Monday 26 October 2020

Ten Past Three - A Portuguese Ghost Story

I've discussed this incident on the blog before but with Halloween coming up - and the fact that it happened 30 years ago this August - I thought it worth another mention.  I adore the horror genre but I'm relatively rational and, like everyone else, I've often placated my son when he's scared with the phrase "there's nothing there."

But what if there is?
Me and Craig, Cabo da Roca, Portugal.  It was 1990, we all wore short-shorts like this, honestly...
I've loved ghost stories since I was a kid and as a ten-year-old there wasn’t much better than losing myself in a Three Investigator book, or a Peter Haining or Mary Danby collection. I formed ghost hunting groups with friends (one day, I might tell you about the ghost at Blue Bridge, who was said to be Old Nick himself), read as much as I could and scared myself silly with real-life ghost books from the library. Happy days.

I have had three brushes with what I think are perhaps most accurately described as unidentified phenomena. One was with my childhood friend Nick and he still talks about the incident, almost forty years later. Two were with my friend Craig – one was an unidentified flying object and the other, this one, was about ghosts.

In 1989, he & I went on holiday to Portugal. He worked for a travel company, we got a reduced rate, we had a great time. Our hotel was a lovely place, run by a bear of an Englishman, with local staff. Beyond the restaurant/club house was a patio area, then two blocks of apartments – we were on the ground floor of the first, facing back towards the house. We got on well with fellow guests, there was a good atmosphere in general, it was a cracking holiday.

Towards the end of the week, having sworn off drink for a few days (we were twenty and didn’t realise the shots were doubles), we’d had a meal and enjoyed the evening in the club and gone back to our room. It wasn’t a big room – through the front door, the bathroom opened off the hall, then the main room had twin beds, patio doors (which faced out towards the main house) and built in wardrobes across from them (against the back of the bathroom wall). I slept in the bed nearest the wardrobes, Craig had the bed by the window.

On this particular night, nothing spectacular had happened. We chatted for a while, then went to sleep.

A red guard from Flash Gordon.  My version
didn't have a gun...
 I woke up and knew it was the middle of the night, though it wasn’t particularly dark (we tended to keep the curtains open). As my eyes got accustomed to the light, I was very surprised to see someone crouching down beside the bed, staring at me. My over-riding memory of it now is that it looked like one of the red guards from the Flash Gordon film – a monks habit, with the hood drawn up and some kind of gas mask/breathing apparatus obscuring the face. I don’t remember reacting to this interloper, but watched as he stood up and walked carefully around my bed and along the back wall. As the thing reached the end of Craig’s bed (with me now up on one elbow, watching it go), Craig sat bolt upright in bed (and that startled me more than my ghost had).

“What time is it?”

I fumbled for my watch. “Ten past three.”

“Okay,” he said and laid back down. I couldn’t see my ghost any more, so I too laid down and went back to sleep.

The next morning, he was up bright and early and went to reception to make a call. When he got back, he explained he’d wanted to ring his parents, as he was really worried. I asked why and he explained he’d woken up to see two people sitting on the end of his bed, watching him. His first thought was that it must be his parents, checking he was okay, but when he rang home, they were fine and healthy.

As we sat there, on our beds in the early morning Portuguese sunshine, I told him about the thing I’d seen. As we talked, it came to me that maybe my ghost had been moving slowly because he was threading his way between things I couldn’t see, perhaps guests at a party. Guests that might, conceivably, be sitting at the end of Craig’s bed saying “look at that, a ghost person in bed.”

Completely stumped as to what was going on, but convinced the party angle was the one to go for, we trooped off to reception (I don’t know that we expected to find out, maybe that a party had been going on years before, until a fire broke out and killed everyone, but it would have been a start).  We knew the girl behind the counter, who was very nice and had taught us a few words and phrases in Portugese and haltingly tried to explain ourselves.

“We were just wondering if there’d been a party in our room.”  She checked the pigeon hole for our room and came back with our passports. “No, we’re in there, we just wondered if there’d been a party in there before.”

She frowned at us, so we told her the story. About halfway through, she started to hyperventilate. Towards the end, she looked genuinely upset. When we got to the time part, she was very agitated. So much so that she went to get the manager’s wife (a fearsome, if friendly, lady – when I got sunstroke just after arriving, she made sure I got grilled chicken for dinner to help me, even though it wasn’t on the menu). We re-told our story, conscious of the poor receptionist who was, by now, sitting in the backroom being comforted by her colleagues.

The manager’s wife listened to our story, looking at us to make sure we weren’t pulling her leg. She tried the obvious – were monks on my mind, there was a brand of drink called Sandeman whose logo was a man in a cape, all manner of stuff – but realised our story wasn’t going to change. She took us to one side and said, “If you promise not to mention this again, whilst you’re here, you can have free meals for the rest of your stay.”

Did my years of wanting to be a ghost-hunter kick in? Was my drive to discover the paranormal world enough that I would refuse? No, I’m now ashamed to admit that Craig & I thought with our bellies and went for the free meal option.

So, story ended right? We saw something we couldn’t explain, we freaked out a receptionist (who might have been prone to over-react, who knows?) and we were then offered hush money. I’d love to report that we experienced more phenomena but we didn’t – I was wary about being in the room on my own for the duration of our stay, but neither of us ever saw anything untoward in that room again.

It was all finished, except for something we overhead that night at dinner. Sharing our floor in the block were ex-employees of BOAC. Friendly, chatty and very funny, we got on well with them (bearing in mind they were perhaps fifty years older than us) and our little table was next to the large one they occupied.

Obviously, part of our deal was to tell no-one and we adhered to that. So imagine our surprise when the BOAC table started to talk about their previous night. Every one of them had woken up – either from hearing something or through a bad dream – and all of them were tired. We couldn’t resist and leaned back.

“What time was this then?” we asked.

There was general murmuring from the table, as people thought back about it.

So what time did five or six couples – a total of seven separate rooms – all wake up, on the same night, when nothing untoward was happening?

“Ten past three,” they said.

Monday 19 October 2020

The Mystery Of The Silver Spider, by Robert Arthur

2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published and, to celebrate, I re-read and compiled my all-time Top 10 (safe in the knowledge that it would be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I posted my list here, having previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here).

Following this, I decided to re-visit some of the books I'd missed on that second read-through, without any intention of posting reviews of them but, as if often the way, it didn't quite work out like that.  Happily, this is on-going and so here's an additional review...
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed between 1969 and 1971), cover art by Roger Hall
Desperately The Three Investigators began to climb the rope.  Far below them, the city lights gleamed and the Denzo River swirled dark and swift in the night.  If they gave up now, they all knew what the guards would do to them.  Suddenly, before he could save himself, Bob's hand slipped and he fell backwards...

Jupe, Pete and Bob uncover a sinister plot when they visit Varania.  For evil forces are out to destroy the tiny country's young Prince and seize power.  But when the priceless Silver Spider goes missing, the boys know it's time for a speedy exit - before they end up in the local torture chamber...

illustration from the Collins/Armada editions,
by Roger Hall
On their way from a visit to Alfred Hitchcock (does this literally follow on directly from Fiery Eye?), the boys are almost involved in a car crash which is only averted due to the quick thinking of Worthington.  In the other car is young Prince Djaro, soon to be crowned ruler of the principality of Varania in Europe, who’s visiting the USA.  They boys quickly become friends and Djaro organises for them to spend the day at Disneyland where the lads discover all is not well in the kingdom.  After Djaro invites them to Varania, they’re visited by Bert Young, a US secret service agent, who wants them to help out.  It seems the Regent, Duke Stefan, has plans for Varania that are not only villainous but most definitely do not involve Prince Djaro.

The eighth Three Investigator book written by the series creator Robert Arthur, he has a lot of fun taking the boys out of Southern California and casting them into the kind of small European kingdom that feels a curious mixture of medieval and modern.  Taking full advantage of castles, dungeons, sewers, history and a rebellion, he clearly enjoys himself giving the boys CIA toys to play with (camera radios and mini-recorders) and the set pieces reflect that though I did miss the usual touch of melancholy Arthur often brought to his work.  The Silver Spider of the title is a small piece of sculpture that plays a very big part in both the book and the rituals of Varania and its disappearance drives the plot, while the resolution of it is very well played.

Characterisation, as always, is spot on and the boys have a good repartee, while Jupiter shows he perfectly understands how he’s sometimes perceived (but thankfully is okay with it) - “I don’t suppose you can call me exactly typical because some people think I’m conceited and use too many long words and sometimes get myself pretty well disliked.  But I can’t seem to change”.  Bob also has a decent part to play, with a couple of bumps to the head and a nice call-back to his injured leg.  There’s a larger supporting cast than usual, so those characters are painted in broader brushstrokes - Djaro, Rudy and Elena, who help them escape - while the villain of the piece, Duke Stefan, is quickly shown to be terrible with a great scene set in a torture chamber (and his plot is intriguingly dastardly).  The set pieces are all action - shinning up and down ropes, boating through cellars, chasing across squares and into church - and very well written with great pace.  A complaint might be that, on occasion, the boys feel like passengers in the adventure as their new friends organise escapes but having said that, it's Bob who hides the Silver Spider and Jupe who figures out how to call attention to Duke Stefan's scheming, so it balances out.  As an aside, at the accident, the boys had “just been to Hollywood to call on Alfred Hitchcock and give him the facts of their latest adventure” so does this happen directly after The Mystery Of The Fiery Eye?  With a cracking pace, an excellent sense of location and some great character work, I thoroughly enjoyed my read and would highly recommend the book.
Armada format a paperback (printed between 1972 and 1980), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)
Armada format b paperback (printed in 1982 and never reprinted), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)

The internal illustrations for the UK edition were drawn by Roger Hall.

Thanks to Ian Regan for the artwork (you can see more at his excellent Cover Art database here)

Monday 12 October 2020

Just Keep Walking, by INXS, at 40

Forty years ago, INXS released their second single to help promote their debut album in October 1980.
Just Keep Walking was written by the band as a whole (a credit tactic their manager Chris Murphy suggested), backed with Scratch and released in Australia and New Zealand in October 1980 and in the UK, by RCA, in May 1981.  It was the only single release from the album and would eventually go gold (selling over 35,000 units) though it took a good few years to do so.

The band had released their first single, Simple Simon/We Are The Vegetables, in May 1980 and performed it live on an afternoon kids show called Simon Townsend's Wonder World (their first TV appearance).  Just Keep Walking, their second single, became something of a pub anthem locally and also broke into the Australian Top 40 (peaking at number 38), leading to them appearing on Countdown for the first time.

Clever words on smooth tongue talking 
Shove it brother 
Just keep walking 

The video was directed by Gary Page, a friend of Michael Hutchence's and shot in one day in September in a warehouse in Sydney, on a budget of "about A$1,200" (according to Kirk Pengilly, introducing it on the I'm Only Looking DVD).  The plastic floor and wall concept was designed by Hutchence (according to Pengilly) to represent a "room within a room".

Andrew Farriss wrote, on the INXS Anthology Liner Notes: "The song lyrics were about life on the road and the pubs: Green grass fields and earth, broken bottles bricks and dirt. By the time we started recording our first album, I had written the lyrics already and showed them to Michael. He liked the line:  Clever words on smooth tongue talking, shove it brother, just keep walking. We knew it would connect with the workers and drinking mob in the pubs."

Tim Farriss told journalist David McGee in June 1983 that the lyric Shove it, brother/Just keep walking "sort of summed up our attitude. We took on an 'angry young man' status because we were working our guts out and still starving."
INXS was released in Australia on 13 October 1980.  Recorded at Trafalgar Studios in Annandale, Sydney, it was co-produced by the band and Duncan McGuire and because of the low budget (Deluxe Records gave them $10,000 to make the whole album), they had to record between midnight and dawn (often after playing live shows earlier in the evening).

I like the album, though it's a very different sound to the one that would make INXS a world-beating group.  Alison isn't so keen on its New Wave-ska-pop style and she's not alone...

I'm not a great fan of the first album. It's naïve and kinda cute, almost. It's these young guys struggling for a sound. All I can hear is what was going to happen later and it's probably an interesting album because of that. Just Keep Walking was the first time we thought we'd written a song. And that became an anthem around town. It's funny, I remember kids in pubs saying it and hearing it on the radio the first time. We'd never heard that before.
- Michael Hutchence

The band's first appearance on Countdown, 5th October 1980.

Discogs release information
I'm Only Looking DVD
Michael Hutchence quote from Burn: The Life and Times of Michael Hutchence and INXS, by Ed St. John
INXS Anthology Liner Notes

Monday 5 October 2020

Bullet Comic Art

My collection of Bullet comics is slowly growing and I'm thoroughly enjoying the process, picking copies up from here and there.  I found a copy on ebay this week and it occured to me that it's been a while since I showcased some of the covers on the blog.
Bullet, my favourite comic growing up (I wrote a retrospective on it here), was launched by D. C. Thomson on 9th February 1976.  ‘Packed with action stories - fast and furious’, the figurehead and main character, Fireball, promised readers “rough, touch action stories” and the comic duly delivered.  Focussing on action and adventure, science fiction, sport and war, this popular boys comic ran to 32 pages and cost 7p an issue.
As well as the decent array of stories, the comic featured Fireball Calling, a letters page that included trivia, password messages and competitions.  Readers letters got a Fireball t-shirt and the letter of the week won an electronic pocket calculator, which was a big deal then. There were also sports profiles, mostly featuring footballers and fact files, while the back pages often carried “A to Z” entries on various topics.
Me, in 1981, proudly wearing the Fireball jumper knitted by my aunt
The Fireball Club (which you could join for 25p, postal orders only please) gave you the Fireball story (which also acted as the decoder for the Top Secret messages in Fireball Calling) in a red plastic wallet, an ID card and, best of all,  the Fireball ‘Flaming F’ pendant (which was not only very cool, it was worn constantly by Fireball and saved his life on occasion).  I wore mine with pride.

Bullet’s fine run ended with at issue 147 on 2nd December 1978 (as I wrote about here), when it merged with Warlord, a linked comic from the same publisher.  I read it for a while even though, as was often the case, most of the strips I enjoyed didn’t make the transfer while the rest quietly faded out as the weeks or months rolled on.

Reading it back now, more than forty years later, it’s still great fun and I’m thoroughly enjoying the nostalgic blast - in fact, I’m turning some pages and seeing a host of images that instantly push me back to the late seventies.