Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Hairy Podcast Week, Day 5

To conclude Hairy Podcast Week, I’m taking a quick look at the man with the voice… R.D. Watson Esq.

Roger Watson is an award-winning British male voice artist and Grammy nominated record producer. From studios in west London he works for clients in the UK and overseas, who hire him for the strong, trustworthy quality of his very English accent and his range of British accents. Roger Watson is a winner of the Audiofile Award for Narration.

Masquerading as a record executive, Roger has been on the international radio airwaves  for nearly forty years. His natural aptitude for accents precipitated his posting from Oxford Street to Sunset Boulevard in the mid-1970s. In London, he provided the  promo voice for acts such as Jethro Tull, Leo Sayer, and Ten Years After. In Hollywood he had to switch accents to suit their requirement for a very British voice – and heralded the arrival of Spandau Ballet, Billy Idol, and the iconic Blondie.

Roger provides English voiceovers for audiobooks, radio and TV commercials, and narration for TV, animations and industrial videos – a reassuring and authoritative British voice for Interactive Voice Response and On-Hold recordings, as well as jingles and readings for radio shows and podcasts.

I am thrilled to hear Roger narrating Hairy London. His rich voice works perfectly with the prose, and many of his character voices are terrific; the three leading men in particular, but he also does a very good Valentina Moondusst! I also love his Cockney voices, and the many and various Marxist-Leninist malcontents who brew revolution on the streets of London Town. I was also struck by the voice of the chief of the Vauxhall tribe, sounding uncannily like Ray Ellington, whose occasional acting parts in the Goon Show included the dreaded foe of the British Empire the Red Bladder…

Hairy London: the audio book at Jeeni.

Hairy Podcast Week, Day 4

Today, to celebrate the audio book and podcast of Hairy London, I’m re-posting my blog of a few years ago “Hairy London, Beardy Marx.”


In Hairy London – a very silly novel with a very serious theme, which is set somewhere in Victorian/Edwardian times – I used a few real people as fictional characters, including Karl Marx. One of the main characters, Velvene Orchardtide, scion of the landed gentry and rather fond of stealing from his parents, is forced to leave the bosom of his family home and undertake the Suicide Club quest initiated by Sheremy Pantomile, which is to find the true nature of love. Early on, Velvene and Marx have an inconclusive meeting in Highgate Cemetery, where Velvene has crashed his bovine balloon:

Velvene described as best he could the purpose of the Suicide Club and Pantomile’s wager, concluding, “I found myself short of funds, and so put my name forward. I mean to uncover the true nature of love and win the money.”

“Huh,” Marx grunted. “A waste of time. You are a crippled man in a crippled society, journeying around your Empire as if it were a playground, while the common person, the authentic person, struggles against the oppression of the upper classes.”

“So you say,” Velvene retorted, “but some of us who find ourselves, through no fault of our own, born into wealth become philanthropists-“

“An illusion! What use is some? You are alienated from everything in your world. You know nothing of real life, of poverty, of work, of struggle, of disappointment, of the crushing of opportunity. And here you are now, jousting with me and daring to tell me you seek the truth of love? You would not know love if it clung on to you with the passion of a young woman.”

Velvene at this point has little understanding of himself, of his curious circumstances and of the nature of the struggle suggested by Marx, but as the novel progresses he does gain understanding, and in the end becomes something of a hero. But what was Marx on about in the cemetery scene above? What was Marx’s concept of humanity?

In Beyond The Chains Of Illusion the radical humanist, Marxist and former Freudian psychologist Erich Fromm noted that one of Marx’s fundamental points is that the nature of “man” (i.e. human beings) is comprehensible, a concept which at the time went head-to-head with the prevailing idea that we are all a blank sheet for culture and other forces to write upon:

Marx, in assuming the existence of a nature of man, did not concur in the common error of confusing it with its particular manifestations. He differentiated ‘human nature in general’ from ‘human nature as modified in each historical epoch.’

Yet even Erich Fromm at this stage in his life’s work would add:

Human nature in general we can never see… what we observe are always the specific manifestations of human nature in various cultures… In his earlier writings, Marx still called ‘human nature in general’ the ‘essence of man.’ He later gave up this term because he wanted to make it clear that ‘the essence of man’ is no abstraction inherent in each separate individual… For Marx, the nature of man was a given potential, a set of conditions, the human raw material, as it were, which as such cannot be changed, just as the size and structure of the human brain has remained the same since the beginning of civilisation.

In my own work I’ve made a few changes to this stance, using the term ‘human condition’ to mean the unchanging, biologically/evolutionary-determined aspect of ourselves, and ‘human nature’ to be the historically dependent, ‘visible’ aspect. The human condition in my view is inviolate, and leads, according to cultural conditions, to various types of human nature. I also disagree with Fromm in that in my opinion there is no bar to what I’ve called a scientific description of the human condition. Fromm was insistent in all his later works on humanity assembling of a full understanding of the human condition, a process he was very much a part of and which he memorably contributed to in his seminal work The Sane Society.

Marx, then, grasped that human nature at least could be assessed and discussed, if nothing else. And of course he saw the consequences of not understanding the true needs of human beings:

Marx chuckled. “You’ve read Montesquieu then,” he remarked. “If a person becomes active, productive and independent, then yes, they may be counted authentic. But it involves releasing themself from chains of illusion. And you? Look at you. You wear clothes created from the subjection of the masses in Lancashire. Your chronoflam is gold removed from a foreign country that your King rules but has never visited. Your club for the idle rich employs servants who make the myriad delicacies upon which you feast, and all for a few pennies. Wager? I wager this – that you have never done a full day’s work in your life.”

Such is Marx’s early challenge to Velvene Orchardtide.

What then of love? Is it something forever beyond grasp, a phantasm, an illness, a spiritual affection perpetually enigmatic? Or did it evolve over hundreds of thousands of years, along with emotion and a host of other aspects of the human condition? Hairy London presents three possible answers to the question at its conclusion, but Velvene and Marx had a second encounter much later in the book, where the two are somewhat more courteous to one another:

“And what of love?” [Marx] asked.

“My research continues.”

“Who then have you questioned?”

Velvene, annoyed again, decided to oppose Marx by attacking. He replied, “Tell me, do you believe, as Freud and Reich do, that man is a tabula rasa, or do you side with Jung, who believes all men are born with unconscious personality already within him?”

Wrongfooted by this question, Marx peered long and hard at Velvene, then glanced away and said, “I suppose I side against Jung.”

“Then we are born, effectively, a blank sheet of paper?”


“Well, where then do our personalities come from?”

Marx considered, then replied, “I suppose they come from the real world, from our experiences, placed inside us through memory.”

As this conversation develops, I take Marx away from his real stance:

Do you suppose that more might be placed inside us, perhaps through the actions of our parents, our siblings, our family, eh?” [Velvene said.]

“I suppose that to be perfectly possible.”

Velvene considered. “Then it must be that love, and all the other psychological templates, are also placed inside us, in such a way as to chime with the theories of the estimable Mr Darwin.”

Again Marx considered this point, before answering, “You mean, because we are all of the same species, descended from apes, we all partake of the same mental template?”

“Yes, sir!”

Marx… said, “What a remarkable idea. What then shall we decide about love?”

Velvene felt ideas flooding his mind as the implications of his notion arrived. He replied, “Though we all partake of the same mental template, we all grow up in different conditions, eh? The working class man has a different experience of life to the imperialist. Therefore, it must be that we all approach love from different angles.”

“And yet every man and woman across the world experiences love in the same way.”

“Well, true, true…” Velvene murmured. He thought for a moment, then said, “You must be correct, Mr Marx. Though we are all different in the circumstances of our lives, love is universal. It must therefore be an aspect of our mental template.”

“Moreover, it must be a deducible aspect – as with any scientific theory.”

Velvene nodded, intrigued. That was a notion he had never considered. “By reasonable extension of what he have decided so far,” he said, “love must be an aspect of the process of placing experience inside us as we grow up.”

“But what aspect?”

This takes Marx well away from 19th century thought. Although the idea of different classes of people in, say, British culture approaching life differently is in accordance with Marx’s historically-dependent ‘essence of man’ notion, the pair do agree that love is essentially a universal experience.

“But my point is this,” [Velvene said.] “If a man truly… loves a woman, would he not want everything possible for his beloved, eh? Including her freedom, her happiness, her enjoyment of life.”

“He would want that,” Marx replied. “I certainly wanted that for my wife.”

“Then this surely is what love must be. It is the way we most profoundly understand the beloved, so that they may experience the best of what life has to offer. After all, we enter this world knowing nobody – yet we, as a social animal, have no option but to know the people around us.”

“Indeed!” Marx said. “Then love, understanding, and freedom must all be words for the same thing.”

Velvene felt excitement course through him. “They must be! And though I have heard it said amongst cynical, and often very young men that love is blind, the opposite must be true. Love is like spectacles. We see better through it.”

“A remarkable analogy, sir! I believe I may put that in my pamphlet.”

And so it is a universal experience. In The Art Of Loving, Fromm wrote:

… mature love is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality. Love is an active power in man; a power which breaks through the walls separating man from his fellow men, which unites him with others… In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain two.

Love, understanding and freedom are all words for the same experience:

“There exists however,” Velvene said, “a dilemma in the experience of our lives. We, ourselves, are most vividly and continuously experienced. We know our own deeds and wishes, our every idiosyncrasy and foible, feeling, thought, hope and desire. But no other human being, however close, is experienced in this intimate manner, eh? There is always the impossibility of feeling precisely the same feelings as another, of having different thoughts, of remembering different experiences – in short, of being different people. This dilemma is resolved by the experience of union.”

“What do you mean by union?” asked Franclin.

“Well, I mean love. Our need for communication and our need for union are similar in the sense that they draw people together through society. But union has a more profound quality. Communication between people is an aspect of living, though it can in some cases be deep… But union does not have any aspect of chance. We do not live, as it were, casually creating union with others. Union has a different meaning. Union relates, as Marx pointed out, to the actual experience of the human condition, to the experience of living a human life. Union is the exchange of the experience of life, whereas communication is the exchange of information relating to life… union, by which I mean love, is the experience of understanding others. Union indeed is an inevitable part of life, because we simply have to understand others.”

“Love is inevitable, then?” Franclin asked.

“We are born,” Velvene replied, “without any knowledge of the world, and so we have to create our memories by learning about life. At least, most [psychologists] think so, Mr Jung being the notable exception, eh? Love, therefore, was an inevitable consequence of our evolution from apes.”

“What then is your wager presentation?” Lord Blackanore asked.

Velvene turned to face him. “The purpose of love is to facilitate the appearance of other human beings in our minds. It is our method of bringing other people, wholly independent of the self as I have explained, into our minds, to be understood. The experience of love is the experience of union. Indeed sir, loneliness is unbearable precisely because true understanding of the self and of life is inextricably bound up with the true understanding of others.”

“I do not follow.”

Velvene nodded. “… Love is indeed a paradoxical experience, eh? It preserves the integrity and independence of those involved. Love requires freedom to exist, for without freedom, Blackanore, why then it would be but a tie of necessity, eh? Love and freedom and understanding are therefore conceptual equivalents… You see, love is not blind. In fact it is the very opposite, eh? Love gives us an improved experience of others, since it is the very experience of the truth of these others, not just the perception of some surface quality.”

Thus does Velvene Orchardtide redeem himself.

Check out the full audio book on Jeeni!

Hairy Podcast Week, Day 3

What was the inspiration for Hairy London? Well, as I mentioned on Monday, the inspiration was a call put out by Eibonvale Press for short stories fitting the anthology Where Are We Going? edited by Allen Ashley. The idea of this anthology was to visit locations on planet Earth which had either been too little or never explored. Enthused, I found myself thinking about Jules Verne’s classic Around The World In 80 Days, with its wager theme and Victorian adventure. At once the theme and style of my tale Xana-La (a collision of Xanadu and Shangri-La) were set.

But there was much more. As a young man, I was thrilled by and addicted to the Goon Show, that never-to-be-repeated work of genius from Spike Milligan, Larry Stephens, and Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Wallace Greenslade (with an honourable mention to Michael Bentine). I adored the madcap, surreal flights of fancy, I loved the absurdist word play, I loved the characters, the sound effects and the whole vibe. I loved the fact that the cast frequently collapsed into laughter at their own brilliance.

Later, I loved Monty Python and other comedy with a surreal, absurdist style. This is without doubt my kind of comedy: the humour of strange juxtaposition, of accidental mash-up, of impossible thematic collisions. So when I came to write Hairy London, knowing that I’d used and enjoyed the humour of Xana-La, I knew I had to continue that style. Hairy London had to be as daft as a brush: surreal, illogical and yet with its own cast iron logic, absurd and whimsical.

No doubt those early listens to the Goon Show remain engraved upon my subconscious, because there is one episode, The Choking Horror, in which some buildings become hairy:


Now listen, London is in the grip of a choking horror. Hair is starting to grow on monuments and buildings.


What. Sapristi, Choking Horror part six.


Thank you, part hair. We must inform Parliament of this choking horror.




(echoing in large hall) Yes honourable members of Parliament, well you may murmur rhubarb in Choking Horror part six, but it doesn’t alter the fact that in the past ten months the following buildings have also been declared hairy: The National Gallery; St Pauls; Nelson’s Column; The Windmill Theatre!


(loud grumbles and muttering, rhubarbs)


(Milligan, nasal voice – Spriggs?) I tell you, please, honourable members




Please, silence please




We must take action at once:


I agree, I agree


Well said.


The Albert hall is a dreadful sight its hair is hanging down its back.


That’s nothing – Graham Sunderland’s portrait of Sir Winston Churchill is completely hidden.


(Sellers) Thank heavens for that.


(muttering under)


Have no fear, I have taken action. I’m commencing with having the Albert Hall’s hair cut, with Mister Crun supervising.


Yes, I’m going to give it a real military hair cut.


Military? The Albert Hall is a civilian Sir!

Later on, one of the buildings begins to develop a bald patch – classic Milliganese, which may well have influenced my expansion of the theme into every part of London…

Click here for the Moonlightmakers 31-episode podcast series.

“Hairy London” front cover

Hairy Podcast Week, Day 2

It’s a given of writing technique that you should never leave the reader uncertain about the meaning of sentences – words, too. In Hairy London I chose to follow a different technique, inventing words and descriptions that, even in context, the reader could not be expected to understand. I did this because I wanted readers to bring their own concepts to the novel. That enigmatic ambiguity was a large part of the creation of the work, allowing, even forcing the reader to go beyond the rational as they imagined what might be happening – a kind of lexical Zen koan.

Some situations were ambiguous but comprehensible. The language of Velvene Orchardtide’s rooftop escape from his parents’ house suggests he is fleeing in something like a balloon and cow crossed, though, lacking specifics, the reader has to imagine what that might look like. Other situations left 100% room for the imagination. What is a diamond encrusted spigot? Still others could be deduced from linguistic trails: chronoflam, cigaroon and so on. This was all part of the absurdist style of the novel.

The other aspect of the book’s language that I want to explore here is the terminology I used for non-white peoples. It was part of the concept right from the beginning that three chauvinist, racist, entitled, upper-class men would in various ways have the scales removed from their eyes regarding the many iniquities of the British Empire. The best way for me to do that, I thought, was to use a close third person point of view – in other words, to see non-white peoples entirely from their privileged perspective.

As is these days all too clear, British Victorians and Edwardians considered other races inferior, if not actually subhuman, using a wide range of derogative words to describe them. In Hairy London I used those terms in the correct historical context to highlight such iniquities, which were part of the reason I wrote the novel – and many other novels, not least Beautiful Intelligence, No Grave For A Fox and The Autist; but also the Factory Girl trilogy, where at the end of the first volume I wrote:

… whose main character [Kora/Roka] is a fourteen year old of mixed racial descent; technically, a mulatto. This word has its origin somewhere in the sixteenth century and comes from the Spanish mulato. Interestingly, the N-word is not much younger – a few decades perhaps.

You will note I haven’t actually spelled out the N-word here. But I did use it in full in The Girl With Two Souls, to enhance the sensation received by the reader that my main character was being treated with appalling inhumanity. I felt that, because the word was used in an appropriate social context, not to mention an obvious historical context, it was right to use it.

Some people today think the word shouldn’t be used in any context; they say it is always wrong and always inappropriate. I think this is misguided, and often unhelpful. To censor the attitudes of people in the past by not using their dialect is to ignore or conceal their deeds.

To this day, I believe the use in the correct historical context of such language is crucial to exposing the vile reality of racism. If we censor our language we reduce the impact of every past racist iniquity. That, I believe, is a mistake. Racism is alive and well and must be opposed by every means available, including within historical analysis.

Of all the reviews of the novel, I was most taken with Gary Dalkin’s. Though he found the book a tad long (fair point), he grasped the very serious themes amidst the gonzo surreality:

And yet within this Ripping Yarns-on-acid lunacy there is a serious exploration of themes of racism and exploitation, a dissection of attitudes which simply took prejudice as the default. There is a boldness echoing the New Wave experimentalism of British SF of the 1960s. Bold to the extent that elements of the depiction of racism may prove controversial, not least some historically accurate language, but in the monstrous character of Gandy, Gandhi distorted through the worst fears of white upper-class early 20th century inhabitants of the British Empire.

Cheers, Gary! You got it spot on. They really did see Gandhi that way: a monster. But we know different, and we see from a new, different perspective; the human perspective.

Hairy Podcast Week, Day 1

To celebrate the podcast and audio book of Hairy London, this is Hairy Podcast Week on my blog. Today… the proto-Hairy shenanigans!


It’s not normally considered wise to write a novel without on-the-fly editing, but that’s what I did when I wrote Hairy London. A completely different form of novel to anything I’ve previously written, I realised as soon as I sat down that my unconscious should be allowed to express itself regardless of what came out. Hence chocolate steam trains, cow balloons, and much, much more…

Inspired by a story request for the Eibonvale Press anthology Where Are We Going? I wrote a short story called Xana-La, which satirised and celebrated Victorian derring-do penny dreadful tales, and also the classic format of Jules Verne, which he used with such marvellous success in Around The World In 80 Days. My plan was to write a tale in which amusingly named Victorian explorers would travel to somewhere in the Himalayas in a balloon, but within a few minutes of sitting down to write the opening scene I knew there was enormous scope for madcap invention (my favourite kind) and Pythonesque humour. So I was away… writing with great enjoyment, at speed, and without consciously editing the surreal adventures which played out before my mind’s eye. I also realised early on that baroque, if not rococo language was the way to go: Milliganesque, Rabellaisian. This too was enormous fun.

By the time I had finished this story (which iirc took two afternoons) I realised I had a good story and had discovered by accident a fantastic way of writing. But this was 2013, and I had other, more serious writing to do…

Yet Xana-La and that whole technique of unedited writing wouldn’t let me go, and I realised there was a potential novel on the way. Once I had finished the serious stuff I pondered that novel. I did almost no preparation. I decided on the theme, worked out the style, jotted down a few names and locations, found a map of central London, then did a little work on the format. And that was everything. The plan was to let my unconscious off the leash.

Did it work? Given how different the novel is to my previous work, I think the reviews speak for themselves: In the end I was left wanting more… I suppose the acid test questions are: did I feel I wasted my money buying this book? No. Would I read another Stephen Palmer novel? Indubitably, my dear chap, indubitably… I highly recommend this fun, engaging novel… Hairy London was a real page turner and I found it difficult to put down… I enjoyed every page of this book as the action stayed strong and the individual adventures, although over the top, were just so much fun… Stephen Palmer is a writer you should read. His work is unique, original, sometimes challenging, always fresh… Thought-provoking and a lot of fun, it has everything a solid, different novel should have.

Moonlightmakers Podcast, Episode 1

Xana-La cover


Tomorrow begins Hairy Podcast Week, but Xana-La is where it all began. “The fate of all who enter Moongolia is to die…”

Xana-La cover

Reality Versus Donald Trump

It was always going to end that way – violent, shocking, mad.

Narcissists as dangerous as Donald Trump have no connection with reality. In their earlier lives they have the option of controlling, dominating or otherwise changing reality so that it fits their personal fantasies, but for some, when in the end reality wins out – as it always does – there is no wriggle room. Hitler found this out in 1945, raging in his bunker that he had been “failed” by the German nation, operating a scorched earth policy in revenge, then doing the only deed left and shooting himself. Reality intruded into his totally unrealistic mental model of reality, leaving him trapped. Unable to move, and unable at last to deny the real world, he took the one last option available to him. The same thing happened to Napoleon at Waterloo. In my blog piece on Napoleon I wrote:

When reality finally did intrude into Napoleon’s world there were two distinct responses. Usually he would slip away from the scene of the disaster and pretend to himself and to others that it had never happened, or that some force other than himself had been responsible. On other occasions he would retreat into his fantasy world and simply ignore what was happening. But on at least three occasions the convergence of reality and fantasy was so intense that Napoleon’s inner world – his laboriously constructed self – was placed in jeopardy. When Napoleon was at the Champagne ecole militaire he was punished for an offence by being forced to eat his dinner upon his knees at the door of the refectory. The power wielded over him and the humiliation were so intense that he suffered a kind of fit; reality and his internal world became violently incompatible. A similar occurrence took place in the weeks before Napoleon’s creation of the First Consul. Sieyes’ coup de etat involved much chicanery, and at one point the parliamentary opposition became heated, questioning Napoleon about the army surrounding Paris and the general state of leadership. Questions about personal ambitions and current events Napoleon deflected, but at one point the opposition’s hatred of him became obvious, and it seemed the plan might fail. Then Napoleon panicked: he stuttered answers, his face white, his powers of manipulation and self-deception departed. A third occasion was the Battle of Waterloo. When it became obvious that Wellington and Blucher were going to take the day Napoleon did not stay to see the result, instead riding from the scene weeping, terrified and speechless.

Narcissists like Trump offer us a glimpse into their fantasy worlds when these kinds of reality intrusions occur. For Hitler, that fantasy world was one of Aryan purity and German domination. It was no accident that he made the equivalence between Germany and the Führer, as if the two were one and the same thing. In his mind, they were the same. Similarly for Trump, the number one requirement in those who work with him is loyalty – loyalty regardless of events in the real world. In this way Trump sucks individuals into his fantasy world, forcing them to deny reality in the same way he does. A loyal Trump follower is, in effect, the same as Trump. He does not understand that other people are independent of him, except in the most basic sense, from which his rage at their autonomy derives – that they do things other than what he wants. Meanwhile, in France:

By this time mere conquest could not appease the lust for power; what seemed a lack of human fallibility was metamorphosed into a belief that he was a deity. Part of the Imperial Catechism ran – Q. Why are we bound to show these duties (love, obedience, fidelity, service, etc.) to the Emperor? A. Because God has established him as our Sovereign, and has rendered him His image here on earth, overwhelming him with gifts in peace and war. To honour and serve our Emperor is, therefore, to honour and serve God himself.

The significant different between Trump, and Napoleon and Hitler however is that America for Trump is merely the nation in which he was born. Unlike Hitler and Napoleon, for whom nationality was crucial, nation for Trump is unimportant. What matters is him, and him alone. He is not only his own messiah, he is his own nation.

Trump is without doubt the most dangerous American president ever. That the political situation over there is so bad he actually managed to get to the top of the masculine pyramid is just one of many reasons the American way of doing politics, like the British way, is utterly unfit for purpose.

The Man In The High Castle tv series

Until recently, I watched very little television. The news, the Simpsons, and a few good documentaries on BBC4 were about as far as I went. Recent events both in my life and in the world at large brought a change in that, and a couple of nights ago I and my partner finished watching the four series of The Man In The High Castle, based on Philip K. Dick’s Hugo Award winning 1963 novel. Here, I present a few thoughts.


This review contains spoilers and is of the entire 40 episode production.


Well, I enjoyed my first tv box set very much. I have only a passing acquaintance with Dick’s work, but I do recognise and celebrate his considerable importance to the SF genre, though The Man In The High Castle isn’t a novel I’ve read. Essentially, the book posits an alternate world where the Allies lose WW2 and Germany and Japan carve up America, so that the Japanese take the states west of the Rockies (which turns into the Neutral Zone) and the Greater Nazi Reich takes everything to the east. Hitler and Himmler are alive, the Nazis have the atomic bomb, and an American Resistance has failed.

The main characters are all linked to the central premise of alternate history lines. In the novel, the titular man has a book, but in this tv series Hawthorne Abendsen has a number of films, all of which depict a reality where the Allies win – exactly as our own history. These grainy black and white films, which we are so familiar with, are a marvellous way of emphasising the strangeness of Dick’s alternate world. I think here the writers hit upon a particularly brilliant hook, which in part explains the excellence of this series, especially the first half, where the films are the central plot device.

The other aspect of that excellence is the acting. A number of actors really shine. Rufus Sewell as the American-born soldier-turned-Nazi John Smith stands out; and what a wonderful irony that bland name is when attached to the word Reichsmarschall! He holds much of the Nazi side of the story together, supported by many great actors, but, as the series approaches its conclusion, it’s the dilemma of his family life which becomes compelling. Here Genea Charpentier, playing his middle daughter, stands out. Alexa Davelos as the main “resistance” focus Juliana Crain is brilliant, as is her early foil Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank). One actor though who I think was miscast is Rupert Evans as Frank Frink. I wasn’t convinced by his acting, though that’s not to say it is bad. But I don’t think his face fit; he looks more like a chorister from Winchester Cathedral than anything else. A more compelling actor is Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who in one sense is the human heart of the production, trying to achieve peace when working amidst a brutal, dehumanised, xenophobic Japanese military. Joel de la Fuente is exceptional as the loyal Chief Inspector Kido, but I think his personal story is dealt with too late. In the first couple of series he comes across more like a machine than a man, which may have been the point but which acts as an irritating barrier to learning more about him earlier on. I found myself alternately interested and annoyed by him.

The general tone of the screenplay is terrific. I loved for instance the historical and poetic justice of John Smith’s final scene, which echoes what happened to Hitler in the bunker. As somebody who can’t watch much violence on tv and who despises American gun culture, I had to accept that, in a post-war situation, there was always going to be violence portrayed. Much of this I thought was acceptable in context, but as usual with American productions a lot of the violence is gratuitous. Other aspects are sensitively done, for instance a wonderful scene where Nobusuke Tagomi, the peace-loving Japanese Trade Minister, brings a perfectly wrapped tray of strawberries to his intended: a beautifully acted and observed scene, and so redolent of the aesthetics of Japanese life.

The opening episode of the fourth series brings in a novel new force, the Black Communist Resistance, and, although this episode is noticeably weak, this part of the scenario – the African American experience before WW2, and the Nazi response to finding African Americans in the country they dominate – is very well done, and certainly not out of place. A final scene with Jennifer Smith (the middle daughter) and her mother encapsulates the obscene barbarity of Nazi ethics, leading to John and Helen Smith realising that they have become, inch by inch, and in part propelled by the twisted logic of male hierarchical politics, utter monsters.

The tenor of the series as a whole is serious, but there is one lighter strand, which is that of the Americana dealer Robert Childan, played by Brennan Brown. Here I also felt there was a mis-step, not because Brown is a poor actor, more because, as with Rupert Evans, his face didn’t seem to fit. I also think his style of acting was not best suited to this kind of drama. Some of the “comic” scenes are amusing, but too many seem out of place. That said, he is an important part of the mix, and I didn’t dislike him.

The series isn’t perfect. Even Sewell has a few scenes where he somehow mis-acts, while the tenor and plot of the third series – the weakest in my opinion – is a bit shoddy. I also found the Anomaly completely out of place. This is the heart of the SF bit, set deep underground in Pennsylvanian mountains, but alas it seems the series developers couldn’t think of anything more appropriate here than to bolt on part of Stargate. I loved the eerie atmosphere of the abandoned mine workings – and here the alternate black and white films are a marvellous counterpoint – but the Spielbergesque “bright light at the end of a tunnel” did not work at all for me. Even the final redemptive scene smacked too much of Close Encounters.

All in all however these four series, each of ten episodes, are definitely worth trying. It’s been a real joy over the last few weeks to watch them, following the stories of all the main characters, and in particular watching what I think is the personal heart of the thing (as opposed to its plot heart, which revolves around history and life choices for individuals). That personal heart is the conflict men make for themselves and others when humane norms are set aside for infantile, brutal, aggressive goals, a conflict symbolised by the disintegration of John Smith’s family. It is of course in 2021 a deep irony that in Dick’s alternate world there are fascists leading America, a nation founded on slavery, genocide, misogyny, fraud, corruption, and an obsession with materialism. For we in our world of 2021 know what it is like to see fascists leading nations. With that in mind, it is perhaps the situation of the Black Communist Rebellion which most stands out to me now – that struggle of an enslaved people against supposedly Christian overlords. When will all of America see itself as it really is? Not for a long time, I suspect.

The Once & Future Moon newish review

Another review has been flagged up by indefatigable editor Allen Ashley of his The Once & Future Moon anthology, published by Eibonvale Press.

Best Books & Discs of 2020

As usual, my favourite books of the year were all non-fiction. I did read one novel – The Tree Wakers by Keith Clare, a strangely curious book recommended to me by Liz Williams – but everything else was non. I think the highlight of the year was Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ wonderful and very well received Kindred, which updates the Neanderthal story with considerable grace and style. Last year’s book tokens went on the fascinating The Evolution Of Imagination by Stephen T. Asma and Penny Spikins’ marvellous How Compassion Made Us Human, which superbly puts the boot into male notions of fighting, hunting, and general macho anthropological bollocks. Lockdown tore into my reading a lot, but I did re-read The Singing Neanderthals by Stephen Mithen as research for writing Uncanny in April; this is a wonderful book, whose central premise still holds firm in my opinion. Lewis Dartnell’s Origins was another terrific “large scale overview kind of book” (akin to Sapiens, I suppose), dealing with its material extremely well – a terrific, compelling, fascinating read. A million miles away, I also enjoyed the unexpectedly revealing biography of Larry Stephens, who is perhaps best known for working with Spike Milligan on a lot of the Goon Shows. The Extraordinary Voyage Of Pytheas The Greek was an ancient world delight.

In music, the event of the year was the release of Tangerine Dream’s second Virgin mega box set Pilots Of Purple Twilight, which accompanies the fantastic In Search Of Hades. Jonathan Hulten’s Chants From Another Place was my first post-lockdown purchase, and very good it is too – a marvellous album of vocal and other textures. Elsewhere, during a trip to Hay-on-Wye, I bought music from various regions, including China, Tuva, Kazakhstan, India and Turkey. I also took a chance on Mozart L’Egyptien, which weirdly works, though I keep feeling it shouldn’t: Mozart interspersed and arranged with Egyptian music. I also enjoyed a number of choral music CDs by John Rutter, John Tavener and various Renaissance composers, including Tallis and Allegri. Other band CDs I acquired included releases from The Gentle Good, Gwenno (great Cornish electronica), All India Radio and Salif Keita. Another standout release was the new album The Bitter Lay by Arch Garrison, whose I Will Be A Pilgrim remains a lifelong favourite.

Best book of the year: Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Kindred.

Best discs of the year: Tangerine Dream, Pilots Of Purple Twilight.