a pale blue dome of sky above and the stretched out, amber light of the sinking sun splashed over the city creating a soft glow on the old buildings of Edinburgh. I love the changing quality of light we experience in our northern kingdom, especially spring and autumn. As the warm light touches the ancient stone it produces a beautiful colour, and the low sun creates both light and long, contrasting shadows, which against the blue of the sky makes it irresistible to my camera…

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I’ve taken many photos of the great Gothic rocket of the Scott Monument over the years, but walking past it on an evening like this I find myself compelled to pause and get the camera out again, shooting yet another version of it, but each time it is a little different, so I can’t resist…

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One of the grotesques projecting from the first floor balcony of the two hundred feet of literary monument (and yes, it is a grotesque, not a gargoyle – it’s only technically a gargoyle if it also functions as a water spout)

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And Sir Walter still looks upon the city, reclining in marble splendour between the massive stone ‘legs’ of his towering monument. I always think that the fact in a city full of remarkable buildings and monuments one of the largest (indeed the largest literary monument in the world) in the city is not to a king, queen, duke or conquering general of imperial grandeur, but to a writer, well, I think that’s very, very civilised.