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Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Mighty One: My Life Inside the Nerve Centre

Reviewing Steve MacManus's autobiography has been a slightly bizarre experience as I'm of an age that means I was there. Not in the editorial offices of IPC where he worked on Valiant, Battle Picture Weekly, 2000AD and Crisis, but at the other end of the food chain... the reader and consumer of these wonderful papers that filled my childhood.

In the autumn of 1973, when Steve joined the editorial staff of Valiant, I was eleven and had been reading the paper for four years, and whilst I only dipped into Battle Picture Weekly when it first came out, I was an avid reader of Action, which drew me back into comics when I was thirteen—I'd given them up, briefly, in favour of Speed & Power, which I picked up mostly for the reprinted SF stories of Arthur C. Clarke. I would have recognised Steve as "Action Man" had he come to the Essex village I grew up in. He then morphed into "Tharg the Mighty" via Star Lord—science fiction comics published during my teenage years when I read nothing but SF.

So my comics' reading paralleled Steve's editorial career for the two decades covered in his book and that has doubled the fun I've had reading it, reliving, for instance, the joy of picking up the first issue of Action while Steve describes how the paper was put together.

It's the kind of book that will have you digging through your collection to relive old stories that you may not have read for years. Sam Slade, Ro-Busters, Strontium Dog, The A.B.C. Warriors... fantastic strips that were the core of 2000AD's success during Steve's early tenure on the paper. You'll want to haul out of storage the issues that come under discussion: for instance, Steve's yarn about how Kev O'Neil Ro-Busters artwork had to be changed by managerial dictat relates to the episode in Prog 112; and his description of a hallucinogenic Bolland cover, which could easily have led to more managerial trouble, was for Prog 172.

As well as charting the rise of 2000AD to its peak, Steve also covers some of the low points and behind-the-scenes problems faced by the paper, from internal battles with management and unions to discovering (as happened in 1981) that the comic had been reported to the Press Council by Portsmouth Association of Community Standards due to a sequence in a Strontium Dog story ('The Bad Boys Bust, Progs 194-197). Breaking away from 2000AD and launching Crisis led to its own problems when trying to persuade the publisher that an adult comic was worth investing in... immediately followed by the pulling of Skin, just the kind of challenging strip that the paper should have been championing, and the demise of the whole adult line of Crisis, Revolver and Xpresso.

The book ends, bar a brief postscript chapter, in 1992, around the same time as licensed comics became more dominant in the British market. Hopefully a story for a sequel (which will bring the life and times of MacManus up-to-date... at least as far as last Wednesday's contribution to Bear Alley).

Joyful, fast-paced, chock-full of anecdotes and sidelines into how comics were put together in the days of cow gum and copy-editing double-spaced typescripts, The Mighty One is a mighty good book.

The Mighty One: My Life Inside The Nerve Centre by Steve MacManus. 2000 AD 978-1781-08475-5, 7 September 2016, 298pp, £9.99. Cover photo by Kevin Bezant. Order directly from Rebellion (hardcover (signed ltd. edition) / softcover) or via Amazon (softcover).

Friday, August 26, 2016

Comic Cuts - 26 August 2016

We finally put Hotel Business to bed  on Tuesday, just under the wire with some last minute changes landing on my desk at 4 o'clock when we were due out of the door that morning to allow our studio time to run high resolution files of the finished pages. While I was finished by 5:30, some poor bugger was probably still there through part of the evening transferring the files over to the printer.

While waiting for corrections to proofs, I started reading The Mighty One, Steve MacManus's story of his years in charge of the 2000AD Nerve Centre, which I've now finished; you can read my review of the book tomorrow. Talking of books, I managed to negotiate a little deal to get my Iron Mask book stocked in the local bookshop, with an initial order of half a dozen copies. Clearly we're not talking big numbers here, but every penny helps. That's enough profit to buy me and Mel fish, chips and a battered jumbo sausage down the local chippie. Talk about the high life!

Main source of entertainment this week was a trip out to the Mercury Theatre to see Josh Widdicombe, who escaped a life in comics to become a comedian. The Last Leg star used to be a sub-editor on Dora the Explorer, writing stories, poems and puzzles for this and other GE Fabbri nursery titles Angelina Ballerina and Mr Bean's Amazing A to Z. He talked about it briefly on an episode of The Graham Norton Show back in April 2015, sitting alongside Mark Ruffalo, Elizbabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner...



He's the second of the three Last Leg presenters we've seen live (following Adam Hills way back in 2007). He's picking up his latest tour from last year, warming up for the recording of his next DVD, and easily packed out the Mercury.

A very nice bonus was to have Matthew Crosbie as his support—we're fans of Pappy's and have been hopeful that the trio would make it to Colchester at some point. A couple of years ago, the Wivenhoe Funny Farm announced Crosbie would be appearing... but I think they must have forgotten to tell him, or indeed book him. So to have him bound onto the stage unexpectedly at the Mercury was fantastic. The day before he'd been on our tele, now here he was live.

Anyway, it was a fine evening all round. I tend to forget that we've been following Josh Widdicombe since Stand Up for the Week... only four years ago, but it feels like he's been around a lot longer,  appearing on Live at the Apollo and every panel show going from Mock the Week to QI; I was even a listener to his XFM show (which introduced us to James Acaster and Nish Kumar).  We seem to have had a Widdicombe Week, thanks to his appearances on (repeats of) Mock the Week and Taskmaster.

Random scans today are a handful of books by Evan Hunter. I'm working on a cover gallery for Hunter (a.k.a. Ed McBain), but it may take some time to put together, so I thought I'd use these here... in other words, I haven't had time to clean up any other covers. That's life.

 
 
 
Next week: everything you ever wanted to know about W. Keppel Honnywill, plus some stuff you didn't know you wanted to know about him.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Rebellion buy out Egmont's comics archive

The BBC has a major bit of news for British comics. Rebellion have bought out all the old titles owned by Egmont, including Roy of the Rovers, Battle Picture Weekly, Action, humour comics from Whizzer & Chips to Whoopee!, and girls titles Tammy, Jinty, Misty, Sally, etc.

Rebellion have recently published Monster, reprinting the strips from Scream! and Eagle, and are soon to publish a collection of stories from Misty. They already have a huge back catalogue of collections based on strips from the pages of 2000AD and Judge Dredd Megazine and one hopes that they'll make good use of their newly acquired archive.

According to Rebellion's head of book and comics publishing Ben Smith, "I am delighted we have the opportunity to return these to print and develop new stories based on iconic characters."

I'm sure we'll hear more over the coming days and weeks, but I have to admit that this is exciting news!

Striker video preview

Social media - Facebook, Twitter - and especially YouTube seem to be the way to go when you want to advertise your comics these days. And good luck to 'em... it's good to see British comic strips still thriving, even if it takes the backing of a national newspaper. I'm not a huge fan of football strips, but you have to admire Peter Nash's persistence and faith in his Striker comic strip, which has  been running in one form or another (newspaper strip, comic, online) since 1985.

Striker

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Commando issues 4943-4946

Commando issues on sale 25 August 2016.

Commando No 4943 – Ice-Cold Combat
When their Handley Page Hampden bomber was shot down, Pilot Officer Drew Grange and Sergeant Adam Weir were stranded on the icy border between Norway and Russia.
   Helped by a couple of civilian hunters, the R.A.F. men were soon embroiled in a fight for survival. Finding an unarmed, abandoned Tiger Moth skiplane, they took to the skies above the remote, frozen frontier in a desperate attempt to get warn their allies of an imminent Nazi threat.

Story: George Low
Art: Manuel Benet
Cover: Manuel Benet

Commando No 4944 – Ghost Squadron
Flak, machine-guns, searchlights, enemy fighters — these the Nazi pilots knew and could handle. These things were dangerous, all right — but they didn’t turn a man’s blood to ice water in his veins, they didn’t paralyse his hands on the controls in utter, freezing terror…
   But the new weapon used by the R.A.F. night-fighters — The “Ghost Squadron” — put the fear of death into every Nazi pilot unlucky enough to come within its range.

Introduction
In this book there are several worthy ingredients which make for a satisfying Commando yarn: We have a glory-hunting pilot — Flight Lieutenant Buck Lee, determined to notch up as many kills as possible in his Mosquito bomber; the story title hints at supernatural activity; and we soon discover that some kind of shadowy, top secret, experimental weapon is also involved.
   This is a great adventure, with Boutland’s script brought vividly to life by Quesada’s art and Buccheri’s eerie cover.—Scott Montgomery, Deputy Editor

Story: Boutland
Art: Quesada
Cover: Buccheri
Ghost Squadron, originally Commando No 247 (February 1967), re-issued as No 895 (December 1974)

Commando No 4945 – Undefeated
Troubled by a past encounter early in his career, Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Alec Weston soon became a respected, if intense, skipper. He was determined that his submarine, H.M.S. Undefeated, would live up to her name — therefore he pushed his crew and the vessel hard.
   When ferrying a Special Boat Section assault team on a secret mission in the Mediterranean, Alec was faced with a tough decision that affected the lives of that Special Forces unit. Such was the burden of command…

Story: Steve Taylor
Art: Olivera/Rodriguez
Cover: Janek Matysiak

Commando No 4946 – Coward in Khaki
Men’s characters don’t often change. If a man’s a crook in civilian life, he’ll probably be a crook in the army. That’s how it was with Vic Wardley.
   Everyone knew him to be a crook — and a coward as well. So why would an Intelligence Corps major single him out for a vital job in contact with the enemy?

Introduction
Very generally speaking, Commando usually deals in “heroes” and “villains”, with the battle lines clearly drawn. However, I’d venture that “Coward In Kahaki” is an intriguing glimpse into what it might have been like if Commando had veered towards the anti-heroes prevalent in rival war comics like Battle and Action in their mid-1970s prime.
  The story title is unscrupulous in its assessment of the eponymous character, Private Vic Wardley — we’re left in no doubt that he is an unsavoury type, to say the least — but perhaps he might change his ways by the time we reach the last page…?—Scott Montgomery, Deputy Editor

Story: Mike Knowles
Art: Mones
Cover: Ian Kennedy
Coward In Khaki, originally Commando No 1125 (May 1977), re-issued as No 2451 (March 1991)

Monday, August 22, 2016

Mary Norton

Although she was one of our foremost children's writers—she wrote the six novels of The Borrowers series and two early novels upon which Bedknobs and Broomsticks was based—I'm surprised to note how little seems to be known about Mary Norton's life.

The reason I became interested was a mention that Norton had lived in Wivenhoe, where I now reside. Surely it should be easy to discover more about where and when...? "No," is the short answer. Norton was a private person and the long gaps between novels meant, I'm sure, that some believed her long gone. As she once said, "I am always beginning things and putting them away. Everybody wanted another Borrowers, but I thought I had done enough of that. It seems an effort to get away and start writing, because when I am writing I don't seem to think of anything else."

Born in Islington, London, on 10 December 1903, Kathleen Mary Pearson grew up in a Georgian manor house in Leighton Buzzard with her parents, Reginald Spencer Pearson, a physician and surgeon, and Mary (Minnie) Savile (nee Hughes), and four brothers. She was educated at two convent schools—one being St. Margaret's Convent School, East Grinstead, Sussex—before returning to live with her parents, now in Lambeth.

Struggling to find a suitable job, she attended St James's Secretarial College, but was soon fired from her first job as a secretary. It was here that she suggested to a dinner-guest, actor-impressario Arthur Rose, that she wished to become an actress, and she went on the understudy at the Old Vic during the 1925-26 season.She married Robert Charles Norton on 4 September 1926 (not 1927 as most sources give), an engineer with his wealthy family's shipowning and trading company. The young couple moved to the Norton family's estate near Lisbon, Portugal, where she began raising four children: Anne Mary Norton (1927- ), Robert George Norton (1929-2001), Guy Norton (c.1931- ) and Caroline (1937- ), although she returned to England for the birth of three of them, staying with her mother, Minnie Pearson, at 16 The Oval, Kennington, London—her father having died in 1928.

Although life in Portugal was lavish at first, her ex-pat in laws owning large estates, the shipping industry was hit badly by the Wall Street crash in 1929 and during the Depression, they were forced to slowly sell off, which allowed them to live in Portugal until the beginning of the Second World War.

While Robert Norton served in the Royal Navy, his wife returned to England and joined the British War Office in London, which led, in August 1940, to Mary Norton taking herself and three of her children to New York where she was employed by the British Purchasing Commission. It was during this early war period that she began writing essays, translations and children's stories, culminating in the completion of her novel The Magic Bed-Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons, published by Hyperion Press in New York in 1943 with illustrations by Waldo Pierce.

Norton returned to London in 1943, and worked as an actress, including a sixteen month engagement in The Guinea Pig at the Criterion in 1946-47. She continued to write, publishing a sequel to her first novel, which had appeared in the UK in 1945. The sequel, Bonfires and Broomsticks, was published in London in 1947, but was not published in the USA for another ten years, when it appeared in revised form combined with the first novel as Bed-Knob and Broomsticks in 1957.

In the meantime, she had written The Borrowers (1952), which won the British Library Association's Carnegie Medal for the year's best children's novel. Sequels followed: The Borrowers Afield (1955), The Borrowers Afloat (1959) and The Borrowers Aloft (1961).

It was during this latter period that Mary Norton moved to Wivenhoe. It is thought that the third and fourth Borrowers books were written at her home in West Street, a house later occupied by Steve Roberts who directed the eccentric Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (1980) and wrote Max Headroom (1985). (See imdb for his many other credits.)

The fourteen-year gap between the fourth and fifth Borrowers novel coincides with a period when Norton was living in Alresford, a village only a mile from Wivenhoe. She lived at Fanman's Farm, Alresford, which became a grade II listed building in 1987. It was whilst living here, on 24 April 1970 (and following the dissolution of her first marriage), that she married author and playwright Alfred Lionel Bonsey (1912-1989), shortly after which she published Poor Stainless (1971) a short Borrowers tale, based on a short story that appeared in the BBC Children's Hour Annual in 1954, later expanded for inclusion in an anthology for Eleanor Farjeon.

The Bonsey's moved to Ireland in 1972 and a new Borrowers novel, Are All the Giants Dead?, appeared in 1975. Her last Borrowers novel appeared as The Borrowers Avenged in 1982.

Kathleen Mary Bonsey lived out her later years in Devonshire, where she died following a stroke in Hartland on 29 August 1992. Lionel had predeceased her, dying in Barnstable in 1989, but she was survived by her four children and some twelve grandchildren.

The Bread and Butter Stories, a collection of fifteen stories from the 1940s and 1950s, was published by Virago in 1998.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Charles Eric Maine cover gallery

Spaceways (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1953; as Spaceways Satellite, New York, AvalonBooks, 1958)
Pan 297, 1954, 190pp, 2/6. Cover by Gerard Quinn

Timeliner (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1955)
Corgi S554, 1959, 222pp, 2/6. Cover by John Richards
Corgi GS1512, 1964, 190pp, 3/6. Cover by Josh Kirby

Crisis 2000 (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1955)
Corgi S520, 1958, 224pp, 2/6. Cover by John Richards

Escapement (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1956; as The Man Who Couldn't Sleep, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, J. B. Lippincott, 1958)
(no UK paperback)

High Vacuum (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1957)
Corgi SS714, 1959, 220pp, 2/6.

The Isotope Man (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1957;  filmed as Timeslip)
Corgi S631, 1959, 189pp, 2/6.

World Without Men (New York, Ace Books, 1958; as Alph, London, Ballantine Books, 1972)
Digit Books R808, 1963, 158pp, 2/6. Cover by R. A. Osborne

The Tide Went Out (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1958; as Thirst!, London, Sphere, 1977)
Corgi SS873, 1960, 220pp, 2/6. Cover by John Richards
as Thirst!, Sphere 0722-15720-7, 1977, 187pp, 65p.

Count Down (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1959; as Fire Past the Future, New York, Ballantine Books, 1959)
Corgi Books SS971, 1961, 189pp, 2/6. Cover by John Richards
Corgi GS7027, 1964, 188pp, 3/6.

Subterfuge (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1959)
Hodder & Stoughton 511, 1962, 192pp, 2/6.

Calculated Risk (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1960)
Corgi SS1118, 1962, 126pp, 2/6.

He Owned the World (New York, Avalon Books, 1960; as The Man Who Owned the World, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1961)
Panther 1610, 1963, 123pp, 2/6.

The Mind of Mr Soames (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1961)
Panther 1700, 1964, 192pp, 3/6.
Panther 0586-01700-3, 1969, 192pp, 5/6. Cover: still. MTI edition
NEL 450-03005-9, 1977, 223pp, 95p. Cover by Tim White

The Darkest of Nights (London, Hodder & stoughton, 1962; as Survival Margin, Greenwich, CT, Fawcett Gold Medal, 1968; revised as The Big Death, London, Sphere, 1978)
Panther Books 1779, 1965, 204pp, 3/6.
as The Big Death, Sphere 0722-15719-3, 1978, 223pp
---- [2nd imp.] 1979, 95p.

Never Let Up (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1964)
(no UK paperback)

B.E.A.S.T.: Biological Evolutionary Animal Simulation Test (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1966)
Hodder & Stoughton 02863-?, 1967, 190pp, 3/6.

The Random Factor (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1971)
(no UK paperback)

Novels as Richard Rayner

The Trouble with Ruth (London, Robert Hale, 1960)
(no UK paperback)

Darling Daughter (London, Robert Hale, 1961)
(no UK paperback)

Dig Deep for Julie (London, Robert Hale, 1963)
(no UK paperback)

Stand-In for Danger (London, Robert Hale, 1963)
(no UK paperback)

Novels as Robert Wade

The Wonderful One (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1960)
(no UK paperback)

Friday, August 19, 2016

Comic Cuts - 19 August 2016

After the excitement of Monday's anniversary and Wednesday's guest post, we're back to more mundane matters in today's column. This is my final week in the regular cycle of Hotel Business, so there isn't a huge amount of spare time for anything else.

I've pottered... a little bit of research for the next book, a little bit of research on behalf of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia trying to resolve the birth date of a quite obscure American author, a bit of time spent scanning covers and cleaning them up for tomorrow's cover gallery, a bit more spent trawling various sites for scans of titles I don't have (invariably a lot smaller than I'd like) and cleaning up the images (twice as hard because they're so small!).

All this is fitted around work and play. Play mostly consists of watching TV these days. I finally found a copy of an old Chris (X-Files) Carter TV show called Harsh Realm, which was based on a comic by James D. Hudnall. Now, I liked Hudnall's work. He did a great little 4-issue series called ESPers in the late 1980s with art by David Lloyd. John M. Burns did a fantastic first issue for a second series but dropped out when Eclipse didn't pay him, or took too long to pay him... it's a long time ago. All I remember now is that it looked fantastic.

Anyway, Harsh Realm was produced and I don't recall it ever appearing on British TV.  Now, thanks to a DVD box-set, I'm over half-way through the nine episodes that were produced. It's certainly not as bad as I thought it must have been to be cancelled so quickly. It's not a laugh a minute show, but it's not as bleak as Millennium; unfortunately, neither does it have as powerful a central character as Frank Black (Lance Henriksen). I don't particularly care for Hobbes (Scott Bairstow), who has been plugged into a virtual reality simulation known as Harsh Realm. At first a training programme which mimics the real world in every detail, Harsh Realm has been taken over by dictator General Santiago (Terry O'Quinn), who is expanding his empire and who plans to destroy the real world, leaving Harsh Realm the new reality. Hobbes' task is to take down Santiago, but he drops his mission pronto and spends most episodes trying to find his way out, making a string of wrong decisions along the way.

That said, the last few episodes I've watched have been pretty good, as we learn more about some of the characters (Mike Pinocchio, Hobbes' reluctant companion, in particular) and about the realm itself. Sadly, I suspect a lot of viewers had deserted the show by then.

Stranger Things, on the other hand, has already been given a second season. Imagine if Stephen King had written a horror show for Steven Spielberg shortly after Close Encounters came out. It's that good. We're half-way through the eight episodes and I suspect we'll binge watch the rest over the weekend, as we spent Thursday evening watching the finale of Penny Dreadful season two. And very good it was, too.

If you get a chance to watch The Nice Guys with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, grab that chance with both hands. I was already a fan of Shane Black and it wasn't long ago that I showed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang at one of our regular movie-night get-togethers. Black might well be my favourite screenwriter of all time: Lethal Weapon, Lethal Weapon 2, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Iron Man 3. There aren't more than a handful of writers who have that kind of CV.

So two of my favourite films of the year so far both star Ryans... Gosling in The Nice Guys and Reynolds in Deadpool. I need to see Captain America: Civil War again to see where that fits into the top three.

Random scans... and I had the good fortune to pick up a copy of Rogue Justice, a sequel to the famous Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. This is one of the classic thrillers of the 20th century, predating the likes of MacLean and Innes by some way. In fact, Rogue Male was written before the Second World War and owes much to John Buchan.

The book was published shortly after war was declared. The sequel had to wait until 1982, although it continued the adventures of the unnamed narrator of Rogue Male in wartime Europe. I look forward to catching up with him at some point.

Household wrote quite a few well-received thrillers; I only have a couple of them but I know I should look out for more and maybe put together a gallery at some point. In the meantime, here are a handful to be getting on with.


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Mighty One: My Life Inside The Nerve Centre

The Mighty One: My Life Inside The Nerve Centre
by Steve MacManus

Despite its title, the memoir actually begins some years before the launch of 2000 AD. We are in 1973 and the British comics scene is much as it has been for the past decade. The sun-filled, glory days of Valiant and Lion and Tiger are yet to be eclipsed by the thrill-powered imaginations of Messrs Mills, Wagner and Finley-Day.

In fact the book begins with me standing in the offices of Valiant, hoping to be hired in the role of sub-editor. It is from here that my journey through the industry begins, taking in Battle, then Action, then Starlord, before arriving slightly out of breath in the 2000 AD Nerve Centre in 1978. This is where I remain for the next eight years and it is these recollections that provide the meat of the memoir.

As an inside story the memoir is filled with colourful characters, namely the freelance contributors and editorial staffers who collaborate in the creation of the industry’s fictional comic heroes. These are Halcyon days.

Come 1986 however, seismic events have shaken the industry to its core and I experience a personal crisis of my own. At this juncture, the book lurches into what I hope is a hilarious detour as I take a Busman’s holiday in the USA.

Returning to the UK the memoir charts my plan to build a range of titles to entertain the older readers of 2000 AD, and from this comes the tale of the creation of the trio of tiles called Crisis, Revolver, and Judge Dredd the Megazine.

The journey ends however with the slow realisation that the licensed title model is making more and more sense to publishers in the industry. The arrival of desktop publishing programmes for the Macintosh in the early 1990s has greatly simplified the business of blending text and image to manufacture editorial pages, enabling all the content (now mainly feature pages) to be created in-house with no burdensome budget for pesky freelancers. 

Quite why it took thirty years for me to put pen to paper I honestly don’t know. Oddly, the idea had occurred to me in 1987, and I even pitched it to Titan at the time. Had that proposal been accepted you wouldn’t be reading these words now. But instead it was suggested that I try and put something together with Neil Gaiman who was keen to write his own book about Alan Moore. Although Neil and I met, nothing came of our discussions. Such is life.

In summary, I hope the memoir will be a fun read, not just for avid comics fans but also for the curious outsider, keen to understand what it is about this industry that breeds such passion, angst and extraordinary creativity amongst its fellows and followers.

The Mighty One: My Life Inside The Nerve Centre is published by Rebellion on 8th September. (299 pages). Pre-order direct from the publisher at 2000ADonline.com – hardcover / softcover.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Comic Cuts - 15 August 2016

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO BEAR ALLEY!

Yes, it's 10 years since I started Bear Alley, during which time I've posted over 3,900 posts, although  this post will be number 3,797 currently available, the removed posts including serialised comic strips (Eagles Over the Western Front, The Wanderings of Ulysses, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, etc.) and serialised text (The Man in the Iron Mask) that I've subsequently published as books.

The Bear Alley blog has seen some ups and downs over the decade it has been running. It started when I was working for the Look and Learn art library, inspired the launch of Bear Alley Books and has kept me in touch with my hobbies while I've worked on Hotel Business. I've worked on 64 different books during the period Bear Alley has been running. Although I tend to drift off onto mundane topics, like how many tomatoes we've managed to grow (notice how good I've been this year... not a single mention of tomatoes or cucumbers in the weekly Comic Cuts column so far), or news about our new fence, I'm pleased that my interest in the history of comics and old paperbacks remains undiminished. I still find it fascinating to dig into the lives of old authors to see what can be discovered and I hope that I'll be able to keep that side of things going in the future.

The task of earning enough money to pay the rent has meant that Bear Alley has sometimes had to take a back seat, but I'm not planning to let it drop any time soon. Although it's not daily, as it was when I started, I think we're averaging four posts a week at the moment, which is still pretty good. I guess the next headline date to look foward to will be post number 4,000, which—if I can up the pace—we should hit next summer.

The first post I posted was an explanation about my choice of title...

Why Bear Alley?
"The only approach is by means of a fire-escape-like structure descending into a kind of man-made gorge between Farringdon Street and the railway line that runs from Ludgate Circus to Holborn Viaduct. At the bottom of the steps, you look up and see rearing above you a miniature cliff-face of blackened brick, as thick with soot as the inside of a railway tunnel. The next moment you are in a concrete fortress -- once housing the Daily Mirror -- printing presses, later an air-raid shelter -- as elaborate as a stretch of the Maginot Line; and five or six corridors later, there is actually a strong room door, a foot thick, to be negotiated before you are allowed into the dusty presence of Fleetway Houses's hallowed past" – William Vivian Butler.
When Alfred Harmsworth had the Fleetway House built in 1912, it was to bring together all the various elements of his sprawling publishing empire. In the vaults underneath Fleetway House that had once housed printing presses were stored all the old records and file copies of magazines that were published by the Amalgamated Press; down in the vaults you could even find cheque stubs dating back to the earliest days of Harmsworth's publishing in the 1890s.

And the "man-made gorge" described by William Vivian Butler that led to this treasure trove was called Bear Alley.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when the late Bill Lofts was researching old boys' story papers, these records still existed and many of the mysteries involving anonymous and pseudonymous stories solved by Bill and his good friend Derek Adley were resolved by L. P. Lawrence, the literary cashier of Fleetway Publications at the time, who was able to track down payment records from old ledgers and stock books hidden away at Bear Alley.

Fleetway House was built over part of the course of the old River Fleet which still ran underground into the Thames but which was occasionally swelled by high rains. When that happened, the vaults under Fleetway House were filled with noxious black water and much of what was stored there was damaged beyond repair. Moves, leaks and culls of items considered a fire hazard meant that invaluable records, artwork and correspondence was destroyed.

Thankfully, a few things survived, including many of the file copies of old Amalgamated Press publications. Collectors will be familiar with the red binding and gold lettering of old A.P. volumes. Originally, three file copies were bound of each title. Two were kept in storage, one to use as a file copy for anyone needing to find out something from a back issue and the other held in reserve should the file copy get lost, destroyed or damaged. The third copy was for the editor's own use and was kept in the office for reference. When the editorial offices moved out of the old Fleetway House, many editors simply chucked their file copies of old, defunct magazines. Bill Lofts once recalled, "They were simply dumped in dustbins. I can remember seeing huge piles of them in Bear Alley."

Some Bear Alley file copies—each with the large, blunt message that "This File Volume must not be mutilated, and should be returned at the earliest possible moment to STOCK ROOM, BEAR ALLEY"—have survived the years but Bear Alley itself no longer exists and, all ramblings aside, to me Bear Alley represents all the lost knowledge that we might have once had access to.

Having spent twenty-five years on and off trying to reconstruct some of the records that were once housed in Bear Alley, it seems an apt name for a blog in which I'll probably spend a lot of time talking about old comics and old story papers.

That was where Bear Alley started ten years ago. What actually inspired it was a phone call from Peter Haining, who was looking for information on a writer named Ernest McKeag. I'd written a piece about McKeag a couple of years earlier when I was publishing a fanzine called PBO—it was actually the newsletter of the British Association of Paperback Collectors, but it was pretty much a one-man show as getting others involved in the printing (issue 2/3) and design (issue 4) had caused months of delay.

It is in my nature to hate this kind of thing... if I'm to be blamed for something not happening (like a magazine not coming out on time), I'd rather it was my fault for taking on too much than to be blamed when it was someone else causing the delay. I even turned freelance because I was fed up with losing jobs through no fault of my own (privatisation, companies going bust). I'm starting to sound like I enjoy the isolation of working only with myself, which isn't true, although I do sometimes wish there were six of me, each with four pairs of hands, working in a world with 48 hour days and no need to sleep—there are just so many things I'd love to do and there isn't enough time to do them all.

But I digress, which is part of the problem. I digress an awful lot.

PBO folded before I could use the article on McKeag, and, having dug out the information for Peter, I wanted to find somewhere to publish it so that it would be available, rather than remain hidden away on the hard drive of my computer. I'd noticed that David Bishop was posting a regular blog on this thing called Blogger and dropped him a line to see whether it was easy to work with. His answer was along the lines of "If I can use it, it must be easy," so I set up an account and...

...here we are ten years later.

I hope you'll raise a glass and join me as I try to figure out what the hell I'm going to write for post number 3,798.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Keith Roberts

Keith Roberts was a remarkable writer who never found the audience that he deserved. Unlike his contemporaries J. G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss whose novels are now acceptable to critics as fiction rather than ghettoised as science fiction or fantasy, Roberts talents were only recognised within the genre. Algis Budrys considered him the best short story writer in Britain, he won four British SF Association Awards in three categories (novel, short story and artist) and his alternate history novel Pavane was praised by Anthony Burgess as one of the best novels of the twentieth century.

What held Roberts back was almost certainly Roberts himself. He was not especially prolific, writing some 120 stories (a third of them in the period 1964-67) which were gathered into nine collections; four of his nine novels were actually mosaics of interlinked novellas. Nor was he easy to categorise. His first novel, The Furies, was a failed attempt to produce a catastrophe novel in the vein of John Wyndham or John Christopher. His next, Pavane, was a virtuoso alternate history novel in which Queen Elizabeth was assassinated in 1588 and the reformation and industrial revolution never take place; by 1968, the Catholic Church has held power for 400 years, suppressing all technological development as heresy. This was Roberts’ first mosaic novel, each part of the story told from a different viewpoint but building a picture of a world that was extraordinarily different to our own. Much of it is set in a beautiful Southern England, where hauliers ply the roads in steam-driven locomotives and giant semaphore stations dominate the countryside. Roberts wrote evocatively of these strange times when a challenge to the rigidness of the Church begins to grow, waiting the spark of an invention to begin the process of revolution.

Roberts’ later novels were no less challenging: The Inner Wheel dealt with gestalt minds and an encroaching world war, The Boat of Fate was a historical of Roman Britain, and The Chalk Giants saw struggling loser Stanley Potts try to escape visions of post-nuclear cataclysm which all in some form feature Martine, the girl he loves. Girls played a large part in Roberts stories, from his earliest humorous tales about a young witch named Anita to the adventures of Kaeti, whose slightly skewed England is also the home of vampires, ghosts and other odd denizens. In Molly Zero, his heroine Molly rebels against the bureaucratically complex future England, and in Gráinne, the narrator, writer and adman Alistair Bevan (a pen-name used by Roberts on some of his early stories), finds his fate entwined with that of the girl-goddess of the title.

Roberts himself seemed unable to form steady relationships, professionally or personally. Unmarried and living alone in a rented flat, for years he refused to deal with major publishers, accusing them of creative accounting over the royalties of his early books. Even when he dealt with small press publishers the relationship would often sour, not helped by Roberts’ sudden mood swings and self-destructive tendencies. He could be withdrawn and uncommunicative, yet on other occasions would be a good companion. He remained close-lipped about his private life and even the autobiographical Lemady is an idiosyncratic mixture of fact and fantasy as Roberts draws sketches from his life, focusing largely on his arguments with publishers, and interacts with the fictional woman of the title.

Keith John Kingston Roberts was born in Kettering, Northamptonshire, on 20 September 1935, and studied for his National Diploma in design at Northampton School of Art, later attending Leicester College of Art. He worked in advertising and illustration before selling his first story. Roberts was closely associated with the magazines Science Fantasy and New Worlds, drawing covers and contributing stories to both. When Science Fantasy changed its name to Impulse, Roberts became associate editor and then managing editor. As an illustrator he later produced covers for books by Philip K. Dick and John Brunner, two other science fiction writers who struggled to find their proper place in literature.

A new short novel, Drek Yarman was serialised in the UK magazine Spectrum SF earlier this year and Roberts had recently signed a deal with Wildside Press which would have brought much of his work back into print,  perhaps to wider recognition. Unfortunately, only three titles had appeared  by the time he died on 5 October 2000, aged 65, of complications arising after he had been hospitalised for a chest infection.

(* Originally written for The Guardian where it appeared  on 16 October 2000. This is the submitted version, which is slightly different to the published version. The column header illustration is a self-portrait by Keith Roberts for Paul Kincaid's British Science Fiction Writers, BSFA, 1983.)

Keith Roberts cover gallery

The Furies (London, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1966; New York, Berkley Books, 1966)
Pan Books 0330-02392-6, 1969, 220pp, 5/-. Cover by W. Francis Phillips
---- [?2nd imp.] 1975, 220pp, 45p. Cover: photo
Penguin 0140-07191-1, 1985, 219pp, £1.95. Cover by Stephen Crisp

 
 
Pavane (London, Rupert Hart-Davies, 1968; New York, Ace Books, 1968; expanded, Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday & Co., 1969)
Panther 0586-03359-9, (Aug) 1970, 191pp, 6/-. Cover by Brian Edwards
---- [2nd imp.] 1974, 191pp, 40p. Cover by unknown
Penguin 0140-07287-X, (Oct) 1984, 237pp, £2.95. Cover by David O'Connor
---- [?2nd imp.] 0140-10564-6, (Jun) 1988, £3.95. Cover by David O'Connor
VGSF 0575-06103-0, (Dec) 1995, 279pp, £5.99. Cover by Ian Miller
---- [?2nd imp.] 1995
Millennium 1857-98937-6 [SF Masterworks 35], (Nov) 2000, viii+279pp, £6.99. Cover by Jim Burns

The Inner Wheel (London, Rupert Hart-Davies, 1970)
Panther 0586-03632-6, 1972, 175pp, 30p.

Anita (New York, Ace Books, 1970; London, Millington, 1976; expanded, Philadelphia, Owlswick Press, 1990)
(no UK paperback)

The Boat of Fate (London, Hutchinson, 1971)
Coronet 0340-18805-7, 1975, 346pp.

Machines and Men (London, Hutchinson, 1973)
Panther 0586-04009-9, 1974, 239pp, 50p. Cover by Chris Foss

The Chalk Giants (London, Hutchinson, 1974; abridged, New York, G. B. Putnam's, 1975)
Panther 0586-04157-5, 1975, 267pp, 75p. Cover by Peter Jones

The Grain Kings (London, Hutchinson, 1976)
Panther 0586-04313-6, 1977, 208pp, 65p. Cover by Chris Foss

The Passing of the Dragons (New York, Berkley Books, 1977)
(no UK paperback)

Ladies from Hell (London, Victor Gollancz, 1979)
(no UK Paperback)

Molly Zero (London, Victor Gollancz, 1980)
Penguin 0140-07553-4, 1985, 250pp, £2.50. Cover by David O'Connor

 
Kiteworld (London, Victor Gollancz, 1985; New York, Arbor House, 1986)
Penguin 0140-08238-7, (Jun) 1986, 288pp, £2.95. Cover by David O'Connor
Penguin 0140-11069-0, (May) 1988, 288pp, £3.95. Cover by David O'Connor [tpb]

Kaeti & Company (Worcester Park, Surrey, Kerosina Books, 1986)
(no UK paperback)

Kaeti's Apocalypse (Worcester Park, Surrey, Kerosina Books, 1986)
Kerosina Books 0848-89302-8, (Apr) 1986, 12pp. [tpb]

The Lordly Ones (Wildside Press, 1986)
(no UK paperback)

Grainne (Worcester Park, Surrey, Kerosina Books, 1987)
(no UK paperback)

The Road to Paradise (Worcester Park, Surrey, Kerosina Books, 1989)
(no UK paperback)

Winterworld and Other Hauntings (Scotforth, Lancs., Morrigan Publications, 1989)
(no UK paperback)

The Event (Scotforth, Lancs., Morrigan Publications, 1989)
Morrigan Publications 1870-33880-4, (Jul) 1989, 12pp, £2.95. Cover by Keith Roberts  [tpb]

Kaeti on Tour (Feltham, Mddx., The Sirius Book Company, 1992)
(no UK paperback)

POETRY

A Heron Caught in Weeds (Worcester Park, Surrey, Keronsina Books, 1987)
Kerosina Books 0947-89309-5, (Apr) 1987, 46pp, £3.95. [tpb]

NON-FICTION

The Natural History of the P.H. (Worcester Park, Surrey, Kerosina Books, 1988)
(no UK paperback)

Irish Encounters: A Short Travel (Worcester Park, Surrey, Kerosina Books, 1989)
(no UK paperback)

Lemady: Episodes in a Writer's Life (San Bernardino, CA, The Borgo Press, 1997)
(no UK paperback)