The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes – Neil Gaiman

I’ve been a fan of Neil Gaiman’s writings for many years but I really don’t understand the reason for comics for adults so have stayed away from the creation that really launched Gaiman as a fantasy superstar writer, The Sandman series. Don’t get me wrong, I loved comics as a kid and have really enjoyed the nostalgia of the recent Folio Society triple set of Marvel reprints for what is known as the Gold, Silver and Bronze ages of comic books and reviewed the Silver Age edition almost a year ago here but I’ve never read a graphic novel or indeed been that interested in trying. I might have known that Gaiman would eventually draw me to a genre I have ignored for so long. Preludes and Nocturnes collates the first eight comics from The Sandman series which eventually ran to seventy five issues from January 1989 to March 1996.

The first comic deals with the capture of The Sandman, aka Morpheus, aka Dream in 1916 through a magical incantation that goes wrong. Roderick Burgess and his acolytes were actually trying to summon and capture Death and got instead the ruler of dreams. Frustrated by their prisoner clearly not being the right target and his refusal to say anything so they don’t know which powerful entity they have actually trapped they leave him in the magic circle hoping he will talk and be of use, but he simply sits there , biding his time, for seventy years, until he is accidentally released. After swiftly taking his revenge on the only mortal still alive who was involved in his capture he finds that his realm has gone to wrack and ruin in his absence and his three essential tools, his bag of sand, his helmet and his ruby talisman have gone missing and without them his powers are dramatically reduced.

The next six comics deal with his recovery of the missing artefacts, some of these stories work rather better than the others. The main failure is Passengers which tries too hard to make The Sandman part of the DC Comics universe by jamming other characters from that stable of superheroes and villains into the story line. Yes The Sandman is a DC character, initially created by Joe Simon and Mark Fleisher in 1974 in the traditional hero suit of close fitting top and tights but the Gaiman re-invention of the character fifteen years later doesn’t sit well amongst the costumed heroes and it just feels wrong, even Gaiman describes the attempt as “perhaps misguided”. These all come under the horror fantasy genre, especially 24 Hours which would definitely get an adults only certificate if it was filmed. The dark artwork if perfectly fitted to the story although the original artist left after just five comics and the design subtly changed at that point but not as much as it was going to do.

The page below is from the final comic in this volume, The Sandman now has his power restored and so his initial quest is complete. The resolution has come as an anticlimax and what he doesn’t know now is what to do next so is reduced to just sitting, feeding the pigeons in a park until his sister arrives to try to shake him out of his deep reverie. As you can see the artwork is very different in this comic which is effectively a codicil to the first seven, I actually enjoyed this episode more than those before it and this is the first slight hint of the existence of The Endless a group of seven siblings who are like gods (although there is no specific reference to the family this early on in The Sandman series). In the final panel of this comic, and the book, you see that The Sandman is back.

Did I enjoy reading this? Yes. Will I therefore purchase and read the rest? Probably not. It was fun to experience such a complex story in the comic format but I don’t feel the need to read more in this style. I am intrigued by the recent audio version being produced as a series of dramas by Dirk Maggs whose work in the field of adapting fantasy novels to audio dramas I greatly admire, so ironically I may well continue my experience of reading a graphic novel but in a format with no pictures.

Maverick in Madagascar – Mark Eveleigh

This is not my own lie. This is a lie that the ancestors told me

Mark Eveleigh opens his book with this traditional start to any story being told in Madagascar as he describes his plan to walk from north to south along the western coastline of the fourth largest island in the world and before you even get to that original plan you know that he doesn’t succeed because the maps at the very beginning of the book only show less than a quarter to that route. Instead there is a second map relating to Part II of the book where he heads across the middle of the country in a search for the Vazimba tribe who are a group of white pygmies not seen for decades or even centuries and this may be because the various tales relating to them describe them as alternately not short and not white. This is going to be a difficult hunt.

That his original plan was doomed almost from the start was due in part to the late rainy season which made the going even more difficult that it should have been and the fact that, despite his intention to purchase a horse as a pack animal for his equipment, all the horses in the north of the country appeared to have succumbed to a mysterious disease and died in the few months before he got there. Instead he decides to buy Jobi the bull zebu (a local breed of humped cattle) and despite warnings that nobody could drive a zebu that far decides to set off in the company, at least initially, of a couple of locals who were taking two cows for slaughter part way down the route he would have to follow,

Mark is an entertaining writer, particularly when describing his own discomforts, and there are plenty of those especially in Part II where he gets poisoned by various plants that he is walking through and has recurrences of the malaria he first caught in Indonesia whilst trying to avoid being shot by bandits. He is also an excellent photographer so it is somewhat disappointing that despite frequent references to taking photographs the format of the Lonely Planet Journey’s books doesn’t allow for pictures apart from on the cover as you so want a few pages of images especially when he describes a breathtaking view. He also clearly bonded with Jobi during his aborted trek and is genuinely upset when the walk has to be abandoned partly due to Jobi getting unwell so he sells him for a significant loss to a family that will take care of him rather than the higher offers from others where his lifespan is likely to be considerably shorter.

What stands out through the whole book is the welcoming and friendly nature of almost all the Malagasy people he meets, apart from the bandits, and their determination to share what little they have despite Madagascar being one of the poorest countries on Earth. Their astonishment that a Vazaha (literally outsider) has made it to their isolated village, quite probably the first white man that the children at least have ever seen, is an ongoing theme. Madagascar does have its tourist traps but they are few and far between and due to the danger of travelling especially in the zone rouge in the middle of the country tourists tend to be restricted to these small areas and mainly to an island off the west coast which Mark visits in order to complete paperwork and send letters but gets away from as quickly as possible. It’s a really good read and I definitely recommend it.

Lonely Planet Journeys was a relatively short lived series of travellers tales published by Lonely Planet between 1996 and 2002, I really enjoyed the eclectic selection and when it became clear the series was coming to an end I bought up as many different ones as I could find in my local bookshop and in all have twenty five titles. There doesn’t appear to be a definitive list of all the book published under this imprint, the LibraryThing list has forty seven titles but includes several books that were not actually part of the series so I’m guessing that I’m missing no more than ten actual books from the set, probably quite a bit fewer than that. This one has been sitting unread on my shelves for twenty years so it was about time I finally got round to picking it up. I have read most of the ones I have now but whilst checking the shelves for the date range and the tally of books there are at least two that I have no memory of reading so they will probably appear sometime in the next few months.

‘How it Works’ The Computer

This is a bit of fun really, it certainly isn’t a review of the book because any objective review would say that this book is no real use for understanding how computers work nowadays, but it is an insight into just how much technology has advanced since this book was written in 1971, so we are looking back fifty years. Before the days of computers in the home and decades before mobile phones and despite it being within my lifetime, as I bought this book new, it seems an unbelievably long time ago for technology. I was inspired to read it again after listening to Sir Tim Berners-Lee talking about the 32nd birthday of his invention of the World Wide Web which was celebrated last week. Actually this year (2021) marks the 30th anniversary of the Web being available to everyone rather than just the scientists at CERN which was where he was working at the time so it’s a good time to look back two decades before then to how computers started to be available to even a relatively small business although they were still wildly expensive.

This blog is going to be quite image intensive as I want to include several of the lovely illustrations by B H Robinson because they really tell the story to us nowadays far more than the informative but very technically dated text by David Carey. The first thing that strikes you is the sheer size of the equipment and then as you look further you realise that the two installations shown above don’t have any screens, the user interface is a teleprinter. The first ‘business’ computer I ever used didn’t have a screen either so I sympathise with the operator above, screens did exist but were quite scarce, certainly in the early 1970’s. It is also worth pointing out that the massive amount of cabinets lights and switches in the ‘large computer installation’ made up considerably less computing power than the mobile phone in my pocket.

Back then the sections of a computer were really obvious because they were separate huge cabinets or large pieces of equipment, nowadays everything is in one piece so it is actually easier to envisage how a computer works by looking at these old examples. To start with you need to get a programme and some data into the machine and that was a lot harder than it sounds. The example above uses a card punch followed by a card reader, yes the process was for data entry clerks to type everything into a machine that could produce thousands of pieces of cardboard each with a tiny part of the information and then carry the stack over to another machine (being very, very careful not to drop it because they have to be read in sequence) and then feed them in to load data into the computer.

Just how tedious this job was is shown above, and everything had to be verified because a single hole in the wrong place would make the entire stack useless until it was corrected. The amount of time taken to produce even the simplest programme or data source was unbelievable to those of us today. One way of getting round the danger of dropping several hundred cards, all of which look identical to a human, was to use paper tape instead, at least then it was just on a long reel although these also needed to be handled carefully as they could easily tear.

The main reason I have included the picture above is because it clearly shows a punched card. Each card consisted of eighty columns of numbers and each column could encode one letter or number, this blog entry consists of 7305 characters so would need a minimum of 92 cards to just hold the text; the pictures were not an option on machines like this back then, which I have to keep reminding myself is well within my lifetime as I was nine when this book was published. I say a minimum of 92 cards because I’m pretty certain words couldn’t wrap over cards so there would be blank space at the end of each card where a word wouldn’t fit.

To run a programme again you would need to reload the stack of cards and read them again unless you had a sufficiently large computer centre where you could have magnetic tape storage or even that modern wonder a disc storage device.

In the background you can see the five foot high magnetic tape cabinets, these were pretty quick in the day but nowadays the lag from a request for data and it actually arriving at the CPU (see later) makes them completely redundant, even more so than all the rest of the equipment shown. For example there would be an initial lag whilst the right part of the tape was found for the data needed and the book then explains that the tape could be read at up to 900 characters per second, now that figure is a little misleading as we are talking binary so just 0 or 1, to encode a letter or even a number other than 0 or 1 you need a lot more than one character, in fact you need 8 bits, otherwise known as a byte so reading this blog at 900 characters per second (111 letters per second) would take over a minute. Throughout the book Carey refers to storage in bits, presumably to make the numbers look big and impressive, even working in bytes is hopelessly outdated as we will see shortly.

Ah, disc storage, but just look at the size of the discs, 14 inches (35.5cm) across, six layers in a cumbersome disc pack, but at least you got lots of storage which was very quick to access. Quick yes but in today’s terms quite slow and 7.25 million characters per disc pack. Time for some maths again, lets work out just what that storage is in modern values.

  • 8 bits to the byte, 1024 bytes to the kilobyte, 1024 Kb to the megabyte. (Yes I know nowadays we just use 1000 for ease of calculation but in 1971 it was definitely 1024 as that is the relevant power of 2)
  • 7,250,000 bits = 906,250 bytes = 885 kilobytes = 0.864 megabytes
  • I would need eight complete disc packs to store one photograph taken by my phone, even assuming that such a thing was possible and I don’t even have a particularly up to date phone.

Actually that’s pretty good, the first computer I programmed for a company in the early 1980’s was an Osborne 1 which had 64 kilobytes of memory and two 90 kilobyte disc drives but I still managed to write a working insurance claims handling system for a parcel carrier on it.

Back in 1971 whilst there were computer chips, machines were still filled with transistors soldered onto printed circuit boards alongside the fairly limited integrated circuits available. The memory often however hadn’t moved on from the horribly delicate magnetic core store shown above. This isn’t an analogy as to what is happening you really did have lots of tiny ferrite cores strung onto wires which could be magnetised on or off to signify 1 or 0. As you can imagine the amount of memory was therefore pretty limited although the book claims that it could get up to a million bits (122 Kb).

Output back then would mainly be to a printer or possibly a screen in an advanced setup, I don’t think we need a picture of what they look like.

I’ve greatly enjoyed this trip down memory lane and when I showed the book to a seventeen year old friend she was astonished at the size of the machines and the limits they had. The computer she carries around with her all the time is millions of times more capable than the equipment featured in the book and tens of thousands times cheaper as well when inflation is taken into account.

Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton

I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, each time it was a different story. If you know Starkfield Massachusetts, you know the post-office.If you know the post-office you must have seen Ethan Frome drive up to it, drop the reins on his hollow-backed bay and drag himself across the brick pavement to the white colonnade: and you must have asked who he was.

The opening of Ethan Frome draws the reader in immediately, who is Ethan Frome? Nobody seems to know yet everybody ‘knows’ him and as a reader you to already want to know about this mysterious character. The narrator seems determined to find out so lets keep reading, further down the first page he is described as “but the ruin of a man” with “lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain”, what on earth had happened to him? After the opening preface in which the anonymous narrator gets to know a little more about Ethan Frome whilst employing him to drive a sleigh each day to and from the railway station as it is winter and the snow is feet deep. He is about to enter Ethan’s home after finally being defeated by the snow one evening trying to get back to town when suddenly the preface ends and the first chapter leaps back in time. The book drops the narrator and continues in the present tense but this is clearly the present for Ethan of almost two and a half decades ago.

Back then the Frome farm is in a bad way, very little money coming in and what there is being spent on remedies for his ‘ill’ wife. I put the word ill in quotes because it’s fairly clear that a lot of what is wrong with Zeena is psychosomatic although she probably does have some underlying illness but not a severe as she believes. The other occupant of the farmhouse is Mattie, Zeena’s cousin, whom they took in a year ago when her parents died and is supposedly helping around the house although she isn’t very practical. Over the seven years since their marriage Zeena has become more and more sour tempered and nagging and the arrival of Mattie into their household had initially given Ethan some relief from her constant complaints. Over the intervening months however his feelings for her had changed to something far more and it transpires that Mattie’s feelings for Ethan had also grown but it is obvious that Zeena had noticed this and resolves to send Mattie away which leads to the tragedy which is foreshadowed several times during the book. The development of the entirely platonic romantic relationship between Ethan and Mattie in the shadow of the terrible atmosphere at the farm is beautifully written, neither character will admit to their feelings for the other with its implications for Ethan and Zeena’s marriage which frankly had fallen apart years ago and they were only still together due to the impossibility of doing anything else given the dire financial position of the farm.

The final chapter returns to the narrator and what he finds in the Frome household when he enters and all I’m going to say about that is that it isn’t what I expected from the start of the book.

My copy is the first Penguin Books edition from November 1938, the book was first published in 1911 nine years before Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for easily her best known work ‘The Age of Innocence” but by 1911 she had already published three full length novels, three shorter novellas, a couple of books of poetry, six volumes of short stories and even four non-fiction books, Wharton was clearly an experienced writer and this shows in her confident use of language and entirely believable dialogue in Ethan Frome. The book is now out of copyright and can be read or downloaded as an ebook from Project Gutenburg at this link.

The Ring – Stephen Fay & Roger Wood

Subtitled ‘Anatomy of an Opera’ this tells the story of the 1983 production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the theatre the composer had built for performances of his operas in Bayreuth in southern Germany and which is still run by his descendants. It starts with the 1980 announcement that Sir Peter Hall was to direct the four operas with Sir Georg Solti conducting, journalist Stephen Fay and photographer Roger Wood become involved right at the beginning and this gives a fascinating glimpse into how the production grew. The book isn’t the story of the Ring Cycle operas but rather a backstage look as to how they came to be performed in 1983, from initial meetings, through set and costume designs, rehearsals and ultimately the appearance on stage in front of an audience and it is lavishly illustrated with Woods excellent photographs. Frankly reading this book makes it amazing that start to finish it was managed in just three years. Bayreuth is unique amongst the worlds opera houses for many reasons but one particular feature is that whilst almost every other house starts with operas one and two in the first year and then introduces numbers three and four over the next one or two seasons Bayreuth always has all four from the start which is a massive undertaking.

Because this book is about the production effort you don’t need to know anything about The Ring Cycle to appreciate the book but it does help to understand the flow of the parts and the overall structure of what is going on. For anyone reading this who isn’t familiar with just how daunting a job this is I’ll just use this paragraph to summarise the task in hand. The cycle consists of four operas performed in sequence over four days/evenings and then repeated during the season, this would be a lot even with ‘normal’ operas but these are huge with large casts and long running times. Solti noted that a Beethoven symphony would have a score of roughly one hundred pages, his combined score for the four operas ran to well over two thousand pages, I have Solti’s famous recording of the cycle from 1958 on nineteen vinyl albums and the DVD recording I also have of Daniel Barenboim’s 1991 Bayreuth production has running times for the actual performances of Das Rheingold – 154 minutes, Die Walkure – 237 minutes, Siegfried – 244 minutes and Gotterdammerung – 270 minutes, a grand total of 15 hours and 5 minutes. Truly a musical marathon for all concerned, even the audience.

With so much needing to be done along with thirty six principal parts (several of which appear in more than one of the operas), a large chorus and numerous non-singing extras, a scratch orchestra put together for the season (the Festspeilehaus doesn’t have it’s own orchestra but draws players from various German orchestras who probably haven’t played together before) and limited time for rehearsals due to the need to do all of it in one go it is clear that this has lots of potential for disaster. Add in the conflicts between the various people involved along with all the back stage issues it’s remarkable it continues to happen and it’s this continuing rising tension that makes this book such a great read.

The spectacular set used for the start of Das Rheingold is depicted on the rear cover of the book as Alberich comes to steal the gold from the Rhinemaidens. Along with the writing of Stephen Fay the book is adorned with beautiful photographs by Roger Wood, probably one of the finest theatrical photographers of all time although my reproductions here don’t do justice to his work as they are quite glossy and difficult to re-photograph. To really appreciate them you need to read the book but as they make up such a significant part I felt I wanted to give some idea of what he did. There is a very good reason why the two men share the credits.

The fascination of the book comes from the quite often difficult relationships between the various protagonists, Solti had terrible problems with some members of the orchestra but also one principal singer in particular. Reiner Goldberg had been cast as Siegfried despite never having sung the role in the past and whilst he had promised to learn the part it rapidly became clear that on arrival for rehearsals he hadn’t done so, he also would not take stage direction and simply went off on his own way so causing tension with Hall as well. Nevertheless the two of them persevered with him far longer that they should have before eventually giving up when they had reached the dress rehearsals so just before the first proper performance. Manfred Jung was asked to replace him at almost no notice and could only do so because he had sung the part many times including the previous seasons of The Ring Cycle at Bayreuth. This however was only in the last few months before audiences would see what had been produced, the stressed relationship between Wolfgang Wagner, Richard Wagner’s grandson, who was running the theatre at the time and Sir Peter Hall had gone on for three years by now ever since Hall was chosen to direct. Hall was directing what would turn out to be easily the most expensive production of the cycle up to then and Wagner was having to pay for it. Wagner had also directed at least two complete cycles in his own right and had firm ideas as to how it should, and more importantly to him at least how it should not, be done. On top of this Wagner’s temper and Hall’s apparent calmness in face of it just wound Wagner up more exacerbated by the fact Wagner spoke no English and Hall hadn’t managed to learn any German so they had to use interpreters made the relationship particularly difficult altough highly entertaining to read about.

Solti did recognise that one of Hall’s particular troubles was Wagner. He took Hall aside one day in July nd asked if he could possibly say something pleasant to Wagner, to improve their relationship. Hall replied that he could think of nothing pleasant to say.

I was first properly introduced the The Ring via a TV version broadcast in May 1985 which was of the 1980 production which preceded the Solti/Hall version and was conducted by Pierre Boulez directed by Patrice Chereau, Introduced by Humphrey Burton broadcast on BBC 2 television and BBC Radio 3 over four consecutive Saturday evenings and I was amazed at the breadth of the concept. Reading this volume which gives just a hint of the three years work that goes into producing a cycle I am even more astonished by ‘the biggest work of art in the world’.