The shrines of Negombo

 

 

Located on Sri Lanka’s western coast about 35 kilometres above Colombo, the town of Negombo is one of my favourite places on the island.

 

That’s not so much because of Negombo’s beach and the major tourist drag it has north of its town centre.  Actually, I get the impression Negombo rates only as a second-division Sri Lankan holiday spot, and it mainly attracts holidaymakers and visitors because: (1) it’s closer to Sri Lanka’s international Bandaranayake Airport than Colombo and makes a convenient place for tourists just arrived in the country to hang out and recover from their jetlag before they head for the more lauded likes of Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna and Arugam Bay; and (2) it’s only a short drive away for Colombo-ites wanting to chill out in an environment less built-up and noisy than their home city.  That said, along the seafront, I like a section of Lewis Place where the restaurants and hotels look unflashy and homespun and seem to have grown organically out of the town, before the hulking corporate hotels and raucous music-blasting bars take over further north.

 

What I really like about Negombo is mostly found in the streets away from the tourist area.  I’m talking about the many symbols, signs and relics of Negombo’s Christian heritage and the serene, at-times-slightly-incongruous (given the tropical surroundings) atmosphere that these generate.

 

For much of the past thousand years the place was occupied by various outsiders, firstly the Moors, then the Portuguese, then the Dutch and then the British, but it’s the Portuguese who’ve left the biggest cultural legacy.  During their watch in the 16th and 17th centuries, Negombo’s indigenous inhabitants embraced Catholicism en masse and the town became studded with Roman Catholic churches.  Today, close on two-thirds of the population are said to be Catholic and Negombo is sometimes known by the nickname of ‘Little Rome’.

 

 

And the most widespread reminder of this heritage is the presence of Christian shrines outside houses and at the entrances of streets.  These range in size from ones that look scarcely bigger than birdhouses to lavish ones contained within their own small pavilions.

 

Standing inside the glass cases that invariably feature in these shrines, you often get Holy Virgins and lady saints – hands clasped in prayer, bodies swathed in flowing robes, heads serenely tilted to one side.  One such shrine I noticed contained a Holy Virgin and Child, both of whom were wrapped in a single, huge orange cloak so that, sweetly, their heads peeped out together from the top of it.

 

 

Then there was a shrine at someone’s front gate where a lady in a pink robe, with pink roses on either side, stood within an octagonal glass case on top of a cylindrical pedestal covered in pink and white tiles.  No doubt it had religious significance but I have to say that, to me, it looked a bit like a wedding cake.

 

 

Christ himself appears in many forms – dressed in red, in blue, in white, depicted alone or surrounded by disciples, saints and wise men.  One shrine I saw him in was festooned with thick silvery bands of tinsel, so that his surroundings had a Christmasy feel.  In another, he stood in front of a glittery red curtain, as if he was addressing his flock from a theatre stage.

 

 

One other character found in the shrines of Negombo is the town’s patron saint, St Sebastian.  He isn’t depicted like he is in many pieces of Western artwork, as a tragic martyr who’s just been pin-cushioned with arrows.  The Negombo St Sebastian tends to be the macho character who served as a captain in the Praetorian Guards under the Roman co-emperors Maximian and Diocletian.  Indeed, the glass cases that enclose him make him resemble a Roman Army action figure, still in its packaging.  He stands guard in armour where St Sebastian Road (appropriately) branches off from Chilaw Road.  Meanwhile, he’s clad in similar military attire and sits on horseback at the junction of Keerthisinghe Place and Lewis Place.

 

 

There’s often a fair amount of chintz – plastic flowers, fairy lights, ribbons, tinsel, glitter – adorning these shrines, but I don’t find that a problem.  In fact, they give Negombo’s streets an undeniable colour, sparkle and charm.

 

Surgical Edinburgh

 

 

Almost twenty years ago I lived in Edinburgh and worked as a teacher.  Occasionally in the afternoons, when I couldn’t be bothered planning a proper lesson, I’d herd my students along to the medical museum at Surgeon’s Hall on Nicholson Street.   I’d get them to look around the place and make notes and then, back at the school, write a review of it for a pretend travel magazine or a comparative essay measuring medical care a couple of centuries ago against medical care now.  The students always seemed to enjoy the experience, even though while they looked at the items in the many glass cases and glass jars, they’d grimace and exclaim, “Ick!” or “Yuck!” or “Eeew!”

 

Then, a few years ago, while I was posting entries on this blog about various museums in Edinburgh, I thought I’d check out Surgeon’s Hall again.  But I discovered that it was shut.  It’d closed for refurbishment in 2014 and didn’t reopen until a year-and-a-half later.

 

I was recently back in Edinburgh and took the opportunity to visit the new, improved Surgeon’s Hall.  Unfortunately, visitors aren’t allowed to use cameras inside, so the photos accompanying this post are from the street, grounds and stairwell outside.

 

The museum is bigger, more comprehensive and more attractively laid-out that it was in its old incarnation.  It’s actually comprised of three museums – not just the main medical one, but the Wohl Pathology Museum and the Dental Collection.

 

 

The first change I noticed, though, was the addition of a £6.50 entrance fee – twenty years ago, you could wander in and explore the place for free.  If, like me, you remember how it used to be and this sudden, unexpected expense causes a sinking of the heart, it’s perhaps appropriate that the first room you enter after the desk is one devoted to the heart.  Among other things, it houses 27 real human hearts in glass jars and containers, in various conditions of illness and disrepair, often misshapen and leathery and at times so swollen that they resemble giant brown gourds.  The most bloated heart there was apparently afflicted by cor bovinum or ‘cow’s heart’, whereby “increased pressure in the heart chambers causes it to slowly get bigger.”

 

Close by is a pleasantly retro-looking room called the Anatomical Lab, which displays such artefacts as a shark’s jawbone, a six-kilo stone removed from the bladder of an elephant and big, old-fashioned teaching models of the human eye, ear and torso.

 

The museum’s main chamber has in its centre a mock-up of an anatomical-medicine lecture theatre from about two centuries ago.  Banks of wooden seating rise from a dissecting table with a cadaver on it.  You receive an anatomical lecture when you sit there, but it’s conducted in a resolutely ungory fashion – a lecturer in period dress talks from a screen and, as various organs and internal body-parts are mentioned, images of these light up on the cadaver (which appears to be a fibreglass dummy).

 

Meanwhile, a wealth of information and a multitude of objects are displayed on the surrounding walls.  For a start, you get an account of the history of surgery in Scotland.  Key dates include 1505, when Edinburgh town council granted a seal to the Incorporate of Surgeons and Barbers, and the following year, when things were ratified with a Royal Charter from King James IV.  This recognition meant that the guild was entitled to one body (of an executed criminal) every year to be dissected, so that its members could get a proper knowledge of anatomy.  By the late 1500s the Surgeon-Barbers had become the most prestigious guild in Edinburgh and by the 17th century they even had the privilege of being allowed to distil ‘whisky or Aqua Vitae’.  It wasn’t until 1722 that the guild split and the surgeons and the barbers went their separate ways.  The stripy red-and-white pole that still adorns barber’s shops today, representing blood and bandages, is a reminder of how the two professions used to be entwined.

 

The collection’s oldest artefact is a dissected body of a child presented in 1702 by “Archibald Pitcairne, Doctor of Medicine, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and one of the Chirurgen Apothecaries of Edinburgh”.  Standing in an upright wooden case, the body resembles a grotesque puppet left hanging in its box after a performance.  Other items include a baby’s caul (“membranes from the head of a female child born at Colchester, Essex, 10th April, 1888, and much prized by the mother on account of their supposed, supernatural virtues”); a cast of the shoulder of an American soldier blasted by gunshot – the surgeon “cut into the joint and removed the shattered head of the humerus”, leaving the shoulder oddly sunken and deflated; and a bust of the unfortunate Robert Penman before the removal, in 1828, of a huge tumour on his lower jaw – the tumour filled his mouth like a giant, obscene second tongue and is now on display as a weird honeycomb-like structure containing part of Penman’s mandible and a couple of his teeth.  (The surgery took place in the days before anaesthetic, but according to the museum’s website Penman “bore it well” and later grew “a large beard to disguise the scarring.”)

 

Indeed, the museum has countless reminders of why we should feel grateful to live in an age after the development of anaesthetic and after doctors and scientists had learned about the dangers and causes of infection.  One information panel shows the ridicule aimed at Joseph Lister and his theories about infection and micro-organisms by a 19th-century medical contemporary: “Where are these little beasts?  Show them to us, and we shall believe in them.  Has anyone seen them yet?”  Nearby hangs a painting called Opisthotonus, done by Charles Bell in about 1805, showing a dying soldier in the final hideous convulsions induced by tetanus.

 

© Surgeon’s Hall Museums

 

Upstairs, there’s a dental section with antique toothbrushes, toothpicks, dentures, drills and unappetising-looking forceps for pulling out teeth and ‘elevators’ or ‘punches’ for levering out those tricky little stumps or roots left behind by extracted teeth.  It was here that I discovered how the Battle of Waterloo kept Britain supplied with dentures for many years – that’s to say, the market demand for ‘false’ teeth was met with ‘real’ teeth pulled from the mouths of thousands of slain soldiers.

 

Also on display upstairs are more things relating to surgery.  These include an array of ‘foreign objects’ that have been removed from human bodies over the decades, including giant hairballs, lengths of TV cable, hat pins, nails, screws, pieces of a horseshoe and a cherrystone that’d spent 18 years lodged up somebody’s nose.

 

On the other side of the stairwell is the Wohl Pathology Museum, whose shelves contain examples of every conceivable part of the body, suffering from every conceivable disease, disorder or injury.  Hence, you see such things as a skull massively inflated by hydrocephalus, a gangrenous foot, pieces of intestine with Crohn’s disease, a row of five foetal skeletons ascending in age from five-and-a-half months to seven-and-a-half months old, and ten containers – I counted them – housing testes that have been dissected and opened out.

 

Finally, space is given to the Edinburgh medical world’s two best-known overlaps with popular culture.  There’s a portrait of the perceptive and observant Joseph Bell MD, FRCSE, former President of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and one-time teacher to a young medical student called Arthur Conan Doyle.  Later, Doyle recalled how, when he was first formulating the character of Sherlock Holmes, he thought of his “old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his eerie trick of spotting details.  If he were a detective, he would surely reduce this fascinating but inorganised business to an exact science…”  On display too is a letter from Doyle to Bell dated 4th May, 1892, in which the author confesses: “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes.”

 

And inevitably, there’s material about the body-snatchers who 200 years ago kept the medical schools’ dissecting tables supplied with illegally obtained corpses.  In Edinburgh, of course, this practice led to the murderous activities of William Burke and William Hare, providers of suspiciously fresh corpses for the formidable and determined anatomist Dr Robert Knox in the late 1820s.  Burke and Hare are synonymous with body-snatching but in truth they did no such thing – they didn’t snatch bodies but created bodies, by murdering people, and the cadavers they brought to Knox had never been in the earth of the cemetery.  At the museum, this grisly episode is commemorated by the presence of such items as Knox’s violin and Burke’s death-mask and, bizarrely, a little pocketbook that’s said to be bound with a portion of Burke’s skin.

 

However, the museum doesn’t contain the skeleton of William Burke (who, following his execution, had his body handed over for dissection just as the bodies of his victims were).  That’s to be found in the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School.

 

 

Things I’ve learned from British politics in the last fortnight

 

© For Dummies

 

Once upon a time, I believed this blog would be able to keep up with all the crazy stuff happening in the world.  Whenever something crazy happened somewhere, I thought, I would publish timely, perceptive and erudite comment on it.

 

However, in the past year, I’ve come to realize this policy is untenable.  Thanks to the antics of Trump, Putin, Rajoy, Erdogan, Duterte, Kim Jong Un, etc., there’s an entire planet-load of craziness – bad craziness – going on 24/7.  And it isn’t humanly possible to keep abreast of it all.

 

Still, I thought I’d make a few comments about the craziness happening in British politics just now.  Here are a few things I’ve learnt from it over the past fortnight.

 

Harvey Weinstein is a butterfly

According to Wikipedia, Chaos Theory propounds the idea of “the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state”.  Or to use a popular metaphor, a butterfly flapping its wings in Argentina may lead, a few weeks later, to a tornado occurring in Texas.

 

In British politics, however, an earthquake has been caused not by a butterfly, but by the blubbery, walrus-like form of Hollywood movie-mogul Harvey Weinstein flapping around in an ever-constricting net of allegations about him being a rapist, sex-pest, harasser, stalker and general monster towards the women who’ve had to endure his professional company over the decades.  This has encouraged women (and sometimes men) in other vocations and other places to speak out about how about they’ve been sexually exploited and mistreated too.  Including, eventually, in politics in Britain.

 

From North Yorks Enquirer

 

How distant and unimportant the Weinstein scandal must’ve seemed to certain male British parliamentarians a few weeks ago.  Most of them probably hadn’t even heard of Weinstein before.  Some of them probably hadn’t watched a Hollywood movie since, oh, Deep Throat with Linda Lovelace in 1972.  No, they must have thought, while they flicked through the pornographic images on their Westminster computer screens or groped the lower limbs of lady journalists trying to interview them or composed and fired off lewd text messages to whatever femme du jour had taken their fancy or shouted at their female assistants, “Oi, Sugar Tits, nip down to the sex shop and buy me a new vibrator, will you?”  Absolutely nothing to do with me.

 

Well, now, things are slightly different.  Inside Britain’s political doghouse these days, it’s standing room only. Among those implicated or accused: Michael Fallon, Stephen Crabbe, Mark Garnier, Damien Green, Christopher Pincher, Dan Poulter, Charlie Elphicke and Daniel Kawczynski, all Tories; Kelvin Hopkins, Jared O’Mara and Ivan Lewis, all Labour; and up in the Scottish Parliament, the SNP’s Mark McDonald.

 

Somehow, it doesn’t surprise me that various male politicos saw themselves as irresistible, hot-and-funky sex-hunks, even if that view wasn’t shared by the unfortunate people who were the target of their amorous advances.  What does surprise me is the amount of victim-blaming that’s gone on in the Daily Mail since the scandal broke – it’s published a string of articles belittling the women who’ve made allegations, such as Kate Maltby and Andrea Leadsom.  Yes, I know, it’s the Daily Mail, which exists to be despicable.  But it’s the only national British newspaper where women form the majority of its readership.

 

It makes you wonder a bit, a teeny wee bit, if they’re worried that this exposure of sexual misconduct in the film and political worlds might be followed by more of the same in the journalistic one.

 

Priti Patel’s holiday sounds like a bundle of laughs

Meanwhile, there’s the saga of Priti Patel, who until yesterday was Minister for International Development.

 

It transpires that in August Priti went on holiday to Israel.  Evidently, she was keen to find a way of making her holiday less ghastly than holidays normally are, what with delayed flights, crowded terminals, rip-off taxi drivers, scam artists, pickpockets, crap hotels, jam-packed tourist attractions, overpriced tourist tat, screaming children, moaning teenagers, biting insects, sunburn, food poisoning, hangovers and fights with German holidaymakers over who got to the sun-loungers first.

 

So what did she do?  She decided to intersperse her holiday activities with clandestine meetings with Binyamin Netanyahu and other Israeli bigwigs, where the discussions included the possibility of channeling some of Britain’s foreign-aid money towards funding Israeli Army activities in the occupied Golan Heights.  Wow.  Binyamin Netanyahu.  That sounds like a brilliant way to spice up your holiday.

 

Unfortunately for Priti, the BBC decided to share some of her holiday snapshots with the nation on November 3rd.  And – surprise! – that was the first her boss Theresa May had heard about it.

 

From @ yairlapid

From paxonbothhouses.blogspot.com

 

If Boris Johnson rides to your rescue – hide!

On November 1st, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – I feel a chill run through me every time I type those five words – spoke up in defence of the British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who’s been imprisoned in Tehran since 2016 on charges of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government.

 

She claims she’d only gone to Iran for a holiday and to visit relatives.  Yet the bold Boris announced to a parliamentary committee that she’d been there “teaching people journalism”.  Stirring stuff – until the Iranian authorities seized on his words as justification for keeping her in prison.  In fact, there’s now a real possibility that they might extend her sentence.

 

People have demanded that Johnson be sacked for his stupidity, but I’d go further and have him arrested – is being the world’s biggest gobshite a criminal offence?  Then Britain could approach Iran and ask if they’d like to swap prisoners.

 

David Davis can make things stop existing by the power of his will

Once, there were supposed to be 58 sectoral analyses looking at how the 58 most important parts of the British economy would fare after Brexit.  These ran from A to (almost) Z, from Advertising and Marketing to Wholesale Markets and Investment Banking.  According to a written ministerial statement, each one was “a wide mix of qualitative and quantitative analysis, contained in a range of documents developed at different times since the referendum.  It examines the nature of activity in the sectors, how trade is conducted with the EU currently in these sectors and, in many cases, considers the alternatives following the UK’s exit from the EU as well as considering existing precedents.”

 

Well, that sounds thorough, doesn’t it?  That sounds like someone had been doing their homework – conducting serious research about the challenges facing the UK economy once Brexit has been enacted.  Right?

 

Except that Brexit Secretary David Davis has just declared that no such things exist.  There “is not, nor there has ever been, a series of discreet impact assessments examining the quantitative impact of Brexit on those sectors,” he told MPs on November 7th, contradicting everything that’d been said before.

 

How odd that suddenly they don’t exist.  You might almost think they constituted such grim reading that they were made not to exist.

 

© RTE / BBC

 

Mrs Brown should be our queen

The leaked Paradise Papers have contained many revelations about where the rich and powerful have been stashing their cash – beyond the reaches of their countries’ taxmen, obviously.  Among those named are Britain’s Royal Family.  For example, we now know that millions of pounds from the Queen’s private estate have ended up in a fund in the Cayman Islands.

 

You’d expect the British media to make hay about this.  Yet they’ve appeared more interested in another Paradise Papers revelation, i.e. that three stars of the bawdy Irishman-in-drag TV sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys – Patrick Houlihan, Martin Delany and Fiona Delany – have avoided paying tax on two million pounds by sneakily transferring the money to Mauritius and back.

 

This means either that Mrs Brown and her offspring are now more important to the British public than the Queen is; or that Britain’s brown-nosing journalists prefer to focus on some minor comedy actors to take the heat off the monarchy.  I believe the first reason to be true, obviously.

 

Mind you, say what you like about the Queen, but she usually has more gravitas than to accidentally skewer someone up the bum with a rectal thermometer or use a dildo to whisk cream while the priest’s visiting.

 

Theresa May is now a waxwork

Well, no surprise there.

 

© The Guardian

 

The world seemed a very different place seven months ago

Didn’t it just?

 

© The Guardian

 

10 scary pictures for Halloween 2017

 

From crafthubs.com

 

Continuing Blood and Porridge’s celebration of Halloween – yesterday I listed my favourite collections of short horror stories – this post is about ten of the creepiest pictures I’ve come across in the past year.  (I constantly scour the Internet for interesting paintings and illustrations and have a folder on my computer with nearly 2000 images in it, starting with work by Abanindranath Tagore, Adolf Hoffmeister and Afewerk Tekle and ending with work by Yayoi Kusama, Yoshihisa Sadamatsu and Yoshu Chikanobu.)

 

First, a tribute.  September 2017 saw the death of Greek-Egyptian, later American artist Basil Gogos, who was best known for providing covers for the juvenile horror-movie magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  He invariably depicted classic movie monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolfman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon and / or classic horror-movie actors like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price in impressively lurid and vivid colours.  Gratifyingly, years later, the elderly Gogos got more work painting album covers for disreputable rock stars like Rob Zombie and the Misfits, who’d read Famous Monsters and loved his work when they were kids.  Here’s a Gogos portrait of the silent film star Lon Chaney – ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ – playing a vampire in the lost 1927 horror film London After Midnight.  (Knowing Chaney’s penchant for contorting, warping and punishing his body in order to play extreme roles, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d filed his own teeth to points to create those piranha-like fangs.)

 

© Famous Monsters of Filmland / Warren Publishing 

 

Another talent we said goodbye to this year was comic-book artist and illustrator Bernie Wrightson, who passed away in March.  Although Wrightson provided breath-taking illustrations for editions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and stories by Edgar Allan Poe, I thought I’d represent him with this item, which is definitely more in keeping with the horror comic-strips (like Swamp Thing) with which he originally made his name.  It also embodies a certain type of hospitality that’s commonly extended to visitors in the American south – and particularly in Texas.  In horror films, anyway.

 

From stevedoescomics.blogspot.com

 

Talking of Edgar Allan Poe, I often include in these Halloween posts something by Poe’s most famous illustrator, the Irishman Harry Clarke.  However, this year, I thought I’d provide a Poe illustration by the German-American illustrator and wood-engraver Fritz Eichenberg instead.  This shows the monstrous ape from Murders in the Rue Morgue.  Its use of lines, whilst softer and more flowing, and less stark and angular than in Clarke’s work, is equally memorable.

 

© Random House

 

And here’s another fearsome beastie, courtesy of Oregon painter Adam Burke.  The image of a wolf – or is it a werewolf? – stalking towards a human victim is an archetypal one in horror stories and, indeed, in fairy tales.  But what I like about this picture is the macabre touch that Burke adds to the would-be victim’s features, suggesting that the wolf is in for a shock.

 

© Adam Burke

 

A lupine theme features prominently in the work of Polish artist Jakub Rozalski, many of whose paintings take place in an extraordinary parallel universe where Eastern European peasants trudge about their fields, forests and hillsides while a truly strange occupying regime watches over them: a regime consisting of legions of Prussian-like soldiers, and huge clanking steampunk robot-tanks and robot-tractors, and… packs of werewolves.  This is the most werewolfish picture I could find in Rozalski’s portfolio and it even has a hint – a saucy hint, it must be said – of Little Red Riding Hood.

 

© Jakub Rozalski

 

From the werewolf to another archetypal figure of Halloween, the witch.  In the past year I’ve discovered the enchanting work of the Ukrainian, now Israel-based children’s illustrator Sveta Dorosheva.  This decorative picture of a witch is at the macabre end of her range.  It has a sly, humorous sense of the grotesque that Roald Dahl, author of the best children’s witch story ever, would have approved of.

 

© Sveta Dorosheva 

 

Another female artist I’ve come across lately is Laurie Lipton.  Though she’s a New Yorker, her haunting black-and-white pictures featuring skulls and skeletons seem to evoke Mexico and the great Latin rival to Halloween, Day of the Dead.  Here’s an example of her work depicting a ladies’ tea party that’s mannered but mouldering, refined but rotting, decorous but decomposed.

 

© Laurie Lipton

 

A skeleton plays a big part in 1972’s The Creeping Flesh, one of the last great gothic movies produced during Britain’s horror-movie boom of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  It begins with the inmate of an asylum painting a disturbing picture in his cell.  The man, played by Peter Cushing, was once a palaeontologist who dug up a monstrous humanoid skeleton during an expedition.  Back in his laboratory, and after one of its finger-bones got wet, the skeleton showed the alarming characteristic of being able to regrow its flesh when exposed to water.  And predictably, Cushing’s unscrupulous scientific rival, played by Christopher Lee – who else? –  soon broke into his lab, stole the whole skeleton and whisked it out into the night while a thunderstorm was drenching the countryside in rain.  Cushing’s painting depicts the hideous, reconstituted creature that later that same night came clumping back to his house and drove him insane.  I’ve no idea who was really responsible for the painting we see in The Creeping Flesh, but I was pleased to discover this still of it a few weeks ago.

 

© Tigon Films

 

From film-art to book-art now.  This cover for the recent Penguin Classics edition of the Ray Russell novel The Case Against Satan is just wonderful.  It was created by collage artist Lola Dupre, who takes different-sized versions of the same image and painstakingly assembles pieces of them to create a hallucinogenically fragmented and mutant master-image.  In fact, from what I’ve seen of her work, I think the Russell cover is her finest effort to date.

 

© Penguin

 

And lastly, it’s about time I included in these Halloween posts something by the late, great Edward Gorey – who in terms of morbid Gothic humour was second only to Charles Addams in the world of American drawing and illustrating.  Looking at this sublime Gorey picture called Donald Imagined Things, I find myself imagining things too.  I find myself imagining that little Donald in the picture was actually little Donald Trump, and the big scary snake-thing had swallowed him whole.  That would have spared us all a lot of stress six decades later.

 

© Pomegranate

 

Short, sharp shocks

 

© New English Library

 

In this blog-post I’d like to talk about my favourite volumes of short horror stories – books that deliver a series of short, sharp shocks.

 

Three things have inspired me to write this.  Firstly, tomorrow is Halloween, the time of year when all things macabre are celebrated.  Secondly, I’m about to start reading the 2015 short-story collection Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King, who despite being famous for telephone-directory-sized scary novels like Salem’s Lot (1975) and The Stand (1978) is also, in my mind, a great practitioner of short horror fiction.

 

And thirdly, in my previous post, I mentioned how in my boyhood I’d go to scout summer-camps in the countryside near the Scottish town of Hawick.  During one camp I spent three days stuck almost permanently inside a tent because – typical Scottish summer weather – it pissed non-stop with rain.  Luckily, in a Hawick bookshop beforehand, I’d bought a copy of Night Shift, the 1978 volume of stories by Stephen King.  So, to keep boredom at bay, I spent the three days reading that.  Not only did Night Shift stave off boredom, it entertained, enthralled and terrified me too.  It was probably the first book of scary short stories I’d read in its entirety and it made a big impression.

 

Here, then, are my ten favourite collections of short horror stories.  To keep this exercise manageable, I’ve limited it to books of stories written by a single author.  And the authors included are ones who are still alive or who were alive when I started reading their work.  Hence, no M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

 

Blood and Water and Other Tales (1988) by Patrick McGrath

Patrick McGrath has spent his career writing fiction that indulges his love for the Gothic and grotesque but, in a rare display of broad-mindedness, critics have avoided pigeonholing him as a ‘horror’ or ‘fantasy’ writer and treated him as a serious mainstream-literary figure instead.  What a lucky man he is.  Blood and Water… is a fine showcase for McGrath’s short stories.  It features tales about, among other things, a diseased angel, a hand that starts growing out of somebody’s head, a community of anaemic vampires and a little girl who discovers a jungle explorer camped in the bushes at the bottom of her suburban garden.  And if you think that sounds surreal, wait till you get to The E(rot)ic Potato, a meditation on decay as seen through the multiple eyes of an insect; or The Boot’s Tale, an account of a nuclear holocaust that’s narrated by, yes, an item of footwear.

 

© Penguin

 

The Bloody Chamber (1979) by Angela Carter

Horror stories are often likened to dark fairy tales and Angela Carter’s short fiction commonly explores the overlap between the two.  For me, The Bloody Chamber is her best collection.  It provides adult, Gothic reworkings of such fairy tales and myths as Beauty and the Beast (The Courtship of Mr Lyon), Snow White (The Snow Child) and Bluebeard (the title story).  It also contains one of the most languid and gorgeous vampire stories ever, The Lady of the House of Love.  And werewolves get a look-in too thanks to the stories The Company of Wolves, The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice, which were later incorporated into the classy 1984 movie The Company of Wolves, directed by Neil Jordan and scripted by Jordan and Carter.

 

Books of Blood, Volume 1 (1984) by Clive Barker

In the mid-1980s Clive Barker caused a sensation with the publication of his Books of Blood, which are basically six volumes of short horror stories linked by a clever framing device.  Such were their impact that Stephen King dubbed Barker the Beatles of horror writing – King himself being its slightly old-fashioned Elvis.  To be honest, I found many stories in the later Books of Blood rather portentous; but Volume 1 is just about perfect in its blend of the funny, the profound and the hideously, graphically bloody.  Humour comes courtesy of the spoof demon story The Yattering and Jack and the wistful but surprisingly-upbeat Sex, Death and Starshine, which is about a haunted theatre (and no doubt draws on Barker’s experiences running the Hydra and the Dog Theatre Companies in the 1970s and early 1980s).  Profundity is supplied by In the Hills, the Cities, which takes place in the then-Yugoslavia and spookily prefigures the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s.  And for sheer gross horribleness you can’t beat The Midnight Meat Train or Pig Blood Blues – the latter surely a candidate for the title of Scariest Story Ever.

 

© Sphere

 

Dark Companions (1982) by Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell has long been regarded as Britain’s greatest living horror writer and Dark Companions is an ideal starting-point for anyone new to the Campbell oeuvre.  Both grim and believable, his short stories take place in a recognisably frayed and decayed modern Britain, populated by lonely people whose everyday fears gradually take on tangible form.  Highlights include the distinctly un-Christmassy Christmas story The Chimney; The Depths, a dismaying exploration of why someone would want to write a really nasty horror story; Mackintosh Willy, which combines childhood fears of the bogeyman with all-too-real themes of homelessness and child abuse; and The Companion, surely the best ‘haunted-fairground’ story ever written.

 

Night Shift (1978) by Stephen King

As I said earlier, Night Shift helped inspire this list, so I can’t not include it here.  King has produced slicker collections of short stories since then but the visceral tales in Night Shift, and the unpleasant things that inhabit those tales, have stayed with me for nearly 40 years.  A huge demonically-possessed laundry machine that rumbles into malevolent life (The Mangler)…  Giant mutant rats lurking in the basement of a factory (The Graveyard Shift)…  A man slowly transforming into a monstrous carnivorous slug (Grey Matter)…  A Mafia-type organisation that helps you give up smoking by threatening to torture and kill your family every time you puff a new cigarette (Quitters Inc)…  No, Night Shift isn’t subtle.  But it certainly scared the bejesus out of me when I was a twelve-year-old boy scout.

 

© Panther

 

The October Country (1955) by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is someone else I couldn’t not have on this list as, to me, the guy was a god-like genius.  He could turn his hand to writing anything – horror, science fiction, fantasy, magical realism and, yes, our old friend ‘mainstream literature’ – but The October Country is probably his purest collection of macabre stories.  It features such wonders as The Scythe, about a man who finds a mysterious scythe, starts using it and becomes the Grim Reaper, harvesting souls rather than wheat; The Jar, wherein a man buys the titular jar at a fair and becomes obsessed with the indescribable something that’s floating around inside it; and the splendidly-morbid Skeleton, about a paranoid man convinced that the bony figure embedded inside his own flesh is an imposter and he has to somehow remove it.

 

Shatterday (1980) by Harlan Ellison

Remarkably, the science fiction / fantasy writer Harlan Ellison has managed to win fame by largely eschewing novels and writing masses of short stories instead.  Well, fame in the USA at least – his name is little-known and his work is hard to come by in Britain.  Among his many collections, Shatterday is possibly his best.  Particularly memorably are the melancholy Jeffty is Five, about a little boy who refuses to grow up; The Man Who was Heavily into Revenge, about a schmuck who wrongs another person and then, inexplicably, finds the whole world venting its wrath upon him; Count the Clock That Tells the Time, a cautionary tale about the consequences of frittering your life away; and the deeply unsettling title story, about a man who accidentally phones his own apartment one evening and finds himself talking to himself – or more precisely, to a sinister alter-ego who’s planning to usurp him from his own existence.

 

© Penguin

 

Swamp Foetus (1993) by Poppy Z. Brite

New Orleans writer Poppy Z. Brite’s collection Swamp Foetus was a revelation when I read it in the 1990s.  It’s inhabited by the archetypes of traditional Gothic fiction – ghosts, zombies, freaks – and by characters from another type of Gothicism, the modern-day sub-culture that arose when kids, inspired by punk, new romanticism and Edgar Allan Poe, started dressing in black, applying kohl eyeliner and listening to bands like the Sisters of Mercy and the Cure.  Swamp Foetus thus has stories like His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood wherein decadent, black-clad, absinthe-swigging youths fall foul of ancient voodoo / vampire horrors.  That said, no Goths are to be found in the best tale here, which is Calcutta, Lord of Nerves.  Calcutta… takes a fresh angle on George A. Romero’s original trilogy of Living Dead movies.  In the films, Romero’s zombie apocalypse is a very American one, with barely a mention of events in the rest of the world.  Brite imagines the same apocalypse happening amid the beggars, dirt and noise of a developing-world city.  What happens?  Nobody seems to notice it that much.

 

Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch (1996) by Dorothy K. Haynes

The late Scottish writer Dorothy K. Haynes is much underrated.  Her short stories are often set in the dour, oppressive society of 1930s, 1940s and 1950s Scotland, still lorded over by the Presbyterian Church, and are impressively disturbing in their quiet way.  Maybe her best one is The Peculiar Case of Mrs Grimmond, about an old woman who takes pity on a weird little creature that her cat drags into the house one day and, while she looks after and nurtures it, incurs the wrath of the community around her.  Also featured in Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch are her takes on legendary beings like banshees (The Bean-Nighe), fairies (Paying Guests) and changelings (The Changeling), which are satisfyingly grim, creepy and un-romanticised.

 

© Black and White Publishing

 

The Wine-Dark Sea (1988) by Robert Aickman

I’ve written about Robert Aickman before on this blog, so I’ll just say here that this is, for me, his finest collection of stories.  There’s one stinker among its contents – the supposedly satirical Growing Boys, which is an unwelcome reminder that, first-rate writer though he was, Aickman was also a grumpy, reactionary conservative – but everything else is excellent, if frequently challenging and baffling.  The Inner Room, for example, is a phantasmagorical story about a strange doll’s house.  Never Visit Venice pokes fun at the modern phenomenon of mass tourism with its an account of an unwary visitor to the title city taking a ride on a gondola from hell.  And Your Tiny Hand is Frozen, about an unsociable man becoming addicted to a telephone, through which he communicates with a mysterious woman who may or may not exist, shows Aickman’s unease at the loss of face-to-face interaction caused by new communications technology.  Maybe it’s just as well Aickman passed away in 1981.  He’d have hated our age of smartphones and social media.

 

All over bar the scouting

 

 

Illustrating this post are pictures of what, for me, seems like the most ancient structure in my hometown of Peebles in the Scottish Borders – the Scout Hut, headquarters for as long as anyone can remember of the 1st Peeblesshire Scout Troop.  And that really is for as long as anyone can remember, because I read somewhere lately that it was built more than a century ago.

 

The green corrugated-iron hut, containing a hall with two adjacent rows of rooms along its front end and rear wall – the Scoutmaster’s office, the Venture Scouts’ room, the toilets and several storerooms stuffed with tents, canoes, wooden benches and tables, paraffin stoves, lamps, tools and other outdoor and sports paraphernalia – already looked ramshackle when I first set foot in it as a novice boy scout in 1977.  It blows my mind to think that for decades afterwards it continued to serve as a base for subsequent generations of scouts.  Indeed, just a few years ago, I was astonished to learn that one of my little nieces was attending a playgroup held in the hut.  By this time, it looked in a state of severe disrepair and its back half seemed ready to be swallowed by a jungle.

 

 

Still, despite its decrepitude, seeing the old place again always brought back fond memories.  I’d recall games of indoor football played there before and after the scout meetings (which were held every Friday evening), conducted with the recklessness and abandon of a rollerball derby, with little scouts getting heeled off the ball by bigger scouts and frequently sent flying into walls, doors, doorframes, window-ledges and various other hard surfaces, corners and edges.

 

And I’d recall doing outdoor activities on the steep slopes of Venlaw Hill overlooking the hut.  The best one I remember was when each scout patrol was told to rig together a makeshift stretcher and use it to carry one patrol-member from the top of the hill to the bottom, in a race to see who could get their man down first.  This was great fun, except for the poor bastard on the stretcher, who must have found the experience akin to being on, but not strapped into, a hurtling and disintegrating bobsleigh steered by half-a-dozen mad idiots.

 

What else?  I’d recall treasure-hunt sessions spent running around the streets of Peebles, and canoeing on the River Tweed next to Hay Lodge Park, and games of British Bulldog – the least health-and-safety conscious activity in the history of children’s recreation – back in the hut.  (With so much thumping and crashing going on inside, no wonder the place was falling apart.)

 

Every July, just after the start of the summer holidays, the troop would go on its annual week-long camp, which for a couple of years was at a site a few miles south of the Borders town of Hawick.  I remember those camps as being an odd mixture of the miserable – stepping in cowpats, being nibbled incessantly by midges, getting pushed into the latrine pit*, enduring the potato-peeling, stew-stirring, sandwich-making drudgery of the day when your patrol was the duty one – and the wonderful.  One day, we went on a four-hour hike around the surrounding hills and for the first time I realized what truly wild and beautiful and inspiring landscapes the Borders region possessed.  I became a keen hillwalker after that.

 

Also memorable were the campfires, around which we would gather after dark and try to freak each other out by telling the scariest ghost stories and most horrific horror stories our imaginations could summon.  Needless to say, I was pretty good at that.  I remember my patrol really freaking out a few hours after one such campfire session.  We were asleep inside our tent when suddenly, in the pitch blackness, a mole surfaced and crawled over someone’s face.

 

© John Baker

 

On the last full day of the camp, we’d get to go into Hawick, which I remember then as a solid, prosperous country town.  We’d trail around the shops and stuff ourselves with ice cream and cake in the cafes and then, in the evening, go to watch a movie in the little Hawick cinema – I remember seeing there 1977’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, which elicited big cheers when Sinbad managed to spear the giant saber-toothed tiger at the end.  I didn’t return to Hawick until 35 years later, when I went on a cycling trip around the Borders, and I was upset to see how much it’d changed since my scouting days.  The high street was run-down and infested with derelict properties, which was no doubt due to the usual culprits – Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, Lidl – opening their doors in the town and sucking all the retailing life out of it.

 

I find it ironic that the Boy Scouts of America have recently been embroiled in political controversy after a lad got thrown out of his local cub scout association for asking a Republican senator, who was meeting a group of them, some awkward questions about her attitudes towards gun control and African Americans.  When I was in the Peebles troop, I knew at least two kids – all of 12 or 13 years old – who declared themselves proud communists.  Imagine the awkward questions they’d have asked Margaret Thatcher if she’d come to talk to us.   There was also muttering about why we had to salute the Union Jack when it got unfurled at the beginning of each scout meeting and a few souls were constantly threatening to sneakily and subversively replace the furled British flag with a furled Scottish Saltire beforehand.  But they never did.

 

Looking back, I have to admit I was a pretty crap scout.  I did just enough camping, hiking, cycling, canoeing and knot-tying to earn the basic Scout’s Standard badge, but that was it.  I never bothered to get any of the available proficiency badges.  Mind you, the Scoutmaster did once tell my parents that I was the best storyteller the troop had had for years, so if there’d been a proficiency badge for storytelling, I suppose I would have got that.

 

For the first year or two, I was blissfully happy being an ordinary scout.  I also enjoyed it when I became an assistant patrol leader, serving under a patrol leader called John Ogilivie, who later went to Sandhurst and became an army officer – I imagine him doing well in that career.  But I enjoyed it less when I became a patrol leader myself, because there were a couple of lads in the patrol whom I didn’t particularly see eye-to-eye with and to get my way I became bossy and ended up throwing my weight around too much.  Many years later, when I started to supervise people as part of my work, I underwent enough management courses to know all about such important leadership techniques as going for a win-win solution in confrontational situations and dealing with people assertively, rather than passively or aggressively.  If only I’d known back then what I know now…

 

Later still, I became a Venture Scout, which was okay, but by then I was experiencing the siren call of other things – girls, parties, rock ‘n’ roll, underage boozing, the social scene at the local rugby club.  I’d hung up my scout neckerchief, lanyard and toggle by the time I was 16.

 

© Weidenfeld & Nicolson

 

Still, I always feel a surge of nostalgia and kinship when I’m in a foreign country and stumble across traces of indigenous scouting activity – for example, one afternoon when I was strolling along the seafront at Algiers and discovered the office and shop of the Boy Scouts of Algeria, or the day I went exploring the east coast of Mauritius and encountered a camp set up by a Mauritian scout troop.  And I was pleased to find out that Keith Richards, one of the coolest – if gnarliest – organisms on the planet, was once in the 7th Dartford Scout Troop.  According to his 2010 autobiography Life, he rose through its ranks and became leader of its Beaver Patrol.  He was obviously a better scout than I was: “I had badges all over the place, unbelievable!  I don’t know where my scout shirt is now, but it’s adorned, stripes and strings and badges all over the place.  Looked like I was into bondage.”  I’d like to think that from his experiences of running Beaver Patrol, old Keith got a handle on how to run the Rolling Stones later on; and particularly, he learned how to keep Mick Jagger in line.

 

Anyway, I was inspired to write this blog entry because, a few weeks ago, I was back in Peebles for a short visit; and when I wandered past the site of the old scout hut, I discovered it was gone!  It seems that the Peebles scouts have finally managed to find the funds to replace it with a new building, a fragrant, varnished-timber, IKEA-looking effort.  If it can withstand half as much punishment as its predecessor did – a century of wear and tear, plus countless hell-for-leather games of indoor football and British Bulldog – it’ll do well.

 

 

* I should point out that the camp latrine pit was a pit with stones lining its bottom that people peed into.  There was a chemical toilet-tent if you wanted to release anything solid.  So when you were pushed into the latrine pit, you dropped a couple of feet and landed on a bed of small stones.  You weren’t soiled when you climbed out, but you might smell slightly of wee.

 

Pigeon Island

 

 

Pigeon Island might be more appropriately named ‘Smidgeon Island’ since it’s a tiny smidgeon of land about a kilometer into the Indian Ocean from the Nilaveli part of Sri Lanka’s east coast.

 

It’s famed for the coral reefs in the waters around it, although according my dog-eared copy of The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka, the coral on its western side (i.e. facing the mainland) is dead now.  To see a living reef, you need to swim on the island’s far side.

 

Unrestricted fishing and tourism in the area did much damage to the coral in the past, but happily Pigeon Island is now a National Park and the authorities have tried to regulate the flow of human traffic to it, mainly by charging a sizeable admission price that has to be paid in addition to the hire-fee for a boat.

 

 

One morning my partner and I travelled out to Pigeon Island in a narrow, pointed fishing-boat powered by an antiquated-looking Suzuki outboard motor.  We were dropped at the island’s midpoint, which was so slight it resembled a wasp’s waist.  There, just a few yards of ground separated the western shore from the eastern one.

 

Nearly all the day’s visitors were congregated there, either in the adjacent water snorkeling and viewing the coral and fish – apparently the fish are abundant among the dead coral to the east as well as among the living stuff to the west – or on dry land preparing to go snorkeling.

 

I made a point of not snorkeling, however.  This was due to a traumatic snorkeling experience I had off the Malaysian coast in the early 1990s when I failed to apply enough sunscreen to my back, had huge stripes of skin burnt off it as a result, and ended up looking like a human raspberry ripple.  (On the same day, I also suffered excruciating food poisoning and I managed to lose all my travelers’ cheques.  Indeed, that day proved to be a configuration of separate but simultaneous disasters on par with Theresa May’s speech at this month’s Conservative Party Conference.)

 

So instead I tried exploring the island.  I didn’t get far towards its southern end.  After clambering over some rocks and past some low-hanging branches, I gave up when the terrain and undergrowth became impassible.  Besides, a flustered and very territorial crow kept pace with me, hopping from branch to branch just overhead, sending the unmistakable message that I should bugger off.

 

In contrast, it was easy enough to walk up to the island’s northern tip.  Despite the island’s tiny size and despite the considerable number of visitors on it, I got an unexpected feeling of solitude as soon as I’d left the snorkeling area behind me.

 

 

The ground was carpeted with small white pieces of dead coral.  This had penetrated right to the island’s centre and even in its most wooded parts, the stuff was clogged around the tree roots.  Most of the coral was tubular in shape but as I gazed down at it, I noticed increasingly strange forms – coral in the shape of fingers, bones, stirrups, hammers, chess-pieces, seahorses, stars and flowers.  One surreal fragment looked like the title character’s mask in the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of The Phantom of the Opera.

 

Immediately off the northern tip of Pidgeon Island were a few yards of seawater and then a clutter of big vertical rocks – sandy-brown, grey and amber in their colours, with their edges and corners smoothed away so that they resembled giant stuffed sacks.  Bird-guano splattered their tops and a few crabs went scuttling about their sides.  I waded out to them, traversing water that was pristinely clear but, although just a foot or two deep, had a current whose strength was subtly menacing.  Then I sat on a lower rock and meditated for a while, watching tiny tadpole-like fish darting about the surrounding channels and listening both to the gentle lapping and rippling of the shallow water close by and to the crash and clatter of the waves further out.

 

 

On my way back, I noticed a vague path on the island’s eastern side that wound upwards.  This took me past a banyan tree that was so heavily tendrilled it resembled the face of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu; and then it emerged onto a high platform of broken stone and concrete overlooking the island’s northeastern corner that, according to a sign, was called PIGEON’S EYE OUTLOOK.  Some concrete pillars stood along its landward and seaward edges, topped with old, broken, metal screws, which suggested the platform had once sported a roof.  Now it looked almost like a brutalist, modernist re-imagining of an ancient Greek ruin.

 

 

From the north of the platform, I could look out over the clutter of rocks where I’d been sitting a few minutes earlier.  From its south side, I could see a cliff-face and a steep inlet that was choked up with boulders.  A couple of pigeons were flapping about the scene.  And I realized that unlike the other visitors present today, busy viewing the coral, I’d actually seen some pigeons on Pigeon Island.

 

 

Dare to dream of electric sheep

 

© Warner Bros / Sony Entertainment / Scott Free Productions

 

I’m afraid that over the years I’ve learned to distrust optimism and embrace pessimism.  I’ve gradually reached the conclusion that it’s better to fear the worst at all times and experience the occasional pleasant surprise when things don’t turn out as badly as expected; rather than to assume the best will happen and then be crushingly disappointed when it doesn’t.  (This may be the result of spending decades following the national Scottish football team, a masochistic pursuit that rarely, if ever, rewards hopefulness and optimism.  As was evidenced the other evening…)

 

Thus, when it was announced that, after 35 years, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s mighty 1982 science-fiction epic Blade Runner was in the works, I didn’t bother at all to exercise the part of my brain that deals in hope and optimism.  No, I just assumed the sequel was going to be crass, brainless, 21st-century-Hollywood-style bollocks and I resolved to ignore its existence.

 

Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, means a lot to me.  I rate it alongside Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as joint-best science-fiction movie ever made.  It’s also one of my favourite films of all time.  I remember when I first saw it at the age of 17.  Late in the summer of the film’s release, I travelled to Glasgow for a job interview.  I had a few hours to kill after the interview and I happened to wander past a Glaswegian cinema where Blade Runner was still playing.  On the spur of the moment, I decided to go in and watch it.  I had the auditorium almost to myself – the only other people there were two middle-aged Glaswegian ‘wifies’ who, half-an-hour into the film, with much head-shaking and muttering of incomprehension, left their seats and never came back.  I’m surprised I recall those two women leaving because by that point I was absolutely mesmerised by what I was seeing on the screen above me.  Bombarded by spectacle, special effects and emotional and  intellectual intensity, I found the Blade Runner experience awesome.

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

Blade Runner is a movie that’s difficult to talk about objectively these days.  When it first appeared, many critics disliked it – in Britain, the only newspaper critic I remember taking it seriously was the Observer’s Philip French.  It didn’t do much at the box office either, probably because 1982 cinema audiences, like those two ladies in Glasgow, wanted comfortable, feel-good science-fiction movies such as the same year’s ET and the second Star Trek movie.  Yet it’s proved massively influential.  Its depiction of a future Los Angeles as a dystopian, rain-drenched monster-metropolis, flavoured with the aesthetics of 1940s film-noir and of modern Tokyo, seems to have turned up again and again in a thousand science-fiction movies and rock videos made in the years since.

 

However, for all the impact of Blade Runner’s set design and visuals, its excellent cast ensures that the human (and artificial human) characters remain in the mind too.  This includes Harrison Ford as Deckard, the weary bounty hunter and titular ‘blade runner’ tasked with tracking down and executing runaway replicants, who are the artificially-created, super-strong humanoid slave labourers of the future.  Despite Ford’s presence, though, it’s really the Dutch actor Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, leader of a gang of on-the-run replicants, who in modern parlance ‘totally owns’ the film.

 

Played by Hauer, Roy Batty is fascinatingly multi-faceted.  By turns he’s brutal, ruthless, terrifyingly physical, animalistic, child-like, icily intellectual, tender, melancholic and – when he finally shows mercy to Deckard and saves him from falling off the top of a vertiginous skyscraper – noble.  Indeed, he becomes more sympathetic than Deckard, whom we’ve seen in the course of his work blasting down two female replicants, played by Darryl Hannah and Joanna Cassidy.  (The role of Deckard has never sat comfortably beside the other, straightforward-heroic roles Ford has played, like those of Han Solo and Indiana Jones.)

 

In Philip K. Dick’s original novel, the replicants have no capacity for human emotions and are presented purely as a threat.  In Hampton Fancher and David Peoples’ script for Blade Runner, however, they’re given a pre-programmed four-year lifespan that means their situation has a tragic, almost Milton-esque aspect.  They’re not simply running amok, but are searching for the corporation head who created them in the hope that he can extend their lifespans beyond four years.  And near the film’s end, we get one of cinema’s great lump-in-throat moments when Batty, after he’s rescued Deckard and before he dies, gives his famous tears-in-rain speech:  “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

Everyone associated with Blade Runner – Ridley Scott, Hauer, Ford, Hannah, Cassidy and even Sean Young, who played the movie’s heroine Rachael but never fulfilled her potential in an erratic career afterwards – seems in my mind to possess an immense, if elegiac and dystopian, coolness.  This coolness extends to Greek prog-rock / ambient composer and musician Vangelis, whose haunting soundtrack for the movie is a career best.  It’s certainly miles better than the pompous theme he supplied for pompous British film Chariots of Fire the previous year.  For one Blade Runner track, Tales of the Future, Vangelis recruits the portly, kaftan-clad Greek warbler Demis Roussos, who’d always been a bit of a joke in Britain thanks to his being referenced in Mike Leigh’s stage and TV play Abigail’s Party (1977).  But hey, even Demis Roussos sounds spooky and unsettling and, yes, cool here.  That’s the transformative magic of Blade Runner for you.

 

So I was blown away by Blade Runner in 1982, even though the version of it I saw was the weakest one that’s been released.  This was the studio cut, where the film was tampered with at the last minute by frightened executives after they realised Ridley Scott hadn’t delivered the easy-on-the-brain Hollywood blockbuster they’d expected.  Their tampering included adding a redundant voiceover that explains what’s happening in the film for any morons who might be present in the audience; and the least-convincing happy ending in the history of the cinema.  Ten years later, Ridley Scott was allowed to release the version of the film that he’d wanted to put out originally, Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut.  In it, both the voiceover and the happy ending are gone, thankfully, and a new dream sequence suggests that Deckard isn’t the simple cut-and-dried character he was in the original version.  Guess what he might really be?

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

As Blade Runner is set in 2019, which we’re only two years short of now, it’s fun to see how wide of the mark some of the film’s predictions have been.  We haven’t had replicants in the real world nor, alas, have we had flying cars.  And Western cities haven’t become heavily ‘East-Asian-fied’ in the manner of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, aside from acquiring a few hipster ramen and sushi joints.  Maybe this is because Japan’s bubble economy burst dramatically in the early 1990s and the country never quite became the world power that many in the 1980s had expected.  (William Gibson’s celebrated ‘cyberpunk’ trilogy of science-fiction novels, 1984’s Neuromancer, 1986’s Count Zero and 1988’s Mona Lisa Overdrive, rather overplay the Japanese influence in their future scenarios too.  Incidentally, Gibson is said to have walked out of Blade Runner after 15 minutes, because many of the ideas he’d been toying with for his then-nascent novels were already on the screen.  He didn’t want to get any more depressed.)

 

In addition, certain companies whose logos appear in the famous dazzling advertising displays of Blade Runner’s cityscape no longer exist, like Pan Am and Atari.  Well, Atari still does, barely, but not in the world-bestriding way that the filmmakers assumed it would.

 

The sequel, Blade Runner 2049, was released in the UK four days ago.  Taking place 30 years on from the events of Blade Runner and starring Ryan Gosling as a new ‘runner’ called ‘K’, it brings back the now-craggy but still-personable Harrison Ford as Deckard.  To my utter surprise, the reviews have been excellent, with both critics I like (the BBC’s Mark Kermode) and ones I don’t like (the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw) calling it a five-star masterpiece.  Compare that with the original film, which had to wait years before the critics reappraised it and declared it a classic.  2049 has flopped at the US box office, admittedly, but then so did its predecessor; and the fact that Donald Trump-land doesn’t seem to like it might be a further indication of its quality.  It’s surely a good omen too that it’s directed by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who last year gave us the moving and thought-provoking science-fiction picture Arrival.

 

In fact, the part of my brain that deals in hope and optimism is beginning to stir.  Rather than ignoring the existence of this sequel, I now find myself tempted to go and see it.  Yes, I’m daring to dream that Blade Runner 2049 might actually be good.  Let’s hope I’m not disappointed.

 

But at least it can’t be any worse than that bloody football match the other night.  Come on, world.  Hurry up and invent some real replicants – and then get eleven of them playing football for Scotland.

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

The spy who tried something different

 

© Vintage Books

 

First published in 1962, The Spy Who Loved Me is the ninth of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and holds several records in the Bond literary canon.  It clocks in at 198 pages, which makes it the shortest Bond book.  It was also the last book to appear in a world that knew Bond as a literary and not a cinematic character, because its publication came just six months before the release of Dr No, the first Bond movie produced by Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.  And it was the worst-received of the books.  The Daily Telegraph reacted to it with a despairing “Oh Dear Oh Dear Oh Dear!”, the Listener dismissed it as ‘unremittingly’ and ‘grindingly boring’ and the Observer demanded, “why can’t this cunning author write up a bit instead of down?”

 

As soon as the critics stuck in their knives, Fleming himself disowned the book.  He asked his publisher not to print a paperback edition of it, a request that they honoured until two years after his death.  He also stipulated that any movie version of The Spy Who Loved Me could never use the book’s plot, only its title.  (I’m sure that 15 years later when Cubby Broccoli got around to filming The Spy Who Loved Me, he must have been distraught about this.  “You mean,” lamented the cigar-puffing mogul, “I can’t just follow what happens in the book?  I have to put other stuff in my movie instead?  Like cars that travel underwater?  Giant oil-tankers that swallow nuclear submarines?  Indestructible henchmen with steel teeth?  Roger Moore with quizzical eyebrows?  No!  NO!”)

 

A few weeks ago, I finally read the original much-maligned The Spy Who Loved Me.  My initial reaction was Ian Fleming at least deserved credit for attempting something different.  Fans of his previous eight books were surely surprised when they started reading it in 1962 and discovered they were hearing a first-person narrative voice rather than Fleming’s usual, authoritative, third-person one.  “I was running away,” it begins.  “I was running away from England, from my childhood, from the winter, from a sequence of untidy, unattractive love-affairs, from the few sticks of furniture and jumble of overworn clothes that my London life had collected around me; and I was running away from the drabness, fustiness, snobbery and claustrophobia of close horizons and from my inability, though I am quite an attractive rat, to make headway in the rat-race.  In fact, I was running away from almost everything except the law.”

 

The first-person voice is that of Viv Michel, a young French-Canadian woman who’s been left in charge of a closed-for-the-winter motel called The Dreamy Pines Motor Court in the mountains of northern New York State.  After a first chapter where Viv doesn’t cope well with a thunderstorm raging above the motel’s empty cabins, playground, swimming pool and golf range – she stupidly pulls an electrical switch at the same moment that a bolt of lightning lets rip, and the resultant electrical shock knocks her unconscious – she spends the next eighty pages explaining how she’s ended up in this situation.

 

She describes her early life in Canada; being sent to a finishing school in England where she “was made to suffer agonies” for her accent, for her table manners “which were considered uncouth”, for her “total lack of savoir-faire and, in general, for being a Canadian”; and finding work in London while suffering the afore-mentioned “sequence of untidy, unattractive love affairs”.  After the last affair results in her having an abortion in Switzerland, she returns to North America and resolves to search for some adventure and self-discovery and shake off the memories of the men who’ve used and abused her.  So she purchases a Vespa 150cc Gran Sport and sets off on a road trip.  It’s on the road that she comes across the Dreamy Pines Motor Court, where she gets offered employment; first as an end-of-season receptionist and then, when it closes for the winter, as a caretaker minding the premises until its owner, one Mr Sanguinetti, arrives to take possession of the keys.

 

Viv’s position at the Dreamy Pines feels a little like that of Jack Torrance at the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) and things soon go as badly for her as they did for the ill-fated Jack.  Two hoodlums with the nicknames Sluggsy and Horror show up at the motel in the middle of the night and take her prisoner.  It transpires that Sanguinetti is a gangster and the pair are henchmen tasked with burning the place to the ground as part of an insurance scam.  Viv, the only witness, looks likely to be torched along with the motel.

 

It’s here that we encounter the single detail of the book that makes it into the 1977 film ‘adaptation’ with Roger Moore.  Looking at Horror’s face, she notices “a glint of grey silvery metal from his front teeth,” indicating that “they had been cheaply capped with steel.”  Sound familiar?

 

© Eon Productions

 

By now we’re more than halfway into the book.  Back in 1962 at this point, readers must have been panicking: where the hell is Bond?  Well, he appears at The Dreamy Pines later that same night – Viv’s first impression of him is that he’s “good-looking in a dark, rather cruel way” with a scar that “showed whitely down his left cheek” – and he explains that his car has suffered a flat tyre on the road nearby and he’d like to get a room.  He soon wises up to the situation and joins forces with Viv.  The next seventy pages play more like a Mickey Spillane novel than a Fleming / Bond one, with considerable running, hiding and shooting before Sanguinetti’s scheme is thwarted and Sluggsy and Horror end up dead at the bottom of the local lake.  Then Viv and Bond indulge in some love-making and then, as abruptly and enigmatically as he arrived, Bond slips off again.  In the final pages, Viv muses: “He was just a man who had turned up at the right time and then gone on his way.”

 

Though The Spy Who Loved Me wins kudos for bravely departing from the usual Bond formula, there are moments when seemingly Fleming remembers it’s still a Bond novel and is forced to compromise, with awkward results.   He wants Viv to be more believable than the average Bond girl, which is why we see her depicted as a working Londoner.  But on the other hand, as a Bond girl, she can’t be too ordinary so she also gets a French-Canadian back-story to make her appear more exotic – the overall effect of which feels contrived.  Also, while Fleming wants her to be feisty and independent, he needs her to have a vulnerable side too – to be a credible damsel-in-distress, for whom Bond rides to the rescue as a knight in shining armour.  That may explain the opening chapter where she panics during the storm and, quite honestly, comes across as something of a dolt.

 

And to make up for Bond’s late entrance into the plot, Fleming feels he has bring his readers up to speed on what Bond’s been doing in the meantime; so we get the telling of a previous Bond adventure.  In a twelve-page chapter entitled Bedtime Story, Bond explains to Viv in great detail why he was on the road that night – he was driving south after an operation in Toronto wherein he and the Canadian Mounties prevented the assassination of a Russian defector by both the KGB and SPECTRE.  By now, Bond and Viv know the extreme danger posed by Sluggsy and Horror, so you’d think they’d have other things to concentrate on besides telling stories.

 

One thing I found surprisingly impressive about The Spy Who Loved Me is Viv’s account of her love-life in London.  It’s as far removed as possible from the fantasy romance / sex scenes associated with the Bond novels.  Just out of school, she gets involved with a youth called Derek Mallaby, whose posh, confident veneer hides, temporarily, the fact that (a) he’s desperate for sex and (b) he’s clueless about how to have sex.  What follows is a painful tale set in the England of “drabness, fustiness, snobbery and claustrophobia” that existed before the 1960s started to swing and the permissive era arrived.  The only privacy Viv and Derek can find for making love is in a small balcony-box at a cinema, “a meagre-looking place, showing two westerns, a cartoon and so-called ‘News’ that consisted of what the Queen had been doing a month ago.”  Their attempted lovemaking, on the floor with Derek on top “in a dreadful clumsy embrace”, is anything but sensual and it ends abruptly when a furious cinema manager bursts in on them: “Filthy little brats…!  I’ve a damned good mind to call the police.  Indecent exposure.  Disturbing the peace.”

 

Barely articulate about what they’re trying to do, relying on strained expressions like ‘doing it’ and ‘being a sport’, and not even knowing what a condom is called and having to describe it to a shop assistant as “one of those things for not having babies”, Viv and Derek are products of a repressed, joyless, monochrome Britain that the Bond novels, with their exotic glamour and glitzy hedonism, were supposed to give readers of the era an escape from.  No wonder The Spy Who Loved Me pissed so many of those readers off.

 

Once Viv and Derek have properly ‘done it’ a few times, Derek predictably proves to be a cad and dumps her.  She then gets into a second relationship with a German man called Kurt, which culminates in her getting pregnant, having an abortion and being dumped a second time.  (Kurt “had inherited strong views about mixed blood… and when he married, it would be into the Teutonic strain.”  Fleming’s well-known dislike of the Germans is on full display here.)

 

This part of the book is so interesting because it suggests Fleming, a writer not noted for his empathy with women, is trying to think outside his normal male-chauvinist box for once and identify with a female character having a hard time in a world populated with predatory, shitty men.

 

Alas, all this is rendered null and void later when Bond, hardly un-predatory and un-shitty himself, turns up and Viv promptly goes doe-eyed and weak-kneed at the sight of him; implying that Viv’s problem wasn’t men, it was just the absence of a fully-fledged alpha male like Bond to satisfy / tame her.

 

And, late on, Fleming truly sabotages his cause when Viv comes out with this jaw-dropping assertion: “All women love semi-rape.  They love to be taken.”  These ten words have rightly earned Fleming and The Spy Who Loved Me much opprobrium over the years – for example, here – and they undo whatever good work he did with his depiction of Viv earlier in the book.

 

In the end, I have no reason to disagree with the many people who label The Spy Who Loves Me the weakest of the Bond novels.  The contradiction at its heart, that it’s a Bond story and yet it wants to be something different from a Bond story, makes it uneven and inconsistent.  And it’s all over the place in its sexual politics – and, at worst, those politics are unspeakable.  But as I’ve said, it deserves a little respect trying to do something out-of-the-ordinary, and thanks to Fleming’s always-amenable prose it’s an easy-enough read.  And, in parts, hints of a better book glimmer through.

 

© Penguin Books

 

Fake news UK

 

From pixabay.com

 

Looking back at the entries on this bog that I’ve filed in the category of ‘politics’, I realise that in many of them I haven’t actually written about politicians.

 

Instead, I’ve spent as much time writing about another profession, one that sets a large part of the political agenda, decides what issues of the day are brought to the public’s attention and helps create the prism through which those issues are viewed by the public.  In a word, journalists.

 

And regular readers of Blood and Porridge will know I’m not a great fan of journalists, newspapers and the mainstream media generally in the UK.  I’ve found the non-stop abuse doled out to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn over the past couple of years nauseating – the nadir coming on June 7th this year, just before the general election, when the Daily Mail devoted 13 pages to portraying Corbyn and his Labour Party associates as a bunch of foul, neo-Marxist, neo-Maoist, Jihadi-condoning, Gerry Adams-hugging, devil-worshipping, child-sacrificing, bloodsucking monsters.  Nor was I impressed by the barrage of nonsense that Britain’s newspapers published in the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, when the Daily Express saw fit to warn Scots that independence would threaten the discovery of a cure for cancer and the Daily Record predicted that independence would trigger a 21st-century version of the Great Depression.

 

And of course, there was the absolute smorgasbord of bollocks that most of Britain’s newspapers served up before last year’s vote on the UK leaving the European Union.  (Funnily enough, the newspapers that were shrillest in denouncing the EU and urging British people to vote to leave it were the same newspapers that two years earlier had warned Scots that an independent Scotland would suffer because it’d lose its EU membership.)

 

However, at times in 2017, I’ve wondered if I’ve been on the wrong side.  Because this year the journalistic profession has been under sustained attack by Donald Trump, the large blobby orange lifeform that last autumn managed to get himself elected 45th president of the USA despite winning 2.9 million fewer votes than his rival Hillary Clinton.   Trump’s reaction to the media reporting any facts that might appear unflattering to him or his cause is to shriek “Fake news!” at it.

 

For example.  Those photographs suggesting that the crowd at his presidential inauguration ceremony in Washington DC was as sparse as the crowd you’d get in a pub hosting a Gary Glitter 1970s Nostalgia Night?  Fake news! barks the man with a face like a giant orange arse.  Those polls showing Trump’s approval ratings to be the lowest for a president since, well, approval ratings were invented?  Fake news! howls the man with a mouth as big and unappealing as an H.R. Giger-designed entrance-orifice for a derelict spaceship in an Alien movie.  Allegations that Vladimir Putin’s role in his election to office might have been a wee bit more proactive than one of detached, distant, neutral observer?  Fake news! screams the man who, if the Buddhists are right, is destined to be reincarnated in his next life as an Australian cane toad.  (That’s because cane toads are gross, poisonous and so stupid that they attempt to hump animal carcasses, including “dead salamanders, snakes, lizards, mice, anything,” which sounds perfectly attuned to Trump’s karma.)

 

From pixabay.com

 

With Trump ranting at them night and day, trying to discredit every bit of reporting critical of him by slapping a ‘fake news’ label on it, trying to neutralise every uncomplimentary fact that’s dug up about him by dismissing it as an ‘alternative’ fact, shouldn’t I be more sympathetic to journalists?  Surely, set against the slobbering horror-show that is Trump, the mainstream press and its journalists are on the side of the angels?

 

Well, no.  I don’t feel that way, at least not towards the bulk of the mainstream press in Britain.  And here’s why not.  Imagine how the situation would be if Donald Trump was British and not American, if he was UK prime minister instead of US president, if he was ensconced in Number 10 Downing Street rather than in the White House.  Imagine how Britain’s national newspapers – most of whom are owned by five right-wing millionaires / billionaires, Rupert Murdoch, Richard Desmond, the two Barclay Brothers and Jonathan Harmsworth, or 4th Viscount Rothermere as he likes to call himself – would react to a UK government headed by Prime Minister Trump.

 

I’m sure the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Telegraph and Sun would totally love him, because his anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-tax, anti-environment, anti-universal-healthcare rhetoric would press all their xenophobic, reactionary buttons.  Meanwhile, those right-wing yobs whom Fraser Nelson keeps in the kennels over at the Spectator, like Rod Liddle and James Delingpole, would no doubt be writing adoring columns about what a great, bang-on bloke he was.

 

The BBC would be terrified that Prime Minister Trump might abolish the licence-fee and deprive them of funding so they’d pussy-foot around him – making sure, for example, that on every five-person Question Time panel there’d be two or three Trump devotees arguing that it’s perfectly okay for Prime Minister Trump to spend all his time playing golf up at Balmedie and Turnberry, and as for that business where he tried to grab the Number 10 tea-lady by the pussy, well, that was just him doing what all red-blooded alpha-males do, right?

 

Obviously, left-wing publications like the Guardian and the New Statesman would strongly disagree with Prime Minister Trump in all matters.  Well, in almost all matters.  They would support him in his opposition to Scottish independence.  Indeed, both publications would occasionally commission the likes of David Torrance or Chris Deerin to pen opinion pieces with titles along the lines of DONALD TRUMP IS WRONG ON MANY THINGS BUT ON SCOTLAND HE’S ABSOLUTELY RIGHT.

 

© NPR