Reviews: 1974 – Scenes From a Year of Crisis

1974: Scenes From a Year of Crisis,
Nick Rennison,
Published Oldcastle Books (Nov 2023)

Rennison is a well-known name – an influential bookseller, commentator on the publishing industry, and author of numerous titles. This, his latest, is a pleasing book constructed in a manner that makes it easy to just dip into when you have the reading time. The structure is simple and efficient – Rennison takes us through a selection of global events that occured throughout the year 1974, month by month, starting with the first of January – with New Year’s Day officially becoming a bank holiday in the rest of the UK (Scotland already marked it as a holiday).

We proceed throughout the months of 1974, with Rennison picking out quite a variety of events and occassions – this takes in everything from high politics to crime, disasters, economic slumps, and entertainment to sport. So we have the tumult of the swinging back and forth between Heath and Wilson, as the UK governments fall and repeat elections take place, against the backdrop of power cuts, mass strikes and the infamous three day week, while across the Atlantic, Nixon is finally forced to resign the presidency (and is pardoned just a few weeks later by his replacement, Ford).

We have the still-imfanous case of the disappearance of Lord Lucan, the travesty and tragedy of the IRA mainland bombings and the botched arrests and trials which saw innocent people locked away for years, and in France, George Pompidou passes away while still in office, the famous gallery in Paris being named in his honour later on.

But the book also takes in many other events around the world, from a devastating hurricane which shattered the Australian city of Darwin, to a terrible train disaster in Zagreb, Kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst holding up a bank with her own former captors, Ali and Foreman facing off against one another for the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match, and Evel Knievel attempting his rocket-powered bike keap over a canyon. There’s the discovery of the astonishing Terracotta Army, and Japanese officer Hiroo Onoda finally accepting WWII was over and surrendering (see my review of the film of this story, 10, 000 Nights in the Jungle here on the blog).

These are all quite short pieces – as Rennison notes himself, it is not a deep-dive into history, it is, as the subtitle of the book infers, scenes from that year, plucked out and present month by month, rather than a heavy history book attempting to evaluate the impact of those various events on how the world developed. But while more detail would be nice, to be fair, that is not what this book is about – it is to give a flavour of that now long-ago year, of the wide variety of events and people that shaped it (and so helped shape the following decades).

It’s ideal for dipping into for a quick read when you have the free time, and would make a nice gift for quite a few people, given it covers a bit of everything (sports, politics, history, culture and more), and, of course, if anyone does want deeper details on any of the events, perhaps this will inspire them to do further reading. There’s also a simple enjoyment in reading about some of these events, especially for those of us old enough to actually recall some of them happening, where for younger readers it’s a glimpse into a now-vanished world, but one where the events that happened still often resonate today.

Reviews: Red River Seven

Red River Seven,
A.J. Ryan,
Orbit Books,
Paperback, ISBN 9780356520056,
Published October 2023

A man wakes up on what appears to be a small naval patrol boat. He has no memory of how or why he is there – in fact, he has no memory of who he is, what he does, where he went to school, the names of any of his family (if he even has a family). And yet his knowledge of the world and his own skills are still there, just his most personal memories are missing. And there are scars from recent surgery, both to his cranium and elsewhere on his body, close to where the kidneys are located. He doesn’t even know where the boat is sailing, as it is surrounded by a deep fog.

And then he sees the dead body, bullet wound through the skull, and realises the sound that woke him was a shot – from the looks of it, self-inflicted. On examining the body and the pistol, he notices he handles all of this professionally – was he a policeman or some other sort of investigator? The body has similar scars to his, and a tattoo reading “Conrad”. Looking at his own body, he find a similar tattoo reading “Huxley”. He soon finds several others in the lower decks, men and women, none of whom can recall any personal details, although all also seem to still recall their particular skills and knowledge, like him – it looks like one may have served in the forces, one was an explorer or mountaineer, one a scientist; all have tattoos to identify them in lieu of their own personal memories of who they are, such as “Pynchon” or “Plath” – all names of authors.

The boat is on its own course, all the screens and dials are blank, the controls are sealed away with little indication of where they are or why they are going to… Wherever they are going. When a satellite phone rings, the voice is artificial and terse, not answering any of their understandable questions, demanding to know their condition and telling them little, except they have to open a buoy which has been dropped ahead of them, which they reluctantly do. Information is drip-fed to them only in tiny increments via this phone link, and when a few of the ship’s screens come to life, they can now see their geo-location and realise they have been sailing off the east coast of England, approaching the Thames. But why they are heading that way, who put them there, what they are expected to find or do, is all a mystery…

I really don’t want to write more about the plot of Ryan’s (better known as Anthony Ryan, for his fantasy series) novel here, because this is one of those tales where the reader knows no more than the characters, and I don’t want to spoil the surprises as they slowly discover little pieces at a time (usually at a cost). I will say that it cracks along at a fair old pace – you’re dropped right into it from the first few pages, the pace, the bewilderment of the characters, the feeling that they are clearly on some sort of urgent mission, that something terrible has happened to the world and that their desperate mission and lack of memory is all connected to it, it all builds into a compelling read that I tore through in a few hours.

It evokes the influences of other works, notably films like Cube and Carpenter’s classic The Thing, along with touches of Jeff Vandermeer’s work, or Mike Carey’s Girl With All the Gifts, while still ploughing its own furrow, building tension, paranoia and a resigned, reluctant acceptance that no matter what horrors are revealed, their only course is to carry on. An excellent, fast-paced blend of horror, action-thriller and science fiction.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror.

Reviews: Viper’s Dream

Viper’s Dream,

Jake Lamarr,

No Exit Press

I’ve a long-standing love for jazz, and for Noir, so when an advance copy of Jake Lamarr’s “Jazz Noir” landed at our bookshop, my colleague thought of me right away, and she was right! Covering Harlem from the mid 1930s to the early 1960s, we follow Clyde Morton, who is soon given the moniker “Viper” (not so much for cold-blooded, snake-like behaviour, it’s the hissing sound as he takes a drag on a reefer, the drug of choice of the jazz musicians in Harlem.

We first meet Viper in the 60s, and in flashbacks we get his earlier life – convinced by an old uncle that he can be a great musician, he eventually leaves his home in the rural South to head for New York, just another wide-eyed rub in the big city, ending up in Harlem, drinking in the vibrant African American culture, especially the music of the era, jazz. He is soon disabused of his ideas of musicianship by a friendly but honest musician who runs the shows at a busy venue, who tells him the unvarnished truth – he’s terrible.

But he does help him get an entry-level job, and he soon catch the eye of Mr O, the big boss who runs the club and the drugs sold there, and it isn’t long before he works his way up the ranks, from the muscle to a rusted lieutenant and higher. He also earns a reputation that ensures that nobody will mess with him, in the best Hard Boiled tradition, and we see this take place in the multiple flashbacks from the older Viper, reflecting on the path of his life from the 1960s, as the world has changed around him, and, while enjoying success he’s not sure he’s truly found happiness.

While the story of Viper is engrossing, it’s the atmosphere Lamarr conjures which really draws you right into the book. Right from Viper’s first arrival as the country boy amazed by the big city – not just the size and the bustle of it all, he’s not used to seeing and hearing much of the culture from African-American people, and here it is, the beating heart of it in the 30s Harlem. He even sees a black police officer, which is astonishing to this young man from the Deep South.

As we follow Viper through the decades, we see the world change around him – forced into wartime service, he returns in 1945 to find things different. The jazz scene may still be king, but mainstream white culture has been appropriating it, with busy clubs in different parts of the city, where once they all came to Harlem, although Harlem is still the heart of it, and the African-American musicians all come back to the clubs there after playing the white clubs in Midtown and elsewhere.

The music itself has changed – the Big Band era is giving way to Bepop and new styles, there are different strains of weed being smoked, but also heroin (the drug that would eventually kill Charlie Parker), which Viper refuses to sell. Real characters like Theolonius Monk, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis appear – you don’t have to be a jazz fan to follow the main narrative, these real historical figures are largely background, but if you are a jazz fan it adds to the atmosphere, and also to the feel of the world changing around Viper, as the music and the musicians (who rely on him for their drugs) change.

And of course there’s a woman – in Noir there is always a woman, and that woman is often a mix of alluring, irresistible and may also lead to disaster. Viper keeps himself in tight control, but sometimes there’s a woman you just can’t quite get over no matter what happens. An excellent, jazz-infused Noir, dripping with atmosphere.

Viper’s Dream is published by No Exit Press on the 20th of April

Reviews: lush, erotic, Gothic fantasy in A Dowry of Blood

A Dowry of Blood,
S.T. Gibson,
Orbit Books,
Hardback,
Published October 2022

My in-built book radar started pinging as soon as I was offered a sniff at this book, and I am happy to report that instinct is still steering me to books I find I absolutely love. Fair disclaimer at the start: a lifelong Gothic fiend, I am a sucker for a good vampire tale, although to be fair, that also means having read a lot of them, I can also be quite critical – as with, say, fantasy, it can be too easy for new novels to simply trade on well-worn generic tropes. Which makes me all the more delighted when I find one which is taking a fresh angle (while still maintaining a number of the elements you would expect), and, even better, that approach also has a lot of socio-cultural relevance to debates in our own contemporary society.

Constanta is a simple peasant girl in Eastern Europe; her family and village are all but wiped out in an attack, while she is abused and left for dead – until he shows up, like carrion, attracted to the leftovers of the slaughter field. This darkly handsome, powerful nobleman offers her a choice – she has to ask him, he will not compel her (shades of Louis and Lestat) – an offer of a new life of power and privilege, or to slip away into the darkness, just another anonymous victim of another small battle, which history is sadly replete with.

It isn’t much of a choice, and unsurprisingly Constanta chooses life – in her case immortal life – and her battered, abused body heals itself, raising her from certain death, and, satisfyingly, allowing this previously powerless peasant woman the overwhelming strength to take revenge on those who harmed her and cut down all those she knew and loved, while at the same time quenching her new-born thirst for human blood.

In the following chapters we see Constanta settle into her new life – her noble husband, centuries old (a serious spin on the older man / younger woman dynamic!) seems so sophisticated to her, wise, well-read, intellectually curious, so keen to look after her and make her happy. We see, from Constanta’s perspective, the passing of years and centuries, of the two settling into a life together, both domestic and, of course, vampiric, the home scenes contrasting with the depictions of the pair hunting and feeding on humans across various European centuries

Cracks start to appear in her husband’s mask though – his temper, a callous, arrogant streak he tries to keep hidden beneath his cultivated persona. She slowly, across time, comes to realise he used his greater age, experience, power and wealth to impress her when she was most vulnerable and impressionable. Like many in such relationships, she often convinces herself this is all in her mind, or if something offends him, it must be her fault (and he is an expert in ensuring she does – this man could use the entire North Sea supply for his gaslighting).

Across the decades, then centuries she starts to see him more for what he is, as their family grows – a second ‘wife’ with the strong-willed Spanish noblewoman, Magdalena, who challenges him intellectually as well as physically, and much later, Alexi, a young Russian. They become, in effect, his harem, there to satisfy him, and god forbid they act outside his precious rules and wants. This creates an interesting dynamic, not just between the lord and his harem, but between the three of them, Alexi, Magdalena and Constanta.

As the ‘original’ (she finds that there were in fact some before her, who have vanished) Constanta feels, understandably slighted by these later additions, but at the same time, she also feels a kinship – I found this far more realistic and satisfying emotionally, more like real groups of friends and families, the push and pull of love and jealously, possessing but also wanting to be possessed, while other times desiring freedom. And then there’s the sex, centuries of sex; male, female, bi, in a group or pairs, wonderfully lush and erotic – even in later years as Constanta questions everything in their lives, the sex and the hunting as shared and enjoyed and binds them together. The eroticism hinted at in the likes of Interview With the Vampire is out here in full, earthy form.

The story is written from Constanta’s perspective, as if she is writing a series of letters to her husband, who is never named, a deliberate choice, I am sure, and a part of her, now older, wiser, more assured, coming into her own power and realising she doesn’t have to be what he wants, that she can be herself, make her own choices. Dowry drips in deliciously decadent High Gothic, sensual, erotic, dark; it doesn’t shy from serious subjects like spousal abuse and male abuse of privilege either, all areas we’ve all been increasingly aware of in recent years (as we should be), or why some remain so long in such relationships, and I think this very much added to the novel’s power and in drawing the reader into it emotionally.

A deliciously decadent, erotic romp in some places, a darkly, deeply emotional tale in other places, as much a tale of a survivor of abuse as it is vampiric novel, nodding its head to Bluebeard or the 1970s films like The Velvet Vampire, as much as the influential Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles. Perfect reading for the dark autumn and winter nights.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity

Reviews: Atmospheric folk-horror in the Dark Between the Trees

The Dark Between the Trees,
Fiona Barnett,
Solaris
Publishing 11th October, 2022

When we returned to the hillside, I saw by the moonlight that there were but two of us left. Pray God have mercy for the ones we left behind.

Moresby Wood, like many isolated, rural locations in the British Isles, has a story attached to it – or really a thread of interconnected stories. It is not a place anyone local will visit; indeed it feels almost as if the authorities too realise something is simply wrong about these Deep, Dark Woods; the area is fenced off and secured, no visitors allowed. Rumour has it the MOD use it occasionally for Army exercises, but nobody really knows, and few care to venture close, let alone inside, in any place.

Except for a team of five women academics, lead by Doctor Alice Christopher. She has studied the folklore and scant records of this place for decades, inspired in turn by her original academic mentor; it is almost an obsession now, and she has taken years of snide remarks from colleagues and endlessly rebuffed requests to her proposals for a field expedition. Finally she has the academic grant and the authorities have permitted access. They are following the rough route of a group of Civil War Parliamentary soldiers, lead by the veteran Captain Davies, who records tell were ambushed on a road by the edge of the woods on a hill, as they marched northwards to join their regiment.

Cut down by a force hiding in the treeline – they never get more than a glimpse of them, despite the ferocity of the onslaught – the much-depleted company is forced to retreat into the woods to evade their attackers. One soldier, a local boy, warns them that they shouldn’t enter the forest, that there are tales, that nobody who lives in these parts will go near much less inside, but with musket balls whizzing past them and a number of their comrades lying dead in their own blood behind them, they have little choice.

Barnett splits the narrative between the modern-day academic expedition, and the troubled Parliamentarian soldiers of 1647. As the former attempt to trace the route of the latter, using very sketchy resources; out of date and incomplete maps – an OS cartographer with them explains even today they somehow can’t quite map the area properly – local legends, and a survivor’s account, dictated by one of the only two men who managed to flee the wood, telling a local priest of what happened. Doctor Christopher hopes her team can find evidence of what happened to the missing men from nearly four centuries ago.

However, as both strands of the tale progress, we find that both groups will encounter similar phenomena. What starts as worrying and disturbing – encamped overnight in a clearing by a mighty oak, they (in both time periods) wake the next morning to find the tree is simply gone – soon escalates from concerning to quite clearly dangerous, but what exactly is the danger? What is it with this place? There are tales of a family who did live here, centuries before, there are tales of a creature, the Corrigal (one soldier is reluctant to even name it, less the naming draw its attention to their group), but as so few have left this place, no-one can be sure,

Our modern academics are prepared with maps, GPS, mobile phones, compasses and notes, yet they will soon find that their knowledge and modern equipment will not give them any advantage over the lost military company from centuries before. The compass readings are wrong. The GPS doesn’t work, then the (fresh) batteries fail, as do replacements. The other electronics like their phones and digital cameras also fail; for some reason the batteries, even new ones, simply have no charge. And the forest itself is disconcerting, just somehow wrong, like it isn’t really a natural part of the British landscape.

And then there is sudden, visceral, bloody death…

I won’t go any further as I don’t want to risk spoilers. But I will say this is one of the most satisfyingly creepy horrors I have read in a long time. It draws deeply on one of my favourite sub-genres, the British folk-horror, and does so effectively that you find yourself feeling that the folklore here should be real, it should be like Black Shuck, something you could go and read about. While it does have moments of terror and violent death, most of the book is far more concerned with slowly building an atmosphere of ever-increasing dread, that permeates right under your skin until you almost feel you are walking in those strange, dark woods yourself, the air of unreality and disorientation, the feeling that there is something older, something not natural, in these woods put me in mind of the likes of A Field in England. A perfect read for the long, dark nights of autumn.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity

Literary Butterfly

Reading in the pub on a quiet afternoon, sun came out from behind the clouds and lit up my table by the window. I had just put down my book for a moment, and the pages fanned themselves out, just as the sunlight hit them. Had to take a photo…

Literary Butterfly 02

Literary Butterfly 01

Reviews: Dead Astronauts

Dead Astronauts,
Jeff VanderMeer,
Fourth Estate

(cover illustration by Maalavidaa, design by Jo Walker)

I’ve been an admirer of Jeff VanderMeer’s work ever since the wonderfully unusual novella and short story collection City of Saints and Madmen was sent to me quite a number of years ago, and since then I have eagerly awaited any new writing from Jeff. I’ve also been delighted to see his remarkable and unique working gaining a wider audience, both with the later, widely acclaimed books and the film adaptation of Annihilation, which I am sure will have helped put his work in front of new readers.

Dead Astronauts seems to me to work if you are a new VanderMeer reader; while it shares many themes with some of his previous works, most notably on the environment, the place of people in nature, the blurring of artificial lines we make between nature and human-made, between person and machine and nature, between dream and reality, the story here will work for the complete VanderMeer newbie. For those who have read his other work, however, they are likely to find those earlier experiences mean they will savour a deeper flavour from the dark currents running through this river of words.

The eponymous Dead Astronauts – Chen, Moss and Grayson – are crossing a desolate environment, on a mission which may or may not be a fruitless endeavour. It seems likely that they have, in fact, attempted this mission before, in different places and times, crossing the land, entering The City, working against The Company. They may have died and lived and died and lived numerous times in many places and eras, and like many trinities throughout myth and folklore, it feels in places like the three of them are also aspects of one being as well as three.

VanderMeer conjures a deeply immersive reading experience – the descriptions are almost of a dream-place, or a half-dream, perhaps, where notions of past and present and future, of the human and the natural world, crossover one another, drip into each other, meld, reform, reshape, changing people, animals, the land, the mental view points. It’s intoxicating and draws the reader into the same deep, changing waters as the characters; we experience aspects of their world with them rather than just ingest a straight, linear narrative, and the book is all the more powerful and effective for this approach.

Elsewhere we have the Blue Fox adding its perspective, the mysterious Charlie X (is the name a classic Trek homage? An allusion to Jeff’s own “Area X”? Both? Neither?), and a homeless woman living under a bridge by a forest. Both Charlie and the woman seem to share an unusual notebook – the same notebook? A different aspect of that book in a different reality? – which fascinates as much as it confuses. Filled with words, some understandable, others seemingly made-up, drawings and symbols, it is reminiscent of the mysterious Voynich Manuscript.

Maybe you study that pages for days, for months, for years. Maybe seconds. The page splits your brain into before and after. Becomes meanginless to gather meaning to it. This page of a liquid language reminds you of pages from a book you were given, about the coast. In the surge of watery lines. The withdrawal at low tide, leaving spirals of tiny creatures behind.”

Trying to summarise an idea of the plot, as I would with most other novels, is, I think, fairly redundant here. Not because Jeff hasn’t crafted an intriguing, absorbing story, because he has (of course he has, he always does), but I’ve always found right from my first literary steps into his early Ambergris tales that Jeff’s writing is to be experienced, not reduced to a summary of plots and characters.

I described the style earlier as immersive, and I stand by that – this is a book as a dream-place, a meeting of the natural and human, waking and dreaming, like a dark mirror-distorted version of crossing multiple Song Lines, where the imaginary, the fantastic and the everyday all blur and shift and flow over and through one another, changing each other as they do, blurring, sometimes eradicating the artificial distinctions our species often insists on when categorising the world around us, instead putting us within and throughout that world, and it through us, a more magical place mixed with horrors and wonders. This is the sort of book that will permeate your dreams, long after you have finished the final page.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of science fiction and fantasy.

Aardman: An Epic Journey

Aardman, An Epic Journey, Taken One Frame at a Time,
Peter Lord and David Sproxton, with David Gritten
Simon & Schuster

Aardman Animation has, rightly in my opinion, become a national, and indeed international, treasure, a bastion of quality animation – most especially the fine art of stop-motion animation – all the while maintaining their warm, Indy, quirky, lovably eccentric British humour and sensibilities. Aardman, An Epic Journey follows the two founders, Peter Lord and David Sproxton, across more than forty years of history, and what a story it is – from schoolboy chums playing with a parent’s old cine camera, making simple animations on an old kitchen table to first early forays into television in the 1970s through to Creature Comforts, award-winning adverts that helped the young company thrive with a decent income through to BAFTA and Oscar glory and beyond to the contemporary internet era. All this from two young friends playing with an old camera and cut-out animation on a kitchen table…

The book is chronological, essentially a biography of David and Peter and Aardman itself, starting with their school friendship, a new hobby using an old camera, a home-made rostrum mount for it on a venerable kitchen table that was now surplus to requirements. What started as fun and experimentation rapidly becomes something more as the young lads find they can create their own animated shorts. In this they are hugely encouraged by their parents and others – encouragement and nurturing of talent will be a theme throughout this book, right from the start – and they are also inspired by various art books and some of those unusual children’s programmes of the early 70s, such as Vision On (a very visually-rich series aimed to cater for hearing-impaired kids).

(above and below, the book also comes with several pages of photos and illustrations from throughout Aardman’s forty-plus year history)

A family connection to the BBC and their home-made experiments gets them their first paying work with some brief animated snippets for Vision On, and then the follow-up, Take Hart. For the latter they would move away from their 2-D basic animations and start using a substance found in most children’s toy boxes, Plasticine. This time the idea wasn’t just for animated interludes but to have a character who could riff off the iconic Tony Hart, a foil to the much beloved art presenter. That wee Plasticine creation was, of course, Morph, and it would change not only the direction of their animation style but their entire career, the first of a number of Aardman characters who would become embedded in and beloved by popular culture.

The 1980s sees growth and the arrival of a young Nick Park, the arrival of Channel 4 (with a budget and remit to include more unusual works, including animation aimed at older viewers and not just for kids) and the huge expansion of well-funded advertising. Aardman had already crafted some interesting animation based around some free-range dialogue recorded by simply leaving a microphone at a homeless shelter, then working around the real-life dialogue, and this approach of using real-world, everyday people’s dialogue then building the animation around it found expression in Creature Comforts, the humans’ words now put into the mouths of animated zoo animals, to huge effect. Not only did this go down well and remain warmly regarded by many animation fans and inspire more advertisers to use Aardman (the ads being a great bread and butter income source for animators and artists between their film projects), it lead to an Academy Award nomination – and a win (amazingly A Grand Day Out was also in contention, so Nick both won and lost the same Oscar!). Aardman’s first Oscar and not their last…

As the 80s and 90s roll on Wallace and Gromit make their bow and soon become one of the studio’s most recognised and most adored set of characters (come one, who among us doesn’t love the humour, the craft that goes into those W&G films, the beautiful attention to detail, the multiple references to classic Brit films? How many of you are hearing the W&G theme music in your head just thinking about them?), feature films and co-operation with major US Hollywood studios like Dreamworks. This doesn’t always go smoothly – the smalller-scale, eccentric, people-driven Aardman style is very different from the big Hollywood system, and the book explores the ups and downs, although refreshingly there is no back-biting or snarky gossip here, just acknowledgement that the Hollywood studios and their approach didn’t really mesh with Aardman’s way of doing things, but also that those joint adventures taught them a lot about the business and helped Aardman.

Given the huge range of famous thesps who have lined up to voice an Aardman character it will not surprise you to learn the book also contains quotes from a number of famous actors about their time working with Aardman. Most, as Peter and David acknowledge freely (and almost gleefully) say their painstaking attention to details can drive actors up the wall and across the ceiling, requiring endless re-takes and re-recordings of slightly different voice techniques as the animators have a particular idea in mind to fit their characters, and they have to work the actors until they strike that note (also, as the duo admit, at first they simply were not used to directing actors). However this is all tongue in cheek – while I’m sure the endless re-takes for the voice talent does drive the actors mad, they all seem to understand that it is because of the perfectionism of the animators, and that the actual animation itself requires even more time and more excruciatingly painstaking work. And clearly they still all want to be a part of it.

There are lots of fascinating little sidebars to enjoy here too – those of you of a certain age will recognise some of the adverts Aardman made in the 80s and 90s and perhaps never knew it was their work (remember the animated skeleton advertising Scotch Video Tapes, “re-record, not fade away” or Douglas the wee man who came to life from a packet of Lurpak butter? All Aardman works). Or the fact that the Hawes Dairy in Yorkshire was struggling, until in Wallace and Gromit: a A Close Shave Wallace mentions Wensleydale, and the dairy finds demand soaring. Cheese-makers accidentally given a huge boost in sales by animated characters, there is something wonderfully Aardman about that, isn’t there? And I am sure Wallace and Gromit would approve.

(Above, the Aardman-created animated skeleton for Scotch Video Tape’s advert, below, another 80s boom for animators with the arrival of MTV demanding more visually interesting music videos, including the now iconic Peter Gabriel Sledgehammer video, shot in a remarkably short period of intense work and featuring among the crew very young Brothers Quay, now revered as giants of Brit animation)

I mentioned the encouragement very young Peter and David received right at the start of their animation experiments, even before they had made anything actually for sale. That becomes a theme running throughout this book, starting with the nurturing of teenage Peter and David’s interests and talents, then they in turn paying that forward, encouraging new animators like Nick Park and Golly, trying their best to make sure all their staff feel valued, encouraged, running mentoring schemes, becoming heavily involved in charity works, especially in their much-loved home-town of Bristol (even those Bristolians who aren’t animation fans love Aardman because they put back into their city and community).

This continues right up to the design of their latest HQ building and – as many of you may have read in the news just before the book came out – Peter and David, with one eye to how Aardman will run when they choose to retire, have put the shares for the company into a trust, effectively making all the Aardman staff shareholders of their own company, empowering the staff and rewarding them while also heading off any larger media company simply gobbling them up and changing them.

(above and below, the book has some lovely attention to detail, including these gorgeous end-papers, with original Wallace and Gromit sketches at the front and Shaun the Sheep at the back)

That note of encouragement and having fun is perhaps one of the nicest aspects of this book, perhaps even more so than the fascinating history of how this beloved company came into being and grew, of how its characters conquered our hearts. It gives this book a warm, smile-inducing quality, an utter delight, much like Aardman’s films themselves do. A lovely, open, friendly history of a great British film institution.

You can browse Aardman’s own YouTube Channel here.