Gun me kangaroo down, sport

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

Occasionally I post pieces on this blog under the self-explanatory title Great Unappreciated Films.  For my next great, unappreciated film I’d intended writing about the 1971 Australian epic Wake in Fright, but then I realised Wake in Fright isn’t unappreciated any more.  Yes, it flopped on its initial release, despite being nominated for the grand prize at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and for a long time afterwards it only existed in heavily-cut and low-quality versions.  However, following restoration and remastering work during the noughties, a new version of Wake in Fright was shown at Cannes in 2009 and now, belatedly, the film is seen both as a classic in its own right and as an important precursor to the New Wave of Australian Cinema that produced the likes of The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Mad Max (1979), My Brilliant Career (1979) and Breaker Morant (1980).

 

Thus, Wake in Fright is deservedly appreciated today.  But what the hell.  I’m going to write about it anyway.

 

Directed by Ted Kotcheff, Wake in Fright tells the story of John Grant (Gary Bond), a young Australian schoolteacher beset by frustration and a sense of injustice.  He dreams of moving to England – something that many young Australians were doing in real life at the time, most famously Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes – and becoming ‘a journalist’.  It has to be said that for someone wanting to make a career from writing, he spends suspiciously little of the film, none of it in fact, doing any writing.

 

For now, though, John’s stuck in a school in a tiny Outback settlement surrounded by vast expanses of nothingness – which Kotcheff highlights at the film’s start with a 360-degree panning shot that still looks impressive today.  John’s exile here shows no likelihood of ending soon, because to leave his job he needs to pay off a bond signed with the Australian government to cover the costs of his teacher-training.

 

Wake in Fright begins with John finishing his final lesson before the Christmas vacation and taking a train to a mining town called Bundanyabba, where he plans to catch a plane to Sydney for a few weeks in the company of his glamorous city-based girlfriend.  But his plans go askew when he arrives in Bundanyabba, ‘the Yabba’ as it’s known to its inhabitants, and he spends a night there before the plane flies.  In succession, John enters a drinking establishment that isn’t so much a pub as a factory, cranking out industrial numbers of glasses of beer for the Yabba’s thirsty (male) citizens; befriends a hulking policeman called Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), who takes him to a late-night eatery; discovers a gambling den at the back of the eatery where money is bet, won and lost on the tossing of pairs of coins; gets involved in a game and impulsively bets everything he has in the hope of winning enough to pay off his bond; and loses everything, so that the next day he wakes up penniless, unable to pay for his flight and marooned in the Yabba.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

By this time, he’s also met local eccentric ‘Doc’ Tydon, who’s played by none other than the great English actor Donald Pleasence.  When you see the crazed, drunken Pleasence tossing the pair of coins on which John’s fortunes depend, you know it’s going to end badly.

 

Thereafter, John – initially disdainful of the macho, swaggering, hard-drinking, hard-gambling mindset that seems to possess most of the Yabba’s male inhabitants – gradually sinks to the point where the same mindset possesses him.  He meets a well-to-do man called Tim Hynes (Al Thomas) who invites him home and introduces him to his daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay).  Hynes, obviously seen as a bit of soft touch by his Yabba neighbours, soon has a crowd in his living room drinking his beer and leering after Janette, including the ubiquitous Doc Tydon and a pair of young bogans called Joe (Peter Whittle) and Dick (future Australian movie star Jack Thompson).

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

After a severe all-night drinking session, John – now stained, grubby and worse-for-wear – comes to in Tydon’s shack, a hellhole with kangaroo meat heaped in greasy pans and clusters of dead flies stuck to dangling flypaper strips.  We don’t get to see the outdoor toilet – the Donald Pleasence dunny – but according to the dialogue it’s even more hideous than the shack.  It transpires that John drunkenly arranged to go on a kangaroo shoot with Joe and Dick, who soon show up at the shack in a vehicle loaded with guns and booze.  All four head into the Outback to hunt ’roo and what follows is Wake in Fright’s most notorious sequence, wherein the quartet blast away a pack of kangaroos and wrestle with and stab to death the wounded ones.  Such is the carnage that even in 2009, during the film’s re-screening in Cannes, a dozen people walked out of it.

 

Now completely deranged – John included – they wreck an Outback pub on their way home.  The next day, after waking up in Tydon’s shack in an even worse condition, John manages to stagger off.  Appalled by his own degradation, he attempts to hitchhike out of the Yabba and the whole way to Sydney, but again things don’t go according to plan.  Finally, despairing and practically psychotic, John hits on another way of escaping from the Yabba, the most drastic way possible…

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

It’s easy to see why, when Wake in Fright was released in 1971, Australian audiences stayed away in droves.  With its scenes of heavy-duty and illicit drinking (“Shut the door, mate,” someone shouts when John walks into a pub and finds the entire male population of the Yabba boozing inside, “we’re closed!”) and incessant gambling (men standing robotically at rows of bar ‘pokies’ or acting as a baying mob in a backroom den), and with its depictions of violence, sexism and general macho bullshit, it doesn’t portray Australian culture of the time in a flattering light.

 

One scene sure to bait 1970s Australian viewers takes place in a pub.  The boozers and gamblers suddenly fall silent, stand to attention and face an ANZAC memorial wall-mural while a radio announcer exhorts them to ‘remember the fallen’.  When the silence ends a moment later, they dive back to their beer glasses and slot machines.

 

Then there’s the gruelling kangaroo shoot where bullets tear bloodily through what are clearly real animals.  That must have traumatised international audiences, whose main image of Australia in 1971 was probably formed by the popular, cuddly kids’ TV show Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1968-70).   A statement in the film’s end-credits assures us that the kangaroos weren’t slaughtered for the film.  Rather, Kotcheff and his crew shadowed a group of professional ’roo hunters one night, filmed the shootings (which would have taken place whether Wake in Fright was made or not) and then spliced the documentary footage into the film.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

What the filmmakers did isn’t above criticism, though.  It’s been pointed out that the powerful spotlight they used to film the hunt also enabled the hunters to blind and target their prey.  Kotcheff later described the experience as a ‘nightmare’ because, as the night continued, the hunters became drunk, their shooting grew less accurate and kangaroos ended up horribly maimed.  Things got so bad that the film crew pretended there’d been a power cut, so that the spotlight no longer worked and the shooting had to stop.  Most of the footage proved to be so upsetting that Kotcheff decided he couldn’t use it – though what is used is bad enough.

 

The footage was also shown to the Royal Australian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals.  They actually urged the filmmakers to include it in Wake in Fright, hoping it’d spark an outcry and help such madcap hunting to be banned.

 

Wake in Fright is a pretty grim watch, then, but its cast is a pleasure.  Gary Bond, with his finely-sculpted features, blond hair and sonorous, cultivated voice, achieves a perfect balance between arrogance and vulnerability – he’s priggish but we still worry about him as his situation goes from bad to worse.  Also effective are Chips Rafferty as the lugubrious policeman Crawford, who partakes of the roughneck culture around him without overdoing it and views John’s gradual succumbing to it with mixed disdain and concern; Al Thomas as the good-natured but pathetic Hynes – in the Outback, his costume of fedora, shirt and bow-tie, baggy shorts and knee-length white socks seems designed to invite ridicule; and Sylvia Kay as Hynes’s daughter Janette, whom John discovers is less repressed than she first appears.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

But the true star of Wake in Fright is Donald Pleasence.  As Doc Tydon, he explains himself thus: “I’m a doctor of medicine and a tramp by temperament.  I’m also an alcoholic.  My disease prevented me from practising in Sydney but out here it’s scarcely noticeable.  Certainly doesn’t stop people from coming to see me.”   I wondered how convincingly the man who played Ernst Stavros Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (1967) would appear in the milieu of Wake in Fright but Pleasence nails it.  He’s perfect whether he’s sober and observing icily how John flinched at the touch of Crawford’s ‘hairy hand’; or drinking beer whilst standing on his head to demonstrate how the oesophagus muscles are stronger than gravity; or winding John up with talk of the ‘open’ relationship he enjoys with Janette; or drunkenly raving on a pub-porch about “Socrates, affectability, progress” being “vanities spawned by fear” while Joe and Dick punch lumps out of each other behind him.

 

It’s possible to dismiss Wake in Fright as an expression of middle-class disdain for the lower-brow culture and less-mannered behaviour of the proletariat.  But I feel that’s a misinterpretation.  When John complains to Tydon about “the aggressive hospitality” of the Yabba, and “the arrogance of stupid people who insist you should be as stupid as they are,” Tydon retorts: “It’s death to farm out here.  It’s worse than death in the mines.  You want them to sing opera as well?”  And when John slips down the slippery slope – a slope Tydon has already descended – it’s not because (like in another 1971 movie, Straw Dogs) he’s had to become a brute to fight off other brutes around him.  In John’s case, he’s entered an environment so harsh it can turn any man into a brute.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

Plus, it’s worth noting that some people whom John encounters on his dark odyssey, like Crawford and Hynes, exhibit more kindness than he does himself.  Even Tydon, who at times seems beyond all help, shows some decency at the end.

 

Finally, as it’s December, I should say that Wake in Fright qualifies as… a Christmas movie!  Its events take place during the Christmas vacation and, amid the heat, dust, beer and puke, there are Christmas trees, decorations and carols.  (2005’s The Proposition, another gruelling Australian Outback movie, highlighted the irony too of celebrating a sweltering Australian Christmas with the trappings of a wintery northern-European one.)

 

So why not order that DVD of Wake in Fright from Amazon now?  And on December 25th, should your loved ones tire of watching It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), you can treat them to something different – the squalor, drunkenness, brawling, vandalism, vomit, sweat-stains, flies, kangaroo-slaughter and Donald-Pleasance-going-bananas that constitute the Wake in Fright Christmas experience.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

Welliweediya Cemetery in Negombo

 

 

Wellaweediya Cemetery on Sea Road in the coastal town of Negombo is the most atmospheric graveyard I’ve come across so far in Sri Lanka.  Its aura of spooky otherworldliness is despite it being only walking distance from one of the biggest tourist drags on Sri Lanka’s western shore.

 

Mind you, the weather conditions on the afternoon I visited the cemetery probably helped the mood.  The sky was melancholically dark.  Nervy gusts of wind kept whipping up and dying again, each one punting leaves, litter and wisps of sand and dust a few yards further along the ground.  It seemed just a matter of time before the clouds were rent asunder and thunder and lightning started raging over the seafront.  This gave the place a sense of tropical desolation – like it wasn’t located in a Sri Lankan beach resort at all, but on a Caribbean island in some voodoo or zombie horror story.

 

You couldn’t have asked for a more Gothic way of entering the cemetery – through corroded gates that were topped with evil-looking barbs and flanked by a pair of forlorn stone angels whose wings had been largely broken off.

 

 

Inside, one thing that unsettled me was how the ground was mostly composed of sand.  I usually associate cemeteries with soil – firm soil, solid enough to hold things in the ground.  This sand looked anything but solid.  It was heaped into long V-shaped mounds before each cross or headstone, which rather morbidly mapped out the dimensions of the coffins and bodies a little way underneath.

 

 

Across the sand was strewn a lot of debris – scraps of paper, pieces of string, lengths of ribbon and shreds of greenery, which presumably were remnants of disintegrated wreaths and other grave-decorations.  But more recent tributes to the deceased remained intact.  There were arrangements of ferns and fronds, often wilting and resembling sprawling green crowns, and orchid-like flowers, whose colours the elements had bleached to a faded pink.

 

 

The graves were marked mostly by crosses.  Some were made of wood but coated in a thick, treacly black paint.  A few were covered in small, pale-coloured tiles.  Standing at the end of an occasional grave-mound was a miniature shrine, a glass-fronted case containing a religious figure – the glass commonly misted and sickly-looking with condensation.

 

 

One disturbing sight was a grave where the mound of sand had been dug into.  A large hole in the mound’s side showed that something had been burrowing into it.  Unless, that is, the hole had been made by the grave’s occupant burrowing out.

 

 

Finally, while I was there, Wellaweediya Cemetery was infested with crows.  They were happily using the crosses and gravestones as perches, climbing frames and stepping stones.  And needless to say, their loud non-stop cawing cranked the graveyard’s atmosphere several notches higher on the ‘creepy’ scale.

 

 

You’ve been DUPed

 

© BBC

 

The most memorable joke cracked by the late British funnyman and game-show host Bob Monkhouse was this one: “People used to laugh when I told them one day I’d become a famous comedian.  Well, they’re not laughing now.”

 

I’m sure many commentators living north and south of the Irish border are saying something similar now that Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations with the European Union have ended up stuck between a rock and a hard place.  The rock is the Republic of Ireland’s aversion to the creation of a ‘hard border’ between it and Northern Ireland and its demand for both parts of the island to have ‘regulatory alignment’ (i.e. Northern Ireland quietly remaining in the EU’s customs union and single market).  The hard place is the insistence by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, on whose ten Westminster MPs May’s minority Conservative government depends for support and survival, that Northern Ireland gets treated no differently from the rest of the United Kingdom during Brexit (i.e. if the UK quits the customs union and single market, Northern Ireland does too).

 

In other words: “Brexiters used to laugh when I told them the Irish border would be a massive problem if the UK voted to leave the EU.  Well, they’re not laughing now.”

 

Their attitude in the run-up to the Brexit vote in June 2016 wasn’t so much one of laughter, though, as one of sheer disinterest and ignorance.  It depressed me that on the morning of June 24th, just after the vote’s result was announced, the BBC showed a panel of British politicians taking questions from an audience.  An Irishman in the audience raised the border issue and was rudely and almost roundly ignored.  (The only panel-member to acknowledge his concerns was, significantly, Alex Salmond.)

 

Not that the British political or media establishments have shown any lessening in their ignorance of things Irish since then.  For instance, a recent editorial in The Sun advised Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to ‘shut his gob’ about Brexit; and right-wing politicians and commentators have generally talked about the Irish Republic so high-handedly you’d think they believed it was still one of Britain’s colonial possessions.  All this is despite the Republic of Ireland, as one of the remaining 27 members of the EU, having a veto over any deal between the EU and the departing UK that it sees as damaging to its interests.

 

Mind you, if you really want to soil yourself and experience all-out, full-frontal ignorance among the players in this fiasco, you should check out the Democratic Unionist Party.  The DUP includes among its ranks such God-bothering, science-disdaining eejits as Thomas Buchanan, a campaigner for the teaching of creationism in schools who rejects evolution as a “peddled lie” because, he reckons, “the world was spoken into existence in six days by His power”.  Then there’s Sammy Wilson, who maintains that climate change isn’t happening and has denounced the Paris Agreement as “window dressing for climate chancers”.  It’s mind-melting that Wilson was once Northern Irish Environment Minister.  And let’s not forget Trevor Clarke, who until very recently believed that HIV affected gay people only.  With IQs at near-subterranean levels, it’s unsurprising that the DUP is able hold conflicting views without seeing any illogicality in holding them.  Most notably, it chants endlessly about Northern Ireland being exactly the same as the rest of the UK, for example, whilst insisting that Northern Irish law continues to ban abortion and same-sex marriage, both of which are legal in the rest of the UK.

 

© The Independent

© Belfast Telegraph

 

And low IQs might explain why, for a fiercely Christian outfit, it seems to have a lot of difficulty interpreting the teachings of Jesus Christ, which I thought were explicit in stating that Christ’s followers should not behave like corrupt, shifty, greedy, hypocritical tossers.  For instance, there was the ultra-dodgy Renewable Heat Incentive, or ‘cash-for-ash’ scheme, which was introduced in 2012 while the party’s leader and one-time Northern Irish First Minister Arlene Foster ran Northern Ireland’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.  Ostensibly, this encouraged people to switch from fossil fuel to biomass heating systems.  In reality, it meant unscrupulous farmers – many of them no doubt DUP voters – could set up biomass heating systems in empty cowsheds and still claim back £1.60 for every £1 they spent.  The scheme’s believed to have cost taxpayers some £400 million.  And then there was a £425,000 donation to the DUP from the shady anti-Scottish-independence organisation the Constitutional Research Council, rumoured to have really originated in Saudi Arabia, India or even Putin’s Russia.  In 2016, £282,000 of this was spent by the DUP on a ‘Vote Leave’ advertisement in a newspaper that wasn’t even published in Northern Ireland.

 

The most hilarious instance of DUP sleaze and sinfulness, though, was the 2009 scandal involving Iris Robinson – senior DUP figure, wife of Arlene Foster’s predecessor as party leader and First Minister Peter Robinson, and well-known denouncer of homosexuality as an ‘abomination’ – who had an extramarital affair with a lad young enough to be her grandson and also illegally procured some £50,000 to help him with a business project.  While Iris obliterated the seventh and eighth commandments, hubby Peter was content to line his pockets with hefty political salaries, allowances and alleged fixer-fees in direct contravention of what Matthew chapter 19, verses 16-26 said about camels, eyes of needles, rich men and heaven.  No wonder the pair of them have been dubbed the Swish Family Robinson.

 

© The Week UK

© Daily Mirror

 

From all accounts, Theresa May, the Republic of Ireland government and the EU were close to agreement yesterday on ‘regulatory alignment’ between the northern and southern parts of Ireland when Arlene Foster and the DUP scuppered it.  The deal would have helped to cushion the massive economic blow that Brexit looks certain to inflict on Northern Ireland.  (And the DUP is aware of this threat – soon after the 2016 referendum, and having championed a leave vote, the DUP saw no shame in sending Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Minister, Michelle McIlveen, scuttling off to Brussels to beg for continued EU support for Northern Irish farmers.)  And at best, it could have given the Northern Irish economy a real boost – imagine how attractive the place might have looked to investors as a corner of the UK that was still in the EU’s customs union and single market.  But as I’ve said, the DUP refused to countenance anything that’d make it different from the rest of the UK (apart from having medieval anti-abortion and anti-same-sex-marriage laws, obviously).  And among its members and supporters are plenty of red-white-and-blue nutters who’d saw off their own legs and strangle their own grandmothers if they thought it’d make them more British.

 

Ironically, I think this is hastening the very thing that the DUP abhors, which is the prospect of a united Ireland.  Although demographics are changing in Northern Ireland, with Roman Catholics looking set to soon outnumber Protestants, it seemed to me there was a large, mainly middle-class section of the Catholic community who were reasonably relaxed about staying part of the UK so long as Northern Ireland remained politically and economically stable and they had the safeguards guaranteed by 1998’s Good Friday agreement.  However, with the impending shitstorm of Brexit, I suspect many of those moderate Catholics will now swing towards supporting union with the south.  (When people asked me, I used to tell them I didn’t expect to see a united Ireland in my lifetime.  Now I’m starting to wonder.)

 

Amusingly, in the short term, if this spat continues between Theresa May and the DUP and the latter withdraws its support for the former, May’s government could collapse – resulting in yet another general election and the possibility that Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn becomes the next UK prime minister.  And it’s well known how old lefty Jeremy was, in the past, good friends with some people from Northern Ireland who definitely aren’t on Arlene Foster’s Christmas card list.

 

© Belfast Telegraph

 

Meanwhile, I sympathise with the many folk in the UK who, thanks to this crisis, have finally discovered that their country’s post-Brexit future depends on the whims of a political party from Northern Ireland whose asininity, venality and zealotry is truly of Trumpian levels.  Happy days.

 

The marble yawn

 

© Airmont Books    

 

I’ve always been an admirer of the elegant 19th-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Over the years, I’ve enjoyed Hawthorne’s novels The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and The Blithedale Romance (1852), his collection of Greek myths rewritten as children’s stories Tanglewood Tales (1853) and his marvellous short fiction like The Minister’s Black Veil (1832), The Maypole of Merry Mount (1837), Dr Heidegger’s Experiment (1837) and Rappaccini’s Daughter (1844).  I therefore had high hopes a few weeks ago when I started his 1860 novel The Marble Faun, which is set in Italy and was written after Hawthorne spent a year-and-a-half touring the country in the late 1850s.

 

Maybe it’s because I’ve grown more demanding in my old age or because by 1860, four years before he died, Hawthorne had lost his touch.  Whatever the reason, it pains me to say I found The Marble Faun a real plod.

 

It didn’t help that the main characters failed to engage me.  The plot centres on four young people, three of them artistically inclined, living in mid-19th-century Rome: Miriam, Hilda, Donatello and Kenyon.  As well as being an artist, Miriam is an enigma because her past is shrouded in rumours and speculation.  She’s variously said to be “the daughter and heiress of a great Jewish banker”; and “a German princess”; and “the offspring of a Southern planter” who’d fled her native land because “one burning drop of African blood in her veins so affected her with a sense of ignominy”; and “the lady of an English nobleman” who “out of mere love and honour of art, had thrown aside the splendour of her rank, and had come to seek a subsistence by her pencil in a Roman studio.”  Whatever else she might be, though, I found Miriam a royal pain.  She’s so absorbed in her murky past and intent on projecting a sub-Byronic aura of torment and danger that she reminded me of various posers I knew at college who’d swan around and emote: “Watch out!  I’m dark and edgy, I am!  I’m trouble!  I’m mad, bad and dangerous to know!”  (Come to think of it, they’re probably all working as stockbrokers now.)

 

Still, Miriam is preferable to the insipid Goody-Two-Shoes Hilda, an American copyist artist whom Hawthorne is determined to present as pure in thought, word and deed.  He has her living in a studio at the top of a tower, symbolically high above the city and all the crime, squalor and corruption that it harbours.  The outer wall of this tower is also home to a shrine of the Virgin Mary, with a lamp burning at the effigy’s feet, which Hilda ensures never goes out – though coming from good Puritan stock, she makes it clear that she only keeps the lamp burning as a neighbourly kindness: “You must not call me a Catholic.  A Christian girl… may surely pay honour to the idea of Divine Womanhood, without giving up the faith of her forefathers.”  And to ram the idea of Hilda’s saintliness home yet further, Hawthorne shows her caring for a flock of white doves that frequently alight on her windowsill, something that brings Miriam out of her self-absorption long enough to comment: “…how like a dove she is herself, the pure, fair creature!  The other doves know her for a sister, it is sure.”

 

Also unpromising is the winsome but artless Donatello, a youth from the Italian countryside who’s latched on to the group and, in the earlier chapters at least, behaves like and is treated like their airheaded mascot.  “What a child, or what a simpleton, he is!” remarks Miriam to Hilda.  “I find myself treating Donatello as if he were the merest unfledged chicken…”  Probably it’s just as well that Miriam’s attitude towards him is so patronising, for the lad is madly in love with her and for the first half of the book he practically stalks her.  If Miriam wasn’t so blinkered by her condescension, she might find the way that Donatello dogs her every step a little creepy.

 

The last member of the quartet is Kenyon, an American sculptor.  Compared with the others, he’s a reasonably sensible and balanced character.  Unfortunately, he’s also the only one who isn’t directly involved in the plot’s main incident, which occurs a third of the way into the book.  As a result, for the remainder of The Marble Faun, he’s an onlooker rather than a participant in the story – in other words, the most tolerable character becomes the least proactive one.

 

Having said all that, the first half of The Marble Faun is promising.  It’s a potpourri of fanciful and mildly macabre elements that made me think I was in for an agreeable gothic entertainment in the tradition of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) or Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) – albeit in a more genteel form.

 

For instance, we get an episode where the group realise Donatello is the spitting image of the Faun of Praxiteles in the Capitoline Museums.  (And why is Donatello so reluctant to lift his long brown curls off his ears?  Could it be because those ears are… pointy?)  There’s some creepy stuff in the Roman Catacombs, which are said to be haunted by the malevolent spirit of “a pagan of old Rome” who “for fifteen centuries at least… has been groping in the darkness, seeking his way out of the Catacombs.”  Miriam duly gets lost in this subterranean maze and encounters an evil-looking figure who, subsequently, starts following her around above ground too – with this apparition and Donatello both stalking her, she really doesn’t have much luck.  Also disturbing is how the face of the spectral Catacombs-dweller begins to appear in her artwork.

 

Later, there’s a murder.  And then comes a satisfyingly grim scene in Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins – a real-life church famous for its crypt, which has ghoulish decorations and displays made out of the bones of some 4000 friars from the Capuchin order – where the murderers are unexpectedly confronted with their victim’s corpse.

 

From biography.com

 

But around the midway point, the book goes astray.  Literally astray, for Donatello relocates to Tuscany, presumably to give Hawthorne an opportunity to use some of the descriptions he’d jotted down whilst travelling through the Italian countryside.  Improbably, it transpires that Donatello is an aristocrat who’s in possession of a country house and tower.  More improbably still, he transforms from a bubble-brain into a morose, introspective type who spends his time stalking around and brooding on top of his battlements.  Kenyon pays him a visit and we get a long section where the pair seem to do nothing but discuss life, death, love, God and, generally, What It All Means.

 

Later still, Kenyon contrives to bring Donatello together with a now-chastened Miriam and then the plot returns to Rome where – oh no! – for another long section it focuses on Hilda, who’s still such a vapid milksop she makes Laura Ingalls Wilder seem like Courtney Love.  There’s some business where Hilda forces herself to enter a confessional – not, Hawthorne stresses, because she likes the Catholic Church, but because she has a terrible secret she needs to get off her chest.  After that, she mysteriously disappears, much to the consternation of Kenyon, who’s now back in Rome.  And then in the last few pages Hawthorne ends the tale in a decidedly hurried and ambiguous manner.

 

In fact, the ending annoyed Hawthorne’s contemporary readers so much that he felt obliged to add a postscript to the book’s second edition, explaining more of what’d gone on and addressing some of the plot-threads that’d been left hanging.

 

The Marble Faun, then, is ruined by its tedious second half, which I found a chore to read.  However, I’ll give Hawthorne credit for his descriptions of Rome.  It’s interesting that while he records the glories of the city – St Peter’s, the Coliseum, etc. – this is no starry-eyed travelogue like the movies Roman Holiday (1953) or Three Coins in a Fountain (1954).  For he observes its darker and seamier side too.  At one point he muses: “All over the surface of what once was Rome, it seems to be the effort of Time to bury up the ancient city, as if it were a corpse… so that, in eighteen centuries, the soil over its grave has grown very deep, by the slow scattering of dust and the accumulation of more modern decay upon elder ruin.”  Elsewhere, he wonders if a ‘malignant spell’ has compelled modern Romans to “fling dirt and defilement upon whatever temple, column, ruined palace, or triumphal arch, may be nearest at hand, and on every monument that the old Romans built.”

 

Even during an account of a Roman carnival, at which vendors are selling thousands of flowers, he notes how the flowers are ‘miserably wilted’ and ‘muddy’, because they’ve already been bought, discarded, trampled on the ground and picked up again by the vendors to be sold again “ten times over, defiled as they all are with the wicked filth of Rome.”

 

Whenever Hawthorne’s Rome turns from Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde in this fashion, it reflects something correspondingly dark and troubling that’s happening in the plot or in the psychology of the characters.  And these glimpses of a dissolute and decayed city, amid the expected descriptions of its venerability and beauty, are one of the book’s saving graces.

 

It’s just a shame that during the latter half of The Marble Faun, in terms of plot, Nathaniel Hawthorne loses his marbles.

 

© Dell Books

 

TV comic genius 6: Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?

 

© BBC

 

I’ve always wanted to write about the BBC TV sitcom Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads (1973-74) but never got around to it.  However, after the death the other day of Likely Lads star Rodney Bewes, this seemed an appropriate moment to sit down at my computer and ruminate about the show.

 

The work of the excellent screenwriting partnership Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads was not only one of the funniest things broadcast by the BBC during the 1970s, but also one of the most wistful and socially observant.  It was a rarity too in that it was a sequel that was better than the original – for there’d been a previous incarnation of the show, simply entitled The Likely Lads, which ran for twenty episodes and three series from 1964 to 1966.  (Thanks to some idiotic wiping of tapes done in the BBC’s archives, twelve of those twenty episodes have been lost.  But the surviving eight can now be watched on Youtube.)

 

© BBC

 

Filmed in black and white and mostly on studio sets, the original 1960s Likely Lads looks primitive by today’s standards but remains amusing and interesting.  Its first episode begins with two working-class lads from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bob Ferris (Bewes) and Terry Collier (James Bolam) returning from a holiday in Spain that’s been their first-ever taste of life abroad.  Bob is rhapsodising about the wine, cuisine, stylish clothes and – being a horny lad in his early 20s – exotic ladies he’s encountered.  Terry, though, has spent the holiday guzzling English beer and fish and chips and pursuing ‘English birds’ at the resort.  (He struck it lucky with one ‘Rita from Barrow-on-Furness’.)  Indeed, the first five minutes of the original Likely Lads set the tone of everything that follows.  Both Bob and Terry are working class, but Bob yearns for something more sophisticated than the factory (Ellison’s Electrical) that employs them and the pubs and dancehalls that constitute their social life.  The unreconstructed Terry has no such ambition.  He enjoys life as it is, thank you very much.  Somehow, you get the impression that Terry is going to be the happier one in the long term.

 

By the end of the Likely Lads’ third series, in 1966, Bob is so frustrated with his life in Newcastle that he joins the army, hoping to see more of the world (and, no doubt, to hook up with a few more exotic foreign ladies).  Terry pours scorn on his decision but soon realises he can’t face life at home without his old mate and he enlists too.  In the show’s last minutes, Terry discovers that Bob has just been discharged on account of having flat feet, which means he’ll have to spend the next few years in uniform alone.  It ends with a shot of Terry being whisked off into the distance in the back of an army truck while Bob watches apologetically.  And that’s it until 1973 and the advent of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads.

 

Whatever… begins with Terry finally out of the army and back in Newcastle, where Bob is about to get married to his long-term girlfriend, Thelma.  A character even more socially driven than Bob, Thelma is excellently played by Brigit Forsythe – she portrays her as a hard taskmaster, yes, but not an unlikeable shrew and even gives her a certain sassiness.  Bob has also left the factory and gone on to a better job in a building firm and he’s about to start living in a new, upmarket housing estate where, snorts Terry, “the only thing that tells you apart from your neighbours is the colour of your curtains.”

 

Thus, Bob – now sporting collar-length hair, a kipper tie and a big-lapelled pinstripe suit and looking worryingly like Laurence and Tony in Mike Leigh’s 1977 TV adaptation of Abigail’s Party – seems to have finally achieved his dream.  He’s gone up in the world.

 

© BBC

 

I’ve seen modern-day commentators describe Bob as a symbol of Thatcherism, but that theory doesn’t hold water because Whatever… aired years before Margaret Thatcher came to power.  Rather, Bob has simply been able to take advantage of the social mobility that was accessible to some working-class people at that time.  How long ago that seems now.

 

Predictably, what follows is a comedy of manners as Terry, more boorishly set-in-his-ways than ever, goes crashing about the comfortable middle-class world that Bob and Thelma are trying to build for themselves.  The night before Bob and Thelma’s wedding, for example, Terry’s antics inadvertently land him and his old mate in a police cell.  But things are more complex than that.  Despite Bob’s constant carping about Terry’s old-school attitudes and lack of finesse, he’s obviously not that happy with his new, improved situation.  He often finds middle-class life suffocating and envies Terry’s devil-may-care freedom.  And he doesn’t put up much of a fight whenever Terry tempts him to let his hair down for old times’ sake.

 

Whatever… is also imbued with poignant nostalgia.  By now Bob and Terry are in their thirties, and not only is their youth slipping away – as the world changes, so too are the things and places associated with their youth.  This inspires episodes like Storm in a Tea Chest, where the space-conscious Thelma forces Bob to chuck out all his prized childhood possessions like his scout cap and Rupert the Bear annuals, or The Great Race, where Bob and Terry try to re-enact a boyhood bicycle race from Newcastle to Berwick-on-Tweed near the Scottish Border.  (Both of them end up cheating like hell.)

 

© BBC

 

The show feels special too because it’s set in Newcastle.  Unlike most BBC sitcoms of the 1970s, it doesn’t take place in London or the Home Counties and isn’t full of characters rattling away in posh Received Pronunciation or watered-down TV-Cockney accents.  That said, while Newcastle is visually prominent in the show – which features some location filming, unlikely the studio-bound 1964-66 Likely Lads – it’s not exactly aurally prominent.  Most of the characters don’t speak with genuine Newcastle accents, but with rather generic ‘north-of-England’ ones.  This suggests 1970s British TV executives feared their viewing public weren’t ready to hear the Geordie accent in all its full-on, Viz-comic-style glory.  At least Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais rectified the situation later with their much-loved show Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1983-84 and 2002-4).

 

Incidentally, Bewes was from the West Riding of Yorkshire, while Bolam was born in Sunderland.  And as any Makem will tell you, Sunderland might be close to Newcastle, but they definitely aren’t the same place.

 

In 1976, two years after Whatever… ended on television, a movie version was released.  The film is a hit-and-miss affair, although by the standards of cinematic spinoffs from British TV sitcoms, which are usually terrible, it’s not bad.  One memorable sequence sees Bob and Terry go for a final pint in their favourite boozer before it gets torn down by the developers.  The whole neighbourhood around it is being flattened too and they have to trudge across a near-apocalyptic wasteland to get to the pub.  The movie also contains the great lines: “In the chocolate box of life, the top layer’s already gone… And someone’s pinched the orange cream from the bottom”; and “I’d offer you a beer, but I’ve only got six cans.”  Guess which line was said by Bob and which by Terry.

 

© BBC

 

In subsequent decades, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais talked about reviving the series again with Bob and Terry now middle-aged.  They’d even worked out a scenario for a new show whereby Terry, through a lottery-win or a big compensation pay-out, has become stinking rich; whereas poor old Bob has gone bankrupt and is on the breadline.  However, James Bolam was unwilling to play Terry again and the idea never came to fruition.  (Since the 1970s, rumours have abounded about Bolam and Bewes being locked in a bitter feud.  However, in the wake of Bewes’ death, Bolam has denied that this was ever the case.)

 

Post-Likely Lads, Rodney Bewes concentrated on theatrical work and during the 1990s performed one-man stage versions of George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody (1892) and Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889), both of which he brought to the Edinburgh Festival.  In the late 1990s I was living in Edinburgh and during one festival I got into the habit of having lunch in a bar-restaurant downstairs from a venue where Bewes performed every morning.  A couple of times he materialised on a bar-stool a yard or two along the counter from me, where he’d sign autographs for and chat to people who’d just been to his show.  I couldn’t believe the number of people who asked him how Terry and Thelma were getting on – who seemingly didn’t grasp that this was Rodney Bewes, not Bob Ferris, sitting in front of them.

 

Then again, The Likely Lads and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads addressed themes that are significant for all of us: the frustrations of trying and failing to have fun when you’re young and, when you’re older, the frustrations of feeling stuck in a rut while the world changes mercilessly around you.  No wonder some folk confused the onscreen illusion with reality.

 

© BBC

 

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 memorable 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.