I’d rather neglected/forgotten/given up my plan for using this blog for occasional reviews, but was tempted back . . .

Shakespeare in Trouble: a case for Richard Palmer, Investigator

By Chris Crowcroft (AESOP Modern, 2015)

Digression for a quick history lesson . . . In 1601, in an act of rebellion which was shambolic even by Elizabethan standards, the Earl of Essex attempted to stir up the city of London against Queen Elizabeth, whom he’d offended by failing to crush the rebellion in Ireland and who was clearly coming to the end of her reign with no named successor. (The alleged Catholic sympathies of the wife of the most likely – and eventual – claimant, James IV of Scotland, put fears of a deal with the Old Enemy, Spain, and loss of power in those who had done well out of the Protestant establishment.) One of Essex’s co-conspirators was the Earl of Southampton, an early patron of William Shakespeare, and it was a play by Shakespeare – the politically dodgy Richard II, with its shocking deposition of a monarch – which was funded by some of the conspirators shortly before Essex led his men out on to the streets.

Clearly an awkward moment for the Bard of Avon.

And so . . .The Queen is Not Happy. Richard Palmer, a seedy informer (he prefers the word “investigator”) who was once a gentleman is caught up in the crowd on the day of the abortive coup. He is called up by Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s Chief Minister and the hub of her network of spies, and a former university companion, and set to work on unravelling the nature of the relationship between Southampton and Shakespeare and the conspiracy. Shakespeare has fled to Stratford, and Palmer follows his tracks, first investigating the playwright’s writings – including a series of suspicious sonnets (which were, of course, largely unpublished at the time) which seem to shed interesting light on the relationship between patron and poet. On the way back with Shakespeare, Palmer is ambushed and shot at, and there is clearly more to be considered. In Stratford itself, we have met other members of the Shakespeare family (including his daughter Susanna and her to-be husband the physician John Hall), but another character, a dark-haired woman, seems to be a link between many of the characters including Palmer himself.

Palmer’s viewpoint, in fact, holds everything together. We learn that his father’s stubborn adherence to the Old Faith has wrecked the family fortunes. Palmer is university-educated (even if as “a charity case obliged to serve his betters”) and has the typical university man’s disdain for the upstart crows typified by the glove-maker’s son from Stratford. Some of the best asides in the novel are Palmer’s disgust for the amateur doggerel of his quarry and the low-life players he writes for, but, jokes aside (and anyone with a love for the literature of the time will find much to smile at here: there’s a reference to Christopher Marlowe which, probably wisely, I am not going to unpick, but says quite a lot about Palmer), Crowcroft’s picture of Palmer’s time and place is vivid without going too far overboard into the sordid and squalid. The sheer filth of the time is not overlooked, but what comes across is straightforward everyday differences like the time it actually takes to travel from London to Stratford. As for Shakespeare himself, he remains enigmatic, but is also given some good lines in defence of his art. While Palmer develops a growing respect for him, there is also a sense that he is a flawed man, as much out of line in the world of politics and religious dogma as Palmer himself.

Shakespeare in Trouble is in part (indeed, is mostly) a conspiracy thriller/detective investigation with an appealingly convincing private eye who combines the hard-boiled soft centre of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe with the downwardly-mobile disgust of the malcontents found in a somewhat later playwright: John Webster (think that scene in Shakespeare in Love where Our Will comes across a ragged fanboy with pet rat who tells  Shakespeare how much he loves the gory bits in his plays). But while Crowcroft holds his deep knowledge of matters Shakespearian lightly (and in the interest of full disclosure I will admit that we were taught English and History by the same slightly deranged teachers who by god certainly made the whole thing a baroque experience[*]), the novel also dramatises extremely readably the background to the Essex rebellion, the “Dark Lady” question of the sonnets, and other literary-historical questions that have been part of the Shakespeare mystery. However, its delight is that you don’t actually have to know much of this to enjoy the novel. Everything is explained clearly and contextually. What remains a mystery is supposed to remain a mystery. It’s an entertaining and amusing read, and a definitely strong addition to the canon of historical crime-thrillers.

The novel ends with an epilogue a couple of years later with James VI of Scotland now on his way south to become also James I of England and with Shakespeare’s company now renamed the King’s Men. Palmer is now back on the skids, with his only client an Alderman whose kink is reading about what his errant wife is up to. But there’s going to be quite a bit of history to cover, and some interesting relationships between Shakespeare and the new regime to explore. In theatrical and literary terms (and you might need to trust me on this), things start to get really interesting.

May we see Palmer on another case? I hope so.

[*]Those who get what I mean will also welcome the in-joke on page 126.

Lost Cartographies: Tales of Another Europe by Cyril Simsa (Invocations Press, 2014)

Cyril Simsa is an Englishman of Czech descent who lives and works in Prague, and who for many years has been a follower of science fiction, occasionally publishing short fiction in small-press magazines and webzines. (In the interest of full and frank disclosure I have received his fanzines, published his critical commentary, and received this book as a gift at the 2014 London Worldcon). Lost Commentaries is a collection of six stories set in Central Europe which, as he points out in his introduction, was and is a fertile region of Otherness. “We have always superimposed the Other on geography, and Europe has always been a locus of otherness,” he writes (adding, perhaps slyly, “At least in Britain”). I am reminded in reading the introduction of two non-fiction books I’ve read over the past year: Norman David’s Vanished Kingdoms and Simon Winder’s Danubia which, in different ways, emphasised how little we (I) know about Central/Eastern Europe, but the first story, “Inbibing History” sets the tone by clearly echoing Bram Stoker’s remark that by crossing the Danube at Budapest “we were leaving the West and entering the East”. Just as Jonathan Harker, on his way to Castle Dracula, finds the people and geography “picturesque”, “Interesting” and a little frightening, so his contemporary Rosamund Harper, a young geologist stranded by the breakdown of her coach in the Carpathians, finds much to unsettle her. Told alternately through the journals of Harper and Hieronymus Zibrt, the strangely ageless landowner she encounters, “Imbibing History” is about change – the slow, evolutionary change of Darwinian and geological time, and the anxiety of historical time.”[I]t is true, as we hurtle towards the Twentieth Century, a new era is undoubtedly on the horizon,” writes Harper. On her return home, she notes that a novel has just been published in London which manages to get virtually everything she has discovered from her encounter distressingly wrong. The omens for this new era are not good.

Other encounters range from the Seventeenth Century to the dystopian future. In “Journey’s End”, a Flemish trader, waiting for a merchant from East Anglia in order to unload some dubious liqueurs (“The English will drink anything, I find, since they got rid of the Commonwealth”) meets a mysterious woman who is waiting for an unpaid debt. As they converse, it becomes clear what the profession of Ragana (or Anat, Astarte, Ashtharoth) is (something stranger and more uncanny than what Mareliese had first suspected), but the fact that both women are networking over time and space offers a wry contrast between them. “The Feast of Stephen” has a group of alienated young Czechs conjuring up Wenceslas, the Czech patron saint, finding that the myth of the “sleeping hero” who will redeem his country has a darker and more ancient origin. “Wenceslas” and his twelve companions will certainly save the world from global warming and other threats, but only by the logical consequences of allowing the deep past entry into the present. “Under the Waves” stands upon the cusp of two devastating historical events. Ambrose, the young librarian who narrates the story, along with his aristocratic friend Kaspar, encounters a water-sprite living in a pond on the family estate. On the eve of Ambrose’s conscription into the army in 1914, Kaspar opts to join Leocadia in her realm. Somewhat to his surprise, Ambrose survives the war and, a couple of decades later, finds himself, now working for the Prague Water Board in the new nation of Czechoslovakia, before the place where Leocadia’s pond was. “We were all creatures of the past,” he meditates. The immediate future trembles before him.

A further future is explored in “Poorly Formulated Questions,” in which a dictator is tracked down by an agent of the “International Environmental Court” which seeks to hold him accountable for his crimes against humanity – “crimes” which are perhaps crimes in ideological hindsight, or which may be being seductively excused. Finally, in “Queen of Sumava” we are in post-War communist Czechoslovakia. The officer in charge of a unit of border guards, brought up to respect the chthonic spirits of the land as deeply as he is pragmatically committed to the new ideology, has to balance the demands of a political appointee to his unit against his unease with purges and loyalty tests. When they come across a notorious people-smuggler helping a dissident former Minister across the border, a local hill-deity comes to play her own part in events.

Everywhere, the uncanny undercurrents of psychogeography and myth swirl around shifting political and personal borders. In his introduction, Simsa hints that his fictions are, in part, his own explorations of an identity which must reflect that of many modern Europeans (“it was not until I moved to Prague in the 1990s that I realised that I was English after all . . . although my Englishness is very much that of the London suburbs.” History and geography come to unsettling and thought-provoking life in these haunting and well-crafted tales.

May 2015

Harry Harrison! Harry Harrison!: It Seemed Like a Good Idea At The Time  (Tor, 2014)

It was a relatively obscure Harry Harrison story (“Captain Honario Harpplayer, R.N.”) which contributed to my becoming a science fiction reader. The joke – that “Harpplayer” was colour-blind instead of the slightly more famous Hornblower’s tone-deafness – was in truth a weak one (and it was some years before I actually encountered Hornblower and got the point!), but there was a sense of fun about it which I responded to when, later, I found the Stainless Steel Rat and the adventures of Bill, the “Galactic Hero” – and by then I had read some of the novels ­Bill was reacting against. Yet Harrison was also a writer of fine adventure sf, and his treatment of themes like religion, politics, and overpopulation were refreshingly dissident.

Less  an organised biography, more a collection of reminiscences, Harry Harrison’s memoir often come across like listening to him at the bar take you across his life, from his travels from the USA to Europe and back again, his passion for Esperanto, and his career as a writer ranging from melodramatic “confessions” for the men’s magazines to some of the finest sf of the last century. Sadly, Harrison died before the final touches could have been made to this memoir. Occasionally, chronology slips – In the middle of telling us of his California sojourn, Harrison says that “I was contacted by Alex Cox *. . . He had made the classic Repo Man”. That film was made 1984. But next page, there is an encounter with Gene Roddenberry; “Star Trek was in its early weeks” (p. 215). And dating is sometimes absent – of five anecdotes about HH’s Russian publication, (pp295-307), three are dated and two can only be worked out from context (and the sequence isn’t chronological). So as a book from which we can reconstruct the full details of Harrison’s career, this sadly isn’t the full glass, but as the nearest thing his many fans can get to listening to the man himself, this is a joyful experience.

Early days and his life in the military are full of the detail which was going to find itself transformed into Bill, the Galactic Hero and his career as a struggling writer is given full attention. He talks about writing comic strips – Flash Gordon and Jeff Hawke put bread on the table for a while – and about of ghosting for Leslie (“The Saint”) Charteris. Much of Harrison’s fiction was published by John W. Campbell in Astounding, and, as a writer whose sympathies always lay firmly on the left, Harrison’s admiration for Campbell’s maverick mind and astuteness as an editor – throwing out ideas to be picked up and turned round into fiction – is plain, even as he makes it clear that they were poles apart politically.

He has the raconteur’s eye for detail and the dramatic underpinning of amusing squalor – the broken urinal in the accommodation for a Russian convention, the dreadful food in England in the 1950s – and (not always combined in the same place) a sharply intelligent critical eye. His comments on the transformation of the excellent novel of overpopulation Make Room! Make Room! into the dully obvious Soylent Green are a lesson in themselves. The film’s script, from its meaningless title to its fake shock-revelation, comes in for some justified hammering. But his praise for its visual excitement and Edward G. Robinson’s ability to act a “nothing” script makes you want to see the film again.

Harrison gives us glimpses of far-away worlds, such as the 1957 Worldcon when, “at the so-called banquet, the convention president, John Wyndham, proposed the loyal toast to Her Majesty the Queen. . . . Just like life in a historical novel, spoiled only by those few fen of republican leaning who did not stand up and join in, yet another social discovery.” But he’s also a writer of today, a shaper of the way sf has changed for the better to become more international and more critical. It’s worth reminding ourselves that, when the aims of the recent London Worldcon for “diversity” were much to the fore, it was Harrison and a few of his companions (most notably Brian Aldiss) who created the space for such aims. Harrison’s internationalism, fuelled by his interest in Esperanto but also by the popularity of his work outside the USA and England (Deathworld in particular was an underground hit in Russia under communism) makes him one of the most interesting writers of his time: very much part of science fiction and fandom as it developed after the Second World War, but aware that the war had exploded an old order and a new one waited in the wings, and wryly critical of the way the field could collapse back into insularity.

This is a storyteller’s memoir; the reminiscences of a man with much to tell, to be shared with a few drinks and among convivial company. Listening to Harrison’s voice, we are invited into the circle, to become part of that convivial company, and to share his memories. He will be missed.

*Whose excellent Kickstarter-funded adaptation of Bill, The Galactic Hero has just (December 2014) had its first showing. Made by Cox’s film students at the University of Colorado, this captures the satirical comedy of Harrison’s novel really well. More on it later, I hope, but in the meanwhile Alex Cox’s blog has info about it.

A Message From Mars

This restored film from 1913, billed as the first full-length British science fiction film, is available for view from the BFI website as part of their late-2014 sf film season, and well worth the visit, I might say. It’s not something I knew much about (when watching it, I realised that I had confused it with George Du Maurier’s 1898 novel The Martian), but on consulting the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction discovered that it is in fact based upon a popular play by Liverpool-born Richard Ganthony which apparently had been filmed in New Zealand in 1903 (this version remains lost) and re-adapted in the USA in 1921.

Ganthony’s play was first performed in 1899, so my erroneous connection with Du Maurier’s novel might have something in it. Mars was very much in the news at that time, and numerous authors were fascinated by the planet.. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, itself influenced by the theories of the American astronomer Percival Lowell, was serialised in 1897 and published in book form the following year. The German author Kurd Lasswitz’s Auf Zwei Planeten (Two Planets) also about an older Martian civilization contacting Earth was also published in 1897. In 1901 Nikola Tesla claimed to have received radio signals from Mars; a claim which probably inspired the march by Raymond Taylor, “A Signal From Mars” ( . Edwin L.Arnold’s swashbuckling Lt. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation (1905) is said to have influenced Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “John Carter” series.

Co-written with Wallett Waller and starring actor-manager Charles Hawtry (not my mum’s favourite “Carry On” actor) in what seems to be a typically louche role, A Message From Mars is an entertaining and amusing morality tale. Although billed by the BFI as a science fiction film (a term which of course would have been meaningless in 1913) , there’s little science in it and even the viewer through which the Martians examine Earth is pretty much your standard crystal ball. In fact, what we have is very much a retelling of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Our Martian, Ramiel having committed a crime, is degraded by the “God of Mars” and told that he can only regain his place by reforming Horace (Hawtry), who is seen displaying curmudgeonly and miserly tendencies such as watching a Punch and Judy show and refusing to add anything to the showman’s collection. We see more of Horace when his fiancée Minnie (Chrissie Bell) arrives to be taken to a dance only to discover that he would rather sit by the fire with a whiskey-and-soda and read a magazine. Not surprisingly, she gives him her ring back and heads off to the dance with her admirer Arthur (Frank Hector). We also see a tramp (Hubert Willis) knock hesitatingly on Horace’s door with a letter of recommendation from one of Horace’s friends, saying that he is a good workman and deserves help. Horace’s reaction is to throw the man out.

Discovering the Martian emissary in his room, Horace is (at first unwillingly) forced into re-evaluating his ways by this sinister brooding figure, portentously folding his arms and striking attitudes. Ramiel shows Horace how Minnie is having a grand time at the dance with Arthur, and they witness a man knocked down by a speeding car. The embarrassed Horace is persuaded to help, but not after some petulant hand-in-pockets pretending he’s not there as a concerned crowd gathers around the injured man. Reluctantly he hands over money for the medical bill.  But this is against his will and doesn’t count. So Ramiel punishes his pride by transforming him into a beggar and (with the tramp he threw out) Horace, who earlier has patronisingly tipped a police constable to call him a taxi, is reduced to grovelling for pennies opening the doors of the coaches taking people from the very dance he should have been at with Minnie, and shooed away by indignant authority-figures. When his “mate” collapses, Horace humbles himself by pleading for help. Finding a sovereign in his pocket (magicked there by Ramiel?), he shares it with his partner. His job done, Ramiel returns to Mars. Horace takes the tramp home and feeds him, then is interrupted by the news that a neighbouring house (in a poorer district) is on fire. Horace rescues the children from the house and brings them home for a slap-up feed. Released from his sentence, the Martian is received back into the fold, Minnie, who has persuaded her Aunt Martha (Kate Tyndale), to accompany her back to Horace’s house after having an unexplained premonition that there is good in Horace after all, sees that the change in him and takes her ring back; and all is well.

Moral whimsy rather than science-fiction adventure or speculation, A Message from Mars is nevertheless worth the effort that’s been put into it. Much in the film is only semi-explained, but audiences would have been familiar with the plot from the play, and the tie-in novel published in 1912 by Lester Lurgan, a pseudonym of the prolific Mabel Knowles (better known as “May Wynne”). The acting styles would also have helped audiences pick up the story: as said above, Ramiel is a melodramatic “moral chorus” and Hawtry, rather oddly described as a “young man” (he is much older than Bell but the difference in their ages rather convincingly (to my mind) portrays Horace as someone set in a groove of selfishness) is excellent at displaying his childish sulkiness through facial expressions and posture. We may not be quite convinced by the Martians as Martians but A Message From Mars is a neat and entertaining piece of social commentary which shows the way science fiction-like images were rapidly entering popular entertainment in the early 20th century.

In the course of looking for something else entirely, I came across the following:

“I can only suggest that [two writers] – not their story, but the authors themselves – be piled in the middle of the floor and set fire to.”

Now, oddly enough, this was nothing to do with the Latest Thing to Hit Fandom™ , which can be admirably summarised and discussed at

but was written by James Blish under his “William Atheling, Jr.” alias in the fanzine Skyhook (Winter 1952-53 issue) and reprinted in his collected “Atheling” columns The Issue At Hand (1964).

It certainly echoes much of what the mysterious RequiresHate/Winterfox/Acrackedmoon/Benjanun Sriduangkaew/various other internet handles posted over the years. It also raises the question of where and how “robust speech” and “performance criticism”, and genuine exploration of uncomfortable facts become simply unpleasant personal attacks, and where that shades into bullying and harassment, and where the use of a pseudonym may be a cloak not for defence, but for attack.

Blish’s “Atheling” columns were written as thought-out attacks on what he saw (with considerable justification) as the low standard of writing and editing in the science fiction of the time (the early 1950s). Among the stories anatomised were those of a James Blish – having noted that, the recollections of several people reading and writing sf at the time (when I asked a few I happen to be in contact with) were that, while the identify of “Atheling” in the first few columns was something of a mystery, Blish was identified as the author quite quickly – and certainly by the time the book was published in 1964 there was no secret.

Blish was a member of the 30s/40s fan group, the Futurians – about whom it was said (by Frederik Pohl) “No CIA nor KGB ever wrestled so valiantly for the soul of an emerging nation as New Fandom and the Futurians did for science fiction”. (Mostly) very young and (mostly) left-wing, the Futurians were addicted to feuds and squabbles, and some of these feuds took bitter and virulent forms.

So nothing changes much . . .

Oddly enough, no-one at Worldcon pulled me into a corner and said “Guess what? Benjanun Sriduangkaew is Requireshate!” I found out when everyone else found out – technically: I was aware that RH still was spreading her poison, and that there were rumours, but it didn’t seem the most important thing in the world and I guess I made no effort to find out what these rumours actually were. What has really interested me about the whole thing is, despite the small-circle controversy and rather pathetic attempts to defend hate-speech and racism because that’s how people talk on the internet and anyway it wasn’t really hate-speech and racism because [I always get lost here], the number of people who have just said:




Followed by those who said:


“Yes, I saw her blog and it was vile so I stopped reading it.”


Unfortunately, as is being charted on Laura J. Mixon’s website, a considerable number of people were being targeted and felt that no-one was there to help. Others accepted the political colouring over the racism and hate-speech and made excuses, were taken in, felt that the sometimes valid points that were made justified the fact that they were made in such a way as to close down any sort of debate or discussion. Others genuinely felt that in helping and promoting “Benjanun Sriduangkaew”, they were encouraging the diversity that the literature badly needs, rather than encouraging more mind-games.

And many of us actually didn’t feel in the slightest bit threatened, because we were either not directly involved, or were confident enough in our identities not to be particularly bothered about what some blogger on the edge of our horizons thought of us, when there were real issues to be confronted and dealt with.

And at this point, what was going to be a much longer piece, about the nature of real literary feuds (see my previous post), the school-playground culture of fandom, and how what might have been fun in the more enclosed environment of the 1950s doesn’t wash any more, gets deleted. The discussion over at is where real people, affected by this episode (if something going on for over ten years can be called an “episode”) are having their say, and where discussions are beginning to take place about what might actually be done to combine the twin goals of allowing as many voices as possible the chance to speak for themselves and to have proper robust but adult discussions about serious matters. People over there are making points more eloquently than I can.

Oh, and I found this by accident too, though you might guess what I was googling for:


“All I believe tells me that I cannot be a part of ANY ORGANIZATION that requires hate of my fellow men as an operational necessity”.  From Reconciliation Road: A Family Odyssey by John Douglas Marshall