Monday, 11 February 2019

I Thought He Was Older...

This past weekend, I celebrated a milestone birthday and hit my half-century.  I wasn't particularly worried about it (except I now fall into that age-bracket where the adverts assume I'm falling apart and will need sheltered accommodation and funeral plans) - I was more concerned with turning 30, to be honest - and I'll carry on as normal (since I'm still somewhere in my late twenties in my head anyway).
Out for a family meal on Saturday, with Mum & Dad and my sister Sarah and her family
The celebrations kicked off a few weeks ago with my oldest friend Nick sending me a book, charting our shared friendship together (we've known one another for 43 years now).  I love photographs, I love Nick, I loved the gift.
The weekend before last, I organised a Crusty Exterior pre-birthday gathering in Leicester and it was great fun.  We chatted, laughed (a lot), scoured second hand book shops, walked and ate.  And Linda Nagle made a wonderful Star Wars themed cake she presented me with in Carluccio's (our waiter led the sing-a-long).
outside Leicester Museum - from left: John Travis, Sue Moorcroft, me, Steve Harris, Linda Nagle, David Roberts, James Everington & Steve Bacon

Last week, the Golden Wonder Oldies held one of our semi-regular dinners at the Sondes Arms in Corby to help me celebrate.  Having known most of them since the 80s, it was a lovely evening in the company of old friends, filled with a lot of laughing and some good food.
The Golden Wonder Oldies between courses
There's a lot to be thankful for and I really am - I have a wonderful family (I've known Alison for more than half my life, which is a startling thought) and terrific friends, two of the key components to a happy life, I feel.  I'm fit, I'm active, there's a ton of books I need to read, I have stories to write, films to see, adventures to have with Dude.
As my friend Cindy wrote in her card, the "half century club isn't as exciting as the Mile High Club but it's just as awesome!"
me in May 1969 (pic by Dad) and me in February 2019 (pic by Sue) - only the hairline remains the same...

Age is just a number, it's true - and I'm perfectly happy with mine.

Monday, 4 February 2019

The Goblin Glass

I'm pleased to announce that The Goblin Glass, my new e-chapbook from Chad Clark's Darker Worlds Publishing, is now available.
After years of trying to keep his life on the straight and narrow, impossible circumstances have led Warren back to a life of crime. The job he is given is a simple breaking and entering, with instructions to steal a mirror, once belonging to a renowned Spanish magician.

The Goblin Glass. 

And what should have been simple quickly proves to be anything but. And as Warren is drawn into a nightmarish house with his simple goal in sight, he begins to realize just how much he has put on the line.

This started life in 2015 when Alex Davis approached me to ask if I’d like to be involved in an anthology he was editing, centred around the Ten Commandments.  Giving me a pick of ‘sins’, I chose ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’ and an idea quickly formed, which I’d beaten into shape by the end of my commute that day.  I pieced the rest together over the next few evening walks, the concept of the mirror (oddly enough) coming to me just before I found the ending and it was a perfect writing experience.  In fact, this was one of those rare occasions where I experienced the process as Stephen King wrote about it in On Writing - "Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”

Taking place in pretty much one location, an old house on Duncan Street (named from an unpublished novella of mine), it seemed logical to set it in my fictional town of Gaffney (don’t ever visit, it’ll be the death of you).  I mapped out the house, based on some Dude & I saw on a walk, fairly thoroughly in my head because I’m one of those writers who needs to know where the characters are at any one time.  Once I have that locked down, I find it fairly easy to create the environment which, in this case, I needed to be claustrophobic - the protagonist is doing something he doesn’t want to, wrestling his moral compass while becoming ever more frayed by the house itself.

The mirror, that late addition which fuels the story, is homaged from the Three Investigator mystery The Secret Of The Haunted Mirror by M. V. Carey though my nasty tale bears no resemblance - mirror frame aside - to hers).  I love the book and the spookiness of the mirror so I lifted her description of the Chiavo glass (using his name but creating the backstory) intact and it’d be great if a Three Investigator fan read this and decided to seek out her book again.

Alex’s anthology (as sometimes happens) hit some small press turbulence, ended up changing publishers and finally appeared in a handsome hardcover edition with little fanfare (I think five people, other than the contributors, have read the book).  When Chad asked me for a story for his line of Kindle singles, I thought about this dark little tale and decided I’d like to give it another chance.

Then he was introduced to Mr Skinner, another blast from the past.  Back in the day, when Mr Norris ran Gaffney from the back room of the Chequered Heart pub, Skinner was his enforcer, as happy to chat with friends as break their arms if they defaulted on payments.  With Norris long dead, Skinner was now top of the pile and Warren arranged a meeting with him at his pub.  A thug, almost as wide as he was tall, his hair shaved to suede and a livid scar down the left side of his face, showed Warren into a back room.  Mr Skinner sat alone at a table reading a Kindle, his grey hair as well cut as his powder blue suit.  He looked up as Warren approached and smiled.  His teeth were very white.
     “Sit,” Skinner said and Warren did.  He couldn’t get comfortable in the well padded chair.  Skinner put down his Kindle, tapped his fingertips together.  “I hear you might be looking for a little job.”
     “If you have anything, Mr Skinner.”
     “What can you do?”
     Warren licked his bottom lip and tried not to look shifty or untrustworthy.  “Anything you want.  Back in the day I did some nicking and hot-wired a few cars.”
     Skinner nodded, as if hearing confirmation of what he already knew.  “I understand you ran a decent little workshop for a while, all above board.”
     “I did.”
     “So why aren’t you there now?”
     “The economy,” Warren said after a moment.
     Skinner nodded again.  “Uh huh, credit crunch fucked a lot of people over.”  He smiled tightly.  “I might have something for you.”
     “Whatever it is, Mr Skinner, I’ll do my best.”
     Skinner waved a finger at Warren.  “I remember you now.  Ten, maybe fifteen years ago, when Mr Norris ran the place?  You were in a gang, got out of it just after the bookies raid.”
     Warren looked down at his lap.  His fingers were fighting with one another.  “Yes.”
     Skinner waved his hand in the direction of the thug and Warren heard him pad away.  He returned a few moments later with a shot glass he put carefully in front of his boss.  Skinner took a sip then wiped his lip with his index fingertip.
     “I think we’ll start you with a little breaking and entering, before we perhaps use your mechanics skills.”
     “Thank you, Mr Skinner, that’s great.”
     Skinner took another sip and wiped his lip again.  He cleared his throat and leaned forward, his elbows on the table.  “Have you ever heard of The Goblin Glass?”

Edited to add:
Interesting end to the day, with a flurry of interest pushing The Goblin Glass up the UK charts for Top 100 Horror Paid Short Stories, reaching the giddy heights of number 2 and stomping past some upstart called Stephen King.  To say I'm chuffed with this would be a huge understatement!

Monday, 28 January 2019

Heart Of Glass, at 40

Heart Of Glass, the fourth single (following Picture This, I’m Gonna Love You Too and Hanging On The Telephone) from Parallel Lines (which I wrote about here), was released on 27th January 1979 in the UK.  Recorded at The Record Plant in New York during June 1977, it was written by Chris Stein & Debbie Harry and produced by Mike Chapman.
Heart Of Glass broke Blondie worldwide and was a huge hit for them.  Their first UK and US number 1, it also hit the top spot in Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and Switzerland as well as making the Top 10 in Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa and Sweden.  In the Year End charts, it was number 1 in New Zealand, number 2 in Canada and the UK and number 3 in Australia (and ranked 32nd in the UK chart for the whole of the 1970s).  It has sold over 3.5m copies to date and was certified Gold in France, Germany and the US, Platinum in the UK and 2xPlatinum in Canada.

The basis of the song, then known as Once I Had A Love, was written by Debbie Harry & Chris Stein between 1974 and 1975.  “[It] was one of the first songs Blondie wrote,” Debbie told Dave Simpson of The Guardian in April 2013, “but it was years before we recorded it properly. We’d tried it as a ballad, as reggae, but it never quite worked.”  As work progressed on Parallel Lines, producer Mike Chapman “asked us to play all the songs we had.  Sheepishly, we said, “Well, there is this old one.”  Chapman liked it (“he thought it was very pretty,” said Debbie) and the band started to work on it.

Chapman credits Debbie with giving it a more disco twist, she says he convinced her and Stein of it.  In an interview with the NME (dated 4th February 1978), Debbie mentioned she liked Giorgio Moroder’s disco work - “It’s commercial, but it's good, it says something, that's the kind of stuff that I want to do” - and Blondie covered I Feel Love (written by Moroder and Donna Summer) at a benefit for Johnny Blitz in New York on 7th May 1978.
“The boys in the band had got their hands on a new toy,” Debbie told The Guardian.  Stein and keyboardist Jimmy Destri often visited a music shop on 47th Street in Manhattan and had picked up a Roland CR-78 drum machine.  “They came back with this little rhythm box,” Harry said, “which went 'tikka tikka tikka'.”  Mike Chapman heard them experimenting with it, liked the sound and decided to build the song around it.  The CR-78 was first introduced in 1978 and Heart Of Glass was one of the first uses of it in popular music (it was also unusual at the time for a rock band to use a drum machine).  The decision was made to combine it with Clem Burke’s live drumming and the machine was also used to send a trigger pulse to the early synthesisers Destri used, which became a distinctive electronic/synth element of the song.

“The lyrics weren’t about anyone, they were just a plaintive moan about lost love,” Debbie told The Guardian.  “I was tired of hearing girls singers write or sing about being beaten by love,” she told Q.  “So I said, well listen, there are also a lot of girls who just walk away.”

Heart Of Glass was originally released as a 12” single in a 5:50 version but there were objections from US radio stations to the “pain in the ass” lyric, which the 7” version cut down on.  “At first,” Debbie told The Guardian, “the song kept saying: 'Once I had a love, it was a gas. Soon turned out, it was a pain in the ass.'  We couldn't keep saying that, so we came up with: 'Soon turned out, had a heart of glass.'  We kept one 'pain in the ass' in - and the BBC bleeped it out for radio.”

As well as being a hit, the song created some controversy because of its disco sound and Blondie, at the forefront of New York’s growing new wave music scene, were accused of selling out.  “People got nervous and angry about us bringing different influences into rock,” Debbie told The Guardian.  “Although we'd covered Lady Marmalade and I Feel Love at gigs, lots of people were mad at us for 'going disco' with Heart of Glass.”  Stein said, “As far as I was concerned, disco was part of R&B, which I'd always liked. The Ramones went on about us "going disco", but it was tongue-in-cheek. They were our friends.”

Although it includes a shot of the legendary nightclub Studio 54, the video - directed by Stanley Dorfman - was filmed in “a short-lived club called the Copa or something,” said Stein.  Opening with footage of a nighttime New York, it then becomes a performance piece, focussing on Debbie (often with that wonderful disinterested expression she has) but also showing a lot of the band, especially in the wide shots.  “I wanted to dance around,” she told The Guardian, “but they told us to remain static, while the cameras moved around.  God only knows why.  Maybe we were too clumsy.”  Her dress was designed by her friend  Stephen Sprouse, while she created the bands T-shirts.  “Everyone says I look iconic and in control,” she said, “but I prefer our other videos.”

The song was issued as a single both as a 7” (backed with Rifle Range (Stein, Ronnie Toast) in the UK and 11:59 (Destri) in the US) and 12” (Rifle Range again and the Heart Of Glass instrumental in the UK, while the US version only included the instrumental).

Happy 40th, Heart Of Glass

UK chart positions
"How We Made Heart Of Glass" in The Guardian
Cover art

Monday, 21 January 2019

Nostalgic For My Childhood - The Crunch comic at 40

Forty years ago this week, D.C. Thomson launched a new comic called The Crunch (cover dated 20th January 1979), edited by Bill Graham.  Warlord aside, it was a bit more brutal than their usual fare in, according to some, an attempt to compete with rival publisher IPC’s 2000AD.  At the time, ten-year-old me wasn’t too bothered, I was just happy I’d found a new comic after the demise of my much-loved Bullet comic the previous December.
The first issue, with its free black wristband and selection of stickers, declared itself “a whole new experience in boys' papers! It's for the boy of today - packed with never-before told stories with true life features on the men who have faced the crunch in their lives.”

The lead strip was Arena, where a corrupt 21st Century government treated those who spoke against it as criminals and sentenced them to fights to the death in an arena.  The next story featured Bearpaw Jay, a bounty hunter known as The Mantracker who was not averse to bending the rules to get his man.  I loved this strip, which was violent, well paced, occasionally amusing and often brutal (in that first strip, an innocent bystander got shot in the guts by a bank robber, which wasn’t something you saw every day), all beautifully drawn by Alberto Salinas.  The Kyser Experiment was a bit tamer, where Dr Kyser performed experiments on a football team to try and make them unbeatable.  The Walking Bombs (they kind of did what you expected them to) opened with military leaders being blown up by a nuclear explosion, which set the scene perfectly (and featured cracking artwork from the always dependable Denis McLoughlin).  I was never a fan of Hitler Lives! and I now can’t tell if that’s because the storyline didn’t interest me (which is likely) or the artwork of Patrick Wright left me cold.  Who Killed Cassidy, featuring a conspiracy around the assassination of American president Jack Cassidy, rounded out the issue.

Over the course of its run, Crunch (I don't think I ever used 'The...') also showcased some other terrific strips.  Crag featured the eponymous Detective Sergeant, framed for a bullion robbery he wasn’t involved in, who escaped from prison to bring the real criminals to justice.  The Hit Man concerned Hugh Marston, an undercover government enforcer who went around the world bumping off various baddies, with great espionage tropes (coded messages, secret rooms and the like) and ingeniously designed weapons - I loved it.  The Mill Street Mob was another favourite, a school based strip (The Mill Street Comprehensive), that was absolutely perfect for me as I prepared to move from Rothwell Juniors to Montsaye Comprehensive (I don’t remember having the same level of adventures as they did though).  There was also Clancy And The Man, Programmed To Kill, Plague 2000 (which seemed to blend elements of Damnation Alley and 2000AD’s The Cursed Earth), Space Wars, Striker From Nowhere, Starhawk and Operation Omega.  It also featured Ebony who, according to Billy O’Brien at his Starhawk site was “not only the first female action heroine in a boys comic but also black, which was groundbreaking stuff for the time”.  Ebony, an agent of the British Special Mission Squad, had been created by Bill Graham for a new girls comic which never happened but the character was "was too good to waste, so I brought her into The Crunch."
Top - The Crunch mission statement.  And yes, the badge in issue 3 was a skull on a big pin (can you imagine the fun if they tried that today?)
bottom left - Andy working on his letters page - bottom right - the first issues sticker selection
As well as a whole host of special features on sporting heroes, stunts, examples of bravery and true-life tales, Crunch featured that staple of seventies comics, the letters page.  In this case, it was The Crunch Question, hosted by ‘Andy’ (the man in the photograph was actually a D.C. Thomson editor called Euan Kerr), who offered advice to the boys (and occasionally girls) who wrote in.  The letter of the week won a 'super calculator' while all the writers featured got £2 (it doesn’t say if that was cash or postal orders, though I’d bet on the latter).  Andy, who was generally helpful, was obviously toeing the party line though, often taking the side of parents and teachers and admonishing those writers who wanted to be out playing football with their mates rather than learning the piano.
Two of the "hero galleries" - Starhawk from issue 39 and The Hit Man from issue 46
I liked Crunch a lot but unfortunately lost my copies over the years.  I picked up a few off ebay but then found some (along with the Bullet's I wrote about here) in a retro shop in Whitby and bought a load.  Re-reading those issues was great fun, not only as a nostalgic blast but also a chance to realise how well presented - both in terms of writing and artwork - they were and how unfortunate it is that kids today, like Dude, are missing out on this kind of thing.

Unfortunately, as often happened, there weren’t enough fans like me at the time and Crunch ended with issue 54 (cover dated 26th January 1980).  It merged with Hotspur on 2nd February 1980 (their issue 1059) and while I hung on for a while, the older comic was too tame and most of my strips quickly disappeared.  There were never any annuals or summer specials, though some characters appeared in the 1983 Hotspur annual.  Sadly, The Crunch now seems almost forgotten today.

Ebony leads the charge at the end of the line...
One of the banes of my childhood life, as a much-loved comic gets absorbed into another...

I have very fond memories of the comic, the characters and the great cover art and the stories still stand up really well, making for a thoroughly entertaining read.

Happy 40th, The Crunch - you certainly entertained this "boy of today"!

Lew Stringer’s “When It Came To The Crunch”
UK Comics Wiki
The Starhawk Crunch site
Down The Tubes interview with Bill Graham

Monday, 14 January 2019

Happy Birthday, Caroline Munro!

Back in the mid-70s, on an advertising hoarding in Corby, I saw my first ad for Lamb’s Navy Rum and fell instantly in love with the model on it.  She had a pretty face, long dark hair and her wet-suit was zipped to her belly.  A little while later, with some school-mates, I went to see The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad and there she was, my first crush!  Later still, Dad took me to see The Spy Who Loved Me and there was the Lamb’s Navy Rum girl, pouty and pretty and trying to kill Bond.

That woman was, of course, Caroline Munro and as she celebrates her 70th birthday, here's a little appreciation.
Caroline Jane Munro was born on 16th January 1949 in Windsor, the daughter of a solicitor.  She grew up in Rottingdean, near Brighton and attended a Catholic Convent School, where she sang in the church choir.

Her original intention was to be an artist and she attended art school in Brighton.  “I wasn’t very good,” she said in interview.  “A friend at the college was studying photography and he needed somebody to photograph and he asked me. Unbeknownst to me, he sent the photographs to a big newspaper in London. The fashion photographer, David Bailey, was conducting a photo contest and my picture won.”

Caroline had won The Evening News’ ‘Face Of The Year’ content, which led to her modelling for Vogue magazine at the age of 17.  David Bailey cast her in his film G G Passion (1966) and she moved to London to pursue modelling, becoming a cover girl for fashion and TV adverts.  She also recorded backing vocals for a record, Tar And Cement, in the company of Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker.  A small part, as a voluptuous Guard Girl in Casino Royale (1967), led to a one-year contract with Paramount Pictures, who cast her as Richard Widmark's daughter in A Talent for Loving (1969).  During the making of the film she met her first husband, actor/musician Judd Hamilton and they married in 1970.
In 1969, she began a lucrative 10-year professional relationship that garnered her a lot of attention.  “I am remembered most as the calendar girl for Lambs Navy Rum,” she writes on her website.  The adverts - featuring Caroline looking feisty in a variety of scenarios - were plastered all over the UK, appearing in magazines, on billboards and even drip mats in pubs.
Sir James Carreras, of Hammer Films, saw her on a billboard outside Victoria Station in London and invited her for a screentest, quickly putting her under contract (she was the only actress to ever officially sign with the studio).  She first appeared as Vincent Price’s dead wife in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), before playing an early victim to the Count in Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972).
Dracula A.D. 1972
She was offered the lead role in Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971) but turned it down because of the required nudity and she kept that stance throughout her career, even refusing a lucrative offer from Playboy magazine.  “I’m not prudish,” she said in a 2007 interview, “and people can do what they want.  Just for me, it was a personal choice, it’s something I didn’t want to do. Plus, I think it’s more ‘what you don’t see’ that’s more interesting.  For me, it’s nice to have a little mystery.  Maybe I’m an old-fashioned girl, a little bit, anyway!”  Her Hammer contract was fulfilled with Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter (1974), in which she played the barefoot gypsy girl Carla.  It was originally intended to become a long-running series but the huge success of The Exorcist (1973) effectively killed the low-budget horror market Hammer called their own.  She was offered the lead role in Vampirella (it was never made) but turned it down because of the nudity required.
Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter
Brian Clemens, who’d written and directed Captain Kronos, helped her get the role of Margiana, the slave girl in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), for which he wrote the screenplay.  The experience of working on the film and especially with Ray Harryhausen, was a good one - “it was lovely,” she said in interview, “like work-out-of-work and I was very lucky to have done that.”  She is now a Trustee of the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation.
The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad
She also appeared in I Don't Want to Be Born (1975), At the Earth's Core (1976) with Peter Cushing and Doug McClure and The New Avengers episode The Angels of Death (1977), notable for a fight between Caroline and Joanna Lumley's Purdey.
As a nurse in The New Avengers
At The Earth's Core
Caroline’s highest profile role was as Naomi in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), the bikini-clad henchwoman of Karl Stromberg who is also the helicopter pilot trying to kill Bond in his Lotus Esprit (whilst tipping him what I consider to be the sexiest wink in cinema).

The Spy Who Loved Me
In order to take the Bond film, she turned down the role of Ursa (which went to Sarah Douglas) in Superman (1978).  Following the global success of the film, she was offered roles in Force 10 From Navarone (1978) and The World Is Full Of Married Men (1979), both of which she turned down because of the nudity required.
Caroline continued to work through the 1970s and 1980s, mostly in British and European horror and science fiction films.  She took the lead role in Starcrash (1979), made her first American film with Maniac (1980) and followed that up with The Last Horror Film (1982) which was produced by her husband Judd Hamilton.  Their marriage broke down in 1982 and, after turning down a role in the US daytime soap The Bold And The Beautiful (“I didn’t want to move abroad”), she became a hostess on the British gameshow 3-2-1 (“I never guessed any of the riddles,” she told The Guardian in 2002, “but then neither did Ted”) and appeared in rock videos with Adam Ant (Goody Two Shoes) and Meatloaf (If You Really Want To).  Moving back to film, she appeared in Don’t Open Till Christmas (1984), Slaughter High (1986) (which was produced by her new partner, George Dugdale and suffered from having thirtysomething actors play teens) Paul Naschy's Howl of the Devil (1987), Jess Franco's Faceless (1988) and Demons 6: De Profundis (1989), which would be her last major film appearance.

She married Dugdale in 1990 and retired from acting to raise her two daughters.  “I took a long time off to have my girls,” she said in interview.  “I had [them] late and in that time everything changes and, of course, you’re not offered the roles.  I took, really, ten years off.”
Caroline, Dude and me, the NEC, November 2011
After making more films in 1990s and beyond, she became a regular on the convention circuit and remains very popular today.  I was lucky enough, with Dude, to meet her at the Birmingham NEC for the Memorabilia fair in November 2011 (which I wrote about here).  Awe-struck in her presence, Dude filled the gap when she said “hello” and they started talking to each other.  I did manage to tell her how much of an honour it was to meet her (I thought telling her she'd been my crush since I was 7 might be out-of-order) and she was lovely, chatting easily to both of us and posing for a photograph (her suggestion, when she noticed my camera).  It might have taken me a long time but I did end up, however briefly, with my arm around Caroline Munro and she was as lovely as I could have ever hoped.

"The career was wonderful. I never sought anything, really, I never pursued anything. I was not ambitious. It came to me."
- Caroline Munro

as Stella Star in Starcrash

Taken in Sardinia, during the shooting of The Spy Who Loved Me, 1976

My prized autograph - Dude suggested I get the picture of Caroline with Roger Moore but I chose this one...

Happy birthday, Caroline!

MI6-Hq: Caroline Munro - Caroline Munro
Interview with Caroline Munro (2007) at An Actors Notebook
Caroline Munro Official Website
Dark Side Magazine - Hammer Glamour: Caroline Munro
The Horror Princess: Caroline Munro by Mark Iveson
My blogpost about meeting Caroline