June 24, 2014
“Here’s to the girls on the highway who hit the gas pedal much harder than they should. The girls with cackles for laughs who rev up their engines, and smile like tornados.They don’t walk, they don’t even run. They crash into everything that comes into contact with their wildfire souls. Approach them with caution, love them, or hate them, but you should know one thing, you will never be able to extinguish them.”
June 24, 2014
Robert A. Heinlein, Vol. 1: Learning Curve 1907-1948
William H. Patterson Jr
According to Michael Moorcock (“The Opium General”) “Golden Age SF (was) written by the likes of Heinlein, Asimov and A.E. Van Vogt wild-eyed paternalists to a man, fierce anti-socialists, whose work reflected the deep-seated conservatism of the majority of their readers, who saw a Bolshevik menace in every union meeting. They believed, in common with authoritarians everywhere, that radicals wanted to take over old-fashioned political power, turn the world into a uniform mass of ‘workers’ with themselves (the radicals) as commissars.”
I must confess that as a young man I read and enjoyed Heinlein’s fiction. But what the hell, eh? Those halcyon days of youthful innocence (ignorance?). Sure, Starship Troopers set some alarm bells ringing when it was published – here was our young cadet hero learning that duty is obedience, that wars will happen come what may, that the military always knows best. And kill the alien before he sticks it to you!
Yeah, even back then, its easy going militarism was reminiscent of Hitler’s Wehrmacht on a day trip to Paris – the whole presented in a most seductively attractive but simplistic way.
But still I read on, you know? After all a man capable of writing, “Never underestimate the power of human stupidity”, couldn’t be all bad in my book!
Mr Moorcock, though, offered the following advice for approaching Heinlein:
“Next time you pick up a Heinlein book think of the author as looking a bit like General Eisenhower or, if that image isn’t immediate enough, some chap in early middleage, good-looking in a slightly soft way, with silver at the temples, a blue tie, a sober three-pieced suit, telling you with a quiet smile that Margaret Thatcher cares for individualism and opportunity above all things, as passionately in her way as you do in yours. And then you might have some idea of what you’re actually about to read.”
Oh, dear. This view from a young, energetic anarchist of one of his contemporary SF greats, is disturbing. But is it altogether fair?
I mean I could sit here and poke holes in the man’s work, could explain how the symbolism of Ludmilla Davis’ demise (Moon is a harsh Mistress), slain during the Revolution and her remains used to fertilize the family’s flower garden, is as subtle as a smack in the mouth with a pix-axe handle. The absurd, annoying speech patterns; the made up words, for Grok-Sake. But that doesn’t mean Heinlein didn’t accomplish much that’s worth recalling.
Tunnel in the sky, for example, one of Heinlein’s “juvenilia” and one of the first of his works I read. The fantasy Glory Road which I first read as a serial in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction – Sam R Delany called it “endlessly fascinating…” And but for Simak’s “Way Station” it would have won the Hugo for best Novel that year!
Not, you understand, I’m claiming this to be great literature. No. What I’m saying is this fifty year old pulp adventure is pure escapism – it’s FUN, boys and girls.
Same too with The Puppet Masters. Parasite aliens taking over our bodies. Yeah, go for it! So are the aliens symbols for the REDS waiting to take over society? Who the hell can say – and frankly, who gives a damn?
In fact the list of Heinlein works I’ve read and enjoyed are too numerous to mention just now.
Anyhow, the reason for this post is my recent acquisition of The late William H. Patterson Jr’s two volume biography:
Robert A. Heinlein, Vol. 1: Learning Curve 1907-1948
Robert A. Heinlein, Volume 2: In Dialogue with His Century: 1948-1988: The Man Who Learned Better
I’ve only read Volume One, so can’t comment on Volume Two (but no doubt I will later). That said, any attempt to recount Heinlein’s life is going to be of interest. Mr. Patterson had access to Heinlein’s files at the University of California and the cooperation of Heinlein’s widow, Virginia and the members of the writer’s extended family. He had more information to work with than any previous biographer.
Here we are able to observe how certain themes and ideas in his writing were formed and developed in boyhood. Strange to recall that the young Robert rode in a buggy round the Missouri countryside with his grandfather – then went on to become one of the strongest advocates of spaceflight ever! Fritz Lange of Metropolis fame convinced Heinlein to write his “juvenilia”. However there is a hagiographical tone at times to this work, and the reader can’t help but feel things are being left out…
So for anyone interested in Heinlein, the man, I’d give Volume One a big thumbs-up. For Volume Two there’s a good review HERE.
June 23, 2014
THERE ARE pale pink rose petals on the coffin.
She would have preferred red. Those were always her favourite, and she didn’t care that they were a cliché. Not that it matters, I suppose, and maybe red roses wouldn’t be considered appropriate, but I can’t get rid of this picture of her, watching us, and thinking that the least we could have done was to pick the right colour.
It’s better to think that, to see that, than to see her the way she is, now.
The coffin is closed, of course, and I’m trying not to think of her trapped in a box. No need to worry that she might wake up, to hope that this is all a mistake.
She was screaming in my dreams last night, begging me to help her, and I couldn’t find her, just followed her screaming that seemed to get further and further away. Ben tells me these will fade eventually, but he thinks I’m dreaming of what happened. I haven’t told him different.
She was screaming for me then, as well, and they wouldn’t let me in, not till much later. Then I held her hand and tried to pretend I wasn’t crying when her voice faded and her hand slipped from mine.
Her parents have decided to have her cremated. I think it’s sick, after what happened to her… after how she… I tried to tell them not to do it, and, later, not to take her back. They listened, very gently, but said it was their decision, and they wanted her home.
I wanted to tell them that she was home, that it should have been my decision, that it was too late now to pretend we weren’t… that I was just a flat-mate, a friend. I couldn’t say it, though. I don’t seem able to fight any more, without her. It doesn’t seem worth it.
Everyone from the clinic is here – Mina, looking stricken with guilt, Dr Alex and Dr Kim, all the nurses – bad luck on anyone who wanted to see someone today. They flew over together from Stansted, which isn’t an easy connection to Bern, actually, and asked me to fly with them, but I couldn’t stand to be with them so long. I know it’s a terrible thing to think, but I feel like it’s their fault. If someone else had offered to cover that shift, she wouldn’t have been there, and – and I don’t wish any of them dead, I don’t, but she was my angel, and she’s gone, and I just can’t…
Ben tells me that that’s the best way to get through those moments when I want to fall to the floor screaming, or break into a million
There are pink rose petals on the coffin.
It surprises me how much of the service I can understand. Not enough to really know what they’re saying, but a lot of words. I must have absorbed more of the language than I thought, though it’s pitiful after four years. There’s no-one to translate, either, and they don’t put the hymn numbers up like they did when I went to church, a few times, years ago. It’s funny the things you’ll do when you want to be normal.
Funny, in the sense of making you feel like crying.
Which isn’t really all that funny.
The men – her father, her big brother, her uncle, I think, and three who look the right age to be old school friends – lift the coffin, and her mother starts sobbing in earnest.
My hands twitch where they’re wrung together in my lap. I want to reach out to her, to touch and comfort her one last time before she goes beyond my reach. It hurts too much to even cry, and I just want to be able to hold her hand one more time.
Some of the rose petals slide from the coffin as they lift it, and more as they start the slow walk out of the church. Her brother’s crying by the time they pass me, and he looks like he might drop the coffin. I wish I could get up and take his place, be near her, but I can’t move – couldn’t move, even if they’d let me hold it, which they wouldn’t.
In a taxi, speeding towards the airport and away from the wake I couldn’t bear to go to, I find rose petals in my pocket.
The sun’s setting as the plane takes off. Seen through tears, it’s a surreal watercolour.
Ben says I’m crazy and I’ll regret it.
Sarah says, since I’m losing a month’s rent anyway, I should take the month and think about it properly.
Helen, who’s been putting me up in her spare bedroom for three weeks and bringing me changes of clothes, just asks if I need help packing.
I tell them, no I won’t, no I don’t need to, and no, but thank you, in that order, and catch a bus to the flat where we lived for two years, where I went to bed every night and held onto her, cooked and cleaned and studied, and filled out application forms and complained about work and proofread her thesis; lied to her parents and screamed at mine, and danced round the kitchen and put her to bed when she was drunk, and kissed her good-bye when she went to cover Mina’s shift and listened to the radio news and stopped breathing.
The flat where we were us, and were going to be us forever.
It looks as though someone ought to be living here, but it doesn’t feel like that. More like a film set, after hours, waiting for people to come in and bring it to life.
It won’t be us any more.
I don’t even know where to start. Her parents want me to box up her things and send them back. They won’t come out here and do it themselves, and her mother was crying when she asked, and I couldn’t say no. They said I could keep whatever I wanted, but not to throw anything away.
There are two sets of boxes – blue plastic crates for the shipping company, and cardboard boxes from Helen and the supermarket at the end of the street.
I’m trying to look at things the way her parents will. I’m censoring, trying to give them back their daughter, or the daughter they think they have – had. Except… except that, to me, everything is her, everything makes me think of my girl, the way she was.
I imagine them looking at jewellery and wondering who’d given it to her, when she hadn’t mentioned a boyfriend in years. Asking where she would have worn some of those clothes, when she said she studied too much and didn’t have time to go out and meet someone. Why she’d have those books, or those pictures, and who the people in some of these photos were, what the club in the background of this one was like.
For a wild moment, all of it goes into a crate, because if they want their daughter’s things, they should get the genuine one, and not some picture that hasn’t been real for years.
She used to cry when she talked to them on the phone. She’d smile this brilliant smile, and speak in this high, happy tone, and tears would stream down her face. I used to make her tea and hold her hand and ask if it would really be that bad to tell them – ignoring the way my parents would yell, still yell.
She’d give me the same brilliant smile and say yes.
The jewellery and clothes and books and pictures and photos go into a cardboard box. They can go with me. I’ll keep the girl she really was.
Before I leave – Ben, for all his disapproval, is going to pick up the boxes tomorrow in his van and drive them to my new flat – I check the crates one last time. There’s twenty-three years of someone’s life in them, someone I lived with for two years, and loved for four, and I don’t recognise the girl I’m looking at. Even the photos seem different. That girl smiling out at me would never kiss me, never leave her boyfriend for me, never lie to her parents.
I’ve censored so well that I’ve censored her out of existence. Nothing in those crates is her, and that’s what I’m giving her parents.
What if I’ve changed everything? Not just the stuff going to them, but the things that are hers that are going into the attic at the new flat, and the things that are hers, mine, or ours that are coming with me because they’re so much a part of my life that I don’t even know what life would be like without them.
Maybe it never happened.
Maybe there is no girl who lied to her parents. Maybe the daughter they thought they had really is the daughter they had, and the girl I thought I was with never existed, and really was only my flat-mate. And the things I think her clothes and jewellery and books are saying aren’t really there at all and I’m deluding myself.
Suddenly, there are photographs everywhere, and my hands are shaking while I rip the box lids open. I only just looked at these, but I can’t remember what they show, and I have to know, have to check.
I never realised we had so many photos, rolls from holidays, nights out, family occasions and graduations, for both of us, the day we moved into the flat and – stop.
More photos slither across the hall floor as I fumble for the one I dropped too hastily, and is now the one I want. Sarah took it, the day we moved in, and we’ve got our arms round each other and we’re just about to kiss.
I don’t know how long I sit staring at that photograph, staring at her, her face, her eyes. I’m not imagining, though. I didn’t imagine it. She’s looking at me the way I remember, with the look that says she’d leave anyone, lie to anyone, give anything, for us to be together.
I used to look at her like that, too. I did. That night when I kissed her goodbye and watched her walk away.
The photos go back in the box. That one – into my pocket.
The new flat isn’t like the old one. It’s on the fifth floor, and it looks out over the nice part of the city, with a view of the Cathedral ruins, if you squint. There are a few clubs, and restaurants, and it will be noisy at night. She would have hated it, would have complained constantly about the noise and the people, and the cigarette butts in the mornings. Did complain, when I still had my old flat, and she insisted we move somewhere quieter.
The flat has one bedroom with a single bed, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a tiny living room with a table and four chairs. The walls are cream, and the curtains have pink flowers on them. Not all of the windows open, and the bathroom suite is a funny shade of green. It’s expensive because it’s furnished, but none of the furniture is ours and none of it makes me think of anything more than going out and buying some throw covers.
Most of the boxes Ben left in the middle of the living room are still there. The place looks even more empty than our flat did, packed up. All my life is in these boxes, and most of hers, as well. Unpacked, the objects will turn this place into a home, my home for the next… For I don’t know how long. I can’t imagine ever wanting anyone else here, or wanting to be with someone enough to leave.
It’s bare and empty, even with the furniture, a limbo land, between life with her and life without. Sarah brought me flowers a few days ago. She said it looked like I was squatting, not like I was living here at all. She offered to find me a vase amongst all the boxes, but I told her no.
The flowers sat on the work surface until they died.
There are some things here – the kettle, a mug and a teaspoon. Toothpaste and shampoo in the bathroom. A blanket and a pillow on the bed, and a few clothes in some of the drawers. That picture of us the day we moved into the flat blue-tacked to the bedroom wall, above my bed. I look at it every morning, every evening, before I leave, when I get back, while the kettle’s boiling, when I wake up in the middle of the night and hear a voice calling to me in words that I can’t understand.
That photo is the only thing that’s her, the only thing that proves it’s real and I didn’t imagine it. In this strange new world I live in, of clubs and restaurants and trendy young people who must be my age but seem light years younger, this world where no-one asks any more how I’m getting on, no-one mentions her, it’s so hard to remember that that life did exist, that she did exist.
I rang Helen at two thirty-seven this morning and asked her over and over: Had we really been together? Not her and me, but me and my beautiful girl. Had it really happened, or had I dreamt it?
She said it had, and she wouldn’t lie, not about that.
I should start unpacking today, really. It’s been two weeks, three weeks… or maybe it’s been four – weeks, months, I’m not sure any longer. But there are two pay slips next to the phone – which I still haven’t had connected – so it must be two months.
I should start unpacking. Some more cutlery, maybe some pans, and then I can cook. Ben says I’m getting too thin. He asked me when I’d last had a meal and I couldn’t tell him. I do know, but he didn’t want to hear that it’s been three days.
I don’t want to cook, and I don’t belong in any of these trendy restaurants. I don’t even want to listen to my friends be sympathetic, and ask me how I’m feeling, can they help, would I like to come out with them this weekend.
It’s all so overwhelming. It’s like stepping into a strange new world where nothing is like it was and I don’t know what it will be like. She’s probably sitting on her cloud, head in her hands, hair falling over her face, groaning at me. She’d think I was crazy.
I’m so scared.
I’ve denied her, us, to her parents for so long that I’m frightened of what will happen if I build a new life where she isn’t. What will happen if I live in this flat, even with our things in it, where she has never lived, never set foot, and start to meet people who never knew her and never will.
What if I wake up one morning and find out we’ve denied it so long that we’ve denied our entire relationship out of existence?
I’ll start unpacking tomorrow. I will, really.
And I’ll buy red roses for the kitchen window-sill.
June 23, 2014
Remember that day? It was the end of the season but still baking hot and we went to Paestum? I had been there many times before, but it was your first visit. I showed-off my knowledge of Paestum’s history –
“Founded at the end of the 7th Century BC by Greeks who named their city Poseidonia. Strabo, the Greek geographer, tells us that at the end of the fifth century the Lucani conquered the city. There is some evidence that the twin cultures, Lucani and Greek thrived together until the refounding of the city as Paestum by the Romans in 273 BC…”
I knew it all.
You made fun of me, teased me mercilessly.
During the summer tourist buses come and go bringing large numbers of people to admire the ruined temples.
The standing remains of the three Doric temples date from the 6th Century BC and were dedicated to Hera and to Athena and are very impressive still. That day we had the site to ourselves…There were no tourist buses, no guides with their multi-coloured pennants.
“Let’s make love,” you said. Do you remember? I’m sure you must.
I said, “What here? S’posing someone comes?” I knew you had this thing about making love in the open air, that you found it a big turn-on. I remembered the beach at Rimini.
“The season’s finished,” you said. “The tourists have all gone. No one’s going to come today – except us!”
Your laughter seemed gently mocking.
So you laid on your back with your knees drawn up, and your thighs wide open like the covers of an open book. And in the baking stillness we came together.
“We should come back,” you said. “Do this again. It’s really special.”
“When?” I asked. “When will we come back?”
“Annually,” you said. Then, “No, perhaps, every five years. The two of us. This same time of year, at the end of the season. For the rest of our lives, no matter what. Even if we’re with other people, married to them or what-have-you. We should come back here and make love.”
“Okay,” I agreed.
“Good, it’s a date then. Five years from today at…” You glanced at your watch. “Three in the afternoon. Don’t you dare be late…”
Such stupid things we do. Time passing and I kept my promise to you. I returned to Paestum, drove there from Salerno, five years later. This time the day was overcast, with occasional showers of rain. Certainly the temple site was deserted. I waited for you for almost two hours, standing in the rain. You didn’t come to me…
Perhaps you’d forgotten our promise?
Eventually I returned alone to the hotel. The following day I drove to Sant’Agnello and visited the cemetery where Francis Marion Crawford is buried. While I was there I left flowers on your grave, and explained how desperately alone I felt.
I remember clearly the sudden crack of thunder out at sea. And then more rain.
I said I didn’t think I’d make the trip to Paestum again. There seemed little point. You’d stood me up…
The following day I drove in the rain to Florence and passed that place on the road, the site of your accident. The was no sign of anything amiss now. I left flowers at the roadside beside a white maker. And then the next day, Tuesday I returned to London.
In loving memory of Carnella Alexander.
June 22, 2014
It was February
I live in a cold climate.
Because his body is warmer than mine
I cling to him night after night.
Before he fell asleep,
He’d turn his back to me.
He loved to sleep with the window open.
I’d lie there for hours,
feeling the heat of his back
radiating against me.
Just when I thought
I’d be better off alone,
he’d wake and hold me.
I couldn’t help myself.
It is such a cold world.
I met a man at a party
who talked of loneliness
and I knew he was lying;
he was just like me.
When he said he loved me,
over and over, night after night,
I almost married him.
June 22, 2014
June 22, 2014
There was talk of the palazzo being haunted. My first glimpse of its somber façade, looming unexpectedly out of the early morning mist, made me feel…well, feel uneasy: as if by crossing its threshold I would enter a different world; a past time of sinister secrets and phantoms.
But then Venice in December, a quietly decaying city of dreams, where people swirled ghost-like in the mist and a solitary vaporetto drifted by on green water, its churning engine strangely muffled, seemed to me to be inhabited by specters….
In a nearby shop window I saw these beautiful puppets: cats dressed in seventeenth century finery, silks and lace, lemon-yellows and voluptuous-reds; they were gripping lutes or pan pipes in their curved paws.
Either side of the palazzo narrow lanes or alleyways led off to curling gray obscurity. Ochre buildings were reflected on the surface of the canal, their peeling sixteenth century facades looking mirage-like in the stillness of the water. The palazzo itself stood tall, humourless, moody; a thing of extravagance from another, half-forgotten age; its front doors huge, the wood carved with wild, twisting arabesques and fabulous beasts, the raised head of a medusa glaring out from the central panel, a warning against disturbing the sleeping ghosts within.
So I approached in some trepidation. Was my coming here a mistake? The place looked decrepit and melancholy with time. Was it a suitable place to work? Would I find peace here…Or would specters resent my intrusion? Would they disturb me, make work impossible?
I remember well tugging on the worn brass bell pull, and somewhere inside a bell jingling wildly. I understood from my correspondence with Signor Valentino Rossi, the palazzo’s owner, that the man’s housekeeper and her husband would be on hand for my arrival (Signor Rossi lived full-time in Milan). At the railway station I’d arranged for my luggage to be sent on later that morning. I had rented palazzo D’Arco for the month.
I remember listening to the slow approach of footsteps, heels shuffling on marble floors beyond the door.
‘Signora Nocerino?’ I said as the door opened, and this elderly woman looked out at me. Her face was wrinkled and nut-brown from years of sun, her hair long, grey, falling well below her shoulders. Her dark, cautious eyes regarded me carefully. ‘I’m Signor Peedeel. You are expecting me…’
‘Yes,’ she replied.
And so was it I came to reside in that place of ghosts…
June 20, 2014
The Stealer of Souls
What better hero could we ask for? A psychopathic, albino sorcerer, totally dependent on a hell-blade, Stormbringer, for his strength and vitality! Oh, yes. And that damned sword is the stealer of souls – semi-sentient, it consumes the living souls of its victims! Feeds Elric, the albino, with the vitality of its sorry victims.
So, a correction. It’s the black-bladed sword that’s the psychopath – not poor, ill-used Elric. The five stories within this book:
The Dreaming City
While the Gods Laugh
The Stealer of Souls
Kings in Darkness
The Flame Bringers
I Read these when originally published – stories owing a huge debt to Robert E Howard. And again we have civilizations in decline, decaying cities – Clark Ashton Smith eat your heart out…But, oh, too late, Stormbringer probably got there first!
The tone of these stories is tragic. Elric in attempting to rescue his lover, Princess Cymoril, not only fails to achieve his heart’s desire, but ultimately brings down his own, 10,000 year old Empire!
Oh, well…having muffed it big time what’s left? A question I’m sure we all must ask. And Moorcock’s Elric provides the answer – he embarks on a variety of quests with his pal, Moonglum. One only hopes he has more luck with him than with his Princess!?
Ummmm. That seems a tad homoerotic to me? I must take care where my keyboard takes me – it’s a bit like Elric’s Stormbringer! Has a life of its own…
So, are these stories little more than fuel for the Testosterone-driven daydreams of adolescent boys?
Yes, yes, of course they are that. But they also give us a glimpse of civilization in decline – a pawn in the control of vast, incomprehensible powers, Elric demonstrates that civilization is unnatural, that it must of necessity fall, and chaos rule in its stead.
Elric, poor cynical Elric, demonstrates all you need to survive is a sharp sword and a straight path to your enemies.
Ah, what pleasure I derived from these tales in my youth – cliché-ridden adventures, wherein we are confronted by dusky, naked maidens, sorcerers with blood-red eyes, and pale-skinned Elric ready to take on all comers…
Moorcock claimed that he created Elric as a deliberate reversal of Sword & Sorcery clichés, and that his weak, half-blind albino was the antithesis of REH’s Conan. Most of Moorcock’s S&S fiction contains elements of parody and satire of the genre as a whole (and long may it be so, for one should never take these things too seriously). However on a recent rereading of his tale “The fortress of Pearl” I was struck by the fact that the death toll ran into many hundreds of people by the tales close (I suspect parody or perhaps satire, rather than blood-lust?).
And truth to tell, Mr Moorcock at times was “a lazy stylist” in his early S&S works, which he banged out at a rate of knots for ready spending money to keep “New Worlds” from folding. Ah, yes, those were the days.
Yet, despite that, these tales are worth reading. The sword here is mightier than the pen. Yes, pure escapism – so what? We can walk with Elric, with the gods of chaos…gods of ecstasy and berserker furies who control his (and our) destiny.
Read these stories, boy and girls, and enjoy them for what they are.