Blackburn

This year I have also been reading the works of John Blackburn. I cannot remember exactly how I heard of them. I think they just turned out in my Amazon Recommends and I took a look. His oeuvre could be described as somewhere between the worlds of Dennis Wheatley and Kingsley Amis. Of the 28 volumes he produced between 1958 and 1985, I have managed 7, which is quite enough.

Although they vary in subject and classification (some are “horror”, others are “thriller”), they have common features. Firstly, they all seem to be contemporary to when they were written and published, usually giving the year explicitly. Secondly, they all seem to be occurring in the same fictional universe, with characters reappearing in different times and places but with the same reputations. This implies that the “supernatural” yarns also occur in the same country as the comparatively sober works in which the story turns on fraud or malice. Thirdly, it seems that even the “supernatural” aspects are ultimately susceptible to a “scientific” explanation, in terms of pop-psychology or crude ideas of evolution. It’s also established in several stories that telepathy and related phenomena are matters of experimental fact, though exploiting them may not be simple.

Those are the basic rules of the game, but we should also be aware that this world of Britain from the 50s to the 80s is full of damaged people – damaged by their experiences in the war and the oppressive regimes of the 20th century, both mentally and physically; damaged by the evils and deprivation of disturbed lives; and above all damaged by the poisons and secret weapons created in those conflicts, that are still latent and able to turn humans in to indescribable monsters. It’s a world of weird conspiracies and elaborate deceptions constructed by wealthy sociopaths with nothing better to do than weave webs of mystery and misery spurred by their desperate loneliness and fear of death. It’s a world where Britain is clearly sliding away from what it once was, with horrible new buildings put up for the horrible people one didn’t have to think about before, but are clamouring for ever more attention. It’s a world full of people with secret pasts and strange visions of the future.

Let’s start where it began.

A Scent Of New-Mown Hay (1958)

We start with a desperate man pursued across a bleak European city… it’s a British spy trying to get the news out to the West about the strange crisis occurring far behind the Iron Curtain. In London the news is received by General Charles Kirk, “head of Her Majesty’s foreign office intelligence”. A mutilated veteran of World War One, we are often reminded that one of his hands doesn’t have its full original set of fingers.

’…either somebody is playing a rather dubious joke on our friends in the Army, or the Ruskis are up to something very big. Something that they’re doing everything in their power to conceal.’

Meanwhile some British merchant seamen are about in the White Sea in the steamer Gadshill and they get rammed and sunk by the Soviet Navy who seem to be frantically trying to stop any traffic getting away from the area. It’s a sad moment for Captain Clarke.

For the last time he looked at the chart-room where he had held sway for twenty years. He ran his hand over the sextant in its gleaming brass case, and looked at the chronometer on the table.

So this was the parting of the ways. He felt no sorrow, though he would have liked to take her home. Still, this was, in a sense, a better end than the Jarrow hammers.

There was only one thing more for him to do. He walked down to his room and very carefully packed in to his waterproof case the unfinished log, and a framed photograph of a plain woman leaning beside a terrace wall. He spared not a glance for his cabin, his furniture or anything that was left, but walked out, very stiffly, very firmly, very much the master of a ship, to the waiting boats.

So the Gadshill sank. There was no other way to describe it, she just sank.

No band played “Nearer, my God, to thee” from her rusty deck. No soldiers stood stiffly to attention. No ray of sunlight lit up the name on her stern. She just sank and only the floating dead in the engine room saw her go.

Such a cruel, heartless world where decent men do their duty uncomplaining and try to gather a few crumbs of tenderness on the side. When the apocalypse comes, there’s nothing to say for it. It was always expected that such lives would be cheated at the end. And they are soon enough, as he makes it ashore only to find Russian villages deserted, and then to be assailed by the sound of “something soft being dragged over the dry marsh”.

Then it happened. By some trick of the air or wind or atmosphere, the fog lifted. It swirled gently upwards in thin wisps and for a moment they could see.

It was just a glimpse, just a fleeting glance, but it was enough.

They were tough products of the Liverpool docks. They had come through the hardest school in the world, and war and wreck and storm had not touched them. But suddenly they were huddled together like children, crying and whimpering and desperately drawing back as they looked at the thing that the fog had mercifully hidden.

The hideous indescribable monster is the product of old Nazi biological weapons research, which an evil Nazi female scientist managed to smuggle away to her life hiding in post-war Britain, and has now been casting out on to the north winds to create trouble in Russia and soon elsewhere.

Post-war Germany has clubs and bars where the old secret elite can be found hanging out together; in Britain they adopt more respectable guises. Their accomplices can be threatened with instant deportation back to Breslau if they don’t co-operate (despite working for the Foreign Office, Kirk has not been briefed that Breslau has been Wroclaw in Poland since 1945, though I suppose what matters is that it’s now run by communists). But British life isn’t so great. Young academics can be depressed and demoralised if their careers are stuck in faraway towns, even in “Durford” (“third in age to Oxford and Cambridge”), which has its seedy back-streets as well as the fancy college quads and libraries. When the toxin gets loose amongst the population, the authorities have to consider issuing warnings and taking measures that sound familiar to us in 2020. And notice how the place and people of Holyford are described, they almost seem to deserve to get turned in to vegetable mutants, as well as symbolising how the country is going to go in the next 30 years.

Once, long ago, Holyford had been an important centre in the district.

A mound of overgrown ruins testifies to the presence of an abbey, founded by Irish monks in the ninth century… All these former glories had long since departed, however… The inhabitants of Holyford are a race apart from other men, for they do no work. A little fishing in the winter perhaps, but nothing at all regular. They have no arts, no local industry, they contribute nothing to the general good of the country and yet they live well and at peace; for they have one asset more valuable than any district of England. They have no licensing laws.

The story also has the first appearance of a Blackburn regular character: the Fleet Street star Big John Forest, “the doyen of his trade”, who is acknowledged to have no great talent except a fantastic streak of luck: “He was always there”. He was first there when he saw an assassination in “a dusty Balkan town” in 1914, and has been the first to file his copy on the hottest stories of the day ever since. He’s working in Blackburn’s novels up to at least 1970, always an angel of death that should warn anyone nearby that Science is about to go wrong very badly due to a fatuous conspiracy.

Blue Octavo (1963)

In contrast to the high politics and sci-fi excitement of Hay, this is a delightfully low-stakes tale that takes in the world of book dealers chasing after rare editions. We start with a group of them working together at an auction to try to get some treasures from a collection being broken up as an estate is wound up.

They slunk down the drive like wolves fearing ambush, not in a group which might hint of conspiracy, but in loping twos and threes, bowler or trilby hat pulled low over pallid, crafty faces, nicotine-stained fingers clutching catalogues, and thin, city shoes squelching on the muddy path; the furniture dealers to a van by the gate, and booksellers into the damp wood. Twelve men standing among the trees and bidding for lots they had already bought. The Ring going into action.

The man-monsters in this story aren’t physically deformed, but they are sharks and wolves in human form: tricking and scheming and pulling the wool over the eyes of sad deluded punters or cutting each other short on deals where they can. Of course they usually play fair to each other in their gang, as it’s a small world and all that.

Well, Brassey was dead now, and he had left his widow nothing but memories, and debts, and a bookcase of worthless volumes which he had imagined were bargains… Like most of the uninformed public, she used the term ‘first edition’ as though it were some kind of lucky charm or talisman….’No, I’m very sorry – ‘ he began to say; then he saw the despair in her face, and knew that he had been her last hope – that if he didn’t buy, she would realize that her husband was just a fool who had bought books merely because they looked important and pretentious.

The plot turns on the search to collect all of a limited edition of a pre-World War One book about British rock-climbing called The Grey Boulders. Someone has an urgent reason to get hold of every extant copy of this work, and they are willing to kill and burn their way to end of the quest. This is baffling to insiders in the book game, who can’t imagine why anyone would care for such a dull minor text.

To be honest, it’s pretty obvious who the baddy is going to be as soon as we meet them, but the fun is all in trying to fathom what the motive must be. When we get told the solution, we can see how all the pieces of the puzzle had been given to us in incidental detail, but no clue how to put them together.

Assisting our rather pallid young book-dealing hero John Cain, we also have an intervention from a grand old leftover of an older Britain, the blustering Imperial explorer J. Moldon Mott, who would have been an absolute guaranteed role for James Robertson Justice if this had ever been filmed.

The man sat at a table which was littered with books and papers, and the remains of his breakfast, and the room around him might have been decorated by a maniac. The man himself was an unpleasant sight, too. He wore a suit of surprisingly vulgar pyjamas, open at the top to show a mat of reddish hair, and his face bore an expression of almost inhuman arrogance. A big, heavy man, sixteen stone if an ounce, and all of it bone and muscle; an ill-tempered man who could become a very bad enemy on very small provocation.

I suppose it’s in keeping with his old-world style that he first communicates with Cain by getting a “bullet-headed urchin” in a park to take a message to him. The snivelling little creep does at least recognise real quality: “’…Real gent he was.’ There was a gleam of hero-worship in the little, pig-like eyes.”

When the real baddy finally reveals himself we get a rather boring speech and then an abrupt extra ration of gore to make up for what we’ve been missing through all this saga of frontispieces, complex legacies, and obscure footnotes.

A board tilted like a seesaw and threw him forward toward the lip of the ventilating shaft. To her dying day Julia would remember the look on his face as he went down.

It took him perhaps ten seconds to reach the ground, and pieces were torn from his body as he fell.

Children Of The Night (1966)

Back to Weird Britain, but J.Moldon Mott is also back again, so it’s the same country as the one those creepy book-dealers inhabit. Some other creepy characters are here as well: a horrible old retired Colonel, who has tricked his manservant into working for nothing in exchange for a worthless promise he will inherit his estate. His fate is to be sent down hill and over a cliff edge to crash on to the local market in his wheelchair. Horrible,  and it also brings up an issue throughout Blackburn’s books: he doesn’t really have a sense of humour, but keeps trying to do scenes that are clearly meant to be comic. These usually involve resorting to a stereotype comic character, often a lazy ignorant lower-class person.

But never mind – we’re back in the North-East, where a dark secret has been slumbering underground but is now making its presence felt. The local vicar has been studying the folklore and come to some momentous conclusions about the fate of an obscure religious cult called the Children Of Paul, that dwelt in the area in the Middle Ages, and it all might lead up to apocalyptic events in the year 1966. But you can’t get that message across to the Bishop, who is a ghastly old liberal windbag full of shallow optimism about the universe. He even thinks pop music and comprehensive schools are positive developments – what an empty fool.

Dr Russell Fenge, Lord Bishop of Welcott, sometimes described in the right-wing press as the ‘despicable bishop of Welcott’, was a liberal churchman and against things. High on the list of his hates were capital punishment, class and race discrimination, nuclear armaments, and the Holy Ghost. He often referred to himself as a rational Christian, and his best-selling work of popular theology, God Knows, proved his deep and comforting faith in the impotence of the Deity.

…’Quite so.’ Fenge nodded as he stared at the pages. Could it be possible? He thought. Could those people have managed to live for almost seven hundred years without ever coming out into the light of day? Could those telepathic powers have been developed as the body altered? Could they have maintained their fanatical beliefs till the present? As he thought about it, and remembered what he had heard on the telephone, his remaining doubts started to fade and be replaced by a number of pleasant pictures. Press conferences with himself in the chair; books on the subject; television interviews, newspaper articles, lecture tours all over the world. He might well be a laughing stock, if the whole thing turned out to be a hoax, but the possible glory far outweighed the risk.

The rupture as the Children Of Paul burst in to modern Bomb Culture Britain sets loose a psychedelic dance of the mad and a bloody frenzy as rational thought and civilised norms break down… but before we get to that, let’s pause to consider that we are in a country where the stockpiling of new nerve gases is a convenient device for the good guys to fall back on, when one of their number includes a retired Admiral (and now vice-chairman of a chemicals supplier) who can always call up a group of old Navy and Air Force chums as an amateur commando squad.

’Well, that’s about the lot, I think, and it only remains for us to toast the success of our mission.’ The admiral felt an enormous sense of excitement as he raised his glass. Apart from the fun of it, this business might give Tyneport Chemicals the biggest killing of all time.

Vane is another “stiff” man whose stiffness is a symptom of service: “Vane gave him a stiff bow. A tiny, but irremovable piece of bomb splinter had been lodged in his neck when the RAF mistook his light cruiser for a German battleship in ’42.” Lots of things are having to change in the mid 60s:

The head office of Tyneport Chemical Industries was a brand new building, largely constructed of glass, and decorated in the most modern manner. Huge abstract paintings hung in the reception hall, fountains played before the lift shafts, and snow-white carpets lined the white marble corridors. With the exception of one room, the whole place had an overpowering stench of Notawiff, the firm’s best-selling domestic air-freshener.

The exception is of course Admiral Vane’s own office, filled with the proper manly smell of cigars, whisky, leather-binding, and whatever odour is emitted by framed photographs of warships.

For the “scientific” explanation of how creatures could be living for hundreds of years, we are passed off with the suggestion that uncooked carp guts could be the secret elixir. Aldous Huxley’s use of the idea in After Many A Summer is mentioned, and “A Chinese scholar said the same thing in the 4th century B.C.”

Nothing But The Night (1968)

The only one of his stories to get a film adaptation completed, in 1972. That’s a pity, because it would have been far better to have John Boorman freely adapting Children Of The Night in any year before 1970, turning it in to an end-of-the-60s nightmare about the danger in the promise of liberation,  and so on. Instead, we get a quite faithful tread through the book, trying as well as it can to make it all make sense. The biggest variation from the text is in the names. Sir Marcus Levin has become Sir Mark Ashley, and Peter Cushing plays him with no suggestion that he arrived in Britain as a refugee survivor of a concentration camp. General Kirk has been renamed Colonel Bingham, and Christopher Lee didn’t cut any fingers off to meet the full description. Other than that, it remains his less-known film about a mad cult having a bonfire party on a remote Scottish island.

We start with a series of killings of impassive adults, and then the scene in which a party of schoolchildren are having a singalong led by young Mary Valley (played by Gwyneth Strong, best known as Cassandra in Only Fools And Horses).

After Mary gets angry with the driver, there is a crash, and she ends up delirious in hospital. The psychiatrist Dr Haynes wants to keep her in for more observation as he is concerned at some of her ravings. However the Van Traylen Fellowship responsible for her welfare and education on a remote island want her released back to them as soon as possible. Haynes convinces Levin/Ashley something is afoot, whilst Kirk/Bingham turns up to say that his secret agency have their suspicions that something is afoot around the Van Traylen Fellowship. Big John Forest is also lumbering around in the book, having got a whiff of a big story.

Mary was taken in to care by the Fellowship to give her a better life apart from her mum, the notorious Anna Harb who spent years in Broadmoor for shooting her pimp, his new lover, and a barman who was hit by a ricocheting bullet. In the text she is stated as being mixed-race but the film gives the role to Diana Dors.

Attempts to keep Mary safely in the hospital fail and she has to be returned up North, but her mother is known to be in pursuit of her. Kirk/Bingham believes a great attack on the Fellowship will be attempted and wants to have his forces deployed on the island in strength. Although the film has a poor reputation, it does a decent job of making the manhunt section more interesting, and having regular updates on where Diana Dors has got to keeps in play the idea that she might be the real baddie. Because this is a high-concept Blackburn story, there’s no avoiding the big info-dump scenes in which the secret scientific conspiracy is unravelled.

Blow The House Down (1970)

The simplest summary of this one would be “High-Rise meets Love Thy Neighbour” and as you might expect the current reprint edition comes with A Note From The Publisher warning that

Blackburn’s novel includes a few passages in which both white and black characters use epithets that would not likely not be considered acceptable in a new book published today, including one particularly offensive term used by many other writers whose books we still read, including Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Harper Lee, among others.

The Northern city of Randelwyck has a housing problem, as well as racial tensions, and is proposing to solve both together with a super new brutalist structure that will have segregated communities separated in twin towers, who will interact in the shared amenities on the bridging structures. There is reason to think there may be structural problems with this model, as well as the moral and political ones, but there seems to be a conspiracy to dispose of any troublemakers who want to raise the matter. Big John Forest is getting the national press interested, of course. Many other professional troublemakers want it all to fail, including the local racist vicar who has his own anti-immigration movement doing well in city politics. The time is ripe for an early example of British Media Pays Flying Visit To Troubled North, one of the biggest genres of social commentary 50 years later.

John Forest, too, had done much to prepare the ground. With the Mallory Heights scare disposed of, he had written a long article on the town itself, stating that within a few hours of his arrival he had noticed an aura of strain and tension amongst its citizens. A sense of menace hung over the town as if, like Denmark, there was something rotten in the state of Randelwyck. Was Fentor Park the cause of this unrest, he asked? A military research station which few pressmen were allowed to visit, partially staffed by foreign technicians and less than five miles from a large city. The inhabitants of Randelwyck had good reason to feel uneasy, and the young people were right to voice their protest.

Whilst angry old white men get in fights in pubs, and students arriving from other towns get in to fights in pubs, and the authorities frantically search for stolen supplies of the new explosive Terradyte, and there’s a back story of local folklore about how it can get a lot windier around the site of the new towers than anyone realised, we also see some stereotypical 60s radicals turning up to brood on how they can exploit the chaotic collapse of mainstream society. Those names: “Mr Mahomet N’genza, international leader of the Black Lions… Oliver Trench, representing the British Maoists, and Silvia Jessop of the Youth Power group.”

A map was spread out on the table and N’genza’s blue-black finger traced the route of the march. ‘Though the research station is supposed to be the target, our followers must be restrained from any violence against it.’

’That’s going to be difficult, Mo’. Miss Jessop had had a fix an hour earlier, and her eyes were very bright behind their steel-rimmed glasses. ‘My lot are just waiting for the balloon to go up.’

’Then they’ll have to keep on waiting. There’ll be no violence during the return journey either, Silvia.’ Oliver Trench had recently returned from a visit to China and he was deeply tanned. ‘Nine tenths of the people who march with us are fools; liberal-minded weaklings who believe that the purpose of the demonstration is to register a peaceful protest. They have no idea that our real aim is to demonstrate our powers, and unless we drive them like sheep they will never help us. What we have to do is create an atmosphere of complete security and trust and then provoke an incident to set them off.’

Of course there is a happy ending in which the survivors learn to just get along.

The Cyclops Goblet (1977)

In a shift from the panoramic style of previous works, this story is one of a few told from the first-person perspective of William Easter – product of a public school and Oxford background who somehow went off the rails, got sent down and carried on downward in to the criminal underworld, working various cons and grafts and rackets. Sounds like he ought to be a fun companion, rather like the narrator of The Crust On Its Uppers by Robin Cook/Derek Raymond… but John can’t supply the vitamins. There’s not enough character detail beyond the bare bones needed to fill in the background of this plot and explain how he’s involved with the crew of other fixers and twisters who are filled with joyless ambition to pull off a big score. The Classics degree comes in useful when he needs to understand a clue written in ancient Greek, but that’s it.

The other crooks are a strange bunch and include the Right Reverend Gerald Hurst-Hutchins, formerly an Anglican bishop who got himself elected President of the west African state of Leonia after moving there from London, and then looted the country’s treasury until he was forced out by a revolution where he skilfully avoided justice by faking his own death. If he’s meant to be based on any actual leader of minor African republics from 1960-75 then I can’t find the reference, so I assume that this is an unusual flight of imagination for Blackburn.

Britain is in pretty poor shape by the late 70s.

Three hours before our arrival, a bomb had been detonated in the museum and the place still reeked of gelignite and burnt flesh.

Even worse, the act was carried out by “a lout appropriately named O’Hooligan” and we never hear anything about why he did it, except that he was foiled by the museum’s hypersecurity measures, which are the real point of interest in that chapter. It is established that the precious Renaissance collection on display is in fact an imitation, and the pursuit of the titular Goblet has to take us all around the country, solving strange puzzles and following obscure leads in a land filled by horrible creepy people who aren’t concealing their dark secrets very well.

TIM HEALY’S ANIMAL RESCUE CENTRE was a dilapidated barn surrounded by muddy pens. Mr Healy’s cages looked as though they’d never been cleaned out, and their occupants were dejected and uncared for and half-starved. Some of them were crippled and diseased and Healy shared their infirmities. His body was bent like a hoop, his face was pitted with the scars of old pustules and there wasn’t a hair on his scaly head. I’d hated him from the moment he came hobbling across the field to open a gate for us.

We’re back to weird chemical warfare experimentalists, and the crossover of esoteric research with the needs of rich people who want to live forever, with deserted Scottish islands available to store the results. Their damaged children may be warehoused in psychiatric clinics, but they can be dragged away to join in the caper of finding the gold. But what lies at the end of it is just something that might well smell like new-mown hay.

Things were clinging to the nylon mesh. The same deformed, fungoid things I’d seen in the cave, but far more horrible and a hundred times more active. They’d been weak and bewildered when heat melted their icy shrouds and they staggered from the floor and moved towards me.

The Bad Penny (1985)

Blackburn’s final work was poor stuff. William Easter is narrating again, and now he’s working for General Kirk. Britain has a female Prime Minister “Mrs Hecuba Racher”, and John thinks BEA are still doing flights to Europe; he also seems to be a bit confused about whether a headmaster would be present if a school was unofficially open during the summer holidays as one of the teachers is running a business with child labour on the side. All the effort goes in to scoffing at the cartoon leftie representative of multicultural Britain, and even that is half-hearted compared to the portrait of the Bishop of Welcott 20 years earlier.

I had heard or read about Mr Anthony Wolfe, as it happened, and his name raised praise or fury depending on one’s point of view. Mr Wolfe was a local councillor as well as being a headmaster, though he omitted the second title and called himself Community Leader, which is OK, providing you’ve got a community who are prepared to be led. Mr Wolfe hadn’t and Carthage Road was a school in name only. A dump, a breeding ground for crime, illiteracy and all the rest of our squalid ills. I could smell the atmosphere of the place like sewage gas being compressed into a solid. Hear it through the doors of the unruly classrooms. Sense defeat as though on a battlefield. One war had been lost forever, and who was responsible? Where did the blame lie? I hadn’t a clue, but I was soon to find out.

I don’t know if William Easter was meant to be like Robin Cook’s earliest narrator, but this passage sounds like his later one, specifically in this passage from How The Dead Live, published the same year:

Sickening errors, democratically arrived at of course, lay either side of the road as I drove west out of London. Blocks of semi-abandoned streets made dead ends of effort where people who had tried to start something – anything – had been crushed by the dull, triumphant logic of the state. I crossed the demarcation lines of two ethnic groups at Swallowtail Lane; the Regal cinema loomed up in my lights, its facade blackened by fire. I passed a series of streets that stood for political convictions. No one crossed them on foot now at night; yet they were streets that we had easily patrolled, one, two of us, as young coppers on the beat in the old days. But now there was no asserting yourself as police unless there were fifty of you….      

In further sad, narrow streets, beyond my car headlights, half hidden by groups of old bangers with their front wheels up on the pavement, lay ruined three-storey houses that the council neither had the money to restore, nor the corruption interest in pulling down. They were all dark – the power, the water cut off in them, life itself cut off there at this wrong end of winter. Yet life did cling on in them, I knew. Uncivilised, mad life; these rank buildings that had housed self-respecting families once were now occupied by squatters of any kind – the desperate last fugitives of a beaten, abandoned army, their dignity, rights and occupations gone (or never known), their hope gone, tomorrow gone… 

How The Dead Live isn’t so far off being a Blackburn novel itself, since it has the loony sci-fi subplot about cryogenics in amongst the Rotten Old England observations of corruption and decay, and the old boys in the bar remembering their war years and how they could never escape them. The plot of The Bad Penny has another old Nazi who made it to Britain after the war, in this case he was one of our spies who changed sides and was later subjected to weird experiments to give him telepathic powers that could be used to destroy the Allies from within. In some respects this is a megamix of Blackburn’s Greatest Hits: Nazis in hiding, secret experiments, secret bases and institutions, special powers and their use to provoke random violence in previously harmless normal people. But there’s absolutely no joy, concentration, or attempted message about any of it beyond the Mail-ish griping about inner city schools he probably never visited. I can’t help wondering if he tried to write more after this and simply couldn’t get published anymore. There is no clue as to why 2 of the characters are called Leopold and Molly Bloom, nothing is made of the apparent allusion to Joyce and we never had any attempt at such referencing before. Maybe this was the work of a younger, inexperienced ghost writer who thought it would be clever.

So those are the works of John Blackburn. He wrote many more, and a lot of them were reprinted a few years ago, although the copies seem to be being discarded from public libraries again. Maybe he could come in to fashion as a star of Weird Realism if H.P.Lovecraft finally falls out of it. British weird for British theorists, just what we need after Brexit.

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