Sunday 22 December 2013



winter-green and winter-grey
for all the things you never say,
winter-silver and winter-gold
for all the secrets left untold,
winter-snow and winter-frost
counting all the thing we’ve lost,
winter-love and winter-pain
washed away in freezing rain

from winter-love to winter-fears
from winter-kisses to winter-tears

winter-months and winter-days
as time together slips away,
winter-weeks and winter-hours
as love we share turns slowly sour,
winter-sun and winter-skies
as all our truth turns into lies,
winter-dark and winter-light,
will love return? you say, it might…

 This poem is featured in the excellent PDF-magazine:
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‘OH, MY SOUL…!’ 

 at ‘G-Mex Centre’, Manchester 

Looking straight up, you see the full Moon. Up through the immense grid of curving girders and glass of what used to be Manchester’s central rail terminus. And under this Moon of Love the station announcement is ‘ROCK ‘N’ ROLL IS HERE TO STAY…’. A ‘Piccadilly Radio’ MC rabble-rouser, ‘…IT WILL NEVER DIE!’ And – it’s a little paunchy, a bit unsteady on its feet perhaps, but he’s still not wrong.

‘I want you ALL to see that ahm STILL beautiful’ flirts Little Richard seductively, ‘and ah AIN’T conceited!’ Hell no. In 1955 Richard Penniman announced himself as the Atom Bomb. He’s sixty-years-old on Saturday (the 6th), and it’s still hard to tell whether Little Richard loves himself more than the audience loves him, or vice versa. With the stately grace of some dignified ritual he climbs atop the piano, lipstick-mauve jacket aglitter with cheap diamante – the spiders, lizards and geegaw stars that he hurls like crumbs from a banquet at the seething morass of pleading hands beneath him… but he needs some support from his sax-player to get down again.

Oh, Ma Soul! Balding Teds and Tedettes, Rockabilly Rebels with Confederate flags tattooed into their denims, ‘T’-shirts remembering the ‘Skegness Rock ‘n’ Roll Festival’ or yellow Sun Records from Nashville, there’s enough grease here to fuel McDonalds into the next millennium. But – chomping popcorn and hotdogs, slurping Coke, if this is a gathering of an endangered species, it’s in rude good health. I’ve seen yesterday, and it’s working its arse off.

Remember what the 1950’s sounded like? It sounded like this! From 7pm sharp through to midnight it’s an overblown overdose of nostalgia sweeter than a diabetics urine. New Orleans-born Lloyd Price, the dapper ‘Mr Personality’ cranks up the jukebox compilation of hits with “Stagger Lee”, from a cold start to gas-mark seven. A straight American no.2 in May 1959 his “Personality” ran into UK opposition from an opportunistic cover by unlikely Pop Star Anthony Newley, yet still scored a respectable no.9 (11th July 1959) a few chart places beneath Newley’s version. Around the time I should have been swotting for my 11+, I was listening to ‘Saturday Club’, BBC Light Programme’s premier Pop show, hoping that svelte DJ Brian Matthew would favour the Price original on his play-list. Tonight, it’d be worth the ticket-Price to see him alone.

The Hispanic-chic of Chris Montez takes it higher by hurling himself into the aisles and jiving with every hep chicklet he can grab. “Let’s Dance” is the kind of title that just can’t fail. David Bowie did one. Lady Gaga did another. Chris Montez did it first, and it’s a jumping gem of a 45rpm. A walloping rhythm like it’s being beaten out on an old packing case, and a squeaky-cheap organ sound that anticipates both Doug Sahm and ? & The Mysterians. The ‘oom-pah-pah’ patronage of high-flying Big Bopper netted Johnny Preston the first of three hits in 1960, for which he’s profusely grateful, but even the soft-core teen-corn of “Cradle Of Love” finds its audience tonight. Then the rather inappropriately-named ‘Little’ Eva, shimmering in lurex, gets the evening’s first ovation and does “Locomotion” twice, with the mob on its feet as if it’s their national anthem.

Bobby Vee was the pretty-boy of fragile pubescent dreams who benefitted from some of Goffin-and-King’s most lushly-upholstered love songs, with which he (allegedly) out-sold Elvis in 1961. But he started his career standing-in for Buddy Holly, went on to cut a credible Holly tribute LP with the Crickets (‘Bobby Vee Meets The Crickets’, Liberty 1962), and here maintains that connection with a storming and deservedly well-received “Someday”. Similarly Duane Eddy might have one of the era’s most instantly recognisable sounds, but his thick ribs of twang scarcely tax his not-inconsiderable guitar skills, so he insinuates a searing twelve-bar “3:30 Blues”, then serves up “Peter Gunn” via its 1986 Art Of Noise arrangement. Keyboardist Larry Knechtel’s shock-headed machine-gun explosions come at absurdly startling angles to the evening’s basking retro vibe.

Then Jerry Lee Lewis is jet-lagged, flu-wracked and fuming. Arriving at the airport just two short hours before setting foot on stage, and furious to find the ‘Georgia Peach’ billed higher than the ‘Killer’ in the press ads, he razors his set down to its bare bones. Fronting a simple four-piece group he condescends to none of Mr Penniman’s dry-ice, break-dancers, lighting effects, big band or theatrics. Strolling nonchalantly into the spots, his back to the audience as if he’s doing a sound-check, he strikes up a casual conversation with his guitarist. Then, in a powder-blue roll-neck that paunches just above his black strides, he slouches in behind a neat Yamaha electric piano, for a set biased towards his 1970’s Country come-back. And as raggedly great as “Middle-Aged Crazy”, “Rockin’ My Life Away” and “She Still Comes Around” are, it’s not really what the hep-cats have come to dig this night. Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” is a torchy heartbreak of cracked romance that smoulders like slow napalm, but a maudlin drag through Presley’s “Blue Christmas” is plain cranky. This is where the Bop that won’t stop almost does! He hauls back with a jumping “Sweet Little Sixteen”, slamming from one song into the next allowing no space for applause or comment. This is the Killer NOT speaking… apart from a brief nod at ChuckleBerry as ‘probably the best lyric writer in Rock ‘n’ Roll’ (only PROBABLY?). Then it’s “Great Balls Of Fire”/“Whole Lotta Skakin’ Goin’ On” compressed into one, words fused together in a thirty-year meltdown of repetition into a single long phonetic scramble. There’s a perfunctory kicking-away of the piano stool, and a derisory arse-on-keyboard moment – and he’s gone.

Storming on stage to find his piano unmiked Little Richard coyly adlibs ‘someone done stole mah pay-ano. Was it you-oo Jerry Lee?’ And he’s exquisite, milking every moment, soaking up adoration, Rocking like a man of fifty-nine has no right to. “Bony Moronie” is followed by “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”, then a spine-chilling “Send Me Some Lovin’”, and the shattering keyboard intro to “Good Golly Miss Molly”… after which he stops dead. ‘You like that, don’t you? You REALLY like that don’t you’ he coos, hanging on expectations, ‘then I’ll do it again’ – and he does! Awopbopaloobop! Alopbamboom! Bamalama Bamaloo! Nonsense rhymes. A hidden code. Over the following decades, Rock would produce more poetic lyricists. But Little Richard said everything that really needs to be said. The boy can’t help it. Of course, the sniffy hi-brow critics were correct. It was a de-sophistication. It was a reversion to more primitive forms. What they couldn’t understand, what we intuitively, inarticulately knew, was that this was ground zero, level one, of a new music that would dominate the second-half of the century, and our lives.

No-one could ever touch Little Richard. No-one could even come close. Elvis covered a spread of black and white R&B and early-Rockers, and in most every case tore them to shreds with wilder, rawer more primally uninhibited versions. But he fails when he does “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally”, he can’t match Little Richard’s originals. Paul McCartney based his Rocker-voice on Little Richard, but the Beatles “Long Tall Sally” can’t hold a match to Little Richard’s original.

To me, as a white adolescent with a bad acne problem and relationship issues, Little Richard reached out across the Atlantic, seized me by the balls, squeezed, and my life was never the same afterwards. I had the big heavy black-&-silver London-American label 78rpm disc of his “Baby Face” – with a brittle chunk bitten out of the outer grooves, so I could only drop the stylus into the saxophone mid-point break, and catch the last verse. But I played it obsessively over and over again. Hearing Little Richard was the closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience, he is the closest thing to God I ever got. Not only the Quasar of Rock, but the camp Particle Accelerator of Pomp too. If this night is show-stealing then it’s in the Brink’s-MAT grand larceny league in which he loots the concession stands and mugs the usherette on the way out too, just for good measure.

At the exit, Mr Penniman’s god-squad of immaculately-suited Born-Again’s distribute free ‘Find The Lord’ volumes with a signed photo of Little Richard tucked within as inducement. I bin the book in the subway at the earliest opportunity, but hang onto the photo. That’s all the spiritual uplift I need under THIS Moon of love.



Book Review of: 
(Doubleday June 2012, then 
Corgi paperback 2013 ISBN: 978-0-552-16408-5) 

It’s that Lennon-McCartney thing. In any collaboration there’s the tendency to tease out the who wrote what conundrum. Using your skill and judgement. On the face of it there can hardly be two more dissimilar writers operating within the admittedly flexible confines of the same genre as Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett, almost. Pratchett with his whimsical humour, amusing witty satires and sometimes tedious jokiness. Baxter with his eternity-spanning quantum speculations, taking SF out into newer realms of wonder just when the it’s getting a bit stylistically predictable. Where is the common ground there? It’s difficult to see. Which makes it all the more amazing that this collaborative novel hangs together so well. Almost seamlessly. More serious than Pratchett. More playful than Baxter. An intriguingly episodic centre-ground combining the essential uniqueness of each.

Pratchett’s undeveloped manuscript ‘The High Meggas’ was the ignition event from which the ideas grew. The concept of multiple Earth’s stretching away east and west to an infinity of probability-space is hardly new to SF. It’s been frequently used as a vehicle to explore alternate histories in which events turned out slightly differently. Worlds where the Nazis won World War II, the Spanish Armada succeeded in invading England, Christianity failed to replace the pagan gods ensuring the Roman Empire survives to the present day. That kind of thing. Even the 1995-1999 TV-series ‘Sliders’ sets a group-jeopardy of characters lost in a blur of multiple alternate Earths. The fact that the endless sequence of adjacent Earth’s in the Baxter-Pratchett continuum are uninhabited, forest-worlds populated only by a variety of fauna, ‘both unfamiliar and familiar’, including some geologically-extinct species, provides ‘The Long Earth’s essential point of difference.

To me it seems to be making a similar point to the one Baxter makes in an earlier brilliant sequence, in which a multitude of primal ‘Big Bang’s misfire until our eventual stable cosmos stumbles into existence. The point being that there’s nothing inevitable or predetermined about the viable universe happening. Its existence is due to a one-in-several-million random chances in relativistic flux. The same with ‘the Long Earths’. There’s nothing inevitable, no manifest destiny about the evolution of homo sapiens, their civilisation and culture. Rather, that such an outcome is a freak one-in-several-million outcome of infinite other possibilities. This seems more to be a Baxter theme than a Pratchett one. But, once established, it allows a weave of separate tales to ramble across the never-ending new frontiers featuring a variety of characters, some of whom appear briefly and are then left to their own devices, others who interlink and reconnect into each other at a later point. Allowing both writers space to stretch out and follow their whims across the shared territory of ‘Earths, untold Earths. More Earths than could be counted.’

The ‘stepper’ device that initially allows people to reach the other Earths, powered by a potato, as the prefacing diagram illustrates, seems very much to be a Terry Pratchett invention. Credited to a reclusive ‘hippie born of generations of hippies’, Willis Linsay anonymously posts his invention on the internet as a kind of contra-corporate hippie-gesture, so that ‘Step Day’ happens simultaneously beyond government or entrepreneurial control. The idea that the ability to ‘step’ from world to world is also innate, and all that is required is the correct thought-signature – a mental state that tuning the device induces, is maybe a Baxter development. A kind of Zen discipline in which the device functions as a variety of techno-mandala. Although it’s as deceptive to attribute all humour-content to one writer and all seriousness to the other as it is to assign all the Beatles’ grit to John Lennon and their fluff to Paul McCartney. Collaborations are more complex organisms than that. Haggling over input-percentage is a pointless exercise.

There’s a tradition in, especially American SF, of pioneers opening up new frontiers. Not for nothing is space the ‘final frontier’. Nuclear apocalypse has been used as a convenient device to return the world to a kind a renewed revitalised pre-Columbian wilderness. The Long Earths are very much part of this. Our familiar Earth becomes Datum-Earth (as it was Earth-prime for ‘Sliders’). And just as global population-levels tip over into an unsustainable nine-billion, limitless new step-wise Earths become accessible. Enabling a whole new ‘go west young man’ flood of colonists opening up new continents. Worlds that unfold for steppers ‘like a Ray Harryhausen show-reel’ (for this book is very postmodern-aware of the Sc-Fi tradition in which it operates).

There’s a leisurely meandering pace to the novel, untypical of Baxter, taking diversions around aspects of this newly-revealed ‘multiverse’, meeting characters who sometimes recur, others who appear as one-offs. Private Percy Blakeney, the First World War soldier who is shocked into the company of what he mistakenly believes to be hairy Russians, is a natural accidental stepper. While the main thrust clarifies around ‘antisocial weirdo’ Joshua Valient√®, brought up by Nuns, who has more conscious control of the same ability, and listens to its ‘silence’. He encounters Lobsang, who first appears as a Coca-Cola dispenser. He might be an AI or equally the downloaded soul of a Tibetan motorcycle-repairman mystic (his name recalling Lobsang Ludd of Pratchett’s 2001 novel ‘Thief Of Time’). Under the guise of the transEarth Institute, as a self-styled Jules Verne-ian ‘Robur The Conqueror’, he leads the unlikely pair in a phantasmagorical airship ‘The Mark Twain’, to step millions of Earths – counted off by an ‘Earthomenter’, in a bid to explore the farthest reaches of the Long Earth. Capable of downloading himself into ambulant units, Lobsang can also adopt the warm and amiable voice of David Kossoff, in a bid to humanise himself. Only to reappear as Indiana Jones to explore an extinct civilisation where ‘nothing had happened for a very long time, and went on not happening now’. Sally, daughter of the Stepper’s inventor joins the team, alongside an electro-cat called Shi-mi.

As they step they discover no other human worlds. But there are trolls, and elves who ride pig-mounts, who correspond to the Kromaggs of ‘Sliders’, humanoids on forked evolutionary paths. Some of them step worlds with ease, migrating across countless Earths to escape a terrible something encroaching across the gulf of worlds. But just as anticipations accelerate towards a climax-confrontation, there are new byways to distract the attention into new sub-themes. Speculations about, if every step-Earth has its own variant step-solar system, just possibly there’s an inhabited step-Mars out there? While governments extend their jurisdiction over their counterpart territories on adjacent Earths, to reap tax and material resources, as their claims become more tenuous and unenforceable the further they extend from Datum-Earth. But even the novel’s final resolution, meeting the mega-massive being called First Person Singular, is inconclusive. Without revealing any massive plot-secrets, there’s no real closure either. The open-ended inconclusive wanderings are obviously intended to travelogue on into the sequel – ‘The Long War’ (June 2013), and the series-novels beyond.

Terry Pratchett’s writing career had begun as a thirteen-year-old with a short story called “The Hades Business” in ‘The Technical Cygnet’, The High Wycombe Technical High School magazine. And there’s a clearly recognisable jokiness to this tale of Crucible who is recruited by Nicholas Lucifer as spin-doctor for his rebranded hell, installing Fun-Fair, Coffee Bar, Bowling Alley and a Jazz Band to make it a more attractive proposition. ‘Imagine the interior of a storm cloud’ he writes, ‘sprinkle liberally with ash and garnish with sulphur to taste.’ Pratchett’s ‘little satire’ was promptly reprinted in John Carnell’s ‘Science Fantasy no.60’ (August 1963), in the esteemed company of Mervyn Peake, Michael Moorcock and Thomas Burnett Swann. Carnell claiming this first as ‘one of those little touches an editor seldom gets the opportunity of doing’, adding that the precociously-talented schoolboy ‘shows great promise for the future.’ There was a second short fiction tale – “Night Dweller” in ‘New Worlds no.156’ (November 1965) which, according to editor Michael Moorcock ‘describes outer space in a new a somewhat poetic light.’ Very different, an impressionistic mood-piece about a dark ‘something that howled at the stars’, it indicates that the now-sixteen-year-old Pratchett had other gears, and possible other directions to follow. Instead, he advanced swiftly into establishing his own genre-defying ‘Discworld’ mythos, establishing a dedicated cult of followers.

While Baxter has other star-collaborations on his cv. ‘The Light Of Other Days’ (2000) is cover-credited to Baxter with Arthur C Clarke, but also carries a dedication to Bob Shaw, from whom the title is derived, as well as its concept of ‘slow glass’. The novel carries the same kind of wistful requiem for the discontinued Space Race as in ‘The Long Earth’ which laments how ‘we could have been out there, applying to join the galactic federation, not slashing and burning our way across endless copies of the same old planet.’ There’s also humour, but whether this comes from the plotline sketched out by Arthur C Clarke, or the solid textual fleshing-out of that plot by Baxter is uncertain. Britain exits the European Union, separates from Scotland, then ‘in 2019 England, with Wales, ceded Northern Ireland to Eire, packed the Royals off to Australia – where they were still welcome, and had become the fifty-second state of the United States of America.’ There are also holographic Beatles in a kind of overplayed retro-sixties nostalgia. Maybe this is the kind of teasingly provocative playfulness that might appeal to a Terry Pratchett readership?

At the novel’s focus there’s an investigative journalist called Kate Manzoni, and tele-evangelist Billybob Meeks taking advantage of an interactive virtual-reality heaven. There’s an extinction planet-sized Wormwood on collision course with Earth (Wormwood is a literal translation of the Russian Chernobyl), as global warming disrupts weather patterns. But it’s the OurWorld media corporation of Hiram Patterson (aka Hirdamani Patel) who sets up wormhole-technology as datapipe terminals. First their WormCam scanners abolish privacy in ways that Wikileaks could never envisage, then they extend out to glimpse the worlds of near star systems, and ultimately peek around the corners of time. History is revealed as a directionless patchwork of chance, opportunism, fabrication, confabulation and lie. ‘The human memory is not a passive recorder but a tool in the construction of the self, so history has never been a simple record of the past, but a means of shaping peoples.’

There’s a ‘depressing truth’ surrounding Elvis Presley, a revelation concerning Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality, Davy Crockett was a ‘self-manufactured myth’, and Betsy Ross did not design the Stars & Stripes flag. There were no Area 51 UFO’s. And despite stripping away the supernatural add-ons, Chapter 21 – ‘Behold The Man’, is kinder to the Jesus-myth than the 1969 Michael Moorcock novel (or the 1966 ‘New Worlds’ novella) from which it takes its name. The world adapts to constant surveillance either by using SmartShroud invisibility cloaks, or linking into an ‘internet of minds’. Those using worm-vision to reach the stars, as far as the Trifid Nebulae, or back down the DNA-trail to the very dawn of microbial life on Earth – and the bizarre revealed civilisation that preceded it, are named Stapledons, in a further SF reference to visionary writer Olaf Stapledon. It’s a sprawling, sometimes unsatisfying novel, alive with gimmicky techno-ideas that might belong to Clarke, and the long-range breadth of spectacle typical of both writers.

It’s not Baxter’s only collaboration with the SF master. In fact there’s a trilogy of novels dealing with the temporal ‘discontinuity’ – ‘Time’s Eye’ (2003), ‘Sunstorm’ (2005), and ‘Firstborn’ (2008) in which alien meddling has transfigured Earth into a patchwork of colliding history, with Alexander the Great facing off the Mongol hordes of Ghenghis Khan, and Rudyard Kipling on the NW Frontier startled by encounters with a primitive humanoid and 21st-century helicopter-gunships. Intended as a counterpart to the ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ project, this is very much ‘Time’s Odyssey’.

Meanwhile the Terry Pratchett joint project continues with ‘The Long War’ (2013), which is set a tumultuous decade after its progenitor. Joshua and Lobsang are now caught up in new crises as fleets of world-stepping airships travel the Long Earths, the trolls become restless with their human interactions, and a new America – renamed ‘Valhalla’ is emerging to challenge the hegemony of datum-Earth. While the authorship is still as debatable. It’s that Lennon-McCartney thing.