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I remember when the circus used to come each year to Rathcool, the town I grew up in. The posters would appear days before the arrival, with images of laughing clowns and acrobats performing death-defying feats. Then the big day itself would come and my much-pestered parents would accompany me to the opening show. Only for a sense of disappointment to set in almost immediately.

I remember when during the knife-throwing act there was a call for volunteers. My aunt, who had herself been volunteered by my parents to join me on this occasion, had to physically restrain me from throwing up my hand. Then I noticed the man who was chosen was a stage-hand. I had seen him hanging around with the performers before the show. My poor aunt tried to pretend otherwise – I think adults always appreciate the importance of childish illusions, which is why Santa Claus has survived for so long – but I already knew the truth.

This story begins with a man dressed in an acrobat costume voiding his bowels before leaping into his own legend – illustrated by a woodcut of his prowess and two pages of sheet music describing his feats – only to land in his death-bed, drained by a fatal case of smallpox. By his bedside are colleagues and friends arguing over his estate. His nephew Etienne arrives, whose job at the circus was to clean up elephant dung. He is the beneficiary of the great Leotard’s estate, which turns out to be a gnomic riddle, an empty journal containing a fake moustache. Etienne understands his uncle’s dying wish. He is to become Leotard and continue the legend of his uncle.

Unfortunately for Etienne, the troup is still stuck in Paris while it is under siege by the Prussian army. The company’s animals have all been eaten by the starving city inhabitants. Without any animal acts Etienne’s troupe is at a loss as to how they are to continue on. Their new young leader proposes that they become a circus of the stange and wonderful. They are after all strong-men and contortionists, tattooed ladies and bear-impersonators. Etienne is a young man with big dreams, which do not match reality. During their first show a human cannonball sets the famous Paris Cirque de Hiver on fire, burning it to the ground.

Etienne and his fellow artistes have an unerring knack for landing in trouble, becoming embroiled in the infamous Jack the Ripper murder investigation; theft of the Mona Lisa; the sinking of the Titanic; even a catastrophic bloodbath involving nineteen dwarves and a beast known as a ‘Ti-lion’. Through it all success avoids Etienne, leaving him impoverished in old age, despite inventing such implements as fantastical as ‘spring heeled shoes’.

Campbell and Best have fashioned a breezy and romantic counterpoint to the nihilism of that other historical epic, From Hell. Split into a series of episodes, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard is a winning evocation of a lost vision of popular entertainment. There are even hints that the circus is an ancestor of sorts to the comic book superhero. Campbell introduces the amusingly titled Le Quartette Fantastique and has the creators of Superman witness Etienne’s final show.

The work as a whole has a rich Pynchonian feel to it. When we discover the romantic leanings of Pallenberg, the man disguised as a bear, it is a fine comic moment that is later revealed to be a set-up to the climactic adventure on board the Titanic. History and whimsy are married together to great effect, with Campbell’s febrile art stylings lending an uncanny edge to the proceedings. Best and Campbell even intrude upon Etienne to discuss the progress of the book so far. It is just that kind of book.

Beautifully illustrated, with a rich comic tone and a lurking sense of tired tragedy, this is a wonderful effort by Campbell, an Australian master of the medium.

Recently Stephanie and I have become fans of Escape to the Country. Produced by the BBC it is aired in Australia on the 7 Network. Why have we become addicted to this daytime television show about that most clichéd of yuppie dreams? Because it is incredibly frustrating! The couples never seem to buy a house. Either they are outbid, or they decide not to move after all, whatever the result in many cases beautiful homes nestled in picturesque bucolic towns are left for another buyer and viewer gratification goes unsatisfied once again.

There is something instinctively appealing about buying a home in the countryside though. I find it ironic that I am now on the other side of the world and all of a sudden have discovered a love for country living. Especially given that it is the English countryside (although Stephanie is partial to a move to France), and here we are living outside Sydney with a veritable panoply of exotic wildlife just hanging out in the back garden.

Partly this is due to the sense of accumulated history that is associated with rural towns and villages in England. My dream would be to find a nice cottage, turn one of the rooms into a study and just stuff it with weird and wonderful books. Head down to the local pub for a pint or two of Old Speckled Hen and buy my groceries from the local farmer.

Alex Hunter unwittingly finds himself in just such a town, a place not even on the map named Strangehaven. After  crashing into a tree while travelling out to Cornwall, Alex wakes up in the local B&B being tended to by Doctor Charles and Jane his receptionist, who quickly befriends the injured stranger. He reports to them that he saw a girl in a black dress standing in the middle of the road moments before he crashed, but they assure him no one else was found at the scene of the accident. As soon as he recovers, Jane takes him around the town and introduces him to the casually odd inhabitants of Strangehaven.

There’s Albert Bonneti an Italian mechanic who speaks in pidgin English and an exaggerated accent; Adam who claims to be an alien who insists on wearing shades the entire time for fear of Earth’s ultraviolet rays; Maggie McCreadie the B&B owner who spends her evenings searching for something in the graveyard after midnight; and Meg, an Amazonian shaman who through the course of the series begins to instruct Jane’s brother Jeremy in shamanic initiation rites. Unbeknownst to Alex many of the town worthies including the school head-master, the doctor and the police constable are all members of a Masonic Order known as The Knights of the Golden Light.

Strangehaven is also host to normal village excitements such as romantic affairs and family conflicts. Jeremy’s father John takes exception to Meg’s relationship with his son. The green grocer Peter is sneaking around behind his wife Beverly’s back with Suzie Tang. Even the sweet friendship between Alex and Jane, which she tragically misconstrues, is well-drawn.

The town, however, is not simply inhabited by a collection of eccentrics, but under the influence of eerie supernatural forces.  Alex discovers he is unable to leave Strangehaven, finding himself turned around when he tries to drive on to Cornwall (with a series of crop circles visible in the background). Jeremy and Meg successful manage to inhabit the bodies of two birds courtesy of a magical ritual. Also Alex seems to have forgotten that the woman he saw suddenly transform into a tree looked just like Jane. There are frequent cutaways to a naked painting of her, depicting her body floating in a fish tank, being stared at by a mysterious stranger in Strangehaven.

Creator Gary Spencer Millidge has many strings to his bow. Writer and artist of the wonderful Strangehaven, he also self-publishes the series, has written a biography of Alan Moore and despite the irregular release of issues, still insists that number #24 will complete the story. The influence of Twin Peaks, The Prisoner and The Avengers is clear, with innocent seeming English towns revealed to be sites of global importance. Alex’s car accident resembles the opening of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, a favourite of mine that has the protagonist encounter a woman outside the city of Bellona who transforms into a tree. The art is impressively photorealistic, with creased smiles and angry outbursts perfectly captured.

An excellent series, strongly recommended.

The Rock and Roll Reich had spent a decade using the music as a tool of social control, taming the beleaguered English with free concerts; selling Ax’s Utopian manifesto with stirring anthems and spectacular futuristic tech. They had forged rock and roll idealism into a national religion, a passion that made hard times sweet, and it had worked.

During the week it was revealed that Alan Moore completist Pádraig Ó Méalóid had published an article by the Northampton Magus on his livejournal in two parts. In short a typically verbose and associative rant by Moore on all matters magic(k)al and the effect of populism thereon. It includes this typical pithy comparison of Aleister Crowley to contemporary goth culture –

Or there’s Alex Crowley, tiresomely attempting to persuade his school-chums to refer to him as Shelley’s Alastor, like some self-conscious Goth from Nottingham called Dave insisting that his vampire name is Armand.

The figure of ‘The Beast’, came to symbolize the democratization of the occult, with the previously upper class fascination offered by the likes of Madame Blavatsky and The Golden Dawn suddenly impacting on popular culture with the advent of the 1960’s. There is Crowley on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band cover. Then we have The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request album (not to mention Sympathy for the Devil).

It just so happens Gwyneth Jones’ sf series is concerned with a twenty-first century Britain gripped by a revival of 1960’s occultism/ rock and roll cult of personality. Except revolution for these radicals is not tokenistic phrases and a tattered Che Guevara bedroom wall poster, but an actual political movement that changes the face of Europe.

I did not realize this was actually the final book in a series of five novels concerned Jones’ ambitious vision of a future society wracked by war, global economic ruin and climate change. Concerning a ‘Triumvirate’, of rock gods – Ax, Sage and Fiorinda – who have survived years of revolution and war, only to now be facing surrender to an occupying Chinese army. Britain under their rule was transformed by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Reich, actualizing 1960’s utopian idealism and green values, as well as an entente cordiale with the British Islamic separatist movement. All of this despite the evil wrought by Fiorinda’s father Rufus O’Niall and his fascist movement, as well Sage’s defeat of the Pentagon’s plan to create a psychic weapon of immense power. Indeed it is only due to these incredible successes that the Chinese may have spared the lives of the Triumvirate.

If anything the conquerors of Britain want to make their own use of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Reich to win the hearts and minds of the shell-shocked English. The Celtic nations of Scotland and Ireland have managed to wrangle their own form of independence by accepting the Chinese. England shall be a test-case intended to demonstrate to the rest of Europe that domination by China is inevitable, perhaps even desirable. Meanwhile Ax attempts to be the statesman his career as a rock star somehow destined him to be and negotiate a peaceful future for the English. His followers are under house arrest, their every word is being recorded by spies and his boyfriend Sage will not agree to marry him. Plus Fiorinda is pregnant again. Charming the People’s Republic of China has become the biggest gig of his band’s career.

As this is the fifth book in a series there is a hell of a lot of exposition to get to grips with. Jones lays it out with aplomb, mostly thanks to the frankly endless stream of out and out crazy ideas. The title doubles as a Hendrix reference and a nod to Britain’s Viking cultural inheritance. Rufus O’Niall appears to have been a malevolent force to rival the Beast himself and the talk of a ‘Neurobomb’, and a pychic cold war seems like something out of The Invisibles.

This could all be so much 1960’s pretentious twaddle, but there is much of interest here.

Particularly the notion of rock stars in politics. One of the most recent examples is Bono’s cosying up to political elites in both Britain and America. I remember there were rumours at the Make Poverty History concert that the Irishman would perform on stage with the surviving Beatles and Tony Blair, rock star manqué. Michael Moorcock covered similar ground in King of the City.

Mad, sexy and very enjoyable. Great fun, need to read the rest now.

To the left of this blog’s main page, there’s a display of the most commonly used terms in the last thirty two reviews. With every reoccurrence of a search term, the display of that particular word or phrase begins to grow, to indicate how often I have mentioned it. Alan Moore’s name has been growing I noticed, so I thought I should actually write about something he has done.

A Small Killing was welcomed as a departure for the comic writer sometimes referred to as the Northampton Magus. No superheroes, no deconstruction of American comic book tropes, just a simple story about a man who works in advertising looking back on his life. Oh and giant insects.

Timothy Hole has landed the contract of a lifetime, marketing a major cola in Russia. A successful advertising creative based in New York, he decides to go on a holiday to his hometown of Sheffield, so he can recapture his spark and come up with some ideas for the campaign. While he’s managed to achieve a lot in his professional career, his marriage to his college sweetheart failed, due to an affair he had with an artist named Sylvia. Timothy obsesses about whether or not he was at fault, more troubled by his later being dumped by Sylvia than his betrayal of his wife Maggie. Going over and over the events of years ago in his mind, he finds himself unable to focus on his job. Then a mysterious boy appears and Timothy is compelled to follow him. At first he catches glimpses of the figure in the distance, but soon he begins to suspect that the boy is trying to lead him into danger, even kill him. When Timothy flies to London he discovers the boy is somehow already there, a phantom presence taunting him.

Timothy’s troubled thoughts are relayed to us by Moore’s precise prose, while Zarate conjures up nightmarish crowded scenes – a party filled with advertising colleagues, a long queue at customs, a packed plane journey, a London pub exploding into violence – to contrast with the main character’s inability to think about anyone else. The people in his life are excuses for his own failings, somehow always at fault regardless of what he has done. The title refers to the little sins in our past that we cover up, never revealing to anyone no matter how close we are, in the hope that the guilt will somehow disappear.

This being Moore there’s a healthy amount of intertextuality as well. Timothy finds himself relating to Nabokov’s Lolita, although he can’t decide if he’s the predatory Humbert Humbert, or the eponymous innocent girl. Nabokov’s book was written as a twisted love letter of sorts to America, summing up the Russian émigré’s feelings about the country he had come to call home. Timothy, conversely is going to Russia to sell images of capitalist excess to the Russians, marketing Americana to them and disregarding the socialist imagery he was so fond of as an over earnest teenager –

“Blue jeans. That’s it, isn’t it? Blue jeans is it. Whatever the West means to them, that’s what we associate Flite with…They want to be American. It’s obvious. No point second-guessing their needs. We just sell them ours. Our culture. Our appetites, our..”

A Small Killing itself was Moore’s break from the over commercialised American comic’s scene, so choosing an ad-man as his protagonist is certainly interesting in that respect. Babylon by Victor Pelevin is an interesting contrast, being a Russian novel about the divide between advertising and art.

Zarate’s artwork is beautiful, matching the reflective tone of the writing by resembling the drawing of an adult who never stopped using crayons. The imagery is childlike, yet disturbing also. The abovementioned crowd scenes are filled with freakish grotesques and animalistic facial expressions. Timothy himself is a needle-thin adult version of Harry Potter (although this predates Rowling’s books by some time), surrounded by overweight bodies and skinhead boozers. The boy he keeps seeing is depicted with a wicked, mocking smile, that perfectly captures the puckish spirit of the character.

Alan Moore is one of the most important creators of the last thirty years. If you want to avoid the cape and tights brigade in sampling his work, you should check A Small Killing out. A confident, heartfelt reflection on past mistakes and the broken promises we make to ourselves when we are young.

He snorted softly to himself. It wasn’t selling souls that got you into trouble, it was buying them. Next time he would have to make sure there was a return policy. He laughed, opened his eyes a little. The dead man, Craddock, sat in the passenger seat next to him. He smiled at Jude, showing crooked and stained teeth and his black tongue. He smelled of death, also of car exhaust. His eyes were hidden behind those odd, continuously moving black brush strokes

Brrr. Spooky.

I feel for Mr Joe Hill though, I really do, because every review of this book starts with the same phrase. I don’t see any reason to break the tradition – see Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son.

I will say this though, I reckon he’s a better writer.

Judas Coyne (everyone calls him Jude) is a fifty-something rockstar who came up with the era of heavy metal and is now a lion in winter decked out in black leather, enjoying his reward for a career of Satanic-ish heavy metal by sleeping with goth-girl groupies named after the states of the union. He also has a predilection for the trappings of the occult and weird stuff in general. Not that he believes in any of it, he’s just a compulsive collector. Preserved skulls of madmen who had been trepanned, signed confessions of a witch burned at the stake, Aleister Crowley’s chessboard. Stuff like that.

So when a ghost comes up for auction online he immediately slaps down a bid for a thousand dollars. Judas Coyne’s very own ghost. The media release alone would make it a purchase worth its weight in gold.

Then the sceptic who enjoys scaring middle America with satanic rock finds himself trapped in a house with the ghost of a dead hypnotist. And it dearly wants to hurt him for what he did to its stepdaughter, another in a long line of groupies used up and dumped by Judas over the years. His own house becomes a prison, the stereo system whispering death threats and television announcers predicting his suicide. In a panic Judas takes to the road, racing through the night as a dead man in a funeral suit and fedora hat follows close behind.

Heart-Shaped Box comes with ecstatic blurbs from Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman. That got my attention. I open the book and there’s a quote from Alan Moore’s The Voice of FireHow may the dead have destinations? Ok, I was sold. It’s an impressive debut and Hill shows excellent promise. This is a simple ghost story, one that relies on that basic fear of death we all feel. No monsters or vampires jumping out from cornfields. Here the scares are delivered by spectres appearing at the end of a long, dark hallway, or Ouija boards suddenly jumping to life and dogs growling in fear at invisible presences. The haunt itself, Craddock, is a malevolent spirit, whose hypnotist powers add an extra dimension of fear, controlling the will of Coyne and those around him to harm themselves. Reminiscent of the demented preacher Kane from Poltergeist II, his relentless pursuit of the terrified former rock star turning a more or less traditional haunted house story into a spooky road trip across America.

As the title implies, this is a book written by a member of the post-Cobain generation. The media hysteria surrounding heavy metal, grunge and goth music is rejected with the simple truth that true horror often happens behind closed doors in family homes. The lyrics of bands tarred with the ‘satanic rock’ brush often expressed feelings of rage and self-loathing that attracted troubled teenage listeners without the means to speak out themselves. Judas Coyne is cynical about his music and the trappings of a rock star, but Hill establishes that he is just as much of a victim as some of the emotionally damaged young people who buy his records. Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue and Trent Reznor are name-checked in the novel, with Coyne’s association with them allowing the character to represent the era of their music.

This is a gripping debut, a frightening race into the black night. Read it with the light on.

He even devised for himself a pseudonym for his alchemical work – ‘Ieova sanctus unus’, as a near anagram of ‘Isaacus Nevtonus’. The assumption of a name meaning ‘the one holy Jehovah’, may seem somewhat blasphemous, but it is perhaps indicative of the young Newton’s self-belief. Had he not been born, like the Saviour, on Christmas Day?

Peter Ackroyd’s historical fiction and biographies of notable figures are always a pleasure to read. He is incisive, witty and brings a vast array of references to the work at hand. He has published collections of his criticism that I would strongly recommend to fans of Clive James, or Anthony Lane. In the past I have enjoyed his novels such as The Lambs of London, The House of Doctor Dee and Hawksmoor, notable for inspiring Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper tome From Hell.

In short he writes dense, yet very readable accounts of English history. I was surprised that his book on Newton was a straight biography, part of his Brief Lives series. I was expecting a fictional account, more along the lines of John Banville’s Kepler. It remains an authoritative text, despite its slim size.

Isaac Newton’s birth on Christmas Day was seen as something of a good omen, despite his sickly and weak appearance. His family’s circumstances were quite poor, his father already deceased and in truth he was not expected to live. Out of these troubled beginnings grew up a solitary, distracted young boy, already given to explosions of temper that would later be demonstrated by his inability to take criticism as an adult, as well as his controlling nature. Accounts of his early life often express surprise at his poor academic record in school, yet Ackroyd attributes this to a precocious intellectual fascination with more extra-curricular studies, such as experimenting with kites and self-made devices.

His head master and other notables recognized the adolescent’s more cerebral gifts and convinced his mother to allow him to continue with his studies as opposed to a life on the farm. He eventually achieved a place at Cambridge University, where he would spend most of his life. His early fascination with optics led him to study the philosophy of Rene Descartes, even going so far as to insert a ‘bodkin’, between his own eye in order to prove through experiment his own conclusions. Even at this early stage Newton was a fierce critic of overly hypothetical discourses, arguing that experimentation and logic were the only true arbiters of reason. Such passionate self-belief would lead to confrontations with peers such as Robert Hooke and Irish philosopher Robert Boyle. Newton’s contentions with these luminaries emerge only through private correspondence for the most part, as the student was still a sheltered and private man. He was also given over to controversial religious beliefs, such as a refusal to accept the Holy Trinity, preferring early Christian notion of Jesus being the son of man, not the Son of God. In addition, his fascination with alchemy would remain hidden well after his death, as it was seen to besmirch his later rationalist successes.

However, the support of Edmond Haley and his help in Newton’s eventual publication of The Principia Mathematica, a purely logical account of the forces of nature (written in Latin to warn off too-eager critics) catapulted the author onto the world stage. He would be feted by kings and tsars, contend with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and be cited by Voltaire in jest, earn the acrimony of William Blake and the Romantic poets for, in their eyes, stripping the natural world of its wonder. He was even chosen to be the Member of Parliament for Cambridge, on the side of the Whig party and a staunch defender of Protestanism. His quote regarding ‘standing on the shoulder of giants’, is printed on the British two pound coin, as he rose to the rank of controller of the Mint itself. He was a remarkable man, a polymath and undisputed genius.

Ackroyd shines a light on the superficially conflicting aspects of Newton. He was a rationalist with a mechanistic vision of the world who was nevertheless devoted to study of the Scriptures and the alchemical pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone. A philosopher who has done more to define the nature of science and the necessary objectivity of the scientist. A thinker who was determined to apply himself to the practical considerations of running the Mint.

This is an informed and revealing account of one of the most important minds in scientific history, who did more to define our understanding of the world in his time, than anyone since Aristotle. A brilliant man and a fascinating study.

I had no idea, however, that it was a turning point in my career. You realize these things only later and I am a bit impatient with memoirists who claim to have foreseen their destiny. I have never been able to foresee very far beyond tomorrow. Even when I lay a long plan, it is never in the expectation that I will live to see it fulfilled.

Clive James’ talk shows and documentaries were as important a part of my childhood as TRON and the Queen soundtrack to Flash Gordon. My dad was a big fan and he had the remote. In earlier years, he simply commanded authority over the television channels by virtue of being the man of the house. Technology simplifies things.

North Face of Soho takes off from where James’ previous volume ended, with marriage behind him and the slow progress from Cambridge Footlights to a writing career begun. Wisely the focus of the biography is the early stages of a professional career, with little time for kiss and tell revelations. The confessional tone is left intact though, with indiscretions both alcoholic and narcotic the cause of much of his suffering. James’ rueful style of self-reflection is devoid of false modesty and he makes it clear that any success he’s enjoyed has been due to extraordinary luck in the people he has met on the way up.

There’s also name dropping aplenty, with various journalistic mentors providing opportunities to hobnob with celebrities and stars of the London literary scene. James’ brief tenure with the underground magazine Oz is briefly touched on, which I only just recently heard about for the first time in an essay by Alan Moore featured in Dodgem Logic. There’s his failed attempt at a biography of Louis MacNeice; the conclusion of his acting career and an astonishingly wrong-headed approach to negotiations with Equity; his first forays into criticism, moving from the anonymity of TLS, to radio and finally television, his true home; and lunching with the young literary turks of 1970’s London, Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens.

Peppered throughout are James’ own thoughts on criticism, writing and celebrity. He discusses his media profile as a member of the Australian wave that washed up in London, mentioning Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer. He even makes mention of how as his reputation as a critic grew, his name became shorthand for any particularly apt, or cutting description of a celebrity. In that regard his infamous quip on Arnold Schwarznegger a brown condom filled with walnuts’, manages to conjure up the perfect image, while also managing to be unusually prescient as to the sexual misadventures of the Governator.

I was surprised with how difficult I found reading this book. I’ve read James’ television criticism in the past and found it still very amusing. He had me fascinated to find out who killed JR! Part of the problem for me, one that James’ own mentors describe during his apprenticeship, is that he tries to fit too much into every sentence. It’s especially ironic that he reveres George Orwell so much, as he was a key exponent of the value of short, descriptive sentences. What’s more reading the book does feel like a deluge of cameos and asides on the styles of the time. There are wonderful thumbnail descriptions of Martin Amis, Ian McKellen and The Sex Pistols, but they are lost, adrift in the sea of James’ endless reminiscences. How can someone be so wonderfully knowledgeable and verbose, while at the same time boring? Reading the book felt like being stuck in that lift with Stephen Fry.

However, for me there was one personal high point, when James talks about Tony Wilson, acknowledging his fellow intellectual manqué who chose regional television programming over academic success. This book was published only a year before Wilson himself died and here he is credited with his endless efforts to bring culture to Manchester, singing its praises from the roof-tops.  

Tony Wilson was brilliant. Unfortunately there was no other word for him.

In two pithy phrases Clive James sums up the appeal of Tony Wilson, while also alluding to the root cause of his failure. And that manages to sum up the author himself – brilliant, but in short bursts.

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