Monday, August 30, 2010

The Planets

When I was a lad, I used to spell my name PHILL, the main reason for this was because I have 2 Ls in my name. This stuck for many years, but around the start of my working life I noticed that most people just spelt it the conventional way. So, in an act of defiance, I started spelling my name FIL (there's a few people I know who read this will remember that very well) and that eventually, for a while, became Fil Fil Fil (So good they named me three times?). One of my mates kids called me FOO, because she couldn't say Phil (or even Fil).

I sort of started to get a bit fed up saying to people, "It's Phill with two ells," because 99% of the time they'd spell it with one. When my name started to appear in print on a regular basis, I shrugged my shoulders and accepted that I was going to be a Phil for the rest of my life. Then about 6 months ago, one of the lovely admin girls at work, started to spell my name with 2 ells. her logic was that if my name was Phillip, then Phil should be Phill. It was easier for her to understand as she's married to a Philip...

I suddenly, and it was a suddenly rather than a gradually, decided that it's my name gods dammit, so I'll spell it how I want it to be spelt. So, slowly, but surely, the transformation of Phil back into Phill has begun. Besides, Phil Hall is a number of things - an artist, another writer (a film critic), a former editor of the News of the Screws and once upon a time he was even an okapi at the Bronx Zoo! There's not that many Phill Halls out there.


Remember the neighbour who can't park? Well, I'm having a crisis of conscience about him. This is a man who I've lived next door to for 10 years and what I do know about him could be written large on the back of a postage stamp. What I do know about him is that he does a lot of strangely bizarre things or just downright stupid. He's the kind of bloke that will have a big bonfire in his garden on a Sunday afternoon when everyone in the street is hanging their washing out; or he'll place the fire near something combustible or damageable - on my side!
His missus has displayed all kinds of control freakery over the years. The day we moved in, we were welcomed very well by the other surrounding neighbours, but the first words out of her mouth were to tell us not to park in front of their house because they needed access 24/7.

Her control freakery reached new heights in the subsequent years. The wife's brother was dying of a brain tumour in the hospital and this meant that we were travelling back and forth from the hospital at all hours - especially during his last 48 hours. Megan and Gifford were still alive, but had gone well past the stage where they barked at anything, so she couldn't even complain about them. But she did manage to complain about 'all the comings and goings at all hours of the night as it was upsetting her mother', who, to be fair was very ill, but also about 90. The wife's brother was 26 and the rest of his life was being measured in minutes.

"I'm really sorry," I said, "But [the wife's] brother is dying in the hospital at the moment and we don't really have any control over these things." I was being wholly sarcastic and tinged with annoyance. She waddled back into her house with her tail between her legs.

I don't think she liked that. About a month later, I was working nights at the YMCA and got home about 8.20 in the morning, wanting my bed. I was driving the Punto at the time and as you probably know, they're not big cars. My neighbour's drive is wide enough for two cars and the back end of the Punto was sticking about 6 inches into their space. It was no more than 6 inches because I checked it when I got out of the car and declared myself happy that you could get a Chieftain Tank through the gap, so their little Suzuki would have no trouble.

I had been asleep about 40 minutes when the doorbell went. I dragged my exhausted arse out of bed, threw my dressing gown on and went to the door. I was not happy. Standing there in like a walrus in a jump suit, she whined something about not being able to get her car through the gap. I was half asleep and half crazy. I looked at the gap again, blinked, looked at the Suzuki and then at her. I turned around grabbed my car keys, shoved them into her hand and said, "Look, I've just done a 10 hour night shift, if you can't get your car through that gap, then you move my car. I'm going back to bed." And slammed the door and went back to bed fuming. Later in the day I found the keys on the doormat and the Punto hadn't been moved an inch. Her car was gone.

There have been several attempts over the years for this woman to try and manipulate things. They soon realised that we weren't meek and mild neighbours who would put up with their fuckwittedness but they've never really given up on their 'campaign'. The last major thing was complaining to the council about our new dogs when we got them. I think they were perfectly right to do it; it must have been hell for both sides for almost a year. The ironic thing now, 3 years down the line, is that our 4 dogs make a noise, but normally when one of us gets home from work. None of them bark all day and out of desperation. There are, however, a number of dogs in the vicinity that do continue to make a noise.
Bad neighbours attempted to get good neighbours on their side when they made the complaint, but were quickly rebuffed. Our good neighbours put up with our dogs, the way we put up with their kids!

Anyhow; I gets home from work yesterday and I'm standing in my back garden staring at the sunshine on the last day of August, when I hear something that sounds like a dog barking, except, I know immediately it isn't because I recognised the voice. It's my next door neighbour, standing in his garden barking. Except, it wasn't barking as such, more like a loud grunting noise. I was intrigued and so I sneaked upstairs for a better look. What greeted my eyes was extremely odd...

He was standing in the middle of his bark and wood chip lawn, with his arms aloft, and he was doing this barky grunt type thing. Now, the thing is, we hear him all the time, swearing, shouting and loud belching, through the walls. We came to the conclusion that he was either barking (in the metaphoric sense) or had Tourette's syndrome. I was almost going to forgive them both for being such pains, until I remembered something else about him that happened this week.

I was in the office at about 10.30 one night when I heard loud music from his car. I sat here amazed to be listening to a song by the Bay City Rollers. I dismissed this as him obviously listening to some Classic Gold type station. The following day, the car pulls up much earlier and blaring out of the speakers is Shang-a-Lang by those tartan clad prototype chavs of the 1970s. And there he was, sitting in the driver's seat, singing along to it at the top of his voice.

As an aside, coincidentally, every time we have some kind of run in with these neighbours - one of the tyres on one of our cars mysteriously finds a screw in the side within a few days...

The advert for a hitman is going in the local free paper this week... He no longer deserves to live.


Back in May, Roger and I went to the Northampton Beer Festival at Delapre Abbey. If any of you read the report here, you might remember that the most startling thing about the event was the two young guys with the most unbelievable mullets. Well, on Monday afternoon, we saw someone who made these two youngsters look like rank amateurs.

Pushing a pram and accompanied by a girl with more Quink tattoos than you could shake a stick at, was this man, about 30 ish. he had jet black hair, cut very short - shaved in fact - with just this curtain like veil of black hair hanging down his back. He wasn't dressed as a goth, he didn't look any different from any bloke you'd see in them pub, except for the world's funniest joke hair. I almost crashed into a stationary car!

I was getting into the car this morning to go off to work and there he was again, walking down the road. I think I drew blood biting my lip. I want to take him to one side and tell him about the humiliation he's causing himself, but the wife said, quite rightly, he probably wouldn't understand.


I'm sure we've all had odd and bizarre conversations with our friends or other halves. The wife and I were commenting about how the four dogs don't pump out as much foul smelling gas as the old two did. We've had over 3 years of relatively stink free dog arses.

In the last week, at least one of them has heard this said and decided to start pumping far more noxious odours into the air. I've had dogs for years and I like to think of them as stupid...


Apparently, vampires are fast becoming old news. There has been a spate of blood suckers of varying incarnations for the last few years, on both film and TV and while some of them have been good, none of them hold a candle to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

It seems that the new trend about to make it big is going to be Science Fiction. Apparently the developments of Avatar and the success of Inception, the growing in popularity Fringe, along with the cult rise of quirky dramedies such as Eureka and Warehouse 13, has meant that TV execs are looking to the future for the next big thing.

If someone has the guts to do something as intelligent as Babylon 5 then it might be a good thing; but if the reincarnation of V is anything to go by we'll all be praying for a vampire resurgence.


I'm getting old; that much is obvious. But just how old am I?

There has been a lot of hype about Scott Pilgrim Versus the World over the last few weeks. you see, it's directed by Edgar Wright, who some of my friends think is a God and it's based on a hip comicbook from... Canada.

I've heard two kinds of reviews about this film. There are those that think it is quite unique and brilliant and others who think it's the biggest piece of shit to ever grace cinema screens. It isn't a film I'd go to the cinema to see; I don't do movie theatres that show comics adaptations.

So I figured I'd read the comicbook series that it's based on.

To quote all those teen-aimed TV shows on MTV: Oh. My. God!

I am so glad I got out of comics when I did, otherwise I would have had to kill myself just so I could turn in my grave! Scott Pilgrim is complete and utter shit! It is drawn in a dopey manga style that is neither pleasing on the eye or aesthetic.

You can't really call Bryan Lee O'Malley a dialogue writer; too much emphasis is on whacky facial expressions (customary in manga) and 'hip one-liners' and a lack of real cohesion. It made me wonder if he either knows where the publisher has buried the bodies or he has been offering sexual favours to said publisher. Scott Pilgrim is dreadful. Okay, it's 'modern' and its written and drawn in a style that MTV and video game addicts will appreciate (one hopes); but that doesn't actually make it any good. There's a hundred pieces of shit hanging in modern art galleries that some people adore and admire.

If the new breed of comic writers and artists are this superfluous and without substance I'm amazed there still is a comics industry.

Saying that, I also downloaded and read the first 3 'graphic novels' of Stephen King's The Stand and it left with with one nagging question. Why? And more importantly, why was Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa credited as 'the writer'? He's done an interesting job at editing large chunks of the book out of the story, while adding his own linking dialogue boxes that encapsulate entire chapters of the original tale. Mike Perkins's artwork is reasonable, even if his depictions of some characters is just plain wrong: Harold Lauder looks like a 40-year-old businessman, not a 16 year-old spotty oik and Larry Underwood doesn't look anything like the denim clad blues singer he was described by King as. He looks more like a relative of Grizzly Adams.

It was this comic that finally made me realise that greed is the over riding emotion when you become famous. Since Stephen King almost died there seems to be more product coming out related to the man than ever before. There are even books on sale that analyse King's other books. Compendiums, biographies and of course a host of comicbook adaptations of some of his finest and at times more unknown works. He must be raking it in.

I suppose its the socialist in me, but I can't help thinking that King probably was a multi-millionaire by the early 1990s; he could, if he had wanted, bought a small island and done nothing for the last 20 years - and part of me would have been happier had he done that.

It's like these Premiership football managers and the amazing contracts they have. If you're no good at your job, the club will pay you literally millions of pounds to leave! Fuck, I wish someone would offer me millions - heck, thousands would do - to leave my job! Yet if a manager leaves of his own volition - regardless of the club's success or failure, he gets nothing. I reckon, I'm that bad as a football manager I could be in charge of at least three clubs and get 7 figure pay offs from each, because I'm that bad! I'd really only need the one job; a 7 figure pay off at my age would pay the mortgage off, buy a nice flat by the sea and mean that I could retire. So why don't these football managers? Or are they like Stephen King and have decided if they can make money out of their crapness, then why not?


Two quick words about last night's football.

Calm down.

England beat a team that are plummeting in the world rankings faster than the Scots. The only class player they had saw the Euro 2012 draw and retired from international football. The performance was nothing to write home about and against a good team we would have been exposed. Gutted for Michael Dawson - he's definitely out of the next match on Tuesday and it bodes ill for Spurs Champion league aspirations. My team have great centrebacks, but they're all made of porcelain... However, I'm chuffed for the lad Defoe - the first Spurs striker to score a hat-trick for England since probably Gary Lineker or even Jimmy Greaves!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

It's Yourself


My music taste has changed over the years - it has broadened, become more eclectic and, for many of my friends and family, veered off into a direction many can't fathom. For me, music is about touching something - normally a piece of music, sometimes (albeit rarely) the lyrics and I put shame aside a long ago and decided to embrace whatever music floated my boat.

Of course, as the years have passed, things that I once loved have disappeared. Stuck in the back of my cupboard with my record collection, or in an old sewing box, where my dwindling cassettes sit and wait for the bi-annual troll through it to see what I can download and replace (old cassettes make excellent fire-lighters, by the way). Every so often, I get a whiff of something I haven't heard for years, the search is on and I either wallow in the past for the duration of the record or I yelp, switch it off and hope the wife hasn't been listening!

The other day, I looked for George Gershwin on Spotify and spent an entire evening listening to songs I hadn't played or heard in years. It was a delight!

The useful thing about bit torrents and the like is that while you can do all kinds of illegal things to improve your record collection, it has also made finding real rarities a little bit easier. I remember talking on here about the time I went to Knebworth so see Genesis's soundcheck on the Thursday before the big show in 1978. What I didn't tell you was what happened a few months later.

The Hall family had entered a new phase of their lives - the pub business. My folks had been doing their training for nearly a year and we finally offered their own pub - The Crown Inn, in Hardingstone. We'd moved and I was struggling to adapt to living in a pub in many ways. I was still at 6th form and didn't want to move to another school, so I had to travel 6 miles to get to my school (nothing compared to today, but for my old man it was a pain in the arse). I became addicted to fruit machines and spent everything I had filling these hateful machines up and the fact I was in this fantastic place that sold beer, crisps, had fruit machines and a pool table was far more interesting than learning... But this is an aside, a preamble to a far more dull story.

It was coming up to Christmas and the radio was full of all kinds of specials and one such was the transmission of an exclusive BBC recording of Genesis at Knebworth; the concert my brother Steve and I had gone to but my Dad (at 48 - my age now incidentally) thought he was too old to go to an open air concert! So, he had a chance to hear the concert, as live, on the radio. The problem was it was being broadcast at lunchtime (on I think the Saturday before Christmas) and that meant a busy bar and little chance of hearing it.

My dad was into his state of the art stereo equipment, so he decided to tape the concert off of the radio and purchased one of those new fangled metal cassette tapes that had literally only been on the market a year or so. They guaranteed the best possible quality and he could have this concert to listen to at his leisure whenever he wanted to - job done.

Except, this is a story and it is destined not to go according to plan. Everything went fine for the first couple of songs - Squonk and Burning Rope, but from that point onwards the tape went as bit dodgy and everything else on the tape apart from the last 10 minutes - the opposite side to the first two songs, was inaudible, with a high pitched squealing noise throughout. The concert wasn't broadcast again and all my dad got was the two songs mentioned and the climax to Dance on a Volcano/Los Endos - which was one of his favourite tracks.

He wasn't gutted, but you could see his was disappointed. We all were. It was an exceptionally good gig - one of the best I've ever seen and the sound was excellent. Still...

My dad got to see Genesis 6 times in all, the final time was in the late 1980s; so he never had to suffer the return to Knebworth in 1992 - which was crap; or the Wembley stadium gigs, which were worse than crap, with Paul Young supporting them and an almost stubborn refusal to play any old stuff apart from a 13 minute medley near the end and then insisting on doing an encore of 60s covers. I swore I'd never go and see them again and technically I didn't (although I did see them 'live' at a cinema on their reunion tour a few years back and then graciously declined the offer of a ticket to Twickenham).

Genesis were the first band I ever became obsessed with in a collecting way. I wanted everything they had ever done, including the rare flexi disc singles and the numerous good quality bootleg tapes and vinyl. It was fuelled by the fact that both my brothers were also devoted fans and my dad preferred prog rock to Mantovani any day. So during the early 70s, it was a diet of Genesis and a number of other familiar bands.

One of the things that pleased me about seeing Genesis was they once had this lovely habit of paying back their fans by playing songs like Supper's Ready - a spectacle to be seen if only for the fact that they could play it to 20,000 people and during the quiet bits you could hear a pin drop. My dad got to see his favourite song at least three times, as well as his other favourites probably more often. He never left a Genesis concert disappointed.

I remember thinking after we'd been to see them at Earl's Court in 1977 - still probably the best gig I've ever been to - that he looked so out of place there. He was 47. I regularly see men in their 60s and 70s at gigs now and wonder what he would have made of that.

When he died, suddenly, in 2003, it was down to his three sons to choose the music played at his funeral. There really wasn't any argument that it should be something by Genesis. We discounted Supper's Ready, because it's 23 minutes long and we all wanted to be able to listen to it again and we settled on a song from the Wind & Wuthering album, called Afterglow. He especially loved the live version, with its crescendo and thumping drums. The decision was made and we all agreed that it was a song we could avoid until we felt happy listening to it again.

So there I was, earlier this evening, looking through my stacks and stacks of (dodgy) CDs and I found 15 bootleg CDs of varying quality and a CD called Genesis: The very very rare stuff and on it were a selection of B-sides, unreleased tracks, different versions and it sort of struck a chord with me. At the end of the disc were a selection of tracks that I must have put on there to fill up the 80 minutes. Three tracks that my dad absolutely loved. And do you know what happened? I was sitting there and suddenly realised that my vision had blurred and there were tears streaming down my face. Fancy that.

"Presumably, Squonk must be your favourite Genesis song?" I was asked this back in 1990 and the song was 13 years old then and not 33. "No. Not at all. in fact, it's one of my least favourites." You can guess the reaction I got to that. So why call my shop Squonk!? Well, the sarcastic answer to that would be Supper's Ready would have made it sound like a restaurant. Such a Shame would have been the kiss of death and Comfortably Numb sent out all the wrong messages. I needed something a bit more pithy than the Comics Hall, which one of my old friends had suggested. Squonk pushed the right buttons; it was short, onomatopoeic and memorable.

Sadly, I should have heeded the words of the song. A squonk is a pretty crap creature, who the moment it gets into a bind dissolves into a pool of its own tears. Oh, the irony...

I've just finished listening to Squonk. Probably the first time in a few years - since the remastered Trick of the Tail came out. Compared to anything the band did after 1979 it's a classic. It'll never be in my list of favourite songs though.


On a related note; apparently the retired Phil Collins has just released a new single. Peter Gabriel's first album in yonks has been critically panned (and I hate to admit, quite justifiably) and the rumour mill is at it again, suggesting that a full blown original line up reunion's being groomed for a Led Zeppelin styled O2 gig. Original line up? That'll be Anthony Phillips instead of Steve Hackett and at least three drummers prior to Mr Entertainment. So, I think they actually mean the classic line up; but the original would be interesting, especially if they did The Conqueror...

I'll leave you with this thought: "Ripples never come back."

Doctor, doctor

Well, the revelation of the week is something that has rather bemused and exasperated me. Are you sitting comfortably, because I'm not.

I do not have arthritis.

In fact, the doctor is so convinced I don't have it - this without the aid of any form of examination - he told me I need to take out my concerns with the doctor - his colleague - who diagnosed it!

To say I was flummoxed would be an understatement. Apparently, I have spondylitis. All the other problems are just basic wear and tear. I even tried to argue with him. "Look, I have it in my arm; I get this bone twisting sensation and pain in the joints. I find that anti-inflammatory drugs work better than the co-codamol. I have this numbness in my leg and have had for a number of years and I get this painful aching in my fingers, my wrist and my shoulders." He seemed to discount all of these and said that what was happening was definitely not arthritis - although he's sending me for blood tests to be on the safe side.

However; it's not all good news... I will basically have similar symptoms to arthritis; it isn't curable and unless I continue to exercise and take painkillers, and it will get worse quicker!

Now, this is the doctor who told me 5 years ago that I wasn't getting enough roughage in my diet because of a stomach problem I had. He prescribed extra bran in my diet. When I told him I was a healthy eating vegetarian, he said, and I don't lie, "You're obviously not eating the right vegetarian food." When I argued with him and said that I had a healthy diet not a junk food diet, he waved my concerns away. This is also the doctor who felt the best way to treat my stress was to listen to relaxing music and take some long walks. This is the doctor, who, I know because I'm friendly with the receptionists, is avoided by patients unless there is really no one else to see. This is a doctor who knows what's wrong with you before you even open your mouth. He is my registered doctor and I haven't chosen to see him for 5 years - not since the vegetarian business.

So, I should be happy. I've just come back from the doctor's and I've been told that all the other doctors' are wrong and I don't have what they all said I had. Fair enough, what I do have isn't as glamorous, but just as painful and with some added wrinkles of their own - a proneness to sciatica for one. The numbness I have had in my leg for the last 7 or 8 years is down to a trapped nerve, which is also pointless attempting to fix. In fact, when you see this doctor, you come out of your appointment feeling worse than when you went in - and you have to remember, there's nothing wrong with you!

Don't get me wrong. If he's right and he seems to think so then not having arthritis is great. Doesn't make me feel any better, just giving my ailment a different name, but... It's just that this having happened makes me feel as though I've been misleading people for the last 3 years and it sort of makes me feel like a bit of a fraud. But, I have to be honest about this, something else this doctor said was that the reason I had the operation to have my shoulder impingement was also because of this general wear and tear on my bones, despite it being pretty much conclusive that the damage was done by a couple of falls a couple of years apart. This proves to me that he is judgemental and full of his own self-importance.

One thing I am very sure about though, it'll be a cold day in hell before I see that doctor again. It's one thing having your understanding of your ailment destroyed, but it's another thing when your appointment feels like your being condescended to by a man who doesn't seem to want to listen to you, because he's made his mind up already.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Rhapsody in Blue

As much as I hate the end of the summer and the advent of cold, damp, wet and windy, there is sometimes pots of gold to be found. The rain of the last week - and boy, hasn't it been some rain at times - might have revitalised the yellow verges and put some life back into the pastures, but it has also given us something we've struggled to see over the last 5 years of it being too dry or too wet. Mushrooms are back and with a vengeance!

Mushrooms will grow every year, but some varieties won't bother fruiting if the conditions aren't right. Mycelium can lay dormant for years, just growing under the ground and waiting for the right weather conditions - which explains why mushroom hunters often find species in abundance at the wrong time of the year. Way back in the late 1990s, when I was really at the height of my mushroom hobby/obsession, we took the dogs for a walk over some fields on the outskirts of Wellingborough. It was a cold and dreary late June day, the third day in a row of autumnal styled weather. In the middle of one of the fields was literally hundreds and hundreds of field and horse mushrooms. We picked nearly 10 pounds of mushrooms that day; still the biggest crop I've ever found, even if there wasn't much variety.

For the last five years, pickings have been sparse; so poor that I've almost forgotten the joys of foraging. It also doesn't help that when I lived in Wellingborough, I knew all the places where all the best mushrooms grew. Now I'm in Shoesville, I know places, but they are either few and far between or in places where I won't take the dogs (dog walking and mushroom hunting is a no brainer). Couple that with the overly dry or wet summers we've had recently and the conditions for fruiting have been severely limited. In fact, over the last three years, I've found very little to get excited about - a few horse mushrooms, the occasional edible bracket, field mushrooms and parasols - shaggy and plain and not much else to mention. Even holidays to places where I know good shrooms grow have yielded token examples. I went to the New Forest for the day last year, while on holiday in Dorset; I found one cep and a couple of manky russulas.

The signs were good this year. A dry summer is always good for fungus, but only if you get the required rain, at the right time, with the right conditions. When this happens, you're likely to be in for a real surprise.

It started about two weeks ago, I accidentally stumbled upon a tree stump with a large cousin of oyster mushroom growing on it. It was a great find, albeit a wee bit unusual as this is a mushroom that normally grows between October and March. The signs were good and the following day we went to a place where I know chicken of the woods grows and sure enough, there it was in all its sulphurous glory. I was hopeful of a good season for once.

There are a lot of common mushrooms growing all around us and a lot of them are edible, but I wouldn't recommend you pick any without knowing what you are doing and I've been doing this for getting on for 20 years now - amazing as it seems - and I still don't keep anything I'm not 100% sure about and even then I double check before putting anything in the pot. Most people that forage around for this kind of free food always have particular favourites - mine are parasol mushrooms and horse mushrooms, basically because they're bloody tasty and piss all over any shop bought shroom. Plus there are the shrooms that are worth their own weight in gold - truffles are a delicacy I've yet to discover, but expensive mushrooms such as ceps, bay boletus, morels and chanterelles are highly sort after and top chefs will pay unbelievable amounts of money for top quality mushrooms. This is why the New Forest is such a haven for mushroom hunters - every year, at some point, the floor of the forests and clearings look as though a crazy baker has thrown all of his buns out of the van. Look at it this way, a cep is a porcini mushroom and you can buy 100 grams of dried porcini mushrooms for about £3; top restaurants will pay professional foragers about £25 a pound for fresh ceps and if you can find truffles that price just goes through the roof.

After the heavy rains of last week, I got this feeling on Saturday that this place, not too far from where I live, might have something worth investigating. 6 years ago, during the last good shroom season, I found a heap of bay boletus growing in some woods; unfortunately, they were also growing next to a load of bitter boletus - not poisonous, but apparently a little like lacing your food with earwax if you cook with them. I'd been mushroom hunting for nearly 15 years and I still made the mistake of thinking that if it looked edible, it must be. No harm was done, but I wasted a lot of time slicing up unusable mushrooms to dry. Bay boletus are similar to ceps, but have a darker brown cap and a vivid yellow underside, which stains slightly greenish blue if you bruise it. It is, in many ways, a much better shroom than ceps, because maggots - the bane of any forager - don't get very far up the stalk before they give up and die. They are also very tasty, especially when they are young (when they get big, they're best for drying out as the flesh can go a bit soft if overcooked) and while I like finding ceps, they're a real rarity in these parts, where I have at least found bay boletus in a number of places.

We traipsed around the woods for nearly an hour and I found nothing bar two charcoal russulas and that was within seconds of stepping out of the car. It sort of gave me a false hope that would have been realised if we hadn't made a slight detour at the end of our walk. It was the wife who spotted the first one - it takes me a while to get my mushroom eyes working - and I was slightly taken aback. It was a cep and a good one; then she found another and another! I then found a cluster of bay boletus and within 20 minutes we had about 20 specimens and another chunk of chicken of the woods. When we got home, my neighbour, who knows about my hobby had a big carrier bag of field mushrooms picked from her horse's field. It was turning into a great day!
We returned the next day and found a dozen more new ones. Basically, if we don't see another mushroom this year I will be happy. I have two racks of sliced shrooms drying in the airing cupboard- filling it with this wonderfully rich aroma, an almost meaty smell that will eventually add depth and extra flavour to stews, soups and any mushroom dish.

I've introduced a lot of people to the pleasures of mushroom hunting and many of them, armed with a reference or field book, have found lots and enjoyed the benefits. But I always tell them that they have to cut the mushroom at the base of the stem and not pull them up. If you pull them up, you damage the mycelial strands, which are actually the mushroom. If you do this, you can kill or stunt the growth of that fungus and that means when you go back for more, there won't be any.

My main problem with foraging now is that I have to do mine at weekends and in the evening, after work, when I take the dogs out. The number of times I've found great mushrooms that have either been attacked by local wildlife (everything seems to love russulas, from slugs to deer), kicked around by kids or just had gone a little bit over. It also sometimes amazes me that I walked around for years without ever really noticing them - an entirely different life form from plant or animal. This weekend, I intend to visit a couple of places I know have had good shrooms growing there in the past. One of the places has the Prince grow there quite often. This is the royalty of the agaricus family - agaricus are what you eat when you buy punnets of bog standard shrooms from the shops; it is the safest genus in that there's only really one of its species that is poisonous and contributes to more than 90% of all poisonings each year. The one to avoid is called a Yellow Stainer, or agaricus xanthodermos, it does exactly what it says on the tin. It stains yellow and when I say yellow I mean canary yellow and so quickly its almost violent. A good rule of thumb with mushrooms like the ones you buy is that if you run your nail across the cap, if it doesn't stain yellow immediately, then its safe to eat. Yellow stainers also smell of carbolic soap, which I think is a bit of a give away. But, the Prince is a truly amazing mushroom. It can be pretty massive and has similar characteristics to a parasol, in that it has a mottled cap with brown splotches on it. It stains a pinky red colour when you cut it - and this is good - and tastes like concentrated mushrooms. It cooks incredibly well and goes with just about anything. I have only found a dozen in 20 years, and 5 of them were under some one's hedge in the Peak District.

If nothing else, it has given me the opportunity to waffle on, with renewed vigour, about my only real hobby again. I'd love to be able to take people on forays; I really enjoy talking about mushrooms and helping people get into it. The problem is forays need to start at the end of August and go through until the end of October - the reason being is that you get different species at different times. Nowadays, I've seen adverts for mushroom forages and they've all been at the arse end of October, a time when the season really is winding down - and, if there's been any days of hard frost early in October, that kills of most shrooms for the year.

I was talking to someone last year who had been on a foray around Irchester Country Park near Halloween. She said the instructor wasn't helpful, gave no real information and they found nothing of (edible) interest. She felt it was a wasted two hours. I fancy I would have done a better job - there's always something to say about the places where mushrooms grow, even if it isn't a mushroom you're looking at.

Now, there's an important football match about to kick off and my future happiness rests on the result...

Vapour Trails

Despite my enthusiasm about the blossoming mushrooms all around me, I have to admit that my body is beginning to reject them in a most unpleasant way. A friend of mine, Will, who is also a keen mushroom man, found a few years ago that he literally couldn't stomach mushrooms the way he once could and if he ate too many of them, it had adverse effects on his digestive tracts... It seems I'm coming down with the same malady. Why is it that all the things you love end up killing you or making you ill? For me this is the main reason why I don't believe in God and look on with mild amusement at religious people and their obsession. I wouldn't worship a god that makes everything I like bad for me! How bloody wrong is that? Smoke and I die of lung cancer or heart disease; drink and I might do damage to my liver and kill me; don't have sex because you might catch something and/or die; don't lie in the sun or you'll get cancer and die. All the tastiest foods are bad for you!

If I wanted to live an extra 10 years, but be unbelievably dull and boring, as well as bored, then I'll just eat alfalfa sprouts, drink spring water and keep myself covered up all the time.


Some of my neighbours can't park. It's an incredible thing, to think these people got driving licences and yet seem afraid of parallel parking if there's another car within 100 yards of it.

The wife and I have been complaining about one of our near neighbours and his apparent ability to park anywhere in the road that isn't in front of his own house. You'd come home from work and he'd be somewhere you park, or over the road, or up the street. It looked as though he was just randomly parking to piss off his neighbours. But, the guy doesn't appear to have the mental capacity to think that deviously or be that petty. Then, arriving home from work yesterday, I spied that my usual parking space was empty, so I pulled in, just as neighbour was coming round the corner. I had effectively reduced the distance between my car and the wife's by half, which meant he couldn't drive straight in, he would have to either reverse it in - actually really easy - or drive in and wiggle about for ages until he was sorted. You could actually get a limousine in the gap and that was what alerted me. He sat on the other side of the road for a few seconds and I saw the look of extreme panic on his face. I thought, 'he's scared of parking' and dismissed it as unlikely. I got out, locked up and walked for the front door and he pulled up the street, about 60 yards and pulled into a gap you could have parked a jumbo jet in. That made me rack my brains for previous times and I realised that every single time he parked somewhere else, that I could remember, it was because there were two cars at either side of where he normally parks.

I put the idea to the wife and she agreed. The problem is, it causes all kinds of disruptions via a ripple affect. If he parks over the road, they'll park in front of my house - we don't have a drive - meaning I park as close as I can, meaning whoever parks where I am has to find somewhere else and so on and so forth. I thought for a while that he must get a kick out of pissing so many people off, but now I realise that its something fundamentally different. He's a crap driver!


My previously mentioned and good, yet still unmet, friend Will posted something on his Facebook page recently which had an unexpected effect on me...

Now Will, like a lot of friends, is someone I've got to know through comics and usually when they post or link anything to comics, I avoid it like the plague. However, this time was a little different. He posted a link to a six minute film featuring all the most well known DC characters. It was called DC: Who Do You Trust and amazingly it wasn't a trailer for a new forthcoming blockbuster, but the scene-setter for a new game. Constructed entirely in CGI, the only thing that was poor about it was some of the voice actors, other than that it was 6 minutes of sheer genius.

When I was younger, I was Marvel through and through, but as the continuity and convoluted nature of Marvel's comics battered me into submission, I rediscovered DC comics (with the exception of Batman), I found in my later comics reading career, it was the icons created in the 30s, 40s and 50s that I cared more about. With the exception of the first Iron Man film, I've been largely underwhelmed by superhero films based on existing characters; but the trailer for this game, pushed every button I possess.

Why haven't the major comics companies endorsed a full computer animated version of something? As this film proved, you can have a massive ensemble cast and still be blown away by the brilliance of the locations and the battle scenes.

Go look for it on Google and even if you don't like superheroes, be amazed at what goes into an introduction for a game and how that market is now becoming far more lucrative than films.


I had this conversation the other day, which resulted in me admitting that I have no porn whatsoever. I do not own a copy of any kind of wank mag; I don't possess a blue movie and if you searched through my Internet history you'll see that the closest I've ever... ahem... come to a porn website has been doing a search on "Alison Scaglioti sexy" (which yielded absolutely bugger all)...

I've often said that pornography doesn't do anything for me at all. That said, I have absolutely nothing against my wife prancing about the house naked. I love naked women; I actually think they were one of the greatest inventions of all time! However, the idea of viewing a naked women as an object, especially the ones where the expression 'butcher's window' springs to mind, isn't sexy, isn't erotic and in 2D it's all a bit autopsy-ish.

If I had to be honest, I'd say I was probably a wee bit Victorian. I've always been a 'behind closed doors' kind of person and therefore some things have a tendency to shock me. Several years ago, a large 'family' of Eastern Europeans bought the house directly opposite my office window. This bunch of new neighbours settled in and kept very much to themselves. There was the husband and wife, young daughter and the mother one of the parent's. The parents occupied the bedroom directly opposite my office and the mother the room just off to my right.

Five times in the last couple of years; I've been 'subjected' to displays of nudity, self-pleasure and an act of union. All times the curtains have been open and because my house sits slightly above the one over the road, I've been given a free show, the kind you'd pay hard cash for on the Internet. It's not just me; in my defence, even my neighbours have witnessed our new neighbours in varying states of sexual arousal and undress. They think it's quite funny, but they are much younger than me.

I really don't know if they're aware that we can see what they're doing and if they do they obviously don't care; but I think perhaps they're like people who pick their noses in cars - they're so wrapped up in what they're doing they don't think about the people who can see them. Or perhaps they see me sitting here most nights and feel sorry for me and have decided to brighten up my life a little? Nah, praps not.

I feel I should mention it to them, but it's difficult enough to approach someone whose first language is English and discuss something as delicate; imagine what it would be like trying to explain to someone whose English is still not that good? I'd end up getting arrested or beaten up... I can see it. The real shame of the situation though is the view hasn't really been that good - if you know what I mean?


I have spent the last 2 hours shouting at the television. All my trepidation was for nought, because the men beat the Boys 4-0 and I have another 6 nights to look forward to where I'll want to hide behind the sofa!

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Rainbow

A Televisual review.

Every so often, something comes along that cries out to be talked about. Invariably, this is something special; or an event that polarises opinions, but merits discussion. In the modern world this tends to be a media based thing - films, TV, music, books - something that comes along that warrants attention.
And every so often something comes along that is just so bad, it beggars belief that whatever it is actually came into being. One perfect example of this is SyFy's new television show Haven. I've been watching TV for over 40 years and I don't think I've ever seen a TV program so unbelievably bad as this.
'Haven is a supernatural drama television series loosely based on the Stephen King novel The Colorado Kid.' Or at least that's what its Wiki entry claims. The key word in that sentence is loosely because any link between this TV series and the novella by King is tenuous at best. The original Colorado Kid story was essentially an unsolved mystery story about a body that turns up on the estuary sands of a Maine coastal town called Haven. The story explains the long and drawn out process to find out who the man was and then how and why he ended up thousands of miles from home, dead and with no identification. It has no real ending apart from the hypothesis of the FBI agent investigating the incident (in many aspects it is very similar to King's From A Buick 8 in the the way it is told). That's it. That's the premise of the 170 page thriller.
Haven, the TV series, has the following in common with the book. Dave and Vince, the editors and owners of the local newspaper (albeit considerably younger and less professional) are present, so is the chief of police, George Wournos and, of course, the town itself. That's sort of where the similarities end. It should be noted that The colorado Kid was a mystery novel and there was no hint, at all, that something supernatural was working in Haven.
Haven's premise is that an FBI agent is sent to Haven by a mysteriously black (as in race) FBI chief (not disimilar to Anna Torv's boss in Fringe) to investigate the death of a suspect. She discovers that the town is very similar to the way Agent Stephanie McCann, from the book, found it - quaint, antiquated and like something out of Murder, She Wrote. But there are some strange things going on in this sleep little coastal community; things that appear to be attributed to 'The Troubles' - whatever they might be, and trust me, 7 episodes into a 13 episode run and we're still not even clear what anything is in this town.
The new agent, Audrey Parker is portrayed as a difficult woman who lives on her own and has a troubled, if not slightly mysterious past; as in she was orphaned and never knew her parents and we haven't yet discovered why. She quickly solves the case assigned to her, but not without discovering the local deputy she's been paired with is a bit odd. He's either being paid to be an emotionless cypher or the guy who plays Nathan Wournos (son of the chief) cannot act to save his life and no one has bothered to notice. Nathan suffers from a condition that means he feels no pain at all and it seems that physical malady has turned him into a cold block of emotionless cop, or so I hoped.
Before the end of the pilot, Audrey is shown a newspaper clipping by Dave and Vince of the local paper; in it is a picture that looks like the blond Audrey, but with dark, possibly red, hair and holding the hand of a child. It sits under the headline 'Who is the Colorado Kid?' but as there are others in the picture and it looks like a crime scene, Audrey can decipher nothing more from it.
Also, it needs mentioning that no one in the cast has ever been seen before, apart from the guest star of the week; which started with Nicole Boer and fizzled out, presumably becauser the budget, or lack of it. However, Eric Balfour is one of the three main stars of the show. Balfour has been in Buffy, 24 and a host of other films and TV shows; you'd recognise him easily because he normally dies in most of the things he appears in because he's the punk kid who's got death written all over him. Balfour plays Duke, a man of questionable morals and a thorn in Nathan's side, for reasons that I think they've attempted to address but failed miserably.
So sets the scene for new mystery subplots, designed to draw us in to this bizarre new world. However, the story, about someone gaining revenge in an odd fashion is so full of holes that it would struggle to hold anything - jelly included. The opener also tries the formula of setting someone up as the likely antagonist, onloy for them to be killed, maimed or incapacitated by the midway point, thus hoping to throw the viewer (as well as the cops) off the track. Now, with the first episode this was quite clever, but as the same plot device has now been used for the last 7 episodes, you now watch it and immediately rule out the chief suspect, just by the way he acts in his first scene - the guilty looking guy didn't do it!
Over the space of 7 weeks, I'd hoped that the series would start to move along. It hasn't spectacularly. What we have had is a succession of weird happenings a week: a succubus styled woman who drains the life from men to produce perfect babies within 48 hours; animated stuffed animals, butterflies of death, a woman who has the power to draw voodoo pictures of people, waves of rotting produce and a host of others so weird I've completely forgotten about them. Each episode's story is pretty rank and you hope that the bits in between will reveal what Audrey's connection to the woman in the photo is, or what Nathan's real problem is (hinted at, but not revealed), what the Troubles actually are and any of the little things that keep getting hinted at. But no, we get dialogue that is so trite its unbelievable. We don't even get progression of a subplot; all we get is the same information told again.
There is a Medical Examiner, who appears, like Dave and Vince, to be old enough to tell Audrey what's going on, but instead of explanations or hints, we get: 'The Troubles are back again' or 'You're not a local until you've been here 30 years and even then you're not' and lots of other pointless gems of wisdom that, oddly enough, King uses in his Maine set stories. Frankly, if I was FBI agent Audrey Parker I wouldn't be quite so obliging and if she's a crack FBI agent, like she was portrayed in the pilot, how come she's allowing everyone to give her cryptic clues without trying to follow them up or even, God forbid, question the people concealing glimpses of the woman in the picture, who now it seems is most likely Audrey's mother.
I get the impression that the writers are trying a little too hard to be enigmatic and have lost sight of what they originally intended to do. Or, they might be two 12 year olds, because some of the writing is so bad it makes you wonder why SyFy bought it in the first place! I appreciate the program is made on a really small budget, but that doesn't excuse the unbelievably poor and badly written scripts, or the fact that the editor of the show quite conceivably didn't read the scripts before assembling the finished rushes. There have been at least 3 occasions where the script refers to things that haven't happened yet; most tellingly in an episode where stuffed animals are gaining revenge on those that shot them. Audrey turns to her partner and says something along the lines of, "there's something fishy going on here; we've got two animal attacks in the space of 24 hours." Which would have been okay had they not been sitting in their car outside the place where the first attack took place and where the actual second attack doesn't take place for another 24 hours. It just sort of makes you want to know what substances the producers were on when they allowed this thing to be aired on cable TV.
There is another startlingly bad bit ofm plotting during ther latest episode. The two cops suspect a girl of being involved in the strange events taking place, so they stop in at her art class and ask for an interview. She lies to them almost immediately and they confront her on it and then Audrey suggests that perhaps going down to the station would be a better place to talk, away from her art class. But the girl's attitude changes and she says that unless they're planning on arresting her, she's not going anywhere and she's not talking to anyone and she storms back into her art class. The two cops; one of which is a crack FBI agent, look at each other, shrug their shoulders and leave! This is a town where weird shit happens all the time and they suspected her, yet she shouts at them and they back off. God, I think in the USA, the term and practice Probable Cause is used whenever possible. In this part of the world, the police walk away when a girl shouts at them!
In fact, the entire show feels so staged that even though as long as a week might pass during an episode, it's like whenever the camera isn't on these people they just cease to exist. Any character development is ignored; but I'm not entirely sure what it's ignored for, because nothing else much happens. Every time a character appears it's like they've never been on the show before (or in the town) and they show it. I'm surprised some of the actors aren't looking into the actual camera and smiling while they say their lines with much skill and passion.
Balfour is the only real actor and it shows; his scenes at least feel as though there's a pro on the stage; the problem is his character is so changeable that you have to wonder whether the writers actually have character studies and sheets or if they're doing it from memory only after a heavy night on Bolivian Marching Powder and Tequila Slammers!
Emily Rose, whom plays Audrey would be an ideal choice to play a 30-year-old Buffy Summers; its like she's sort of based Audrey on Buffy as an older woman - she's full of wise cracks and witty retorts and she's blond and athletic, even if she doesn't stake vamps or have super powers. Nathan, played by Lucas Bryant, is as dull as brown crimpolene trousers, yet the actor would probably make a perfect Roland of Gilead, with a little grey around the temples and a couple of fingers missing. As the son of the sheriff, who, it seems is based on the Mayor of Amity from Jaws, he's about as effective as a chocolate teapot and even his father doesn't seem to think he's up for much; so far this has been one of the few consistent things. He's not useless and he's not a bad cop; he's just not much of anything really and even though the writer's have given him a love interest, the actress who plays her acts worse than Bryant. It's like she's got a gun pointed at her head every time she speaks and she's supposedly French Canadian, however, her accent ranges from outrageous in a Monty Python kind of way to almost English in a Liz Hurley kind of way - she's also another one of these people who seemingly knows things. I just wish one of the main characters would just come out and ask someone what's going on, rather than sitting around all day mulling over shit and talking about who's the best pastry maker in the town.
Haven is rancid shit. It's got the hallmarks of going down in history as possibly one of the poorest made TV shows of all time; but it has one thing going for it - the scenery. The show is filmed in Nova Scotia and while parts of it look like bleakest industrial Cornwall and other parts like Northern Scotland, it is, for the most, quite spectacular and with its sparsely dotted houses and idyllic locations, it makes you want to go there and make a TV show that's better than this. And, to be honest, if you had a camcorder, about $50 and a car you could probably make it far better.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

We are in control

Ever spent ages doing something and then felt reluctant about doing anything else with it?

I have written yet another blog entry that will probably never see the light of day. 2000+ words and a real feeling that it's just not worth sharing.

It's not like its controversial or anything - I talk about my arthritis (woo), the state of the nation (boo), a video clip I was sent the link for and my adventures as an accidental voyeur. But after actually editing it this morning, I still felt it was way below my usual low standards. It might also have cast me as pervy, nerdy, whingey and totally pessimistic. I feel a bit like a glass totally empty person at the moment, which I need to get out of.

It's not helped by the way summer seems to be petering out, just when we could do with two more solid months of it to make up for the shit first half of the year. Even my positive attitude about some things has taken on a slightly 'I don't really believe what I'm saying feel'.

However, one thing did happen yesterday that I was very happy about. Shrooms! On a jaunt through some local woods, I found half a dozen ceps; all young, fresh and worth their weight in gold - literally. I also found some fresh sulphur polypor and some charcoal russulas. It was a good hour's work. I got home and my lovely neighbour Cheryl called me out to the garden. She had a BIG bag of mushrooms she'd found at her horse field. There were about a pound of field mushrooms - all in excellent shape - and because they don't like mushrooms (??!!??) they picked them for me! Wasn't that nice?

But, this is an indication of what I'm like at the moment. We had fresh rain last night; the season has started in earnest and a damp late summer and autumn will guarantee we all have a rare fungal explosion; yet I'm thinking, I'll take all my stuff, my myco-knife, basket, book and brush and end up traipsing around looking for nothing...

Apparently, you can buy a four bedroomed house with over an acre of land in Nova Scotia for about £30k... There is also a town in Newfoundland called... Dildo.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Book(s) Review

The Dark Tower:
The Gunslinger; The Drawing of the Three; The Waste Lands; Wizard & Glass; Wolves of the Calla; Song of Susannah; The Dark Tower.
by Stephen King

"It's the journey, not the destination," is a famous quotation, which I believe is what Stephen King might use as a fall back excuse for this monstrous work. And I mean monstrous in two ways - it is a massive 7 books long and it's pretty horrendous...

Investment isn't just an economic thing. You invest time, energy and and emotions into some things. There are some people who view things as minutes, hours or days that they have wasted, while others repeat another man's boredom because it isn't wasted on them. For the Constant Reader of King's books, investment is a large part of one's involvement, especially the Dark Tower books, because the first one was published nearly 30 years ago (and the first lines of that story were written 40 years ago). People who bought the first book probably had no idea that so much of their time, energy, emotions and, yes, hard earned cash, would go on a story about a despicable man, his band of misfits and a place called the Dark Tower, which ends up being the biggest misnomer of the entire story.

When we first meet Roland Deschain of Gilead, he is a man pursuing another man across a vast almost timeless desert, in a world that has 'moved on'; He is a Clint Eastwood kinda guy, but without the soft edges. In The Gunslinger we meet Roland, a boy called Jake, who would be sacrificed, some characters to set the scene and a man, who may or may not be someone we've met before (and might meet again). The book isn't an enjoyable read; in fact, there's little about the book to inspire. It seems to be a western set in either a far future of this or an alternate reality, very similar to our own. This is essentially a scene-setter, a raison detre for Roland's quest; although, to be honest, the reason for Roland's quest for the tower is never really fully explained. It is his job, so no real questions are ever asked.

As if to compound the awkward and almost jarring nature of The Gunslinger's prose, The Drawing of the Three isn't a good read. It's a rip-roaring fantasy piece that introduces us to two more equally unlikeable characters in Eddie Dean - a junkie from the 1980s and Odetta Holmes - a black schizophrenic amputee from the early 1960s. It also introduces us to a character who links the characters together by his murderous actions and links them to Jake Chalmers, the boy who died in the first book, only to be reborn and then die again.

Even after numerous readings, this book is a mean and unpleasant tale. Nasty things happen to major characters and you find yourself not giving a hoot. Yet, by the time King wrote The Waste Lands, the characters had moved on, become more like the ones they would develop into. Yes, Roland was an arse; But Eddie was growing into a good character with a pretty grim past (and a past that I personally got fed up of reading about). Even the reintroduced Jake Chalmers had something kind of unlikeable about him. And there was now Susannah, the amalgam of sweet natured Odetta and her psycho black bitch side Detta. This was a character that you struggled to feel any sympathy for; she was just less endearing the longer you spent time with her.

Yet, The Waste Lands developed the story much further and it now became clear that Roland needed a band of like minded folk to accompany him on his journey - a new ka-tet, to replace the one he lost in a never truly revealed story. Slowly, but surely, we learned about the world they found themselves in; which grew more and more like Earth at the end of civilisation and time. Links to other King stories became more apparent, especially The Stand and The Waste Lands, while really 2½ stories in a single volume began to infiltrate its way into everything King wrote (and to start with, this really wasn't a bad thing).

However, the gap between the third and fourth books was considerable and I don't believe many of King's Constant Readers' were particularly thrilled. Wizard & Glass was unbelievably boring; it was a rambling 'western' bookended by the proper ending of the third book and a disjointed and hard to follow sequence involving Randall Flagg. But it was the sprawling tale of Roland's youth that dominated. We met his first ka-tet, the reasons for his ascension to Gunslinger and the first hints that the story was slowly developing away from what many believed was King's original idea.

What this book also did was start asking more questions and not giving satisfactory answers - one wonders if the writers of Lost used this book series as a reference library. Even four books in, Roland's quest was vague; he was in search of the mythical Dark Tower, being called by it, but the reader never quite understood the importance or the reason for reaching it. What also started to become clear was that the Dark Tower wasn't actually a bad place, despite its ominous sounding name; it appeared to be the nexus of all realities and an overwhelming force of good. So why the Dark prefix?

Then Stephen King almost died in a bizarre hit and run accident and the world changed...

Before it did, King released Hearts in Atlantis, which can only be described as an essential part of the Dark Tower story and that's where things started to get a bit loose. In this book (of 5 interlocking stories) we are introduced to Ted Brautigan, who plays a large part in the final book; but more importantly, we're introduced to the can-toi or Low Men as Ted calls them. Hearts like King's Insomnia prior to his accident, appeared to be pivotal to the story; it also changed the complexion of villains (The can-toi had sort of been introduced in Desperation, but not in the same way).

The annoying thing about Hearts is that while it had its inevitable links to the Dark Tower (as all of King's books did by then), it didn't feel like it had a pivotal part to play in the magnum opus - in fact, when King released the follow up to The Talisman with Peter Straub, a excellent (if not at times confusing) book called Black House, which remarkably also has links to The Dark Tower, despite it being co-written; this seemed to be more linked to Hearts than anything else. To be honest, King and Straub's two books, while both excellent reads, just muddy the waters for King aficionados - the problem is King (presumably him as its his baby) has linked them to the Dark Tower and all the latter explanations don't help to shift the incongruous feel. In the end, King chooses to make Low Men in Yellow Coats, the main story in Hearts a sudden and new direction for his Dark Tower story.

Meanwhile, back into Dark Tower reality and King, recovered from his life threatening hit and run event has decided to finish the story before death finishes him. Wolves of the Calla is actually, in many respects, the best of the lot. It has a Stephen King feel about it, which the others didn't seem to have, despite the fact that as it draws on, the reader becomes more and more infuriated by the cliché after cliché that riddles the book, the sudden change in language (which would retroactively be changed in re-issues of the previous books) and the nagging feeling that this was no longer a fantasy novel series, but a review of King's bibliography mixed with American culture references.

Wolves was at least a complete story, even if it was The Magnificent Seven and not just in plot similarities, but in many other ways - it is set in a place called Calla Bryn Sturgis: Yul Brynner was the star of that film and it was directed by John Sturgis. It also started to mix fantasy with reality - real reality; our reality. We also discover in this book that Stephen King exists and so does one of the characters from one of his earliest novels - Father Callahan from Salem's Lot.

It is in this book however that one of the books most jarring continuity lapses happen; the reader wouldn't realise for another 700 pages, but in the grand scheme of things it proves, for me, to be very important.

Song of Susannah isn't a novel as such, more a preamble or scene setter for the denouement; in fact, very little happens in the book apart from muddying the waters further, plus we're introduced to the one single thing that completely destroyed the story's credibility - Stephen King, as himself, in his own book, talking about writing (or not) The Dark Tower books with Roland and Eddie.

Song also introduces us to the taheen, a race of animal creatures with no real explanation as to why they are there or where they originate from; we also get reintroduced to the Low Men, who suddenly now are the vehicles of the Crimson King despite having only been introduced a couple of years earlier. The Low Men are actually not humans, but are creatures that wear slightly ill fitting human skin (presumably stolen from a real human). But there's more; we also learn that the vampires that Callahan talked of and were introduced in King's second ever novel are also linked directly to the Crimson King. Can you see why this book does nothing but cloud issues; we're a book away from the conclusion and suddenly we're into character introduction overload.

To further confuse, Susannah, who we know is pregnant from some demon from Book 3, has manifested another personality and is in the process of giving birth to a child that is both clever in its creation and equally pointless. A character built up to be the ultimate nemesis of Roland, but turns out to be another damp squib.

To add to the confusion; Roland and Eddy spend some time with the writer and we begin to see that King has written himself into the story, possibly not because of ego, but because he deluded himself into thinking the story would have more resonance if he told it as if he was being made to write the story rather than him just making it up. This doesn't work, because the it isn't needed - unless it was needed to give the book a conclusion.

I think it was pious of King to use his accident and real characters from his life to try and make this great American tale. Yes the book is about realities and alternate ones, but why introduce himself as almost as real as he exists? Why not just have a writer who is chronicling the story, in another reality?

Six books down and yet suddenly we gave a shit about Eddie Dean; he's become a decent guy; we now cared about Jake, not because he was just the kid, but because he was developing into a clever character. We all had soft spots in our hearts for Oy the billy-bumbler; apparently something like a cross between a badger and a collie dog, who also spoke and had more than just an understanding of what was going on. Susannah was just plain unlovable and Roland was infuriating - as King obviously intended him to always be.

The story seemed to change in urgency very quickly. Suddenly the emphasis was on saving the beams rather than finding the Tower - after all, the two have been linked throughout the series. In the final instalment many things happen very fast: Susannah gives birth to Mordred, who is half human, half monster; he in turn kills Randall Flagg (in what was one of many almost pointlessly understated deaths) and begins a quest of his own. The gunslingers, with the aid of Ted Brautigan (from Hearts), Dinky Earnshaw (from the short story Everything is Eventual) and Stanley Ruiz, who turns out to be Sheemie, the idiot helper from Wizards and devoted follower of Roland. The 'coincidences' in this story had been cringeworthy, but this was possibly one of the worst. I would think the basic responsibility of a writer is not to test the patience of his readers, but this bit of coincidence was just a little too hard to swallow.

This group of 'Breakers' - the concept had been introduced many years earlier of psychic beings used to break the beams that run through the top of the Tower - help Roland and co., to defeat the people responsible for breaking the beams.

It is during this period that one of the biggest continuity glitches hits home; in Wolves we are introduced to a character called Finli o'Tego; we never see him, he is the person the traitor amongst the Calla people reports to. In Wolves, the traitor reports to o'Tego that there are gunslingers in the Calla and their intention is to help the folk. Obviously Roland and his tet triumph and the traitor no longer will report back to Thunderclap - the place where the beam is being broken. However, during a conversation between o'Tego - a taheen - and his boss, while he makes reference to some of the events in the Calla, he dismisses it all as hearsay, despite the fact the wolves they sent to harvest children had all been destroyed. It might not seem like much, but it just doesn't compute on all kinds of levels. The series has its flaws, big time; such as never fully explaining anything - like joining a 13-part TV show without seeing the first three episodes. It's like the reader is being left with the nagging feeling that he's just witnessed a cat walk exhibition with no theme - lots of things happening, but where actually is the story and internal logic. Why are these things happening? My belief is that the story was so flawed, that King just continually introduced new characters, races and ideas to cover up the fact that there wasn't actually a story to be told. The journey rather than the destination...

The Dark Tower is in many ways a complete bastard of a book. It doesn't actually do anything the Constant Reader probably had hoped for. From the almost pointless death of Eddie Dean and his prophecies (the first of many deus ex machinas used in just 650 pages), the equally pointless death of Jake, this time dying to save Stephen King's life. The way Mordred was built up only to end up being nothing more than the facilitator of Oy's death and the final book's eventual Wizard of Oz feel; with Roland and his dwindling team facing different obstacles along the final road to the fabled Dark Tower.

Probably the thing that upsets me more than anything else in this book was the reintroduction of Patrick Danville. This is a complicated issue for dedicated King readers and especially for me as Patrick was introduced in my favourite King novel, Insomnia. There is so much about Insomnia I could probably write a long essay about it. I think, once upon a time, it was the most important book King had ever written, in relation to the Dark Tower. It was written during the period between Book 3 and 4, the longest gap. This book introduced us to the Crimson King, has a mention of Roland and lays the tantalising foundation that the entire adventure was tom prevent a child from being killed, because the child, 6-year old Patrick Danville, will grow up to save the life of a man who will ultimately prove to be pivotal in history. It was like King either intended at some point to return to Patrick Danville or planned to use him eventually in the Dark Tower. He did, but in an almost heartbreaking way. Insomnia, I believe, was King writing the Dark Tower story in short hand. I think he had grown tired of Roland and Mid-World by the early 1990s and he still felt compelled to tell the story; so he told Insomnia instead, which explains so much about the nature of King's universe and how the Dark Tower sits in it all. In fact, I'm not the only person who believed Insomnia was vitally important in King's work; the writer himself writes Insomnia into the final Dark Tower book. But Roland dismisses the advice to read the book, believing it to be jinxed.

Patrick in The Dark Tower is of an undetermined age - he could be a teenager, but equally he could be much older. He has been kept prisoner by the evil psychic vampire Dandelo (another character introduced at the death to steer us away from the story's eventual pay off) for an unknown amount of time; he has been tortured, drained and eventually had his tongue ripped out. He is still the artist he was when he was 6 and this proves to be very important.

Patrick can draw things into reality and eventually he discovers that with the aid of an eraser he can un-create things, but not before Mordred and Oy are killed and Susannah decides to leave Roland to follow the strange dreams she's been having.

Finally, it's just pompous Roland and mute Patrick on the yellow brick road; all diversions have been passed and finally they face the Crimson King and still the incredible bullshit continues - the King is throwing Harry Potter exploding Sneetches at them. The final confrontation is a man stuck on a balcony throwing stuff at the gunslinger hiding behind some stones in a field full of roses. Finally, Roland gets Patrick to draw the King and then erase him from existence, which he does, leaving nothing but the trademark pair of burning red eyes to spend eternity trapped on a balcony on the lower part of the Tower.

The book ends in an odd way. It has three endings. The end of the quest, that has Roland sending Patrick off back towards civilisation and finally entering the Tower with a fanfare. The first epilogue follows Susannah into an alternative world where she meets versions of Eddie and Jake, now brothers and we get the impression that they live together for a long time and might even be joined by a dog with familiar characteristics. What's galling for me about this is that the character who deserved a happy ending the least was Susannah and yet she got one.

Then we're left with Coda - the final chapter. This is Roland's journey up the steps of the Tower to the room at the top where he believes all his answers will be revealed. You pretty much know how its going to end and in many ways I'm happy with the conclusion. It was at least what I'd expected for a few years. However, the book has so many inconsistencies, changes in direction, rewrites and confusing elements - especially the way it attempts to write everything as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The irony for me is that Marvel Comics have published a number of spin-off series, which allegedly fill in the gaps left in the books. Well, surely the books shouldn't have had any gaps. It should have been a story that any one can pick up and enjoy, without having to read everything else. King has proved that he could hack it big big in a PR or promotions firm.

Ultimately, I really felt that King robbed me of 20 years of my life (well, not literally, but you catch the drift) and it wasn't because it didn't pan out the way I'd hoped, but because he changed the way he wrote it. It wasn't the story he started in 1970, nor was it the story he was writing during Book 3, although I'm sure much of that remained, it just got obscured by what King probably felt was the better dynamic. I just think it's the ultimate cop out for a writer to start something, get half way through and decide that he wants to do something differently, so reissues the earlier books in a revised format and pisses over all the expectations of the people who started the success that became The Dark Tower. King let me and many other people down with this volte face and I don't care what he says about the story never really changing that much; it would have been nice to have had a story rather than a travelogue of events.

Now there's news that he's to release a new Dark Tower book, set between Books 4 & 5, which sounds to me like a bit of retroactive repair work, because the difference in the way the first 4 books read compared to the final 3. Marvel is to continue telling stories of In-World, Mid-World and End-World and there's going to be a 3-film trilogy for the cinema produced in 2011. The Dark Tower is massive; it's a rollercoaster and a financial cash cow; but it's actually a pretty crappy story, riven with holes, continuity hiccups and far more dislikeable characters than deserve your money.

I wouldn't recommend this series to anyone who wants to experience Stephen King, or for that matter, anyone who wants to read a good story. The Dark Tower's presence has effectively made some good books not worth reading, because no casual reader is going to want to read a story that is laced with references to another story, especially if that other story doesn't deliver the goods. I said many years before The Dark Tower 'concluded' and have stuck with it - read Insomnia, it tells what I think was the original story in a sort of shorthand way. Treat the three lines about Roland getting a good night's sleep as a throwaway comment, that the sneaker reference is not worth pursuing and think of Patrick Danville's future story as something you don't need to know about and you'll see why Insomnia is such a great and utterly bizarre story. Plus, you'll be hard pressed to find a more heroic and likeable character than Ralph Roberts.

The Dark Tower story has some genuine high points, but these have either been written out or are so few and far between that it makes the series an expensive purchase. It does have many low points, far too many. Don't get sucked in, you'll feel cheated, even if you read just the revised versions.