Some Books of the Year For 2021

Time for a quick look back over my reading year, to pick out some of my favourite reading from 2021’s book releases. While science fiction and graphic novels / comics will always be my favourites, I think it’s fair to say I have a fairly diverse reading diet, so this covers biography, history, science, fiction, crime novels, spy thriller, SF and graphic works. As usual I am sure I will be forgetting someone from the list, for which I apologise – normally I’ll notice a book on my shelf well after posting this and realise I meant to include it. If you’re considering buying any of these, where possibly please try using  your local bookshop rather than giving more money to Jeff Bezos.

The Island of the Missing Trees, Elif Shafak, Penguin Books

I’ve come to love Shafak’s works, and this year had the pleasure of meeting her when she visited to sign some books in our shop while she was in town for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Missing Trees is split between a father and daughter bereft of wife/mother recently in modern Britain, and 1970s Cyprus where young lovers are torn apart by the civil war, with a tree grown from a graft of a Cyprian tree also in the mix. If that sounds like it may be depressing, it isn’t: while it has sad moments and explores loss of both people and place, the exile’s life, it is also often uplifting and utterly beautifully written. I fell in love with her elegant, moving prose and finished this book with a deeply contented sigh.

The Lost Storyteller, Amanda Block, Hodder Studio

A debut novel, Amanda paid us a visit ahead of publication with advance copies of her book (as a bonus she was accompanied by an old colleague of mine who now works for the publisher, which was very nice). An adult woman has long excised her famous but long absent father from her mind, but she hasn’t really processed his departure from their family. A famous actor in his day, she is drawn into investigating why he really left them when a journalist asks for help in researching his disappearance (he didn’t just leave them, he vanished from public life), with the narrative wrapped around a small book of tales he wrote for her when she was a child. Beautifully done and emotionally satisfying, I think Amanda will be a new author to watch for.

Island Reich, Jack Grimwood, Penguin Books

I’ve read this author since his science fiction days (as Jon Courtenay Grimwood), and had to have a look at this standalone, WWII spy thriller. A safecracker and con-man is caught in 1940s Glasgow, and given the choice of the hangman’s noose or working for British intelligence, being dropped into the recently oocupied Channel Islands to play the part of a long-absent, fascist-friendly local lord to work his way into cracking a Nazi safe for secret plans, while a secondary plot involves disgraced former king Edward and Wallis (nee Simpson) fleeing the fall of France and being courted by the fascists of Spain and Germany (which he was clearly having fun writing). A cracking, fast-paced thriller.

City of Vengeance, D.V. Bishop, Macmillan Books

I’ve known David Bishop for many years – he teaches writing quite close to our bookshop, and I’ve known him through our comics connections, as he is a former editor of the mighty 2000 AD (which has launched many careers), so of course I was interested in his debut novel. Set in Renaissance Florence, this is a super historical crime novel, gripping story, exploring attitudes to vulnerable minorities (with echoes of today’s society), and a superbly realised feeling of the city and the time. Looking forward to the second book coming out in spring of 2022.

The Edge of the Grave, Robbie Morrison, Macmillan Books

Another debut prose work from an old comics chum – I’m sure some of you will know Robbie for his long list of comics creations, not least in 2000 AD. Here he introduces us to Glasgow in the early 1930s, and the first Catholic detective on a police force that is very blue-nose. In the Noir tradition our detective is also damanged by his experiences in the war, carrying his internal wounds with him as he investigates a body in the Clyde, taking in the low-life of the razor gangs to the high society of the city’s aristocracy, the great shipbuilding families, with a strong sense of place grounding the story.

Beyond, Stephen Walker, HarperCollins

For as long as I can remember Yuri Gagarin has been one of my heroes; posters of him and Neil Armstrong adorned my walls a a kid. I grew up in the shadow of the Space Age, and it has left a mark on me for life, so I had to read this new book on Gagarin and that heroic first manned space flight, which came out in time for the sixtieth anniversary of that world-changing event. Walker explores Gagarin’s life and that of the other cadre of young cosmonauts in detail, and the Soviet space programme, the immense engineering challenges, comparing them to their NASA counterparts, as they strive to be the very first in all the history of the world to step beyond our own world.

It’s unbelievably dangerous, heroic stuff, they really didn’t know what would happen to a human being in space – assuming they could even get them there safely, not to mention back again – and yet they did it anyway. Walker also explores the man, not just the myth – insights from fellow cosmonauts, friends and family let us see this young man, not just the epic hero, making it more touching and personal. Gagarin, who really did go “where no man has gone before.”

The Wolf Age, Tore Skeie, Pushkin Press

History has long been a passion, and Skeie’s book delivered in spades; a thousand years ago, and early English kingdom that has recovered from the devastating Viking wars of previous centuries is again repeatedly assaulted, people slaughtered, towns burned, alliances shift and change. It’s like something from one of the great Norse epics, and indeed Skeie begins with an overture about the final days of Snonri Sturluson, the man who wrote down so many of the sagas in Iceland, preserving them for us centuries later (while most of the warlords here also take warrior-poets with them who compose epic verses of their battles, history becoming myth almost as it happens).

As he points out you cannot understand the history of early England or Scandinavia (and other parts of Europe) without understanding this period and the interaction of Anglo-Saxons and Norsemen.It’s as gripping as any epic fantasy, but it actually happened.

Sentient, Jackie Higgins, Picador

In Sentient, Higgins explores the remarkable world of animal senses, each segment dealing with a different sense – touch, vision, hearing and so on. While most of us will be familiar with the idea that dogs can smell far more scents than our human nose can, or certain animals can see in ways we cannot, this delves far deeper into how scientists are researching some of the remarkable abilities of the other creatures which share the planet with us, from the incredible sense of touch used by the star-nosed mole to animals that can see in other wavelengths beyond what we can detect.

However, it goes further – Higgins then relates the research on each of these animals senses to the human experience, and how it compares to our own (spoiler, our senses are far better than we give ourselves credit for) and also how we can use this to help when our sense fail. More than that though, this is a book that restores that precious sense of wonder about the world around us, and that’s something always to be cherished.

Bumble and Snug and the Angry Pirates, Mark Bradley, Hodder Children’s Books

This was truly one of the most delightful finds of 2021 for me: I’ve found my beloved comics medium to be a rich one for younger readers, enticing even kids who are reluctant readers, or have reading problems, to devour books and entire series (we’ve had a lot of success with our graphic novel section for young readers). Mark’s debut was just a wonderful adventure of two friends, packed with humour, a giant balloon, a sea monster, a picnic, pirates and more (really, what more do you need?!), and an important message about friendship, kindness and being okay to explore your feelings. It also had me chuckling out loud repeatedly, and our younger regulars we’ve recommended it to in the bookshop have all loved it it too. Looking forward to the next book! (full review can be read here on the blog)

Putin’s Russia, Darryl Cunningham, Myriad Editions

I always look forward to Darryl’s new works – back in the Long Ago he was our virtual cartoonist in residence on the now sadly gone Forbidden Planet Blog, and I still recall being incredibly impressed with his first full-length work, Psychiatric Tales (which badly needs to be put back into print). In this new work he explores the life of Vladimir Putin and his rise to power in post-Soviet Russia, his years of corruption and abuse of power (and intimidation and worse to cover it up) stretching far back beyond his time as president or prime minister.

Given how much influence Russia under Putin’s vile, autocratic rule has had on the world stage (think not just the invasion of Crimea, but behind the scenes works such as massive disinformation and interference campaigns on political campaigns in the US, UK and more, or the assassinations carried out brazenly in other countries with utter contempt for laws and decency), this is an important and pertinent story, and again as with Billionaires or Supercrash, Darryl delivers a huge amount of complex research in the most accessible form, cementing for me his position as the UK’s leading non-fiction comics creator. (the full review can be read here in the blog)

Megatropolis, Kenneth Niemand and Dave Taylor, 2000 AD / Rebellion

Taking long-established characters and settings and putting them into alternate possibilities has long been an interesting way to explore different aspects of long-running series; DC has its Elseworlds (where we see what happens if Superman’s escape pod landed in the USSR instead of Kansas, or Batman as a vampire), and Marvel their What If series (recently adapted into an animated TV series).

Here Niemand and Taylor take the world of Judge Dredd and Mega City One, but it’s different, it’s a retro-future, a city of gleaming, Art Deco influenced styles, Taylor clearly delighting at being free to reimagine the Big Meg in this stunningly beautiful way (partaking of both Lang’s 20s masterpiece Metropolis as much as the Film Noirs of the 30s and 40s). Here Hershey is an investigative journalist, Cal is a corrupt detective, Rico – in normal Dredd he’s the judge’s clone brother who went bad – is the rare straight detective trying to fight crime and corruption, even in his own department, while Dredd himself is a shadowy, mysterious vigilante figure appearing from nowhere to hold those corrupting the vision of what the city should be to account. Gripping story, fascinating “what if?” moments and stunning artwork (the full review is here on the blog).

Beyond the Hallowed Sky, Ken MacLeod, Orbit Books

I always have a huge pile of books on the TBR (to be read) pile, but Ken has long been one of the few authors who bypassed that tottering Babel Tower of books to go straight to the top of the list when he has a new book out. This is the first in a new trilogy, set around fifty years in our future, mostly split between Scotland and a couple of distant worlds. We have a phycisist who receives a letter supposedly from herself in the future, which has mathematical proof of faster than light travel, which most ridicule.

We have explorers on a distant world beyond our own solar system, explorers closer to home on bases on Venus, and right on the Clyde, a new ship being built with a faster than light drive. I loved the idea of this vessel being built in a Clydeside shipyard, and MacLeod also conjures up a believeable future world split into different factions: Scotland here is independent and part of the Union, save for the Faslane base which England, now in an Alliance with the US, has held onto for their nuclear submarines (some of which boast this FTL drive to travel well beyond our oceans). Terrific narrative and, as always with Ken, some material for you to think about.

Blood and Gold, Mara Menzies, Birlinn

Mara is a professional storyteller, usually doing live performances, but here she has taken some of her stories into prose form (although we were fortunate enough to have her tell some of them live in our bookshop recently, and it was wonderful). Blood and Gold, which features illustrations from Eri Griffin explores both Scottish and African heritage, family, folklore and mythology, with teenage Jeda in a never-named city (which is clearly Edinburgh), dealing with not just the problems of growing into an adult, but losing her mother.

But her mother has left behind a trove of important stories to help her growing daughter understand herself and where she came from – and where she can go to next. But the sinister Shadowman follows, eager to seep into her misery and depression, to keep her from the vibrant glow of the stories, of her mother’s enduring love reaching out from beyond. It’s extremely emotional and caused me to tear up quite a bit, the raw emotions reminding me very much of my own grief and loss, but this brought me deeper into Jeda’s world, and the importance of storytelling as an integral part of what makes us human (I think lovers of Neil Gaiman’s work would fine much to enjoy here). Beautiful and moving, and also a good celebration of our cross-cultural heritage (the good and the bad)

Hummingbird, Salamander, Jeff VanderMeer, Fourth Estate

I’ve been reading Jeff’s remarkably unusual works since his early Ambergris novels (his collection City of Saints and Madmen is a good introduction), and am always looking forward to whatever he does next, safe in the knowledge that it is going to be thoguht provoking, unusual and hard to predict. In Hummingbird the skeleton of the story is pretty much the private eye type – a woman who works in security finds herself drawn to keep investigating something she’s told frequently not to, creating problems and danger at work and at home.

However, while accurate, that really doesn’t convey what Hummingbird Salamander actually is: a summary of narrative really doesn’t tell you much about any of Jeff’s books, I think – he’s one of those writers whose books you don’t just read, you experience. This is as much about atmosphere and very carefully considered wordplay as it is the actual narrative; as with many of his other books there’s an increasing sense of dislocation, of things being out of kilter, both the people and world around them becoming something other, different, odd. Intriguing, disturbing, unusual, and with a strong sense of the environment (and what we’re doing to it) woven through.

Changing Cityscape

Walking home from the cinema last night, I paused to take some night shots as I walked by the Union Canal in Edinburgh. As I had been to the movies, I wasn’t carrying my tripod, so these were rough, improvised night shots (I’d guess about half of my hundreds of night photos on my Flickr have been improvised), sitting the camera on a railing with the timer mode to steady it for a long exposure.

I took a shot across an empty, dark block, once home to part of the massive Scottish and Newcastle Brewery complex, which used to sprawl over several blocks on both sides of the road, high, dirty walls and stink dominating this part of town (very glad it is gone, also the beer they made was industrial swill for the most part, bleah!). This looks over the final block waiting to be redeveloped, towards the new Boroughmuir High School next to the canal, on the next block along, while on the far right you can see an old, brick industrial building, once the North British Rubber Company (making wellies for the trenches of WWI), later part of the brewery complex, now home to Edinburgh Printmakers:

The New And The Still To Come 01

And here is pretty much the same viewpoint, taken back, also at night, in 2008 – the foreground is just recently cleared of the demolished buildings, but in the background you can see a handful of industrial brewery buildings awaiting their turn for demolition:

old Slateford brewery at night

And here’s another night shot, again shot from pretty much the exact same spot, this one taken in 2016 – the last of the brewery buildings is long gone at this point, and you can see the new school that’s in the most recent, topmost photo here, still under construction, cranes towering over it in the dusk sky. In another few years that remaining gap site in the foreground will be built on too, and again this view will be changed. Perhaps I’ll take a photo of that too.

(as ever, click on the pics to see the larger versions on my Flickr pages)

new rising from the old

Saint Cyprian’s in Autumn

After days of heavy rains and dark, grey skies, for a few hours the sun started to peek out from behind the clouds, illuminating the autumn colours on the trees. Dad and I paused by Saint Cyprian’s in Lenzie – framed by the trees and their changing colours, with the autumnal light on the old stone of the 1873 church it was a rather beautiful scene.

Saint Cyprians In Autumn 01

Saint Cyprians In Autumn 02

The spire on Saint Cyprian’s boasts some handsome gargoyles at the top (if you are wondering about the difference, while gargoyles and grotesques are both sculpted forms of monsters, odd beasts or humans and have symbolic meaning, the grotesques are non-functional, purely decorative, while gargoyles contain water spouts for drainage, usually from the mouth).

Saint Cyprians In Autumn 03

Saint Cyprians In Autumn 04

Reviews: Putin’s Russia

Putin’s Russia: the Rise of a Dictator,
Darryl Cunningham,
Myriad Editions

Darryl Cunningham, for my money Britain’s finest non-fiction comics creator, returns, following up his previous, fascinating and insightful books such as Graphic Science and Billionaires, here turning his studied gaze upon the vile, despotic Vladimir Putin. Putin’s Russia: the Rise of a Dictator takes us from his birth in Leningrad (now back to its pre-Soviet name of Saint Petersburg) in 1952.

As with many from that generation, his parents were veterans of the Second World War (or Great Patriotic War as Russians often refer to it), and he would, like many across Russia and Europe, grow up in a city still bearing the very visible scars of that grinding, global conflict. A relatively small child, he was picked on, and learned not just to fight back, but to fight dirty, something he has clearly carried with him throughout his adult life; one is moved to wonder how very different the world may have been if his childhood had been filled with happier moments with better friends.

By his mid-teens, young Putin had already decided he wanted to be a part of the dreaded KGB, at the height of the Cold War. This is an era where the KGB spent at least as much time spying on and dealing with their own citizens as it did in spying on and taking covert actions against Western powers, with a vastly inflated number of informers prepared to rat out their own neighbours and colleagues; the fact a young lad was so keen to join such an agency at that time doesn’t speak very well of his intentions or characters.

Cunningham takes us through Putin’s early KGB career, much of which is still murky and hidden, and his supposedly post-KGB life (I say supposedly because there’s a strong likelihood he was still secretly on the active reserve list), and his early brushes with political power, as an advisor to the Leningrad city council, and even at this very early stage there is both indicators that the intelligence services may have been involved in influencing his appointment, and also of massive corruption (and subsequent cover-ups by any means).

While I was aware of his KGB past, I had no idea of these early political appointments for Putin, or the way he and his cronies misused their growing powers even back then – this was still in the era of Glasnost and Gorbachev, then the attempted coup in Russia,by die-hard Communists, the rise of Yeltsin, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the once formidable Soviet Union, all the related changes in what had been the effectively occupied Eastern Bloc.

Many of us of a certain age will remember these tumultuous, world-changing events, and reading here brought much of it rushing back to me, not least that fragile then slowly blooming hope so many of us had, that this was it, the Cold War was over, Russia was becoming a democracy, we were all going to be friends, the terrifying spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction by nuclear war was fading. You have to remember that back then we had lived for years with the monstrous thought that our entire shared civilisation could be annihilated with only the notice of the five minute warning, before the nukes started dropping. It was one of the most insane periods in human history, and here we were, thinking my gods, we’ve made it through and it’s going to get better.

Of course it didn’t work out that way, and that optimism was so sadly misfounded. And while we may not have quite returned to the hair-trigger, stand-off days of MAD, the world’s great powers have again been badly divided, and with quite clear intent of aggression and harm being directed against us. And the rise of Putin is a part and parcel of this. Cunningham explores this rise, the new Russia where a few become obscenely rich through massive corruption, dining out on the nation’s resources, all with Putin’s connections. The way this spreads across the globe as this dirty money enters the global financial system, not least the greedy financial centres of London and New York which were happy to take oligarch’s money, letting them buy property, connections, influence in Western countries, with Putin always behind this growing, sinister network.

That baleful influence has spread throughout the world, not just in terms of dodgy finance and dealings (no surprise to those of us who read Cunningham’s excellent and informative Supercrash book), but in openly hostile, physical acts beyond Russia’s borders. Not content with “accidents” befalling critics at home, Putin has overseen both large-scale military interventions, such as in the continuing horror of the civil war in Syria, with its massive butcher’s bill of civilian casualties, or the illegal annexing of the Crimea, to the intimate but just as nakedly aggressive assaults, such as the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the poisonings in Salisbury, or the despicable shooting down of the civilian airliner MH17, or attempts to influence the US presidential elections.

Behind it all, Putin. Who, naturally, spins out some obvious fabrications to blame someone else, not really caring if anyone believes him, because even if they don’t it spreads more confusion and mistrust in the West. It’s quite sobering, not to mention terrifying to see Cunningham so effectively laying out this rise from corrupt advisor in a city council to one of the most powerful men in the world, all, as always with his work, drawing on a huge amount of in-depth research that Cunningham somehow distils down into accessible, understandable narratives.

While much of the artwork here is familiar in style to some of his earlier work, there was also here, I feel, a more mature, finer-detailed aspect to some of the panels, especially those depicting some of the people. I felt as if he were trying to convey more not just of the emotion but also to do justice to the people he was depicting here. I felt this particularly strongly in the segment dealing with the downing of the MH17 airliner, where Cunningham doesn’t just cover the events, he takes some of the innocent victims and names them, draws their faces, tells us about some of them. They’re not numbers, not statistics, they are people, and clearly Cunningham wanted to make that clear: these are people, affected by the whims of a madman in another country, with living family and friends still mourning their loss and angry at the lack of justice for them.

Some panels on the Syrian conflict switch to a black and white, much heavier inked-line style, taking us through ruined cityscapes, in a style very different from the rest of the book, or indeed Cunningham’s more regularly-used styles I’ve seen before, and it is highly effective. It’s only a few panels, but their effect is powerful, it’s some superb cartooning work, conveying so much with just a few panels, and, like the MH17 pages, it packs a very strong emotional punch.

This is a story that really doesn’t yet have an ending – Putin is still in power, those who oppose him, even in the supposed security of another sovereign state, have a habit of dying mysteriously, he makes aggressive moves on the international stage, and is making plans to cling onto power for as long as he can (even rewriting the constitution) and to take steps to make himself legally unaccountable even if he leaves office. Where this complex, fascinating, disturbing history leads to, I do not know, but I will finish with some word from Cunningham, drawn from his conclusions:

Murder and corruption should be punished, never rewarded. Either we support democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law everywhere, or we will see these values wither away.”

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes.

Reviews: A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians,

H.G. Parry,

Orbit,

Paperback, 534 pages

Kiwi author H.G Parry was new to me when I read her utterly delightful The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep at the start of this year, in which a young literary academic prodigy has the unusual gift of bringing characters forth from what he is reading, if he gets too lost in the book (seriously, it was a book-lover’s delight, chock full of references to other works and with a wonderful sense of fun, it went down well with my SF Book Group). Orbit planned to release a second book by Parry within just a few months, so I was now primed and looking forward to this one, and while I loved her first novel, I was also pleased to see this next one was taking a very different subject matter and approach, being ostensibly Alternative History.

I must confess I have a real soft-spot for alt-history tales, doubtless driven by my interest in history; anyone who has read a lot of history books is almost certainly aware how many world-changing events could easily have happened differently, and this offers fertile ground for storytellers, from Ward Moore’s classic Bring the Jubilee to the massive and engrossing works of Neal Stephenson. In this instance Parry is focused on the Age of Enlightenment, with the main action taking place in three locations: France as the Revolution approaches and then happens, the Haitian slave rebellion in the Caribbean, and in Britain, the work of Wilberforce and Pitt to create an Abolition bill to outlaw the slave trade.

The book is littered with many actual historical events and figures, from the aforementioned Pitt and Wilberforce to Robespierre in France and Toussaint Louverture in what would become Haiti, but while it follows much of our world’s established history, this is a version of our world in which magic is real. Real, but restrained, however, especially for the Commoners, who are forbidden to use any inherited powers, while the aristocracy has much more leeway in using their gifts to enhance their already privileged lifestyle and opportunities. The threat and promise of power through magical ability – or the restraint of that power – links the events in all three settings, as does the issue of immorality of slavery.

As the monarchy of France falls to Revolution – with a call for “free magic and liberty” replacing the more familiar “liberty, fraternity and equality” – and the Haitian slave rebellion blooms, the Revolutionaries are torn, as the slaves are demanding the same rights and freedoms as they do – but the French coffers need the money coming from that lucrative sugar trade which relied on back-breaking slave labour (the clash between morality and money, a sadly eternal quandary throughout our history, imagined or actual). Magic is also used to bind the slaves in this world – while the brutal treatment of our own shameful slave-owning history is present here, a magical elixir is also used, which effectively imprisons slaves with their own body and will compliant to their masters, while leaving their mind perfectly aware of what is being done to them but unable to react, to even cry out if they want to, another horror on top of horror.

Morality and the struggle to maintain one’s principles is very much at the core of this story – as well as struggling with the notions of equal freedom for the Caribbean slave, the French Revolutionaries, notably Robespierre (whose magical power is Mesmerism, very useful in the debating chamber) who has strong principles, which he increasingly bends then breaks, in the name of securing Liberty (the ends justify the means, even if it means The Terror). In Britain too the fight to end the slave trade is riven by those who insist it is fine in principle but in practice will bankrupt the nation, just as it needs every resource to combat the French in warfare, while in Haiti the slave rebellion leaders debate the merits of trying to be merciful if they do secure a free society on the island, rather than giving in to the (no doubt justified) revenge on those who inflicted years of cruelty upon them.

Into this already engrossing stew of events and philosophical musings there are hints of a wider magical history underpinning this era, including a centuries-ago war against vampire lords, which lead to a bloody campaign to free Europe of dark magics, a pact still enforced by the Knights Templar, even in Protestant countries like Britain. And behind all these world-wide events is a shadow-figure, glimpsed mostly in dreams by Robespierre, Toussaint Louverture and Pitt, who seems to often be offering help and advice, but you just know that any bargain made with this mysterious figure will be a Faustian pact.

This is a richly-detailed alt-history, and arriving with wonderful coincidence as the Black Lives Matter movement has triggered far more serious reconsideration of the slave-owning era in the history of many countries, and its legacy (indeed one of Pitt’s fellow politicians here is Dundas, who delays the attempts to end the slave trade – as I was reading this we are debating in my home-town of Edinburgh how to mark his statue, atop a huge column, to address his shameful legacy, just as memorials to others from that era are also being re-evaluated). You can imagine how this coincidental timing of events and publication added to reading of this book, and acted as a reminder, if any were needed, that history is never just the study of the past (even in imaginary, alt-history), because the present is shaped by that history; it isn’t really past, it’s still with us, affecting all aspects of our civilisation in ways we need to study and comprehend if we are to learn from those events and grow beyond them to a better future.

A beautifully-written tale, which takes in the personal – the close friendship of Pitt and Wilberforce for instance – as much as it does the large-scale, global picture of events, with a strong examination of morality and how power corrupts it, be it money, legislative power or magical abilities, with some lovely turns of phrase (Parry’s descriptions of the walls of the House of Commons reacting musically to a well-written speech is quite wonderful and evocative of the power of well-chosen words, delivered with conviction). I look forward to the next volume.

On a side note: if you enjoy history and are interested in this period, Mike Duncan’s excellent Revolutions podcast series has covered both the French and the Haitian revolutions used in this book in great (but very accessible) details

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

Reviews: the Wolf of Baghdad

The Wolf of Baghdad,
Carol Isaacs (aka The Surreal McCoy),
Myriad Editions

The Wolf of Baghdad opens a world away, with an aerial shot of London, our opening perspective a view over the Thames with many globally famous landmarks visible, from the old like Tower Bridge to the new, like the towering Shard. Over this splash page musical notes float languorously in little bubbles of their own. We follow this warm stream of music floating through the London air, across the cityscape, from the dome of Saint Paul’s to regular, the open space of parkland, then urban residential streets, until we find the source, in a woman’s living room. She is sitting alone, listening to the music coming forth from her stereo, lost in thoughts and reveries, the music sparking images of other times, other places, other people, now long gone, vanished into history.

Or no, not vanished. They live now in her memories, in the stories passed down through her family and their friends, in the music of those days, and in the box of photographs she is reaching for on top of her bookcase. She falls asleep on the sofa, photos strewn over her body. She wakes with a start, there is someone sitting in the armchair next to her. An old lady knitting. Except she’s not really there, she’s a projection, a ghost, summoned from her memories roused by the songs and the family photographs. Isaacs beautifully captures in a couple of small, brief panels, the emotion on her face, from shock at finding someone else in her home to the sheer delight at recognising a beloved family member to the disappointment that no, she isn’t really there, this is a dream, an echo.

I think many of us who have endured loss will feel the emotions of that seemingly simple scene deeply – how many of us have dreamed we’re walking with a long-gone loved one, woken smiling only to remember they’re gone and it was just a dream, that this is the only place they now live for us. Isaacs weaves this irresistible mixture of longing, of the happy warmth of memories, and the disappointment of the reality, the contrasting emotions contrasting and yet also in that peculiar way life manages, complimentary to each other.

Isaacs rises from her chair, leaving her spectral visitor behind, donning her grandmother’s old cape she would always wear outside the home, stepping through her front door, but not into her own apartment block, but the old family home in early 1900s Baghdad. She walks through the kitchen, the heart of any household, and ghostly, translucent images of the people who lived there – her people, her family – move around her, oblivious. It seemed to me that they were not the ghosts, but actually Isaacs herself was now the invisible phantom, a ghost from the future walking unseen through her own family past.

These scenes are lovely, warm, inviting – the family house, like many in the Middle East, built around an open courtyard so the family could sit outdoors in the heat but still be within the home. She passes her Rabbi grandfather’s study – a sudden splash of inviting, warm yellow colour spills out of the mostly blue palette of these pages, the lamp-light he is contentedly reading by, and on to the roof, which like many buildings in the region is flat, so that on hot nights the entire family, from baby in the crib to grandmother could sleep outside, under the starlight. This also affords Isaacs the perfect excuse to delight the reader with the glories of sunrise over the domes and minarets of early 1900s Baghdad, seen from the roof of the family house.

The view of the waking city entices Isaacs to venture outside into the bustling city streets, where Muslims and Jews and Christians all mingle. There are beautiful little details – a street urchin sneaking food from a street stall, a small child tugging on his mother’s hand when he sees a vendor selling sweet treats, the old men playing their games in the cafe, the bustle and life of the soukh,. The many other little details that bring it to life and make it so wonderfully personal and intimate – the children learning to swim in the Tigris (imagine your swimming pool being this great world river that has flowed past thousands of years of human civilisations growing around its banks), or being carried over the regularly overflowing small alleyways to get to school.

Despite Jewish people having lived in Baghdad since they were first captured and taken to ancient Babylon – a history of over two and a half millennia – sadly this will not last, and the latter part of the book sees our spectral narrator walking through the shadows of growing threats, shadows which soon grow into full-formed nightmares of hatred, killing, pogroms, as a rising Arab nationalism is fuelled in the 1930s and 40s by imported anti-Semitic rhetoric from distant Nazi Germany. It’s heartbreaking and sadly a story which has, in one form or another, happened far too often throughout human history.

We see the burnings and the beatings and the disappearances into dark jails. Again Isaacs conjures panels that pull forth the emotion of those moments, such as a scene showing her walking through the ransacked mess of what had been the family home, picking up a shattered photo frame, the people now all just silhouettes, or finding a torn Torah in the Synagogue.

From being almost a third of the population, through the 1940s and 50s and on most Jews were forced to flee forever, that history that had lasted millennia gone – today there are, perhaps, around half a dozen left in that ancient city.

Isaacs includes a lovely Afterword, which originally appeared in the Strumpet (which I am sure some of you will remember fondly), detailing some of her own memories this time, of family life when she was a wee girl, the family now settled in Britain. The regular suburbia is broken each month when visitors come from the old country to visit, bringing gifts and stories, her house-proud mother budding the family silver to a shine and creating a mountain of delicious food, the family friends so well-known they children would always refer to them as aunt or uncle – all small details which most of us probably also share from our childhood. And the hints of the past these visitors brought with them to suburban Britain, of the home now lost to them which they can never return to, but which haunts their dreams.

And the eponymous wolf of the title? An old Jewish tradition in Baghdad was that the wolf would protect the household, watch over the family, that any malicious Djinn would be too scared of the powerful wolf to dare to enter the house or harm those within. A wolf’s tooth would often be set in a small jewel to hang over the baby’s crib as a protection. Sadly, as Bardach observed many years ago, “man is wolf to man”, and despite appearances the man-wolf has a far more terrible bite than any canis lupus, even a mythical one unable to protect the family from the storm that befell the Jews of Baghdad. (or, perhaps the wolf did watch over them, seeing them to their new home, perhaps his glowing eyes still look after them as best he can in a strange land).

This is a remarkable book and, despite the horrors of the later section, ultimately it is a beautifully-crafted, warmly emotional work. While it sheds light on a period and events most of us, even those of us who read a lot of history, will not be familiar with (always good to learn), mostly, I felt, this was ultimately a very personal, very intimate story, and the warmth of memories, of family, of love and hearth and home outweigh even the darker moments, with Isaacs’s artwork deftly expressing and conveying much emotional richness.

“We came in peace for all mankind”

I’m a child of the Space Age, an infant when humans first walked on a surface that was not of our world for the first time in all of the history of our species. While school chums had posters of football players on their bedroom walls, my walls sported posters of Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin. I remember being lucky enough to have some fabulous toys to play with as a small child, but my earliest memories of any plaything is my little silver spacesuit and helmet. Wearing my toy spacesuit and sitting in a cardboard box for my spaceship with my imagination taking me to infinity and beyond.

I wanted to be an astronaut.

I still do.

When I was just an infant human beings, for the first time in the history of our entire homo sapiens species walked on the surface of another world. Since hunter-gatherer times, long before the dawn of civilisation, human beings had dreamed of the moon, worshipped her as a goddess, called on her power over human affairs, and dreamed of what it was like to be there. But for tens of thousands of years nobody could be there – you could be an emperor or a peasant, it didn’t matter, the moon was forever there in the sky but out of reach. A pleace dreams are made of.

But when I was a child, human beings made the most extraordinary voyage in the history of humanity. We walked across ancient Africa, we spread out across Europe, Asia, the Americas and colonised the world. Much later we sailed across the vast oceans of our blue world, from those astonishing Polynesian travellers on reed boats sailing the vast oceans of the Pacific (some of the greatest natural navigators of all time) to the early voyages of Magellan and Admiral Zheng He to the great Age of Exploration and James Cook.

And eventually we took to the skies, in hot air balloons, dirigibles, and finally heavier than air craft – aeroplanes.And, astonishingly, only a few decades seperate those first few scant seconds in the air by the Wright Brothers at Kittyhawk and human beings walking on the surface of the moon.

Even as a child, watching and reading everything I could on the space programmes of the USSR and the USA, I wasn’t naive, I understood that the two world wars and the subsequent Cold War had driven this remarkable technological advancement, the kind of progress that took us from Von Braun’s V2 rocket, created as a weapon, in 1944 and 45 to his Saturn V rocket carrying humans to the moon in the late 1960s.

I knew this, but even as a kid I looked at the words on that plaque, on that statement on the first lunar landing on July 20th, 1969, “We came in peace fo all mankind” and I wanted to believe it. And to be fair, for many in the scientific and engineering community that was the case – they knew they were getting funding because of Cold War paranoia, military-industrial scheming and national pride, but they took that money knowing they could use it go push the frontiers of human endeavour, science, exploration and knowledge for the pure joy of knowledge. And some of them believed in that credo of “we came in peace for all mankind”.

And I wanted to believe in that too, and I still do. Because it spoke of something higher than national prestige or technological posuring, it hinted at a better future, where humanity was more advanced, when we were one and striving to be the best we could be. It’s the same reason Star Trek has been such a powerful influence on my life and so many other people’s lives, not just the characters and the stories, but the future it painted, a future where humans strove to be better than they had been, to be one species, regardless of gender, or skin colour, to create a world where we expanded our horizons because we could, for the betterment of all.

Yes, I know that was Cold War propaganda, but I still loved that message, I loved what it hinted we could actually be, beyond our  our divisions and nationalistic, gender, and ethnic arguments, that we could all be humans exploring the great infinity of the universe, just waiting for us. And there we had three men, three men who truly did go where No Man Has Gone Before. And yes, I knew it was part of the nationalistic posturing and Cold War posturing, but by god I wanted it to be more than that, and I think many of us felt the same, because that one moment united humanity for a precious short time. We had done something beyond the realms of the dreams of centuries and the entire globe rejoiced.

It feels to me that too often we have stepped back from that first Giant Leap. Fifty years to this very day and we are still to go further – hell, we haven’t even been back to the moon since Apollo, much less futher. All those childhood comics annuals I read as a kid in the 70s told me we would be on Mars by now and that by the early 21st century we would all have affordable holidays on the Moon.

It’s fifty years on, it is 2019, and I am still waiting on that promised holiday in space. Oh sure, we have private corporations promising imminents low-orbit trips, but only for the super-wealthy. This corporate rather than national space programme has been hailed as “democratising” space, but that is rubbish, this is just for the extremely wealthy, that isn’t democracy, this isn’t for the people, it is the privatisation of the great Final Frontier by the wealthy for the wealthy with not an ounce of actual science involved, unlike the national and trans-national programmes. And my dream of every taking that trip above the clouds is as far away as ever, which breaks my heart, knowing that dream will almost certainly never come to pass.

None of that changes what happened on this day fifty years ago, though. Human beings who had started out in tiny groups of hunter-gatherers had, in the space of around 300 to 200, 000 years, evolved to use fire, the wheel, agriculture, ships, early flight and then slipping the bonds of Earth herself to fly into space and the moon. Think about that – dinosaurs, one of the most successful evolutionary genus to ever walk the Earth ruled the globe for a couple of hundred million years. In a few hundred thousand modern humans went from hunter-gatherers to walking on another world.

Seriously, think about that, think about how amazing that is. Think that within the space of a human lifetime, less some seven decades, we went from a few seconds in the air with the Wright Brothers to flying beyond our world. Our grandmothers lived in a world of horse-drawn milk-carts as girls and saw Armstrong, Aldarin and Collins flying in Apollo in their sunset years. That’s the space of time we’re talking about, it’s mind-blowing to think of how rapidly this took place, this most amazing voyage in the history of a species that has made a success of being natural explorers.

It often feels to me that we have not only stepped back since those heady days of Apollo and Gagarin, but we have become smaller. For all our technological advancements since then (when a mobile phone in our pocket, unthinkable back then, has more computing power than all of NASA had back then) as a species we feel smaller to me, we have lost that magnificence that came with the challenge of exploration. Today is it all about the Me, Me, Me individual The Way You Want It world. Not that I mind that entirely, but it needs to be balanced out against the collective, the Us. And Apollo united that Us for a few precious days, we transcended the everyday, glimpsed a better future where we grew and explored not for riches and honours but because we wanted to, because it was the best thing to do, because we were better than we had been before.

As I said I am not naive, even as a kid I knew the political and national and economic imperatives that drove the space programmes of both the US and USSR back then. But I chose to believe in the higher ideals behind it, because those are beautiful ideals, ideals of us being better as a species, of us striving as one to be better than we are, to push the boundaries, to further ourselves for the collective good of all humanity. Yes, I know, you may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one. And isn’t that a dream worth chasing…

Reviews: Sensible Footwear – a Girl’s Guide

Sensible Footwear – a Girl’s Guide,
Kate Charlesworth,
Myriad Editions

Now this, my friends, has been one of the Brit comics works on my Must Read Radar for 2019; I know Kate has been working on it for a long time, a labour of love in many respects. Kate has been contributing to the Brit comics and cartooning scene for many years, from her Auntie Studs character to the critically acclaimed (and quite brilliant) Sally Heathcote, Suffragette with Mary and Bryan Talbot (reviewed here). Kate was also generous enough to create artwork for my short story Memorial to the Mothers which closed out the double Eisner-nominated WWI comics anthology To End All Wars (thanks, Kate! You can read that story in full here on the Woolamaloo). So it is more than fair to say I have heard snippets about this work in production for quite a while and now, finally, thanks to the nice people at Myriad (surely one of our most creator-supportive UK Indy publishers?) I had the chance to read it.

And then re-read it.

Short version: it’s brilliant – it’s a wonderfully warm, often very smile-inducing and laughter-creating, emotionally engaging tour through the last few decades of Queer life and culture in the UK and further afield, intertwining both Kate’s own life experiences as she grows up with the wider cultural and historical changes taking place, which gives Sensible Footwear both an over-arching, wide-ranging historical arc but at the same time maintaining a close, personal aspect to it that allows the reader to experience this as more than historical events or social-cultural changes, we can feel the impact on a more individual, emotional level.

From the hidden gay (predominantly male homosexual) subculture of the 50s and 60s (yes, including the delightfully cheeky and risqué Round the Horne) to the heady days of Stonewall and beyond, the Women’s Liberation Movement gaining ground in the 70s, the increasingly visible presence of LGBT people and the push for more tolerance for all, the horrible early years of the AIDS outbreak and more, along the way taking in lovely little asides on a myriad (no pun intended) of gay icons, from Dusty Springfield to characters from Coronation Street.

Woven through all of this socio-cultural history we also have Kate’s own story, from childhood through to that great rite of passage so many of us go through, the first move away from home to go to college, to adult life, to exploring what her own sexuality and romantic inclinations are, the friends and lovers she meets, the people who inspire her, the intolerant elements she and friends band together to stand against. It’s all laced with a lovely, warm humour throughout – right from the start, after an introductory scene of Kate and her partner Diane on holiday with friends, discussing the old days (a framing device used through much of the book, linking past and present nicely), we go to Barnsley in 1950 and Kate’s birth, which includes a cheeky moment of baby Kate seeing the ward sister and being somewhat smitten.

There is more of that kind of scene as we see her growing up – as a family wedding approaches the young girl wonders what the husband is actually for. And she is less than impressed at being dolled-up in a fancy, very girly dress to be a maid of honour, not her kind of thing at all, oh no. Mind you, she is rather taken with the bride. There are a lot of gentle intimations here that Kate is not going to grow up to be the “regular” young girl then young woman that her family expects (thank goodness!). Balancing this out, later sections in the book hark back to those earlier days, of getting older, starting to realise she is a lesbian and not knowing how to tell her family, how they will react, but we find out as we go on that actually there were more secrets in the family cupboard she simply knew nothing of when growing up and questioning her own feelings and inclinations, because those were generations that simply didn’t share certain things, not even among their nearest and dearest.

Even today coming out is often not an easy thing for anyone – growing up is rarely simple, we’re all trying to figure out who we are, what we want to be, looking for role models and inspiration and supportive friends who will help us. How much harder when society was so horribly bigoted and intolerant? Yes, we have plenty of bigots today – sadly they seem to be on the rise again, racism, sexism, homophobia – but it is still very different, both society’s general attitude and also the law’s stance (where LGBT people are recognised and afforded the same rights and protections any of us should have).

And here we get to see where some of those changing attitudes – and political and legal changes – came from, with groups inspired by Stonewall, the first gay rights movements, the increasingly important woman’s rights movements, the push for greater racial tolerance. I was reminded a little of Sally Heathcote, where Kate and the Talbots made it abundantly clear that the Women’s Suffrage movement was never just about the vote, it was about a whole range of important social issues, including healthcare and educational opportunities. Similarly here, we can see how the fight for tolerance, understanding and equality for any one group is, in reality, always about tolerance and understanding and equality for all. Or as congressman John Lewis, Civil Rights veteran and one of the original Freedom Riders, put it when equal rights for gay marriage was proposed in the US:

I fought too long and too hard against discrimination based on race and colour, not to fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

If you needed any more reminding of that, just think how the same, vaguely-worded Obscene Publications Act that was used to try and stop some gay publications – state censorship, effectively – was the same Act used to try and shut down counter-culture publications like Oz, or, even in the 80s and 90s Tony Bennett’s Knockabout having to fight the Act and HM Customs over importing underground Comix. Like I said, these rights and tolerances – or lack thereof – affect most, if not all of us in some way or another.

For readers of a certain age there is also a lot of nostalgia and a strong sense of “oh, I remember that” moments throughout Sensible Footwear, from the idolising Honor Blackman and then Diana Rigg in the Avengers (strong women characters that took no nonsense without every losing any sense of the feminine) in the 60s to the hideous Mary Whitehouse and her Festival of Light, using religion as a way to demand that what people watched or read conformed to what they approved of (chilling, and still has echoes today with some (mis)using religion as an excuse to practise bigotry), or “God’s Cop” James Anderton (a favourite of Thatcher), the imposition of the Section 28 whereby the government tried its best to suppress discussion of gay culture, to the emergence of AIDS and the rampant hatred that often followed this in the press of the time, rather than extending sympathy to those suffering illness or losing loved ones.

But through all of this weaves Kate’s own story, or more accurately Kate and all the people she has interacted with, friends, lovers, other creators, support groups, family, beloved icons (Dusty!), a reminder of how what is personal and individual to us or our small circle of friends is also part of the larger picture of our ever-changing society, and this makes the events covered in this history much more accessible, more emotionally personal, regardless of the reader’s own orientation. The artwork moves from cartoon to an almost collage style when incorporating numerous old publications, or flyers or badges or media clippings from the time, with good use of colouring and shading for different aspects of the story or different times being depicted.. The art is also frequently funny – young Kate staring into a mirror after he friend asks if she may be a lesbian, trying to see if it is obvious, is just one of many parts that had me laughing out loud.

Sensible Footwear can’t, of course, be an encyclopedic history of all of LGBT culture in the UK for the last few decades, and Kate notes that herself – there is only so much anyone can cover, and besides, as she also comments, everyone’s experience is a bit different, so you can’t always show what every single person was going through. What it does do though is encapsulate several decades of LGBT history in a very accessible manner, often touching on areas some of us might not even have realised were important to the emerging Queer Culture at the time, and shows how it is part and parcel of the forever changing, diverse nature of our whole society, not apart from it. And most of all that wonderful, warm, personal aspect to the whole book that engages you, like a chat with a dear chum over drinks on a summer afternoon. A book that left me with a very satisfied smile on my face.

Kursk: the Last Mission

Kursk: The Last Mission,
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg,
Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Léa Seydoux, Peter Simonischek, August Diehl, Colin Firth, Max Von Sydow, Bjarne Henriksen, Magnus Millang

The K-141 nuclear submarine Kursk was laid down in the early 1990s, but by the time she was fully commissioned the former Soviet Union had collapsed. She became part of the Russian navy’s Northern Fleet, a class known to worried NATO observers as the Oscar-II class, larger than her predecessors at some 154 metres, a truly massive beast, stealthy, hard to observe even with NATO’s sophisticated submarine detection equipment, and heavily armed (this class was designed to makes holes in entire enemy battle groups all by herself), with a hull and conning tower reinforced so she could even surface through the Arctic ice. But by the end of the last millennium, with Russia essentially broke, much of this once-huge and impressive fleet is lying at anchor, rusting in the sea air.

For all the power Kursk and her sister ships had, we see a sadly depleted, run-down force – as the film opens we follow a group of shipmates from her crew, lead by Mikhail Averin (Matthias Schoenaerts), desperately trying to raise money for the champagne for one of their fellow’s wedding reception; none of them has been paid in ages, a common occurrence during this part of Russia’s history, wages not being paid by the state, little money even for fuel for regular sailing patrols. They each barter their prized submariner’s watches with the quartermaster to get supplies for the wedding, a warm act of brotherhood for one of their own, an act which leaves the new bride in tears.

And the next day she sails into the frigid northern oceans – for the first time in years the run-down, post-Soviet Russian navy is holding a major exercise, and Kursk is joining it, tasked with launching sneak mock attacks on several of the surface vessels. Despite the lack of pay and resources this crew was still reckoned to be one of the best in the submarine fleet, and their ship a tremendous achievement of engineering and power. As we see her leave her base, watched by their families, the gargantuan scale of this ship is quite clear, and you understand the pride her crew have in sailing on such a vessel. Sadly, of course, for those of us familiar with recent history we know this will be Kursk’s final voyage. On the 12th of August, 2000, an explosion was detected beneath the waves around the exercise fleet. The worst had happened.

You may ask what mileage there is in a disaster film based on real history, when we all know what the outcome is, and it is a legitimate question. I have to say it entered my mind early on, but Thomas Vinterberg crafts his film in such a way that you get to know the men and their families. We see their strong bonds at the start as they try to find supplies for their crewmate’s wedding, we see their families, we see a group of elite sailors who live and work in close quarters at sea and whose families live next to one another on shore, they are all one extended family, and it is clear they would do anything for one another. As we get to know the men on the ship and their families back home we become enmeshed in their lives – I found myself wanting, against the odds, against real history, for some of them to make it, even though I know that all of her crew perished down there, in the deep, cold northern waters, far from the light. But Vinterberg made me want that to happen, his Kursk really does pull you in emotionally to this desperate struggle for survival.

The explosion destroys the forward compartments of the ship – it is generally believed that a badly-made torpedo leaked the unstable hydrogen peroxide fuel (similar to that used in some rockets), causing an explosion, which in turn lead to a bigger explosion as it set off some of the other torpedoes. You can imagine the devastation this wreaks on the stricken ship. The crewmen we follow survive only because they were in the rear section. They are now stuck on the bottom of the sea in the last few sealed compartments, water leaking in, air thinning, waiting, hoping, praying for rescue. But the cutbacks in the Russian fleet have also affected their search and rescue teams – the British Royal Navy (in the shape of Colin Firth’s Commodore David Russell) and Norwegian navies monitor the situation and offer their own far better technical resources to rescue the men they think may be trapped aft, but a proud and suspicious Russia refuses the offers of help, until it is too late.

We’ll never know for sure now if those twenty three men surviving in the aft compartments could have been rescued if Russia had accepted that help more quickly. One officer there made a list of the surviving men, so we know they were there for some time after the explosion, hoping for a rescue that came far too late (Firth has his British officer down perfectly, the obvious despair and resignation mixed with that classic stoic and professional in public persona we expect of an RN officer). The rescue attempts by the Russians, the help offered by the British and Norwegians, the cutting back and forth from the slowly filling compartments of survivors to their frantic families on land, demanding information and being given little by the authorities, all builds to a tremendous if tragic emotional climax. This is all handled in a very realistic, down-to-earth manner, a million miles from the action of the likes of Hunt For Red October, in many ways it has the feeling of one of those classic WWII submarine films, when all the men can do is wait in their ship, deep below the surface and hope.

Yes, we know the outcome here – this event only happened nineteen years ago, we all saw it on the news, we all heard of the Royal Navy’s offer of help, the standard forgetting of enemies when in trouble at sea, because then all sailors are fellow sailors and the code is always to help, and the wait to find out that it was all too late. And yet Vinterberg’s film draws you into the desperate emotions of these men and their families so effectively you find yourself longing for a Hollywood happy ending that you know never happened and cannot be, but he ensures these men are not just some stereotypes, he gives them depth, families, makes us emote with them until we feel their struggle. And he gives them honour, heroism and professionalism as they face their end together.

Kursk: the Last Mission is released by Signature Entertainment in cinemas and on Digital HD from July 12th

EIFF 2019 – L’empereur de Paris

L’empereur de Paris / The Emperor of Paris,
Directed by Jean-François Richet,
Starring Vincent Cassel, Olga Kurylenko, Patrick Chesnais, August Diehl, Denis Lavant, Freya Mavor

Another evening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and this time it is a French period piece, based on a real-life historical character Eugène François Vidocq, who I must confess I had only vaguely heard of, mostly in relation to him inspiring later fictional works by the like of Poe and Balzac among others. This is classic poacher turned gamekeeper stuff, inspired by the actual Vidocq, a criminal who turned thief-taker, his familiarity with the Parisian underworld of the Napoleonic era and his own native ingenuity allowing him to track and capture the most wanted criminal gangs of the era in a way the regular authorities – mostly just watchmen with clubs and a heavy hand – could possibly manage. Vidocq is rightly famous in his native France as the founder and first director of the Sûreté Nationale and thought to be one of the first – if not the very first – private detectives.

But frankly, they had me at Vincent Cassel…

I’ve loved Vincent Cassel, with his charming bad-boy approach to so many roles, for many years, and the role of Vidocq seems almost tailor-made for his strengths, his ability to project competing, often contradictory qualities of ruthlessness, self-gain, dishonesty but also paradoxically heroism, resourcefulness, of doing the right thing when his back is against the wall. This role seems to suit Cassel especially well at this stage in his life and career, as he portrays the famous criminal, thought to have died in one of his infamous escapes years before, trying to go straight in Paris in 1805, but being drawn back into the underworld and the local law enforcement (the two are not as distinct as you’d expect, not back then). This is Paris in the era of Napoleon, but it has not yet been remade by Haussman as the broad boulevard Paris we know and love today, this is the older Paris, filthy streets, creaky, tilting old houses, tanners, butchers and washers working openly in the festering streets. The middle-aged Cassel’s more grizzled visage and a more world-weary sense about him fit into this scenario perfectly.

Yes, there are beats to this story you will recognise – the criminal trying to turn his life around, to be legitimate only to be dragged back into the murky underworld of crime (I keep trying to get out, they keep dragging me back in approach), the assembling of his own team to perform his task and win his amnesty, the creation of his opponent, just as intelligent and capable, and even more ruthless (his own Moriarty), you can spot all of these now common tropes, but it really doesn’t matter because this is beautifully done. The cinematography is gorgeous – you can almost smell old Paris, fights in crime lairs in the limestone tunnels beneath the city are lit by fire and candlelight to give them eerie aspects, contrasting against the opulence of the Imperial court of Napoleon.

Cassel is, as you’d expect, simply brilliant in this role – as I said, Vidocq could have been custom-made to be a Vincent Cassel character. Leo Carax regular Denis Lavant also essays a stand-out performance, twisting his body language and facial expressions into a cruel, mis-shapen, Fagan like criminal overlord, vile, despicable, ruthless and dangerous, without ever tilting that performance too far into parody (you believe how nasty and dangerous his gang leader is). A classy, stylish, period crime movie that should also introduce the rest of the world to the real, historic Vidoqc and his role as one of the fathers of modern policing and detectives.

EIFF 2019 – Liberté: A Call to Spy

Liberté: A Call to Spy,
Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher,
Starring Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland, Andrew Richardson

This is a rare beast – an Indy WWII spy film, which is, I’m pleased to note, heavily female-centric, both in front of and behind the camera. Liberté had its premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this weekend, including a good Q&A session with some of the film-makers and cast afterwards, and went down very well with the festival audience. While there have been many World War II spy films over the years, it is rare to see the female agents being foregrounded (the classic Carve Her Name With Pride sprang to mind, but not many others).

Pilcher’s movie, working from a script by Thomas (who also stars in the film as Virginia Hall), is inspired by real-life women who answered the call during the desperate days of the Second World War, as F-Section of the British SOE (Special Operations Executive) are attempting to infiltrate agents into Occupied France, despite knowing the far from favourable odds against survival. And they all know that if their cover is blown and they are arrested by the Nazis or Vichy regime, death is possibly the last of their worries, they will almost certainly face torture before any execution as spies. And yet these remarkable women still saw this as vital work that needed to be done and volunteered.

Two of the main agents we follow, Virginia Hall (Thomas) and Noor Inayat Khan (Apte) are among the first wave of women being sent into the field; you may be familiar with their names as both are based on real-life agents who risked all to ensure victory against the Nazis. Even if you have some familiarity with the real history, as I did, it doesn’t remove the excruciating sense of mounting tension that the film builds. Even before they have graduated from training in wartime Britain we’ve glimpsed a little of the mountain they have to climb, from the rampant sexism of the era through to a truly harrowing mock-torture scene designed to prepare the women for the sort of treatment they may face if captured by the Gestapo.

Noor, descended from Indian royalty is a gentle soul, but determined she must help fight the evil of Nazism, Virginia, an American in London (before the entry of the USA into the war) has been trying to become a diplomat but is repeatedly rejected by the State Department, partly on gender lines but also because she has an artificial limb (a leg lost during a hunting accident). Stana Katic’s Vera Atkins, technically a secretary a this point to F Section’s head Maurice Buckmaster (Roache), but really a manager of the department’s affair, pushes for the inclusion of more women agents in the field, and selects these women, among others, for that important first wave.

Katic’s Atkins is a complex character – she and her mother had fled the growing Nazi menace in Europe before the war, and she was not at this point a British citizen, and also concealing her Jewish heritage (anti-Semitism was pretty rampant in the era), mourning a lover posted as “missing in action”, and Katic has to convey all of this, the tightrope Atkins is walking every single day, in addition to the conflicting emotions her work is causing her. She is determined the women can and should be doing field work, and pushes them and supports them and fights their corner for their chance to show what they can do, but she is also racked with worry and guilt, knowing that some of those she is sending into the lion’s den are not going to come home. Noor’s pacifist, gentle upbringing clash with her compulsion to do all she can to fight evil, and also to show what Indians can accomplish (in the paternalistic, racist Imperial era), while Virginia’s determination that her disability will not stop her from fighting the good fight, despite being in constant physical pain, is nothing less than astonishing.

It’s a complex, competing stew of emotions from these three leading actors (the male actors, such as Roache’s Buckmaster or Rissman’s Klaus Barbie – the infamous “Butcher of Lyons” – also given strong performances but the emphasis, clearly, is on these three women). And that’s before factoring in the raw, unrelenting tensions of their work behind enemy lines, the constant looking over their shoulders, moving from safe house to safe house, never being able to be certain who they can trust and who they should be more wary of, aware all the time that anything may give them away, that any person they are dealing with may betray them as the Nazis and collaborating Vichy authorities hunt for them, and this is all happening within an SOE department that is learning the basics of how to operate agents in Occupied Europe, and learning the hardest way.

I found this to be a remarkable film – despite an Indy budget, clever use of locations and a lot of help means that you would never think that while watching the Liberté (Pilcher and Thomas both talked after the film about the generous assistance they had in obtaining some excellent locations and other necessary pieces thanks to a variety of helpers, there was a very warm sense of collaboration by so many to get this film made). That evocative 1940s wartime setting is beautifully shot, the narrative is tight and tense, the emphasis on the women’s roles is handled with power and also a huge sense of respect (the actors spoke to the audience afterwards about their compulsion to do right by the real historical women their characters are based on).

Liberté, while of course a period piece, like many period pieces also has parallels to our own troubled times, from the way women are treated and portrayed in our #MeToo era to the notion of “resistance” to the advance of the black-shirted forces of intolerant darkness, the need for us all to make a stand, to swallow our fear and still carry on. It’s an engrossing, tense spy thriller, a heavy emotional experience, and comes with some exceptional performances from the three women leads, the story having added force knowing that it is based on real events (can any of us imagine what we would have done under those desperate conditions? Would we have volunteered? Would we have been as brave as these women?). Liberté is a powerful piece of Indy cinema, and highly recommended.

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2019 - Cast & Crew of Liberte 03
(some of the cast and crew of the film talking after the premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival)