British soft imperialism conquers the Moon, the stars! At last!

the-quatermass-xperiment-crashed-rocketHave you ever wondered why the British Experimental Rocket Group never got us to the Moon?

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Sid James points Brian Donlevy in the direction of the bar

Nigel Kneale, authorised biographer of (and chief propagandist for) Professor Bernard Quatermass, was always quick to blame it on the militarisation of the British Space Programme, while American analysts tend to pin it on the UK’s lack of frontier spirit and yankee know-how (and there is certainly evidence that Britain tried to recruit some of that – though they ended up with a washed-up alcoholic who spoke so quickly you always had the sense that he was impatient for any conversation to end so he could get to the bar).

The truth, however, is revealed in Stephen Baxter’s Moonseed (1998).

Moonseed_Stephen_BaxterOn p.451 of a 534-page novel, we read that a US astronaut, who has landed on the Moon in a jerry-rigged emergency mission to save the Earth,

sipped her … tea. Even freshly made, it did not seem hot enough. One of the old clichés of lunar travel, she thought: water boils at lower temperature in low pressure.

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And, as this model and the Winnerton Flats prototype reveal, the lunar domes Quatermass intended to build would not have solved the problem.

That’s right.

Basic physics robbed us of the Dan Dare future we were promised. Once it became clear quite how rare a nice cup of tea would be in space, we as a nation – an entire nation – just lost the will to go there ourselves. 8069053883_6ae139b878_z

However, the story does not end there.

A careful reading of Baxter shows that it was Britons who unleashed the planet-destroying Moonseed, thus forcing the US and Russia to co-operate in the mission that would ultimately lead to the rapid terraforming of the Moon (and then, it is implied, human expansion across and beyond the Solar System). And should anyone doubt that this is ultimately a British triumph, observe what happens on pp.489-90. Henry, the American responsible for setting the lunar expedition in motion and for sneaking along the equipment necessary to make the Moon habitable at the speed (if not quite the absurdity) of Total Recall­, knows that his crazy plan has worked the moment it starts to rain on the Moon.

James Garner, 1928-2014

James-Garner-The-Rockford-FilesThis was the year we lost Big Jim.

A couple of weeks ago, on the way back from work, it suddenly struck me that I had forgotten that he had died. I even went online when I got home to check that I hadn’t misremembered (or misforgotten, or whatever). Saddened once more, I resolved to finish watching Nichols (1971-72), his western TV series just prior to The Rockford Files (1974-80), before heading overseas for the holidays. The final episode, ‘All in the Family’, produced another affective flip-flop as, in the opening sequence, Nichols is suddenly gunned down by Quinnnichols (Anthony Zerbe); there is a brief passage of what-the-fuck? as the funeral proceeds and it doesn’t all turn out to be one of Nichols’ scams; and then Garner turns up, admirably moustachioed, playing Nichols’ brother, who cons the town into bringing Quinn to justice. You can only imagine my delight when, a few days later in Tucson, we sat down to start watching season three of Maverick (1957-62), and in the opening episode, ‘Pappy’, Garner plays not only Bret Maverick, but also his father, Beau Maverick, and Bret pretending to be Beau. I hope he picked up three pay cheques, because he is always worth that much. Brett_Maverick_-_James_Garner(I have no idea what I am going to do about the final two seasons – in season four, Garner is replaced by Roger Moore, playing the Mavericks’ English cousin, Beauregarde; and in five, Jack Kelly carried on alone as Bart, interspersed with reruns of old Garner/Bret episodes. My inner completist is at war with my inner loyalist.)

I am curious, though, about the sensation of missing a celebrity, someone I never actually knew.

Like all right-minded people, I was appalled by the massive manipulation of public sentiment when Princess Diana died,* and scoffed at the miserable attempts to whip up a lacrimae rerum rerun when that vile, gin-swilling elitist, the Queen Mother, finally choked (I guess from having her greedy snout so deep into the public trough).** And despite being washed up alone in a Californian one horse dorp the day Thatcher died, I still managed to find myself partying into the small hours in the one gay bar in town.

On the other hand, but also like all right-minded people, I was bereft for months when Elisabeth Sladen died. Part early object-cathexis, I know; and partly because just as so many of us have a ‘my Doctor’ – mine would definitely be Tom Baker were it not for Peter Cushing – she was always ‘my companion’.

Maybe it was that unexpected feeling of loss that prepared me for Jim’s passing. And the fact that he had always been there – without ever actually being there –since I was a child. (A friend recently caught a late episode of 8 Simple Rules 8 simple(2002-05) and said how much it made her long for a big living room centred around an open fire. Me, my wishes are simpler: a battered old armchair, from which James Garner comments wrily on my everyday foibles and mishaps.)

 

Garner was a big, handsome man, with an easy-going and amiable persona, and diahann-carroll-james-garner-march-washingtongood liberal politics. He was not hard to like, even when playing an arrogant shit of a corporate CEO in Barbarians at the Gate (1993). But his real appeal, especially when playing Maverick and Rockford (both created by the equally admirable Roy Huggins), was his performance of human frailty. He played heroes who were cowards, gunmen who eschewed guns, a private march-on-washington-3dick who took plenty of lickings because he couldn’t always avoid a fight, no matter how hard he tried, and was not much good at fighting anyway. He played a cardsharp who did not cheat, except when he did. He pursued money but could not get hold of it. He fell for women he knew were trouble, and was suckered every time, because despite his mercenary instincts he also tended to trust people. Everyone jokes about how The Great Escape (1963) has a claustrophobic tunneller (Charles Bronson) and a James-Garner-Donald-Pleasence-Great-Escapeblind forger (Donald Pleasence), but they forget that James Garner plays a scrounger with a heart of gold. He refuses to leave the forger behind when the POWs break out of Stalag Luft III en masse, and is finally captured when he refuses once more to abandon his friend.

frailtySo if you are looking for some kind of moral compass that understands our weaknesses, don’t ask yourself what Jesus would do.

Ask what Big Jim would do.

 

* The only good thing to come of it was the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, and then only because it inspired Stewart Lee’s Princess Diana Memorial Fountain Memorial Fountain Fountain routine.

** Despite constant media whitewashing and the vague resemblance, she was no more Paddington Bear’s Great Aunt Lucy than I am.pbtv

George

He was called George, and there was something about him. Something that made people want to hug and pet and squeeze him and repeatedly say his name. It was a burden, a cross to bear, and he hated it, often with a melodramatic flourish, but just as often he would use it to get what he wanted. And to get close enough to kill.

In 1969, dodging the draft, he crossed the border to Canada and in Vancouver signed on to a tramp freighter bound, ironically enough, for Asia. To the chagrin of his crewmates and through gritted teeth he quickly became the skipper’s favourite. The combination of leisure and boredom nearly did for him. In Calcutta, he jumped ship. Fleeing the investigation into his nautical benefactor’s death, and posing as a photographer, he joined an ill-fated expedition into Tibet.

abominableHe was never seen again.

A few years later, neither were the yeti.

 

 

 

 

22/12/14

 

Kartchner Caverns (the Big Room)

kartchner-gen1Travel south and east out of Tucson, past adverts on bus-stop benches for the advertising spaces on bus-stop benches, a bikini-topped brunette urging you to EXPOSE YOURSELF DAILY.

Past banners for the upcoming gun fair, now in its fortieth year.

Through the Boneyard and down the Technology Corridor and across the creosote flats.

DRIVE HAMMERED GET NAILED, say the electronic signs spanning the 10.

Then down the 90. Behind you, the Sonoran desert – you’ve not seen a saguaro in miles – and ahead, that stretch of the Chihuahuan Desert that reaches up into Arizona.

On your left, Cochise Stronghold, where the Chiricahua Apache leader defeated and then was defeated by Confederate soldiers, and where, years later, he was buried.

On your right, Cochise Terrace RV Park.

In the distance, over the Huachuca Mountains, hovers a black speck, a remotely-operated dirigible sprouting sensor arrays. The border with Mexico is not far away. (Last time we were out this way, looping back from Tombstone and Bisbee, we got stopped at a Border Patrol roadblock. Fortunately, I am white, speak English and, by chance, had my passport on me.)

Into the misnamed Whetstone Mountains.

The visitor centre is informative, but not dangerously so. There is a short film about the spelunkers discovering the caverns and the fourteen years in which the existence of this network of caves and tunnels and grottoes was kept a secret so as to keep them safe. For some reason, it is scored like a Harry Potter film.

The temperature and humidity hit you the moment you step through the first of six doors and into the first of five airlocks. Outside, it is dry and sunny but chilly in the breeze and cold in the shade; inside, it is warm and wet.

Inside, it is a speleological phantasmagoria.

Stalagmites and stalactites. Soda straws and sodamites [stet]. Vermiform eruptions of gravity-confounding helictites. Like curly fries, or crazy clumpy cartoon wigs caught in a strong wind and instantaneously frozen in their disarray. Dripstone chandeliers. Flowstone like sheets of bacon, like giant Frazzles encased in glossy resin so people will believe my tales of British cuisine in the 1970s. Brushite moonmilk. Totem poles to ancient gods, blurry now. Fried eggs. Popcorn. The colour of strawberries. Anaemic root vegetables. Rust carrots. Ectoplasmic figures as convincing as the luminous muslins extruded by hoodwinking table-rappers must have seemed a century ago. A scarecrow sack-face. Delicate white chocolate confections. Precise one centimetre crenellations. Schools of jellyfish and contorted cephalopods. Rock anemones. A scurrying Nazca spider composed of smudges and folds and cracks. Scallops, their size dependent on the speed and constancy of the flood that swept through and scooped them from the rockface. Candles: some like you find in bistros, the wax overrunning the bottles that hold them; others, stubby and squat, in barely tidy twos and threes as if around an erotic thriller’s bubble bath (you half expect to see a glass of white wine, or some vanilla paraphernalia). A Dimetrodon grandis, turning onto its back as it slowly sink through the rock, breaches this unsuspected world’s stony sky, but all that is left after 270 million years are its spines, fossilised. Around the corner, Dagon towers, distorted, melting, screaming in agony; from its back, a xenomorph’s jaws tear into the air. Near the end, Miss Havisham’s wedding cake opens out like a Rorschach blot, dazzling white, reaching up to the highest point of the Big Room. The female bats give birth there. It is the warmest part of the cave, and it gives newborns their best chance to learn to fly on the one long drop they get. Three hundred thousand years old, they think the caves are, and the bats – no bigger than your thumb – have roosted there every summer for a sixth of that. The oil from their bodies blackens patches of the roof. Their guano, covered in fungus and home to a dozen kinds of troglophile and troglobite, lies in mounds: cavern caviar.

And then it is done. Only three doors and two airlocks, the first of which is musty, like grandma’s fruit cellar, the ranger suggests, but it is more like old books.

It is odd to emerge from darkness into light, to pass from the warm to the cold.

96-03Kartchner_18_Cave-dripping-wall_fullframeKACA_01Kartchner, Tombstone, Coronado N.F 023kartchnerbacon