News the Ron Howard was directing the big screen adaptation of this novel increased my interest in seeing the film by at least 5%, which math nerds will tell you is significant. Howard is an accomplished director and Neal Stephenson's novel needs one if it's not to become a giant mess.
I listened to the audiobook with Thomas last year, shortly after it was released. I didn't dislike it, but I wouldn't say that I loved it either. And I am totally loving The Last Ship so much that as soon as I've finished my first binge-watch I'm gonna go back and do it all over again. So I know about love, fella.
Like most everyone I was very impressed with the opening line of Seveneves, which I'm going to shorten to 7E because that's way easier to type. It has one of the greatest opening lines you'll read anywhere, burying pretenders like Tolstoy and Austen.
A truth universally acknowledged, my arse.
For those who haven't read the book, the basic premise, and I'm not spoiling anything yet, is that one day the moon blows up. The rest of the book is about dealing with that. Small spoiler coming now so stop here if you haven't read it.
Stephenson effectively gives us two novels, the race to avoid the end of all things, as the debris field of what was once the moon starts falling to earth, recreating a mini Early Bombardment Phase that utterly destroys the entire planet. And... A second story, set many thousands of years later, in which the remnants of humanity that survived the bombardment return from their high orbital refuge to reclaim the world.
Most people seemed to enjoy the first half more, but honestly, I found it a bit of a grind. There are long, long loooong stretches of explanation and exposition, massive info dumps of the author's undoubtedly top notch research on the arcane mathematical byways of orbital mechanics, and some pretty dodgy melodrama.
Still, the fucking moon blows up, dawg! Gotta love that.
Unlike most peeps, I enjoyed the back half of 7E a lot more. Without going deep into spoiler territory I found Stephenson's imagining of the society that would grow out of his apocalypse to be fascinating and credible. I think I liked the characters more too. There are a couple of soap opera call backs that weren't really believable, but when the moon blows up in the opening line of your chosen book, you put aside your right to make those sort of literary judgments.
How the hell you film something like this, I don't know. It's two very different stories. Either would would work as a standalone. I really don't think the rigourous structural demands of cinema would let any director get away with a strict adherence to the written canon. So what does Howard do? Intertwine the two stories? That would be the braver, and hence less likely option. (Hollywood doesn't do brave artistic choices, not on $200M budgets). Preference one half of the book over the other? If so, 7E is much more likely to be a conventional summer blockbuster based on the first half of the story and possibly even ending with them hand-waving the end of the world away.
But I don't see Howard signing on for Armageddon 2. So I'll be curious to see how it turns out.
I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the season, to watch and gasp amongst you all; to lay down for my Red God, and for my seven kingdoms, and my Throners, my honour and my bad puns, even in the dust.
I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman (I really need to get back to the gym), but I have the heart and stomach of a recappespondent, and a recappespondent of Game of Thrones too, and think foul scorn that any prince of Westeros should dare invade the borders of my column; to which rather than dishonour, I myself will take up arms; and with those arms, type.
Of course I’m sure if the great Elizabeth I had been fighting Jon Snow circa 1588 she probably would’ve back-ended her speech to the troops at Tilbury with a jaunty “But Jon Snow can invade my borders anytime, hur hur,” before waggling her eyebrows and making the sexy finger in hole gesture. There’d be no more Virgin Queen after that, I can tell you.
Anyway, beloved Throners, I bastardise the words of Queen Bess for three reasons: one, I feel rather like a warrior leading the charge into this recap; two, because WHO RUN THE WORLD? GIRLS!; and three, because there were no great speeches to the troops in the Battle of the Bastards. There was only a state of not fighting and a state of fighting. And in that, we saw the real truth of war - no heroics, no subtleties, just blood, sweat, adrenaline, death, and occasionally a bloody miracle.
Now normally one of these recaps would start with a whole load of hooting along with phrases like “NO!”, “NOT THE FACE!”, “YES!”, “GOT ‘IM!” “SANSA IS MY QUEEEEEEN” and “LET ME LICK YOU BETTER JON SNOW”.
But I am legit physically and emotionally exhausted after this episode. It hit me like a wrecking ball, Miley-style.
I don’t even know if I can come up with a coherent theme, beyond “GARRRARGHHHARGH GHGHHHHAAAARRRGHH THIS SHOW”.
But perhaps, given the full moon and the Winter Solstice upon us here in the southern hemisphere, it might be time to hand over to the twin faces of war: majesty... and lunacy.
Season 6, Episode 9: The Battle of the Bastards
We only had two locations in this episode, so let’s start over in Meereen and summarise Daenarys’ latest QUEEN SLAY manoeuvre, for it ‘twas magnificent.
Meereen, as we recall, had been under attack by the Masters, freshly returned to betray their deal with Tyrion and reclaim their profitable slave-selling ways.
Tyrion, bless him, intersperses the thudding and smashing noises of enemy projectiles hitting the Great Pyramid by insisting Meereen is on the up and up. Of course, not everybody supports his plan for jobs and growth, but then, you’re never going to please all the voters all the time.
Dany’s combat strategy is straight out of The Children’s Big Book of Brutal Dictators 101: kill them all, raze their cities. It’s Tyrion who reminds her that just because the Mad King was her father, doesn’t mean she has to be his daughter. That particular truth bomb lands just as another flaming missile crashes through the nearest window.
Tyrion suggests an alternative approach, which sees the Meereen Team talking surrender treaties with the Masters somewhere just outside the city.
Tsk-tsk, the Masters say. You could have left when we first offered peace, lady. Now as punishment we’re going to kill your dragons, sell your Unsullied Army and make you take part in The Briefcase on Channel Nine.
“We’re here to discuss YOUR surrender, not mine,” Dany throws back, far too languidly for someone not in total control of the situation. It’s at these moments that Dany most reminds me of a crocodile, and not just because her flawless skin would make an amazing handbag. It’s the uneasy air she creates as she lies in wait, letting her idiot opponents mansplain themselves right up to the water’s edge, before being chomped on like Linda Kowalski in that g-banger.
The keen-eyed among you would have spotted the initial appearance of Drogon as a blurry collection of CGI pixels behind one of the Masters. It was an ironic sight gag worthy of The Simpsons.
Drogon heralds his arrival with an almighty screech, and soon Dany is up and onto his back, flying high across the bay towards the attacking fleet. Along the way she collects Viserion and Rhaegon, who’ve busted their way out of their dungeon prison (one hopes they left papier-mache dragon effigies behind, Escape from Alcatraz-style). Together, the soaring reptilian trio turn their attention to the ship leading the attack - and on Dany’s call of “Dracarys!” let fly with the biggest flaming upchuck since I overdid it on the Hot and Spicy wicked wings last Christmas.
Meanwhile around at the city gates, a bunch of Sons of the Harpy are getting their stab on when all of a sudden they hear a great rumbling approach. It’s not a dragon, rather, it’s every fricking Dothraki warrior currently living headed straight for them. Plus Maario, whose use of an arakh to decapitate a bad guy not only engendered whoops and cheers, but made me feel a little bit disturbingly sexy.
It really is amazing how violence done to your favourites is gut-wrenching and traumatising, but violence done to your enemies can have you punching the sky and laughing like a ticklish hyena on nitrous.
That’s a recurring feature of this episode, and it crops up again when Tyrion, Grey Worm and Missandei insist that one Master will have to be killed for breaking the agreement they had. In a wholly expected move, two of the cowardly Masters push their third compadre to the front, saying he’s low-born and doesn’t speak for them. He also wears a lot of eye make-up, so that could also have been a factor.
Eyeliner Master begs for mercy, but no sooner has he fallen to his knees then Grey Worm whips out his dagger (euphemism not applicable in this situation) and slices the throats of the other two Masters.
It’s left to Tyrion to pass on the key learning from today’s events to the trembling Eyeliner Master. Should any of the other Masters have fanciful ideas of trying again to reintroduce slavery, “tell them what happened when Daenarys Stormborn and her dragons came to Meereen”. To quote those 90s philosophers, Wayne and Garth, if she were President she’d be Babe-raham Lincoln.
And then the Greyjoys show up.
I loved the sudden appearance of Theon and Yara in the Throne Room, with Theon being dressed down by Tyrion for telling dwarf jokes back when they last met at Winterfell.
Theon’s keen to move on from both his youthful and serious adult indiscretions, but Tyrion wants a bit of a gloat. It’s Dany, resplendent in a moss-green toga that would add “Queen of O-Week” to her many titles, who gets negotiations back on track.
The Greyjoys have offered 100 ships from the Iron Fleet, which coupled with the remaining ships from the now-defunct Masters is almost enough to get her entire army over to Westeros.
The biggest threat to this plan is Euron Greyjoy, their mad and murderous uncle who intends to offer Daenarys big wooden ships and, well, big wood.
The recent revelation of Yara’s Sapphic tendencies paid off big time when Daenarys joked that her offer would not come with marriage demands. “I never demand, but I’m up for anything really,” Yara sasses back with extra sassy sass. It really was wonderful to see both Dany and Yara enjoy some cheeky banter about having mad Dads, usurper troubles, and misogyny dramas.
Dany resolves that everyone there has a duty to leave the world in a better state than they found it - unlike their respective fathers. So Yara may claim the Salt Throne once Dany is restored to the Iron one, but on the condition that they respect her rules. No more raiding and reaving for the Ironborn, it’s time to settle down and grow up. “But that’s our way of life!” protests Yara. But she can see the writing is on the wall, and it’s kudos for both women that they can see the potential for a better future. As we’ve said in the past, the Ironborn need to diversify their economy. “Coastal raping” should not be a line item in a country’s budget.
And so on a firm handshake we leave Meereen with the exciting promise that the Mother of Dragons might soon launch her ships and head towards Westeros. It’s only been eleventy million years, but we’re getting there, guys!
It’s time to head to Winterfell, and to the inevitable showdown between Jon Snow, Ramsay Bolton and their respective armies.
The two sides have an initial meet and greet on the prospective battle site outside the castle. It’s the first time we’ve seen Ramsay in a fair few episodes, and he hasn’t improved. Captain Smuggy McEvilSmugface demands the immediate return of his bride Sansa, and for Jon Snow et al to bend the knee and swear allegiance to him as Warden of the North. I’d try to describe my face as I listened to Lord Slimebucket ooze words, but Lyanna Mormont pretty much summed it up.
The Starks, of course, are having none of it. Jon even offers to take Ramsay on mano a mano, an offer Bolton is super quick to turn down on account of knowing Jon would KICK his measly backside. Of course, Ramsay wouldn’t be Ramsay without a creepy trick up his sleeve, and it’s at this point he throws down the head of Shaggy Dog as proof he has their brother Rickon.
It's Sansa, wonderful, badass Sansa, who shuts him down.
“You’re going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton. Sleep well.” And then she rides off and doesn’t look back, because she is a Queen.
Ramsay laughs and describes her as a cool chick, then tells everyone he looks forward to feeding them to his dogs. Now just keep this bit in mind, as there’s a slight continuity snafu here that I’ll bring up later.
That night, we see Jon, Sansa, Tormund and Davos doing some mind mapping vis-a-vis their battle plans. Tormund is hilariously unaware of the rules and manoeuvres of open warfare, and Davos reinforces the need to make Ramsay charge first.
But after they leave, Sansa lets rip, telling Jon he’s completely overlooked her insights, having actually been subjected to Ramsay's "personality" for more than five minutes. He lays traps, he plays with people, and he will make you make a mistake.
The pair have a right proper argument, and it’s a joy to watch. Here are two siblings, who’ve both gone through so much, trying to solve the same problem but coming at it from different angles. Jon is trying to retain the honour of the Stark house by wanting to save Rickon and use strategy to boost their meagre numbers. Where Sansa is a revelation is when she urges him to cut Rickon, her own brother, loose. He’s the legitimate heir, more valuable that she or Jon. Ramsay won’t allow him to live. It’s the kind of cold insight that only someone who had been at the Bolton bastard’s mercy could know.
Not being battle-hardened, Sansa can’t offer much in the way of advice on what he should do. But she’s clear on one thing - “Don’t do what he expects you to do”. Ramsay plays with people, he knows how to hurt them, how to make them make mistakes. Jon would be wise to heed this advice.
When Sansa makes for the exit, she tells Jon if Ramsay wins she will top herself rather than go back into his custody. Jon promises he won’t let Ramsay hurt her again, but Sansa is resolute. “No one can protect anyone,” she says, almost mournfully. Remember that prissy little girl who believed in knights and honour and being an adored lady? Nope, I don't either.
Jon’s inherited Ned Stark’s honourable streak, and while I adore it like I adore my foster kittens when they’re asleep and not destroying stuff in my house, it’s something that we will see come back to bite him squarely on the backside come battle time (Oh! If only I could bite Jon Snow … you get the drift).
Meanwhile, Davos and Tormund are taking a turn about the campsite. The bushy-bearded wildling has the confidence of someone who doesn’t know what a “pincer movement” is, and the two trade stories about their former kings, Stannis Baratheon and Mance Raydar. Neither turned out to be the Prince they were promised to be - although the Onion Knight does have to explain that Stannis’ demons weren’t actually real demons.
Tormund invites Davos in for a sour goat’s milk libation, but Davos turns him down. I’m not surprised - I had sour mare’s milk in Mongolia once, and seriously, I can still taste it. That stuff burns. Davos instead opts for his pre-battle routine of pacing around the campsite so nobody sees him, well, requiring a change into brown trousers. Tormund farewells him with a cheery “Happy shitting!” and Davos heads off.
Then, in an amazing coincidence, he finds the pyre upon which Shireen Baratheon was sacrificed. He finds her little stag doll, and instantly knows something was very wrong about the manner in which she died. Of course this spells doom for his recently patched up relationship with Melisandre.
Meanwhile Jon has gone to see Kate Bush, who doesn’t even attempt an inspiring version of Don’t Give Up, but just looks bored and majorly bummed out.
Jon wants her to stay out of things if he happens to get deaded again, but the Red Woman is #sorrynotsorry about it.
Melisandre can’t answer Jon’s question about why she was able to bring him back from the dead, only that he may just be needed for this particular battle and then bang, dead again. “What kind of god would do that?” he asks, and Kate Bush answers with possibly the smartest four-word lyric she’s written since Running Up That Hill: “The one we’ve got.”
Yep, it’s a nice reflection on a lot of religions and some of their more… interesting… beliefs.
The morning of the battle dawns, and Jon Snow does a very dishy impersonation of Henry V while inspecting the troops on horseback. But anybody expecting a bit of “Once more into the breach” talk is to be disappointed; Jon, as we know, has always been a man of meaningful, not flowery, words. And given the size of the army they’re up against, it probably is best to stick to the adage that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
At this point, Ramsay Bolton initiates his most fiendish plan ever.
We see him on horseback walking through his troops, while dragging something on a rope. We know, we just KNOW, that it’s poor Rickon Stark. Once again, he’s a character who’s shot up in height, but he retains enough babyish innocence to remind us he is yet another innocent victim of the Bastard of Winterfell.
The show messes with us here; first by having Ramsay brandish a knife high in the air, and Rickon bow his head waiting for a killing blow, then by having Ramsay cut Rickon’s bonds and send him off running towards Jon.
If you were anything like me, you felt icy fingers slide their way down your throat and snake around your heart. Rickon was doomed, but I didn’t want to accept it. Jon’s solo ride out to save Rickon was too noble to fail, surely?
The pacing here was incredible as we watched Ramsay fire arrows in a seemingly indifferent manner towards the vanishing Rickon, and as Jon galloped his steed towards his brother, hand out and down ready to lift him up onto his back. It would have been a golden moment, a superhero rescue.
But this is Game of Thrones. Superhero rescues are the exception, not the rule.
Jon and Rickon got close, so close, then Ramsay finally aimed to hit his target, and the arrow speared the youngest Stark through the back. It may as well have hit Jon in the heart too, as he goes numb for a moment - the first time he’s seen his littlest brother in years and he’s in his death throes.
Sansa warned Jon about this, but even if he did listen it’s a forgotten memory in this heated moment.
Looking on, Tormund urges him to remember the plan, with the simple utterance “Don’t.”
But it’s too late. Jon has fallen into Ramsay’s trap, and he charges forward. Davos sends the rest of the cavalry after him, but Jon has a bit headstart. Eventually his horse takes too many arrows and collapses underneath him.
Jon, survivor of Hardhome, draws his sword and faces these enemies, such different enemies, but sharing the same intent to kill him.
A beautiful slow motion shot captures Ramsay’s cavalry bearing down on Jon, sword drawn, one man ready to take on an army.
Thankfully the rest of his mounted forces catch up and the two sides begin a brutal, visceral clash that is possibly one of the most extraordinary fight sequences ever committed to film.
The camera places us primarily with Jon in the middle of the quagmire, illustrating how a medieval battle quickly divulged from being two one-dimensional sides clashing to a three dimensional mess of men, horseflesh, blood, mud, and flashing steel. There is no sense to be made of the slaughter, no battle rules, only the biological fight response in full flight.
Ramsay continues to run his military operation so sadistically that the Marquis de Sade would turn in his grave to hear his name so besmirched.
While Ser Davos holds off his archers because there’s a risk they might hit their own men, Ramsay has no such compunction. He has his archers fire on the battlefield, happy enough to kill his own men as long as Stark forces and free folk are copping it too.
Before long the whole landscape of the battlefield has altered, with previously flat ground replaced with piles of bodies, flesh mountains that take your breath away - figuratively and literally. For a while Jon is trampled into one of the death mounds, his senses and movements constricted and his body fighting for air. Despite all the blood sprays, the removal of limbs and the horror unleashed on the horses, this remains one of the most horrifying experiences of the battle, because it leaves Jon so utterly helpless.
Meanwhile Ramsay sends in his foot soldiers to surround the remaining Stark forces in a manoeuvre best described as a giant spiky donut. Every few moments the Flayed Men shields squeeze inwards, followed by a thrust of their pikes.
Tormund, insane with awe-inspiring rage, hurls himself at some of shields, encouraged by the leadership of Stampy the Giant, who just starts sweeping some of them aside.
Unfortunately the spiky donut continues to choke the Stark forces, their clever plan to draw the Boltons to them now a bitter regret. In a bright moment, Tormund bites the neck right out of Smalljon Umber, and Jon manages to push himself upwards, inhale, and keep battling...
...and then the Knights of the Vale show up.
We knew they were going to, of course, as Sansa had sent the letter to Littlefinger two episodes ago. They cut it damn fine, but I can’t tell you how happy I was to cheer “Finally! The Knights of the Vale have FINALLY done something decent in this series!”
In a magnificent aerial shot, we saw the mounted Arryn knights both break the Flayed Man spiky donut, and surround it from the outside. It was like the most violent depiction of a sperm impregnating an egg you’ll ever see.
Best of all, it wiped the smug grin off Ramsay’s face for the first time ever:
Knowing his time was up, Ramsay fled back to Winterfell. But Jon, Tormund, and Stampy the Giant were hot on his tail. Thanks to Stampy’s efforts they crashed through the castle gates and took the fight right up to Ramsay. Wildlings flooded in, killing Bolton forces, although poor Stampy finally gave out from one too many arrows.
Ramsay and Jon finally faced off in one on one combat, and sure, you could be forgiven for wondering why one of the other Wildlings didn’t just fire an arrow or throw a knife at Ramsay. But then we wouldn’t have an awesome sequence in which my bruised, bloodied and beloved Jon Snow walked determinedly towards Ramsay, shielding himself from arrows, then took the bastard down and BEAT THE LIVING SHIT OUT OF HIM.
He stopped, eventually.
In 1815 the great Duke of Wellington said “My my! At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender.” That of course hasn’t been historically corroborated, but he did say “The next worst thing to a battle lost, is a battle won.”
Never has that been more clear than here, with so much bloodshed, so much death. Rickon’s small body is brought in, and Jon sends him to be buried in the crypt next to Ned. We also Ser Davos throw dark looks at Melisandre, while cradling Shireen’s stag.
But there is triumph too - in seeing the Flayed Man sigil ripped from Winterfell’s walls, and the Direwolf of Stark returned to its rightful place.
Finally, Ramsay Bolton.
Sansa demands to see him, and is shown to the cell where the hateful monster is being kept tied to a chair. “Is this where I live now?” he asks, altogether too cheerily.
But Queen Sansa, my amazing hero, absolutely slays when she tells him his words, his house, his name will all disappear. And then we hear the growling.
Ramsay doesn’t believe his loyal hounds would attack him. But as Sansa points out, they’re now starving.
Now if you were playing along earlier I mentioned a small continuity error. Here’s where it comes into play. Sansa tells Ramsay “You haven’t fed them in seven days, you said it yourself.” But she’d actually ridden away from the parley before Ramsay SAID that. So how did she know? Did John or Davos or Tormund mention it? I would have thought they’d be too tired or caught up to do so. But I guess someone had to place Ramsay in the cell, maybe they discussed it then.
One of the doggies starts to lick Ramsay’s face, and then bang, they all attack. Ramsay trained his dogs to do this, he set them on Lady Walda and her newborn baby, and it is only right that he go out like this. It is horrific, utterly deserved and immensely satisfying.
For her part, Sansa walks away from the cells, never looking back. In fact, she leaves with a tiny twist of a smile, a Mona Lisa moment, but one in which we know exactly the reason for the grin.
Jon Snow may be a hero. But Sansa is a Queen.
Also, I've learned a valuable lesson - never let the foster kittens go hungry.
Yay! Best Moments
There are SO many this episode that it’s hard to nail down. But I reckon just Sansa’s face. Whether it was resolution in the face of Ramsay’s threats and Rickon’s potential death, despair at not being listened to by Jon, fear that her brother’s army would be overrun, and intense pleasure at seeing the Bolton forces and Ramsay himself brought down, it was the most captivating thing of the whole shebang.
Zing! Best Lines
Jon: We’re digging trenches all along our flanks. They won’t be able to hit us the way Stannis hit you, in a double envelopment. Tormund: … Jon: A pincer movement. Tormund: ... Jon: He won’t be able to hit us from the sides. Tormund: Good.
Pick a moment from that battle, people. Pick any moment.
While Rickon’s loss was shocking, Stampy the Giant’s was actually heart-breaking. Who among us didn’t love that big guy? Short on words, tough on idiots. His actions during the spiky donut sequence saved so many of the remaining soldiers, and he single-handedly broke the Winterfell gates to let Jon and the wildlings in. He took so many arrows and kept fighting, and the look he gave Jon just as Ramsay shot the coup de grace with a King Harold special made tears come to my eyes. Vale Stampy. We hardly knew ye, but boy did we love the way ye beat tens tons of shit out of everyone.
Also, there have been a few commenters already asking "Where was Ghost?" I think we can all agree the answer is "in his CGI kennel". With SO much to plot, plan and execute with that battle sequence, throwing in a fake wolf would have been too much. Yes, it was sad to not have him bite some faces off, but at least he's alive.
I cannot believe there is one episode left of this season. What on earth am I going to do without you, beloved Throners? Why yes, I probably will sit at home rocking back and forth singing “All by Myself”. But until then, there are a few things we need some resolution on next week:
Will Dany head to Westeros? Will Varys have teed up some friendly faces?
Where is Bran? Will he be reunited with Jon and Sansa at Winterfell? Will we see the end of the Tower of Joy flashback?
Will Davos take revenge on Melisandre for sacrificing Shireen?
Will Arya return, perhaps meeting Nymeria along the way?
Will Cersei face her trial, or will Jaime return in time to rescue her? Will the High Sparrow get his comeuppance?
Will the Hound axe a lot of dudes? Where will he and the Brotherhood end up?
Will Sam and Gilly make it to Old Town?
And perhaps most importantly….Brienne and Tormund. Will they or won’t they?
Thank you all SO much for bearing with me during this incredibly long recap.
I've been running a Patreon campaign this season, and it's been doing amazingly well. Thank you to everyone who's signed up. Check it out via www.patreon.com/girlclumsy if you want to get involved for the final week.
iO9 has a good write up of a new End of the World project by Roosterteeth, the Youtube studio which did that cool Halo Zombie Plan vid a couple of years back. Their new thing is called Day 5, and the premise is simple.
You sleep, you die.
The series picks up it's possum-eyed survivor crew a week into the big die off. I don't see them getting much beyond that, since they're all on the jagged edge of crashing and dying, and the initial series is only a six-pack.
As best I can tell it's not being released on cable, or youtube or anywhere like that. (Although the first ep will probably drop on the Tube). You want the whole thing you have to point your browers to Roosterteeth.com and subscribe, or 'sponsor' the series.
I think I'll be doing so. I like the premise, and the execution. The model intrigues me too. I'd like to see it work. It should go live later today. (Sunday)
Every time I go to Amazon it bowls up Keith McArdle's books, suggesting very strongly that I would like them. That I should buy them. That I should tell everyone about them.
McArdle's series, which starts with The Reckoning (The Day Australia Fell), continues with Aftermath, and I have the first chapter to share with you.
It seems the sort of yarn that would appeal to Mr Havock.
“Reports suggest 40 Commando supported by the Royal Navy have driven Indonesian invaders away from the coast in Queensland. The war in Australia is all but won.” – Yorkshire Post (UK)
The half-rotten corpse that had once been an Indonesian soldier lay prone, riddled with maggots. SGT Craig Linacre knelt slowly beside the stinking mess, rifle cradled across his chest. The large exit wound at the back of its skull showed the fatal wound. Craig could see what was left of the decomposing brain beyond. But what interested him more was the soldier’s webbing. The pouches appeared full and might hold valuable information. Wary of booby-traps, Craig tied a rope to its belt buckle and moved back, feeding the rope out as he went. Taking cover behind a nearby boulder, the special-forces soldier looked across at Matty in the near distance and nodded. CPL Matty Nasution gave thumbs up, before returning his attention down the barrel of his weapon, giving cover. Taking a breath, Craig pulled hard on the rope. He felt the weight at the other end shift and knew the corpse had rolled over. Good, no booby-traps so far. Bringing the rifle into his shoulder, Craig was stepping out from behind the boulder when the corpse exploded. He was thrown to the ground, winded. In a few seconds he climbed back to his feet, dazed, yet instinctively scuttling behind the boulder. The charge had obviously been rigged with some kind of delayed detonator. Shaking the fogginess from his brain, Craig peered around the boulder and saw a pair of half rotten legs – from the knees down – lying beside a crater. Nothing else remained of the corpse. Gaining Matty’s attention, he signalled they were moving out. The explosion would have been heard from kilometres around, and if there were any Indonesian soldiers still in the area, they would be moving towards the explosion. As the pair of SAS soldiers slowly made their way through the brown, dry, waist-high grass, several dull thumps could be heard in the distance. The men paused, taking a knee to listen. Silence. Soft wind teased the surface of the grass for acres in every direction. Then a high-pitched shriek, growing in volume, shattered the peaceful deathly quiet. “Cover!” roared Craig, diving to the ground as artillery rounds exploded nearby. An Indonesian artillery battery had zeroed its guns in on the corpse, waiting for the booby trap to be triggered. If they fired fast enough, they‘d be able to take out an entire platoon. Maybe more. Pushing himself into a crouch, Craig was deafened by a ringing screech in his ears. He looked across at Matty, who was shouting something. No sound reached Craig. “Go!” Matty’s lips formed the word. “Go!” As the ringing in his ears began to dissipate, he heard more thumps in the distance. “Go!” he heard Matty screaming loud and clear. “Go!” Sprinting through the grass, the pair heard a familiar high-pitched shriek as artillery rounds streaked down onto their position. The rounds slammed into the ground exploding between the two men with devastating effect. * * * * * Pain wracked Craig’s body. It felt like he’d been in a cage fight. Groaning, he pushed himself off the ground, spitting dirt from his mouth as he moved into a crouch. Patting down his arms and legs, he checked for injury, but nothing seemed broken or bleeding. Spotting his M-4 nearby, he reached for it, checked it over before cradling it across his chest. Matty lay prone nearby, motionless. With a grunt, Craig moved to him, squatted beside him and checked for a carotid pulse. With relief he felt a strong pulse and patted Matty’s cheek. “Hey mate,” Craig muttered. Patting the skin of Matty’s face Craig spoke again. “Oi! Matty, time to move mate.” There was no response. “For fuck sake,” Craig said, knowing time was of the essence. He was strong enough to drag Matty perhaps five hundred metres before being forced to rest and find concealment. That distance was not enough to clear the current area which would more than likely be crawling with Indonesian soldiers within the next hour. Craig slapped Matty’s face hard. “Oi, dickhead!” This time there was a groan and slight movement in one leg. Unceremoniously rolling Matty over, Craig slapped him again. “Wakey wakey,” Craig said, casting a glance over Matty’s body checking for obvious injury or haemorrhage. More dull thumps reverberated in the distance. “You’re fuck’n joking!” snarled Craig. Picking up Matty’s weapon, he tucked the rifle into the unconscious man’s chest webbing. Grabbing Matty under the arms, he dragged him as far as possible before the distant shriek indicated artillery rounds were inbound. Dumping Matty, Craig dived to ground, buried his face into the dirt and hoped for the best. The barrage fell slightly short of their position, exploding on and around where the Indonesian corpse had been. When the last shell exploded, Craig slowly climbed to his feet, body still aching. Keeping as low a profile as possible, he dragged Matty away from the area. Three more artillery barrages hit, some close, others not so much, showing the enemy gunners were making small elevation changes to ensure maximum coverage. By the time night began to fall, Craig, now exhausted, had dragged Matty close to a kilometre out of the area and had found a small depression in the ground where he had chosen to lay low for the night. Setting up a Claymore anti-personnel mine facing towards the most likely enemy approach, he kept the clacker, the device used to detonate the explosive, tied to his right hand. Inadvertent detonation was near impossible, as the clacker had a safety catch of sorts. The safety catch was easy enough to disengage with a single hand, meaning the mine could be fired within two seconds. Filled with seven hundred steel ball bearings embedded in composition explosive, the weapon was designed to injure and maim rather than kill. One wounded man required two others to carry him, effectively taking three soldiers out of the fight. Should enemy stumble upon their position, seven hundred ball bearings would whistle through their ranks at knee height, before Craig opened fire. If the Indonesians did find his position, more than likely, Craig would be overrun and killed along with the unconscious Matty. But at least it would be a bittersweet victory for the Indonesians. Eventually the artillery fire stopped. Before long, the sun slid below the horizon and dusk arrived, the light beginning to fade. Craig checked Matty every five minutes. He felt for a pulse, listened for breath sounds and while light remained, continued checking for any obvious sign of blood seeping through his clothes. He placed Matty in a lateral position so that if he vomited, at least it wouldn’t compromise his airway. He slung Matty’s weapon across his back and shoved the unconscious man’s spare ammunition into his own half full pouches, so that if a fire fight started, at least he’d have plenty of ammunition. Craig was conscious of the fact that he and Matty had been inserted on the understanding that they were to patrol out of the area themselves. No friendlies were looking for them. The Australian Blackhawks were no longer operational. They had been decimated within the opening weeks of the invasion. The Royal Marine choppers that had inserted the SASR patrol would be busy on other taskings, infilling, exfilling, resupplying or providing air support for Royal Marine Commandos or Special Boat Service (SBS) soldiers on the ground. Craig found the first few hours easy to remain alert. The majority of the time, he stared through the night vision goggles, ever watchful for enemy movement. Every fifteen minutes he pushed the goggles up, away from his eyes, allowing a minute or two for his vision to rest, before lowering them back into place. Apart from the chirping crickets, the night was silent. A far cry from what Craig expected. No Indonesian soldiers had arrived to investigate. Slowly crawling to the opposite side of the small depression, Craig watched. Every hour he changed position, moving between the four compass points around the circular depression in the ground. It was past midnight when he began rubber necking, exhaustion attempting to claim him. He had not experienced a decent night’s sleep in more than three weeks. Craig lost the fight, cheek resting on his weapon, breathing softly as sleep embraced him. He did not hear the vehicles approach. Did not see the headlights in the near distance. It was the slamming of the car doors that broke Craig’s slumber. He was immediately alert, adrenalin responsible for his fast response. He pushed the night vision goggles up and away from his eyes, instead using the night vision capability of his weapon mounted scope. He watched the Indonesian soldiers exiting a number of four wheel drives to swarm the area where the booby trapped corpse had been lying earlier in the day. No problem, he was close to one kilometre away, and at night it would be near impossible for them to track him. His heart sank a second later when he heard dogs. A series of aggressive barks broke the still night. German Shepherd, he thought. A goddamn military dog. “Fuck,” he muttered to himself. He hoped his track had gone cold by now and the dog was incapable of finding his scent, but anything was possible. Flicking the night vision goggles away from his eyes, Craig stared down the infrared scope of his weapon and settled the target reticule over the dog’s body. For close to ten minutes, he watched the animal seeking his scent without success. Happy that the dog was no longer a threat, Craig slowly swept the weapon’s infrared scope across the gathering of Indonesian soldiers. They were all armed with military grade automatic weapons; most with their native SS1, which was the standard assault rifle of the Indonesian Army. Some, however, held the Steyr, used by the Australian Army. No doubt taken from dead Australian soldiers. A wave of anger warmed Craig. He counted the vehicles, seven in total, all four wheel drives, one of them a Land Rover. Thirty enemy soldiers in total, and one clueless dog. Craig smiled, allowing the target reticule to settle over the animal once more. It was not particularly well-trained. Over such a short distance, and regardless of the hours which had passed, any tracking dog worth its salt would have found his scent, faint as it may have been, and worked towards him . The scent of a human was given by dead skin cells drifting from the body, and a good scent trail in perfect conditions with little wind, rain or snow, could remain in place for more than a week. If tracked by dogs, the most secure place was on high ground, particularly on the peak of a mountain, where the wind was more likely to change directions easily, move in obscure patterns and scatter a person’s scent in random, un-trackable arrangements. Craig had no such luxury. If the animal were testament to any true formal training, it would have made a bee-line straight to him. Thankfully, although it had obviously been given some informal instruction, the German Shepherd still had a long way to go before it would join the ranks of the true tracking dogs. Sweeping the infrared scope across the Indonesians once more, Craig settled the target reticule over the chest of a man wearing a bandana and holding an SS1 across his chest, with a pistol holstered on his hip. He was the only man with a pistol, and was also the only soldier talking and gesticulating angrily at the others gathered around him in a half moon. The leader; the leader of any group of soldiers, whether it be a corporal or a general, was always discouraged from advertising their status, particularly out-bush, as they would always become the first target of a sniper team or a deliberate ambush. There was a loud groan beside Craig and Matty rolled over. “Fuck me dead,” Matty said, holding his head. Craig shot a glance at the soldier, “Welcome back, now shut the fuck up,” he hissed. Matty crawled up beside Craig. “What’s goin’ on?” he asked, still nursing his head. Craig did not answer, instead returning his attention to the night vision scope attached to the top of his weapon. Staring down the scope he saw that the Indonesians, to a man, were all staring in his direction. The dog was barking and carrying on like it had rabies. Then a torch was turned on, and several enemy soldiers began walking towards them. “Shit,” whispered Craig. “It’s on, mate.” It was at that point he realised Matty had slid down onto his back, holding his head and groaning. “You right, mate?” Craig whispered, tapping Matty’s shoulder. “Yeah,” he managed between groans. “Gotta killer headache.” Returning his attention to the weapon’s night vision scope, Craig saw that the enemy had halted whilst the dog handler took a knee, wrestled with the barking animal for a moment and then released it from the leash. The German Shepherd now had no need of scent trails. The dog was intelligent enough to marry up the sound of Matty’s voice with the scent trail it was unable to find so recently. It zeroed in on the Australians’ position, sprinting towards them. Ignoring Matty as he rolled around groaning and muttering meaningless phrases, Craig settled the weapon’s target reticule upon the dog’s chest. The sooner he killed the animal, the greater the area the Indonesians would have to search in order to find the Australians. He knew from previous reconnaissance that none of the enemy were using night vision goggles, and if they had them, were probably now out of usable batteries. Lying silent, continuing to ignore Matty, Craig waited and watched as the German Shepherd sprinted towards them. He willed the animal to veer away, to become confused and return to its master. He tried to avoid killing dogs where possible. But the animal made a bee-line straight towards him. Tongue lolling from the side of its mouth, the animal began barking in a staccato of noise, which was Craig’s cue to fire the shot. There was no squeal or howl of pain. The dog simply dropped to the ground like a used doll. The dog’s barking had hidden Craig’s silenced weapon, and with the animal now dead, the Indonesians still had no idea exactly where their enemy lay. Craig had no idea what the Indonesians were shouting, and thought better of asking Matty, who was now lying prone, still holding his head and snoring softly. Something was wrong, Craig knew instinctively. He had worked with Matty through operations in Kosovo, East Timor, The Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan. Never had he seen him act like this. The Indonesians retreated to the vehicle as more orders were shouted. A mortar tube and base plate were unloaded from the rear tray of the vehicle and setup within a matter of minutes. Then a mortar round was fired with a dull thunk, heading almost vertical. A loud pop was followed by daylight in a square kilometre area as the illumination round activated. Craig pushed his head closer to the ground and clenched his right eye firmly closed. If the night vision from his master eye was destroyed, he would be unable to use the night vision scope attached to his weapon. “Happy new year!” roared Matty, now lying on his back, arms splayed out beside him. “What a light show! Give me a beer ya jack prick!” Craig dived on top of him and pushed his hand over Matty’s mouth. “Shut the fuck up!” snarled Craig. “You wanna get us bloody killed?” Matty muttered something, but the noise was rendered into a slurred mash of sound beneath the palm of Craig’s hand. Within minutes, Matty had rolled onto his side and deteriorated back into sleep, snoring softly. Craig knew something was very wrong. Ensuring the Indonesians were still confused as to their exact location, Craig took the time to send a text burst transmission via the PRC-112, a radio slightly larger than the size of a man’s hand, requesting an immediate medical evac and air support. Almost three minutes passed before a secure text appeared on the radio’s LCD display: “Exfil your loc 5 mikes.” Five minutes until exfiltration. Craig silently berated himself for not requesting exfil hours before. However, in his defence, he had been told the British choppers were flying to the limit in support of Royal Marines and SBS troops on the ground in the area. Any requests, he had been instructed, would either be refused flatly or could take up to two hours to fulfil. Five minutes to exfil. It did not sound long, but in current circumstances it would feel like an eternity. Craig still clamped his master eye shut against the bright illumination round fired by the mortar. He remained silent and still, praying that Matty continued to sleep. Now with the dog neutralised, apart from the faint splutter of the flare as it drifted towards earth, there was silence. One sound, one word uttered too loud would alert the Indonesians to their whereabouts. He could hear them muttering amongst themselves. Peering through the blades of grass into which he had buried his face, Craig saw the Indonesians looking in all directions, still oblivious to his whereabouts. The dog handler was distraught, he noticed, feeling sorry for the soldier. Craig loved dogs, and hated killing them. Tonight had been the second time in his career he was forced to kill a dog in order to protect his patrol. The illumination round slowly faded out, the dark night once again closing in around them. Matty was now lying supine, breathing loudly. Craig moved to him. “Wake up, mate.” He patted the man’s face. “Matty, wake the fuck up!” “You got that beer bro?” asked Matty, his speech slurred. “No, mate, no beer,” whispered Craig. “We’re in the shit, we’ve been compromised. Air support and exfil are inbound. They’re a few minutes out. How you feeling?” “Exfil?” Matty roared with laughter.” What the fuck? What, are we playing Call of Duty? Wanker!” He laughed again. “Bring me a bloody beer!” he shouted. The Indonesians were hissing amongst themselves and looking in Craig’s direction. He left Matty giggling and muttering to himself on the far side of the depression. Lying prone and staring down the night vision scope attached to his weapon, Craig watched the enemy soldiers push out into extended line and advance toward his position. In the background, he saw the mortar team, consisting of two soldiers, preparing another round, more than likely a second illumination round. Now they knew the general direction in which the Australians were hidden, a second illumination round would kill all hope for Craig and Matty. They would be found and overrun in less than a minute. Two dull thumps from Craig’s silenced weapon and the two man mortar team were no more. The Indonesians, apart from three, went to ground and returned fire. Bullets hissed and cracked less than a metre above Craig’s head. Ignoring the return fire, he settled the target reticule over the chest of the first of the three men still standing, firing un-aimed shots from the hip. Squeezing the trigger, Craig watched the man fall from sight. With the number of organs and vital arteries in the chest and upper abdomen, one bullet in or around the chest area could do so much damage. The second man dropped as fast as the first. The third soldier dived to the ground before Craig took a sight picture, although he released several shots into the long grass where he thought the soldier had landed. Rounds slashed through thigh-length grass metres from Craig, or snapped above their position. He remained prone, holding his fire, allowing the enemy to deplete their ammunition. One Indonesian stood and ran forward. Reacting in less than a second, Craig took a sight picture and fired, the bullet passing through the man’s intestines and exited his back in a bloody swath. He fell to the ground howling in agony. Feeling the PRC-112 buzz in his trouser pocket, Craig pulled the device out and read the infrared screen. “Spectre 3 inbound, 1 mike out, mark friendlies.” The AC-130, or affectionately known as the Spectre gunship, was a heavily modified C-130 Hercules, a heavy-lift aircraft operated by the United States Air Force. Along the left side of the aircraft were two 20mm cannons, one 40mm cannon and one 105mm Howitzer artillery gun. The pilot wanted Craig’s position marked so that his crew would not inadvertently fire upon him. Opening a pouch and keeping his head down as enemy fire continued to rip through the air metres above him, Craig pulled out an infrared strobe, activated it and tied it to the back of his webbing. Thus, lying prone, the strobe would be facing skyward, flashing an infrared pulse twice per second. “Friendlies marked.” A moment later, the infrared LCD of the PRC-112 displayed the pilot’s response, which consisted of two words. Two words which brought relief to any patrol in the middle of nowhere, outnumbered and in the shit: “Danger close.” Although the enemy fire was loud, Craig still heard the soft rumble of the Spectre gunship high above him. The pilot would begin a left pylon turn, bringing all the aircraft’s guns to bear upon the Indonesian position. Trace seemed to streak out of thin air 5,000ft above him, followed closely by the roar of the 40mm cannon, sounding like the deep howl of some enraged dinosaur. The rounds hammered into the Indonesians. Craig felt the thump of massive bullets smashing into the ground. “What a bloody light show!” Matty roared with laughter, splayed out on his back again, watching another long stream of trace rounds pouring from the AC-130 towards the enemy position below. The Indonesian fire had mostly stopped, although some must still have been alive as the Spectre gunship continued its destruction. A bright flash from the sky destroyed Craig’s night vision. The boom of the 105mm gun followed a second later but was quickly overshadowed by the ever increasing screech as the artillery round descended towards earth, on target for the enemy position. Exploding with deadly efficiency, chunks of earth rained down around the Australians. Apart from the distant hum of the AC-130 high above them, the area was silent. Craig ensured the infrared strobe was still securely fastened to his back before crawling forward. Staring through his weapon’s night vision scope, all he saw was the empty enemy vehicles parked several hundred metres away. Knowing that their engines would now be cool, he was not sure the gun crew of the AC-130 would be able to see the four wheel drives. Attached to the barrel of Craig’s weapon was a small rectangular infrared laser pointer. The device was used for indicating an enemy position to close air support assets that may have overlooked a particular area. Lying still, he lased the middle vehicle and waited. Close to ten seconds later, the mighty 40mm gun spoke again, explosive rounds hammering through the vehicle and turning it into a piece of scrap metal. Flicking the laser off, Craig allowed his night vision to recover. Minutes later, he stared down the scope. Two vehicles were destroyed completely; the remaining pair seemed relatively unscathed. Lasing the furthest vehicle, Craig waited half as long before the 40mm opened up again, rounds slamming through the remaining vehicles with violent ferocity, rendering them useless. Matty was breathing noisily, although not quite snoring. It sounded more like his tongue had relaxed back in his throat. Craig moved to him and rolled him onto his side, which seemed to help. Something was wrong and the more time passed, the greater confidence he felt calling for a medivac was the correct decision. Craig crawled back to the rim of the depression in the ground and stared down the night vision scope towards the former enemy position. Nothing moved. The vehicles were decimated; one of them was alight, the hiss and pop of melting paint, upholstery and rubber echoed gently out over the silent plain. His concentration was so deep that Craig barely heard the helicopter approach until it was slowing and descending less than twenty metres from his position. Even before the chopper touched the ground, a medic and two soldiers were running towards him carrying a stretcher between them. Noise, time and situation precluded any thorough questioning as to the events which had occurred. Matty was simply lifted onto the stretcher, the medic tapped Craig’s shoulder and then they were running back towards the helicopter. “Fuck me!” shouted Craig as he climbed aboard, the scream of the chopper’s engine deafening him. A headset was pushed into his hand. Taking off his combat helmet, he promptly placed the headset over his ears, inhaling a breath of relief as the noise was dampened. With the helicopter on strict blackout, Craig used his weapon’s night vision scope to look for, find and ensure that Matty too was wearing a headset. He was. Unconscious or not, the last thing he needed was permanent hearing damage. The stretcher was strapped to the floor of the helicopter with Matty buckled to the stretcher. Noticing a cord attached to the headset, Craig followed it with his fingers until he found a communication plug. All he needed to find was the comms jack into which to plug it. A firm hand grasped his shoulder, probably one of the loadmasters, who had night vision goggles attached to their helmets. The load master grabbed the jack out of Craig’s hand and following a half second burst of high pitched sound, he was listening to the crew’s conversation. “—I hear you, just not sure,” said the American voice. “That dude got comms yet?” “Roger that,” said another voice. “Hey pal,” said the same voice. A hand tapped Craig’s shoulder. “Pal, you gonna need to fold the boom mic down in front of your mouth. “ Craig found the mic and pulled it down to his lips. Following the comms cord with one hand, he found the small box. Pressing the transmit button, Craig said, “Thanks for the exfil.” “You’re welcome, guy,” the broad American voice said, which was probably the aircraft captain. “I’m in contact with the Spectre. They’ve spotted an artillery battery off to the west. That one of yours?” “No, mate, not ours,” replied Craig. “They’re the fuckers responsible for this whole mess!” “Roger,” said the pilot. Feeling the seat straps dig into his shoulders and belly, the chopper banked hard away from the exfiltration area. In the far distance, Craig saw the faint, flickering outline of the AC-130 Spectre gunship as every gun on board opened fire upon the Indonesian artillery battery below. The Indonesians had no chance of survival. They had nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. He almost felt sorry for them. Almost. “How’s Matty doin’?” he asked. “Is that his name, hun?” it was a woman’s voice. “Yeah.” “Matty’s not in a good way,” she sounded distracted or busy and probably was, he realised. “Okay,” Craig replied, trying to sound calm. “Will he be alright?” There was no reply. Craig felt anger and fear welling in his chest, although he remained silent. The chopper descended violently and turned hard to the left, before levelling out. Craig brought his weapon to bear and looked through the night vision scope to see treetops whipping by close beneath them. Christ, don’t hit a power line, he thought. “Will he be alright or not?” Craig asked. “Look hun, I don’t know. He’s got a dilated right pupil and weak grips on his left hand. He has diminished consciousness. I’m suspecting he’s haemorrhaging on the right side of his brain. He’ll need a CT scan and possibly burr holes drilled into his skull. I won’t lie to you. He can survive this, but it’s gonna be a close call.” Craig didn’t say anything. He knew it had the potential of being serious, but he now realised the situation was critical. He might lose a brother tonight. He felt numb, unaware of the seat belts digging into his body as the chopper turned. He was oblivious to the door gunners calling out fast approaching structures, trees or power lines over the intercom and was clueless as those same obstacles whipped by only metres beneath them. Everything seemed to be a blur. The dull impact as the chopper touched down upon the deck of USS Ronald Reagan brought Craig out of his reverie. To the east, the sky glowed a faint gunmetal grey, silhouetting the mighty aircraft carrier. Before the pilot began the shutdown procedure, the medics had carried Matty’s stretcher clear of the aircraft and were running. Unstrapping, Craig unplugged his headset, pushed himself clear of the chopper and sprinted after them. One of the door gunners tried to stop him, but he broke free of the grip.
Damon is the most interesting philosopher working in Australia right now because he makes the effort to talk to people who aren't philosophers. I've enjoyed all his books, but this latest, The Art of Reading, is perhaps his best yet. It's difficult to write about an unseen phenomenon, and yet he does so engagingly, compulsively, from the first page; indeed from the epigraph, a Jean-Paul Sartre quote:
"One does not write for slaves."
No, Jean-Paul, one does not.
He's very kindly given me an extract from the intro, for your enjoyment and embiggening. Read it, then go buy the book. I got the paperback because I consider it to be shelfworthy. I will drop an Amazon link in at the bottom, but for those who are not slaves to the Beast of Bezos, I've temporarily listsed The Art of Reading at jbsbookshelf.com with links out to the major stores. Grab it there. For a paperback copy, I would totally go with Booktopia.
TO MY RIGHT is a small stained pine bookcase. It contains, among other things, my childhood.
Stacked in muted burgundy and khaki buckram are classics like Aesop’s Fables, full of blunt aphorisms for 4-year-olds: ‘To be well prepared for war is the best guarantee of peace’. Not far away is Richard Burton’s translation of The Book of the Thousand and One Nights, with its formally phrased smut (‘he laid his hand under her left armpit, whereupon his vitals and her vitals yearned for coition’). Still read after seven decades, my mother’s octavo The Magic Faraway Tree—mystery, adventure and casual corporal punishment. I also have her Winnie the Pooh, printed the year she was born. Seventy years on, her grandson now has Eeyore days. (‘Good morning, Pooh Bear ... If it is a good morning ... Which I doubt.’) But most important for me, standing face out in black plastic leather and fake gold leaf, is The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes was my first literary world. Proudly bigger than anything read by my primary school peers, Conan Doyle’s 800-page tome was a prop in my performance of superiority. This archaic lump of text helped me feel special. I was more clever, said the serious serif font, than the other 11-year-olds; more intellectually brave, said the ornamental binding, than my teachers.
Sherlock Holmes was a kind of existential dress-up—an adult I tried on for size. I made our common traits a uniform: social abruptness, emotional flight, pathological curiosity. In Conan Doyle’s prose, this make-believe was more stylish than my clumsy boyhood persona. Take the first lines from The Sign of the Four: ‘Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case.’ My detective was an addict: but with panache. (I kept a dictionary for words like ‘morocco’. And ‘panache’.)
Yet there was more to The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes than my pretence. What I finally took from Conan Doyle’s mysteries was not savoir faire but freedom: the charisma of an independent mind. This Victorian London, with its shadows and blood, was mine. I winced as Holmes ‘thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston’, but the needle and its rush were my own to invent. Watson’s gentlemanly heroism, and Inspector Lestrade’s mediocrity: all belonging to the little boy lying quietly on the flokati rug. So my Holmesian education was only partly about general knowledge—the symbolic pips of the Ku Klux Klan, the atmosphere of moors, the principles of deduction. It was also, more crucially, schooling in the exertion of my own psyche. I willed this strange world into being, with help from Conan Doyle. The author was less like an entertaining uncle, and more like a conspirator. We met in private to secure my liberation from school’s banality and home’s atmosphere of violence.
Holmes was not my first book. I was already in that ‘promised land’, as Vladimir Nabokov put it in Speak, Memory, ‘where ... words are meant to mean what they mean’. I learned to read with the ‘Asterix’ adventures, when my parents refused to voice the speech boxes. If I wanted the puns and fisticuffs, I had to parse the text myself. Beside my bed there was also a lion who swallowed vegetable soup instead of rabbits; dinosaurs against industrial pollution; and Ferdinand the pacifist bull. These were training and, later, distraction. Like Germaine Greer, who ‘read for greed’, I kept myself busy with words on paper—an urge closer to rapacity than curiosity. These desires combined in ‘Garfield’, as I devoured cartoons and lasagne with equal urgency.
But with The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes, I had a new sense of greater mastery, and pleasure in this discovery. Part of me saw Holmes as a legendary historical hero, and I enjoyed what novelist Michael Chabon called the ‘happy confusion’ of fact and fiction. Another part of me, burgeoning and a little buzzed, was doing away with deference. I realised that these dark marks on paper were mine to ignore or investigate, enrich or evade. It was with the junky detective that I first became aware of myself as something powerful: a reader.
Three decades later, my bookshelves are punctuated by discoveries of this imaginative independence. For these authors, the written word encouraged a new liberty: to think, perceive or feel with greater awareness.
Novelist William Gibson, whom I read as a teenager, is currently shelved in the garage between Ian Fleming’s pubescent thrillers and Harry Harrison’s galactic satire. Also roused by Sherlock Holmes as a boy, Gibson transformed his drab suburban neighbourhood into Victorian England, one brick wall at a time. ‘I could imagine that there was an infinite number of similar buildings in every direction,’ Gibson told The Paris Review, ‘and I was in Sherlock Holmes’s London.’ Conan Doyle’s stories were more than escapism or amusement for Gibson. They beckoned him to invent.
Two shelves under Gibson, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk recalled reading as relief from tears of boredom, and as a flight from confronting fact. In Other Colours, the novelist congratulated himself, as I did, on ‘possessing greater depth than those who do not read’. This was partly juvenile boastfulness. But it was also an acknowledgement of the work involved: turning black text into an illuminated theatre. Pamuk wrote of the ‘creator’s bliss’ he enjoyed as a child reader, putting his mind to work with words.
Two rooms behind and one century before Pamuk is American novelist Edith Wharton. Invited into her father’s library as a child, she found a private sanctuary: a ‘kingdom’, as she put it. ‘There was in me a secret retreat,’ she wrote in A Backward Glance, ‘where I wished no one to intrude.’ This was more than withdrawal. With the poetry of Alfred Tennyson, Alexander Pope and Algernon Charles Swinburne, the criticism of John Ruskin, the novels of Walter Scott, Wharton played with exciting new themes and rhythms. She wrote about reading as a cultivation and celebration of her growing personality—what she called ‘the complex music of my strange inner world’. The novelist believed that she became more fully herself in those yellowing pages.
Eighteenth century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, stacked two feet to the left of Wharton, read romantic novels late into the night with his widower father. The stories made him aware, for the first time, of his own mind. ‘It is from my earliest reading,’ he wrote in his Confessions, ‘that I date the unbroken consciousness of my own existence.’ The point is not only that Rousseau’s emotions were encouraged by the novels, but also that he recognised them as his. And while the philosopher (characteristically) blamed fiction for his own histrionic bent, the melodrama arose chiefly out of little Jean-Jacques.
The shelf under Rousseau holds the modern philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. He discovered his literary authority in a sixth-floor apartment, looking down on Paris, his grandfather’s books in his hands. Words gave the boy a certain mastery over himself: he was a demiurge, bestowing the world with life, in language. ‘The Universe lay spread at my feet and each thing was humbly begging for a name,’ he wrote, ‘and giving it one was like both creating it and taking it.’ Sartre also collected American westerns and detective comics, and their heroic caricature—lone brave man against the world—remained in his philosophy, decades later.
Simone de Beauvoir, close to Sartre in my library as in life, remembered the security of books. Not only because of their docile bourgeois morality, but also because they obeyed her. ‘They said what they had to say, and didn’t pretend to say anything else,’ de Beauvoir wrote in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, ‘when I was not there, they were silent.’ She recognised that they asked for conviction and artistry—from Simone, rather than simply from the authors. De Beauvoir called this ‘the sorcery that transmutes printed symbols into stories’: without a reader, the magic stops.
There is no one-size-fits-all discovery of literary power. Reading is thick with the quirks of era, family and psychology. Some, like Rousseau, find romantic urges. Others, like Sartre, find enlightenment domination. There can be pretence, narcissism and cowardice. (But enough about me.) In many cases, there is a longing for what philosopher Herbert Marcuse labelled ‘holiday reality’: an asylum from ordinariness. Charles Dickens wrote about this as his boyhood ‘hope of something beyond that place and time’. But as Dickens’ later popularity suggests, these moments of youthful bibliophilia also coincide with the discovery of clout. The child is becoming aware, not only of worlds populated with detectives, Gauls or bulls, but also of an ‘I’: the reader, whose consent and creativity brings these worlds into being. Reading is an introduction to a more ambitious mind.
Jean-Paul Sartre, in What is Literature?, wrote: ‘There is no art except for and by others’. The philosopher’s argument was not that authors cannot enjoy writing for themselves; that every word is dashed off, hand aching, for tyrannical editors and audiences—what Henry James described in one letter as ‘the devouring maw into which I ... pour belated copy’. Instead, Sartre’s point was that the text is only ever half finished by the writer. Without a reader, the text is a stream of sensations: dark and light shapes.
This does not mean ordinary life is a play of dumb necessity. Sensation always has some significance for humans— we are creatures of meaning, and the universe is never spied as a naked fact. But the world writ large does not refer to things fluently; the suggestions are often vague. ‘The dim little meaning which dwells within it,’ wrote Sartre of everyday sensation, ‘a light joy, a timid sadness, remains imminent or trembles about it like a heat mist.’ Ordinary life has a hazy atmosphere to it, whereas language illuminates brightly and sharply.
The letters achieve this by pointing beyond themselves— we read through the text, not off it. ‘There is prose when the word passes across our gaze,’ said Sartre, quoting the poet Paul Valéry, ‘as the glass across the sun.’ Words are portals of sorts: they frame reality, and become invisible as we peer.
Not all texts are as transparent as Sartre’s ideal prose. Poetry can be more opaque. Take Seamus Heaney’s ‘The Bookcase’. It refers literally to the poet’s library, but it also makes a spectacle of the English tongue. ‘Ashwood or oak-wood? Planed to silkiness / Mitred, much eyed-along, each vellum-pale / Board in the bookcase held and never sagged.’ Alliteration, rhythm, metaphor: this is about a thing and its resonances, but it is also about language. Poetry puts on a show of words, just as painting displays colour, and music sound. Poetic phrases, wrote German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, ‘haul back and bring to a standstill the fleeting word that points beyond itself ’.
Language can be translucent like amber or clear like Valéry’s glass, but staring through it always asks for effort. Inscriptions or projections become words, which have meanings alongside their tone and cadence. This is what I first recognised in Sherlock Holmes: reading is always a transformation of sensation into sense. ‘You have to make them all out of squiggles,’ poet D Nurkse wrote, ‘like the feelers of dead ants.’
For the reader, this means rendering a world: the intricate ensemble beyond the page. When Conan Doyle writes that the sun is visible ‘through the dim veil which hangs over the great city’, I recreate London. Not only the sky’s spray of yellow and grey, but also the coal and commerce that make the metropolis ‘great’. The newspaper reporting the death of Sherlock’s client also evokes a community of middle-class readers from Cornwall to Northumberland, all participating in the imagined community of print. Waterloo Station, to which the victim was hurrying, suggests steam trains across England: taking passengers and parcels of The Times for men like Watson to read. All this I project behind the foreground prose. ‘The objects represented by art,’ as Sartre put it, ‘appear against the background of the universe.’ I piece together a cosmos from the author’s fragments.
What this all reinforces is that writing cannot make anything happen. As an infant, earlier editions of The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes were wholly opaque to me: blocks of chewable stuff. And as an 11-year-old I was not forced to imagine Holmes in his ‘velvet-lined arm-chair’, pushing blow into his blood. I had to commit myself to the text; to consent to a kind of active passivity, in which I accepted Conan Doyle’s words, then took responsibility for giving them some totality.
Reading requires some quantum of autonomy: no-one compels me to envisage their words. They are, at best, an invitation. Sartre phrases this as an ‘appeal’, and the idea makes sense of how little necessity is at play. Reading is always a meeting of two liberties: the artist’s and the audience’s.
The curse of the single-season TV show is terrible indeed. Firefly is probably the most celebrated example, but there are others – great shows that never found their audience, or found them way too late. There is a version of the curse, however, which is even crueler. Shows that you mistakenly think had only one season, when they actually rolled on for many more.
I vaguely recall Murph raving about some TV show a couple years ago, maybe set on a warship, possibly at the end of the world. That was all I recalled, that and the crucial detail that it had been cancelled after 10 or 12 episodes. It sounded like the sort of thing I’d normally watch, but when The Last Ship appeared on the front page at Stan, and I thought, "Oh, there it is," I decided instead to spend my attention dollar elsewhere. Why set myself up for the disappointment. Having been left dangling by the UK show Survivors, I wasn't in the mood for another tease.
Turned out Murph hadn't been talking about The Last Ship though. He'd been done wrong by The Last Resort. The latter was set on a nuclear submarine. The Last Ship is a guided missile destroyer. "Confusion," to quote ELO's Mr Jeff Lyne. "It's such a terrible shame. Confusion – you don't know what you're sayin'."
I'm still not sure how the world went down the dunny in Resort, but on The Last Ship it's an ebola-like virus. Glancing coincidence – Survivors is also an End of the World story with a flu-like plague doing the hard yards of cutting down the potential list.
The captain and crew of the USS Nathan James avoid the collapse of civilisation (and billions of exploding bloodsacks) by virtue of having been sent to the Arctic for a top-secret weapons test. Except it's not a top-secret weapons test, a couple of scientists who tag along with them are doing even more secret research on the superbug.
That's about all the set up you need to know. The Nathan James returns from its four-month mission to find the world is falling apart and whenever they set foot on dry land they have to wear NBC suits and stay clear of the infected. Props to the producers for not firing up the zombie cannon at this point. It must have been tempting to make this The Walking Dead On Water.
It’s not. After an admittedly wobbly pilot, the series really settles down into a propulsive hybrid thriller. (Seriously, just ingnore the cheesier dialogie, cardboard characterisation, and a few continuity issues in that first ep. Everything gets better). The contagion threat is always there. You've got rogue Russians chasing them for a cure (and it is SO GREAT to have the Russians back as the villains of a military story. We missed you so much, Ivan!). There is the always exciting collapse of civilisation to deal with every ep, and the producers never lose sight of resource scarcity as both a constraint and a driver for the story engine.
It's the writing and character work that have really impressed me so far. With 200+ sailors on the ship, the crew could become ciphers. Redshirts. But they don't. The supporting cast is large, and they get some great dialogue and story arcs - more than enough to make the investment of caring about them. The headline characters (after a slightly wooden start) are all very well realised.
The writers perform a neat trick of borrowing tropes from a whole bunch of genres, so that they're not just recyling mil-fic cliches every week. There are lots of WTF plot moments, but nothing bizarre or outlandish. Simply surprising.
I'm up to episode six of season one now, and as I understand it the third season has just commenced in the US. This is what I love. A new story to invest in, and lots of chapters still ahead of me. If you're looking for something along these lines I am happy to give it a big thumbs up. Streaming now on Stan.