Remember the Ally-mo

 

© BBC

 

One unsettling feature of growing older is that when an anniversary arrives and you think back to the original event, you feel shocked when you realise how much time separates now and then.  The other day, the 2018 World Cup competition began in Russia and it’s just occurred to me that the 1978 World Cup in Argentina took place 40 whole years and ten whole world cups ago.  It’s almost traumatic to realise how much time has elapsed.

 

However, if you’re old enough to remember the 1978 Argentinian World Cup and you were in Scotland at the time, you’ll testify that the event itself was traumatic.

 

For those of you who’re unacquainted with the topic – what happened in 1978 was that of the four national football teams in the UK, Scotland was the only one to qualify for Argentina.  And the country had a team that, on paper, looked like it might achieve something.  It boasted players from some of the mightiest football clubs in Britain: for example, from Manchester United (Martin Buchan, Gordon McQueen, Lou Macari, Joe Jordan), Liverpool (Graham Souness, the legendary Kenny Dalglish), Glasgow Rangers (Derek Johnstone, Tom Forsyth, Sandy Jardine), Nottingham Forest (Kenny Burns, John Robertson, Archie Gemmill) and, er, Partick Thistle (Alan Rough).  And in charge of these remarkable players was a manager called Ally MacLeod, who was remarkable in his own way.  Though not necessarily in the right way.

 

Emboldened by wins in 1977 over the European champions Czechoslovakia and over the Auld Enemy, England – the game concluded with the Scotland fans swarming onto the pitch at Wembley and digging up clods of the turf and breaking the goalposts into wee pieces to bring back to Scotland as souvenirs, much to the horror of the English commentators – Ally began to talk up his team’s chances in Argentina.  When early in 1978 Scotland failed to win the Home International championship involving England, Wales and Northern Ireland, he shrugged it off with the tantalising comment that the championship’s title “could be dwarfed by the World Cup.”  Such statements, and Ally’s general air of swagger and optimism – “My name is Ally MacLeod,” he announced when he became Scotland manager, “and I am a born winner!” – acted like catnip to both football fans and the hacks working on the sports pages of Scotland’s newspapers.

 

From the Independent / © Getty Images

 

As the World Cup approached, a heady sense of expectation began to infect the Scottish population.  Folk started to believe that the Argentinian World Cup would be a jamboree of Scottish footballing genius, culminating in Ally and the gang lifting the trophy.  No wonder a carpet company cannily signed Ally to do a commercial where he sat on one of their rugs whilst dressed as a gaucho – 1970s Britain’s idea of what everybody in Argentina looked like.  This led to a priceless incident where, just before he departed for Argentina, Ally was accosted by an exuberant fan who declared, “Ally, see the day after your commercial?  My ma bought one o they carpets!”

 

Ally was indeed a great salesman.  He could truly market the brand.  Unfortunately, that was not quite the same as delivering the goods.

 

Even my favourite rock band, the Australian (but mostly Scottish-born) AC/DC, got in on act and wore Scotland football strips during a 1978 gig at Glasgow Apollo Theatre.  Also getting in on the act was the Scottish comedian Andy Cameron, who recorded a song called Ally’s Tartan Army that soon rode high in the charts.  It contained such catchy, if posthumously cringeworthy, lines as: “And we’re fairly shake them up / When we win the World Cup / Cos Scotland is the greatest football team!

 

From pinterest.co.uk

 

Being in Scotland in the spring of 1978 and watching this happen was disconcerting for me.  The year before, my family had moved from Northern Ireland and taken up residency in a farm near the Scottish town of Peebles.  Since then, I’d assumed that the Scots were a stoical, down-to-earth lot, not given to flights of fancy.  But then, all-of-a-sudden, they’d succumbed to this madness about Ally MacLeod, winning the World Cup and having the greatest football team in the universe – what was going on?  I found it particularly noticeable the day before Scotland played Northern Ireland in the Home Internationals.  When I walked into a meeting of the local Scouts that evening, all the other (Scottish) scouts had an insane glint in their eyes and were gleefully predicting how Scotland was going to slaughter, dismember and stomp on the grave of poor, lowly Northern Ireland the next day.  (As it turned out, all Scotland could manage with Northern Ireland was a 1-1 draw, much to my satisfaction.)

 

Still, over time, the madness seemed to seep into even my non-ethnically Scottish soul.  Hey, I thought, it would be cool to live in the country that’d won the World Cup, wouldn’t it?

 

After a delirious send-off at Hampden Stadium where 30,000 Scotland fans whooped and roared as if their team had just come back from Argentina clutching the World Cup trophy, Ally’s Tartan Army flew out and got ready for their first game of the competition’s first round, which was against Peru.  The evening that the game was on TV, I missed the beginning of it for my dad had sent me out to move some cows from one field to another.  I was in the middle of moving those cows when I heard a huge rumbling roar – like how I’d imagine the approach of a tsunami to be.  It took me a few seconds to realise I was hearing cheering coming from the town, a half-mile away beyond the last of my parents’ fields.  It was the sound of 5000-odd people in Peebles celebrating Joe Jordan knocking in a first goal for Scotland in the game’s 14th minute.  Gosh, I thought, it’s startedScotland really are going to win the World Cup!

 

So I completed my task, hurried back to the house and hunkered down in front of the television next to my younger brother, who’d really caught the Scotland World Cup bug and was sitting excitedly with a tartan scarf wrapped around him.  Scarcely had I arrived there when, just before half-time, Peru equalised.  Then in the second half Peru scored two more, so that by the game’s end Scotland had been beaten 3-1.  In a pathetic attempt to hide my disappointment, I pretended that, being Northern Irish, I hadn’t really been supporting Scotland and I thought their defeat was funny.  So I turned around and started laughing at my brother.  I stopped, though, when I realised he was in floods of tears.  However, my mother had already seen me laughing at him and she gave me a deserved bollocking for making him even more upset.

 

Next up for Scotland was Iran – an unstable country in the early throes of a revolution.  Scotland was surely going to win this one, right?  Wrong.  The team played so badly that they scraped a 1-1 draw and that was only because an Iranian player called Eskandarian scored an own-goal.  This game was famous for its images of a totally-deflated Ally Macleod sitting hunched over in the Scotland dugout, his hands clamped over the top of his skull in an attempt to shut out the world – “Ally trying to dismantle his head,” as one wag described it later.

 

From sportingheroes.net / © George Herringshaw

 

To heighten the misery, the Scottish striker Willie Johnston was sent home after failing a drugs test.  Other football players have suffered drugs scandals, most notably the cocaine-snorting Diego Maradona.  But the hapless Johnston wasn’t even caught taking a glamorous drug – he tested positive for Reacitivan, a medication prescribed to him because he had hay fever.  Poor old Willie might as well have been busted for taking Benylin Chesty Cough Mixture.

 

By now the Scotland situation was looking grim.  Also grim was the atmosphere at Peebles High School.  One guy in my class told me there was a record shop in Glasgow that was now selling copies of Ally’s Tartan Army by Andy Cameron for a penny each – so that disgruntled punters could make a public display of smashing them into vinyl slivers on the pavement outside.  Meanwhile, a girl told me she couldn’t bear to drink Scotland’s national fizzy drink Irn Bru any more – because its name sounded it too much like ‘Iran Peru’.  Lessons with our English teacher, Iain Jenkins, strayed off the topic of Shakespeare and became lengthy post-mortem discussions about what was going horribly wrong in Argentina.

 

In fact, I remember us doing some creative writing one day and then Iain Jenkins reading out a poem that a mischievous pupil from south of the border had just penned about Scotland’s faltering World Cup campaign.  It contained the memorable line, “Poor Ally will have to emigrate to the moon” and the even more memorable couplet, “Willie Johnston is over the hill / That’s why he’s on the pill.”

 

To get through to the World Cup’s next round, Scotland now had to beat the Netherlands – and beat them by three goals.  There seemed zero chance of that happening.  From the dire way the Scots were playing, it looked much more likely that the Dutch would murder them.  Yet it was against the Dutch – who’d eventually make it to the competition’s final – that Scotland managed a victory.  Indeed, they were 3-1 up at one point in the game and if they’d knocked in another goal they could have lived to fight another day.   Alas, it wasn’t to be.  The Dutch eventually pulled one back, making the final score 3-2.  Scotland had won, but not by enough to stop them going home early.

 

Still, the game produced a brilliant Scottish goal by the diminutive Nottingham Forest player Archie Gemmill.  It was the best goal of that World Cup and possibly the greatest World Cup goal ever.  Incidentally, it’s also the goal whose footage is intercut with the hectic sex sequence in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1995) – no wonder a dazed Ewan MacGregor murmurs at the end of it, “I haven’t felt that good since Archie Gemmill scored against Holland in 1978!”  (Though I’m pretty sure that back in 1978 the Scottish football commentator Archie Macpherson didn’t really exclaim, as he does in Trainspotting, “A penetrating goal for Scotland!”)

 

From whoateallthepies.tv

 

So Scotland was out of the World Cup but with, technically, a wee bit of pride salvaged.  Sadly, such was the hype that’d accompanied them to Argentina that their campaign didn’t feel like anything other than an absolute disaster.  The day after the Holland game, I remember a schoolmate, the local postman’s son, coming into class.  He pulled out a tartan scarf, waved it around for five seconds and said flatly and unenthusiastically, “See that?  We beat Holland.  Magic.”  Then he put the scarf back in his bag and zipped it up again.  And nobody at school seemed to talk about Scotland, Argentina and the World Cup ever again.

 

Mind you, later that summer, I returned to Northern Ireland for a holiday.  People there seemed to view me as 100% Scottish now and they didn’t stop tearing the piss out of me about how crap Scotland had played in Argentina.

 

But let’s be fair to Ally Macleod (who died in 2004).  In popular Scottish mythology he’s often depicted as a vainglorious balloon, bragging that his team would win the World Cup, and then win the next World Cup, and probably the Ryder Cup, the Stanley Cup, the America’s Cup, the Ashes and the Tour de France as well.  But I’ve scoured the Internet and been unable to find most of the hyperbolic quotes that I’ve heard attributed to him.  It’s fairer to say that he made a few tactless comments and exuded a lot of optimism, which the overheated imaginations of fans and journalists turned into mass hysteria.  In the dispirited environment of post-World Cup Scotland, though, nobody wanted to admit their own culpability and poor Ally became the scapegoat.

 

Anyway, if you can ignore the hubris and focus only on the football, Ally’s 1978 squad didn’t do that badly.  Yes, they had two duff games but they only lost one of those, and then they achieved a win against the eventual finalists.  If the cards had fallen differently elsewhere in their first-round group, they might have got through to the competition’s next stage; and, having had their wake-up call, performed better.  Other teams in other World Cups have done so with the same first-round record of one win, one draw and one defeat – including England.

 

Much has been blamed on that ill-fated World Cup campaign.  People have found significance in how it came shortly before the 1979 referendum on creating a devolved Scottish parliament, which died a death because of apathy.  The Scottish public voted for the parliament, but not in sufficiently high numbers.  It’s tempting to join those two dots – but I’m inclined to blame this collapse in Scottish political willpower at the end of the decade on factors a lot more complex than Ally Macleod bullshitting us a bit about football in 1978.

 

One thing that can be attributed to 1978 is the evolution of the Scotland football team’s travelling support, the Tartan Army.  Thanks to the bitter lessons learnt then, modern Scotland fans have dumped any belligerent, nationalistic sense of expectation and have gone about the (often thankless) task of supporting Scotland with humour, irony, self-deprecation and a determination to have a good time no matter how bad the results.  As a result, they’re now one of the most popular sets of fans in the world.

 

Actually, when Scotland played England a couple of years ago at Wembley, I saw a picture of some Scottish fans posing in Trafalgar Square with a life-sized cut-out of Ally Macleod they’d brought along.   That made me smile.  With his erratic management skills and over-exuberant PR skills, the daft bugger put us through the wringer in 1978, but it’s nice to know his spirit still gets invited to the party.

 

From the Guardian / © Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

 

Gone to parts unknown

 

© CNN

 

As it did to many people, the news three days ago that the New York chef, author, journalist and TV personality Anthony Bourdain had taken his own life came as a shock to me.  Bourdain seemed, in his TV shows No Reservations (2005-2012) and Parts Unknown (2013-2018), to exhibit an endless curiosity for the world and to relish exploring its varied cultures.  Ostensibly he roamed the continents to sample their food, but you got the impression that the culinary focus was really a means for Bourdain to meet as many different, interesting people and experience as many different, interesting places as possible.  So with this apparent zest for life he was the last person you’d expect to depart in this fashion.  Which, I guess, shows that you can never judge what’s going on in someone’s soul just by observing their surface.

 

Bourdain was for my money the best TV chef since the great Keith Floyd, though he went about his business in a more diplomatic and less kamikaze manner than Floyd did.  What made Bourdain special was that there was no snobbery in him.  During his travels, he enjoyed lowbrow as well as highbrow cuisine and treated the stuff that ordinary, local people liked eating with genuine respect and enthusiasm.

 

This was demonstrated, for instance, when he turned up in Scotland.  Whilst sneering at the Scottish diet is a way to get easy laughs in the wider world, Bourdain was happy to tuck into and savour Caledonian grub.  That was whether he was scoffing chips, cheese and curry sauce and washing it down with Irn Bru in Glasgow’s University Café (“I’m pretty sure God is against this”) or checking out the produce of the Mermaid Fish Bar on Edinburgh’s Leith Walk in the company of local crime writer Ian Rankin.  He had a soft spot for haggis too and once described it epically as “battered and floating adrift in a sea of mysterious life-giving oil, the accumulated flavours of many magical things as it bobs like Noah’s Ark, bringing life in all its infinitive variety…”

 

Bourdain had a way with words and since his passing I’ve seen quite a few of his memorable quotes posted on the Internet – such as his musings about travel: “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

 

But for me his finest words came in reaction to a visit to Cambodia and concerned a certain American ex-Secretary of State and National Security Advisor named Henry Kissinger: “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.  You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking.  Witness what Henry did in Cambodia – the fruits of his genius for statesmanship – and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at the Hague next to Milosevic.  While Henry continues to nibble nori rolls and remaki at A-list parties, Cambodia, the neutral nation he secretly and illegally bombed, invaded, undermined, and then threw to the dogs, is still trying to raise itself up on its one remaining leg.”

 

A heartfelt obituary for Bourdain penned by the food writer Tim Hayward can be read here in the Guardian.

 

Enter the dragon

 

© Dino de Laurentiis Company / NBC

 

I lately read Red Dragon, the 1981 thriller by Thomas Harris.   It’s the first of Harris’s novels to feature the super-intelligent, polylingual, opera-loving, gourmet-cooking, serial-killing psychiatrist and cannibal Dr Hannibal Lecter.

 

Harris’s second Lecter novel Silence of the Lambs (1988) was the one that turned Lecter into a flesh-munching cultural icon – especially when movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis had it filmed in 1991 with Jonathan Demme directing and Anthony Hopkins giving an Oscar-winning performance as the hungry psychiatrist.  However, though Silence is the best-known of Harris’s titles thanks to the popular and critical success of the 1991 movie version, that’s the only time it’s been filmed.  Red Dragon, on the other hand, has been adapted for the cinema and TV three times.

 

Firstly, in 1986, before Hopkins’ portrayal of Lecter caught the public imagination, Michael Mann directed a movie version of Red Dragon for De Laurentiis.  Retitled Manhunter, it didn’t do well at the box office and received mixed reviews, though it’s been reappraised and is regarded now as a 1980s classic.

 

In 2002, De Laurentiis unveiled a new cinematic version of Red Dragon, called Red Dragon this time, directed by the now-disgraced Brett Ratner and with Hopkins again in the role of Lecter.  This came just one year after the indefatigable De Laurentiis had brought Hopkins back for a movie adaptation of Harris’s third Lecter novel Hannibal (1999).  Presumably the haste to film Hannibal and refilm Red Dragon was because by this time Hopkins was in his mid-sixties and De Laurentiis knew that if he wanted to get any more mileage out of him as a credible, non-geriatric cannibal, it was now or never.

 

After 2002, with Hopkins retired from the role, all was quiet on the Lecter front for a while.  Well, apart from a crappy ‘origins’ movie called Hannibal Rising, starring Gaspard Ulliel in the title role, released in 2007 and based on a fourth Lecter novel Harris had published the previous year.

 

Then, from 2013 to 2015, NBC aired three seasons and 39 episodes of a TV show called Hannibal, which was produced in part by De Laurentiis’ production company.  By now old Dino himself had departed for the great studio in the sky, but his wife Martha was still around to act as executive producer.  The show was supposedly based on Red Dragon, though it didn’t cover the main plot of the novel until late in its third and final season.

 

But enough of the movie and TV adaptations.  What did I make of the original 36-year-old novel that started the whole Hannibal hoo-ha in the first place?

 

© Arrow Books

 

Admittedly, Harris’s prose will never win awards for literary stylishness, but it’s impressively terse and efficient and it expertly tells the story.  In fact, I found Red Dragon compelling and finished it in three days – and that’s despite me knowing the plot inside-out, having been exposed to it already in the films and TV show.

 

First, a quick recap of that plot – be warned that from here on there are many spoilers.  Former FBI profiler Will Graham is coaxed out of retirement by his former boss Jack Crawford and sent to investigate a serial killer called the Tooth Fairy, who butchers well-to-do suburban families on nights of the full moon and does unspeakable, ritualistic things with their corpses.

 

Graham is understandably reluctant to return to his old job.  For one thing, he has unnaturally-acute powers of empathy – one symptom being a habit whereby “in intense conversations Graham took on the other person’s speech patterns.”   Such empathy has practical applications in that Graham is very good at projecting himself into the minds of psychopaths: “…you have to take whatever evidence you have and extrapolate,” he explains.  “You try to reconstruct his thinking.  You try to find patterns.”  This helps him to track down serial killers, but the disadvantage is that it seriously f**ks his head.

 

For another thing, the last serial killer he caught was one Dr Hannibal Lecter, who nearly gutted him ‘with a linoleum knife’ before going down.

 

Eleven pages in, Graham sets to work and the rest of the novel details his hunt for the Tooth Fairy.  We’re treated to several sub-plots.  We meet the Tooth Fairy himself, the tormented Francis Dolarhyde, who suffered a brutal and miserable childhood partly on account of his having a cleft lip and palate.  These were later repaired but Dolarhyde still believes himself to be disfigured.  Thanks to an unhealthy obsession with the William Blake painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, Dolarhyde also believes himself to be in the process of ‘becoming’, i.e. metamorphosising from his weak, imperfect human self into a powerful being called the Red Dragon, tattooed images of which he has slathered over his body.  Dolarhyde sees his murders as a way of facilitating this transformation.  Then, however, he unwittingly befriends a blind woman called Reba McClane at his workplace.  He falls in love with Reba, which poses an obstacle to the transformation process and brings the human and dragon sides of his personality into conflict.

 

Another sub-plot involves a scheme by Graham and Crawford to spring a trap for the Tooth Fairy, using Graham as bait.  They get sleazy scumbag tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds to write a newspaper feature about the murders that quotes Graham saying some derogatory things about the Tooth Fairy’s sexuality.  The plan backfires – horribly, as far as Lounds is concerned.

 

And finally, there’s a sub-plot wherein Graham consults an old acquaintance for some insight into the Tooth Fairy’s personality.  He visits Lecter, now incarcerated in a hospital for the criminally insane under the supervision of the amusingly vain and incompetent Dr Frederick Chilton.  Lecter is all too happy to play mind games when he meets his old nemesis (“Do you dream much, Will?”) but agrees to look over the case files.  (“This is a very shy boy, Will.  I’d love to meet him…”)  Later, the resourceful Lecter manages to establish a line of communication with the Tooth Fairy and thoughtfully passes on the address of Graham’s family.

 

One thing that impresses is the detail Harris puts into his accounts of police, FBI and forensic procedures while Graham and Crawford conduct their manhunt.  No wonder there was a six-year gap between Red Dragon and Harris’s previous novel, the terrorist thriller Black Sunday (1975) – the amount of research he did must have been massive.  What makes Red Dragon interesting from a historical point of view is that the forensic science described here doesn’t mention DNA – for DNA profiling only became a thing in 1984, thanks to the work of Sir Alec Jeffreys.  Could you write Red Dragon today and realistically incorporate the same incidents, twists and dynamics into its plot?  I doubt it.

 

© De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / Red Dragon Productions

© De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / Red Dragon Productions

© De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / Red Dragon Productions

 

It’s fascinating to compare the book, its two cinematic incarnations and its one TV incarnation.  Seen now, Manhunter is strikingly different from the full-bloodedly gothic adaptations of Harris’s novels that came later.  Clearly, Michael Mann doesn’t think he’s making a horror film – which is fair enough, considering that in 1986 Hannibal Lecter had yet to find fame as a bite-your-face-off horror icon.  Instead, the story is treated as a police-procedural thriller, albeit a very grim one.

 

Manhunter is also highly stylised and has an icy visual and aural glaze.  The distinctive lighting / colour palette includes blues for Graham (William Petersen) and his family, greens and purples for Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan), and stark, sterile whites for Lecter (Brian Cox) in his cell – which is far from the dark, dungeon-like place it’s depicted as in later movies.  There’s also a synth-dominated soundtrack that depending on your view of 1980s music you’ll either find amazing or deeply annoying.

 

Mann omits a few parts of the novel that, presumably, he found too hokey.  These include a sequence where Dolarhyde bluffs his way into the archives of the Brooklyn Museum, finds the original The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun and eats it – the painting is only 44 x 35 centimetres so yes, eating it is just about possible.  Mann also eschews the novel’s twist ending (which won’t fool anyone who’s ever seen more than three horror films) and finishes things with a straightforward shootout.

 

Fans of the Anthony Hopkins movies may be disappointed to discover that Lecter isn’t in Manhunter that much.  His only scene with Graham is when the latter visits his cell, though there’s a later sequence where they converse by phone.  Mind you, that’s more direct contact than they get in the book, for after their initial meeting Harris restricts Lecter’s communications with Graham to a couple of mocking letters.  Their face-to-face encounter in Manhunter is very effective.  It uses much of Harris’s original dialogue, although it leaves out one amusing line where Lecter describes Chilton’s attempts to psycho-analyse him as fumbling “at your head like a freshman pulling at a panty girdle.”

 

The Dundonian actor Brian Cox makes a down-to-earth but creepily intense Lecter.  There’s little of the knowing, playing-to-the-gallery relish that Hopkins brought later.  Cox is said to have based his portrayal on the Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel, who had such a conceit of himself that he conducted his own defence during his trial in 1958.

 

© Universal Productions / Imagine Corporation

© Universal Productions / Imagine Corporation

 

The makers of the 2002 Red Dragon claimed they’d filmed a more faithful version of Harris’s novel than Mann had.  Accordingly, the scene where Dolarhyde eats the painting and the twist ending are re-instated.  But this Red Dragon actually differs from the book in that – surprise! – we get a lot more of Lecter.  There are additional scenes between him and Graham (Edward Norton), plus ones where he puts the wind up the hapless Chilton (Anthony Heald).  By 2002, Hopkins’ Lecter had become such a fixture of popular culture that all the Welsh actor could do was portray him as a loveable bogeyman – which he does entertainingly enough.  Still, the film’s prologue, another extra scene that shows how Graham caught Lecter in the first place, carries a genuine chill.

 

I recently watched Red Dragon and found it better than I’d expected.  But compared to Manhunter it’s something of a dud.  Certain details annoy me, like how it’s set in 1980 but uses some anachronistic DNA testing to facilitate a sudden plot twist; or how the role of Graham’s wife (Mary-Louise Parker) is reduced during the climax.  In the book, she saves the day.  More importantly, sequences that looked impressively cinematic in Manhunter, such as when Dolarhyde returns Freddie Lounds to the authorities in a grisly fashion or when he treats the blind Reba to a zoo-visit so that she can feel the body of a sedated tiger, are done flatly and disappointingly.  I particularly disliked how director Ratner depicted Graham’s unsettling powers.  We see him contemplating some photos from a crime scene and suddenly – zap! – there’s a cheap horror-movie jump-cut of some creepy dolls.  The first episode of the TV show Hannibal shows how Graham’s mind works in a much more imaginative and disturbing way.

 

Red Dragon has the most prestigious cast of any Lecter movie – Hopkins, Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson – but some performances are problematic.  As Dolarhyde, Fiennes captures the sad, human side of the monster, but despite being a six-footer he doesn’t have the physicality that made the towering Tom Noonan so frightening in the previous adaptation.  Meanwhile, Ed Norton makes a very drab Will Graham.  Beyond the fact that he looks tired all the time, there’s little suggestion of the pressure his empathetic ability / curse puts on his sanity.  William Petersen conveyed this much better in Manhunter.

 

© Dino de Laurentiis Company / NBC

© Dino de Laurentiis Company / NBC

 

Downplaying the fragility of Will Graham is something that the flamboyant and daring TV show Hannibal can’t be accused of.  Indeed, viewers spend its three seasons wondering if the rumpled, tortured Graham (Hugh Dancy) is going to flip and become as evil as the human monsters he’s been tracking.  Pushing him along this road to ruin is his relationship with the suave, sardonic Lecter (Danish heartthrob Mads Mikkelsen), which goes well beyond the adversarial one depicted in the book and movies.  It’s a relationship of dark fascination, crossing over into the homo-erotic.

 

During Hannibal’s run, showrunner Bryan Fuller had great fun tampering with the conventions established by the books and films.  For instance, though in Harris’s chronology the 1999 novel Hannibal comes two books after Red Dragon, by the time the TV show tackled Red Dragon it’d already dramatised most of the events in Hannibal-the-novel.  (For copyright reasons, Fuller was unable to use anything from Silence of the Lambs.)  Still, when it comes, a surprising amount of Red Dragon remains intact in the show – including Dolarhyde’s eating of the painting, his unlikely courtship of Reba McClane (Rutina Wesley) and the failed attempt by Graham and Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to taunt him into a trap.  This time Dolarhyde’s boots are filled by Richard Armitage, who despite being best-known for playing a dwarf in The Hobbit movies (2012-14) makes an imposing killer.

 

Given the gleefully overwrought nature of the show, though, it’s no surprise that Fuller veers away from the novel for the story’s climax, which also serves as the climax of Hannibal’s last-ever episode.  Here, Lecter’s wish is granted and he gets to meet this ‘very shy boy’.  Fuller has the urbane cannibal escape from captivity and join forces with Graham at a storm-lashed clifftop mansion, where they take on Dolarhyde in a bloody, slow-motion and, yes, homo-erotic battle to the death.  All this while Siouxsie Sioux sings a song called Love Crime on the soundtrack…

 

I don’t know if Thomas Harris ever saw this episode.  I’d like to think that, if he did, he was rolling his eyes and shaking his head – but at the same time grinning with admiration at Bryan Fuller’s audacity.

 

From fineartamerica.com

 

Kataluwa Temple

 

 

A few months ago my partner and I spent four days at the beach resort of Unawatuna on the south coast of Sri Lanka.  Not being beach bums, or beach bunnies, or whatever the term is nowadays, we eschewed lounging on the sand and instead passed the time shuttling along that part of the coast doing some sightseeing.  One attraction we checked out was Kataluwa Temple, which is east of Unawatuna and overlooks a channel linking Koggala Lake with the sea.  We were keen to see this temple because, according to Lonely Planet, it has its origins in the 13th century, boasts ‘some recently restored murals’ and generally feels so quiet and out-of-the-way that it’s ‘like the temple that time forgot’.

 

It proved to be the temple that our tuk-tuk driver – who’d been driving us around for the previous day or two and was knowledgeable about the area’s other sights – seemed unaware of.  However, we’d done our homework with Google Maps and were able to direct him there.  After we’d rattled in through its gates, Kataluwa Temple certainly matched Lonely Planet’s description of it because there were no other visitors present – neither tourists having a look around nor locals saying prayers and leaving offerings.  And actually, the place didn’t seem that remarkable.  It was just a pleasant sand-and-grass-covered compound with a few buildings, statues, bells and palms trees, indistinguishable from hundreds of other quiet country temples scattered across Sri Lanka.

 

 

But then our tuk-tuk driver got talking to a temple handyman and he directed us through a stone gateway at the back of the compound.  This led into an additional part of the temple grounds, where there was an octagonal building of some antiquity and a house that accommodated the temple’s complement of Buddhist monks.  After we’d inquired at the house, a young monk came out, unlocked the other building and showed us inside – myself, my partner and the tuk-tuk driver, who was no doubt making notes at this point and planning to add Kataluwa Temple to his repertoire of south-coast attractions to take foreign tourists to.

 

The temple building’s interior was gorgeous – for it contained the restored murals that Lonely Planet had talked of.  Its walls were packed with colourful religious illustrations.  Images paraded along horizontal rows from the floor to the ceiling, as if the walls had been methodically wallpapered with pages from a giant comic-book or graphic novel.  Depicted there were gods, demons, kings, queens, priests, monks, warriors, merchants commoners, servants, elephants, horses, birds, snakes, carriages, thrones, doors…  Along the bottom were even some pictures of demons tormenting sinners in hell, though unfortunately these remained rather faded and spotty.

 

 

After that, we entered the monks’ house to receive a Buddhist blessing, say our thank-yous and make a donation towards the temple’s upkeep.  When the young monk asked me where I was from and I told him I was originally from Ireland, I was pleasantly surprised by his delighted reaction.  Only later did I learn that the Dutch government has helped to fund the restoration of the murals in this temple – and probably he’d misheard me and thought I was from ‘Holland’.

 

Northern irony

 

From Graham YES Linehan / http://twitter.com/Glinner

 

At last – the Republic of Ireland has shed its last vestiges of patriarchal backwardness.  Today it qualifies as a properly modern society whose female citizens are allowed their say over what goes on in their bodies.  By a two-thirds majority, the southern Irish electorate has voted to repeal the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution that outlawed abortion.  The government will now hopefully start legislating to permit abortion in the Irish health service during the first dozen weeks of pregnancy – with the period extended to 24 weeks in extreme circumstances.

 

With that, the Irish Republic has severed the final link with those old, dishonourable days when the Catholic Church, with the acquiescence of politicians from Eamon de Valera downwards, ruled the roost; when grey, sanctimonious and often twisted old men drew up and enforced the rules about what was and wasn’t socially acceptable.  Back then, obviously, there was not much expectation of Irish women to be anything other than dutiful wives and mothers.

 

Meanwhile, the church’s abhorrence of abortion led to scandals and tragedies like those of Savita Halappanavar and ‘Miss D’; and, generally, to a hypocritical situation where pious society turned a blind eye to thousands of pregnant women being forced to cross the Irish Sea and get abortions in Britain.

 

This and other recent events mean that soon the only chunk of the British and Irish islands still subject to oppressive anti-abortion laws will be Northern Ireland – which, despite being part of the United Kingdom, never came under Britain’s 1967 abortion act.  Funnily enough, politicians representing the province’s Protestant majority haven’t shown any interest in adopting the act even though, in every other respect, they never stop shouting about how ‘British’ they are.

 

Coming from the place myself, I have to say that I don’t see much prospect of the situation in Northern Ireland changing soon.  That’s not only because of the high quota of dribbling religious-extremist basket-cases living there (like this one and this one).  It’s also to do with Theresa May’s pathetic dependence on 10 hard-line Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party MPs for the survival of her minority government.  They might be obnoxious, but she won’t do anything to upset them.

 

The irony now is that uncompromising Catholics in the Irish Republic who’re aghast at this weekend’s referendum result and at the vote to legalise same-sex marriage three years ago would probably feel much more comfortable living in Northern Ireland. (Same-sex marriage is still a no-no up north, by the way.)  Yet the laws governing social mores there have been fashioned by an uncompromising Protestantism that, in the past, largely defined itself by how anti-Catholic it was.  Traditionally, they loathed one another, but nowadays extremist northern Protestants and extremist southern Catholics are practically on the same wavelength.  Who’d have thought it?

 

Last man no longer standing

 

© Sam Falk / New York Times

 

For the last few years I’d thought of the American novelist Philip Roth, who died on May 22nd at the age of 85, as the ‘last man standing’.  This was because he seemed to me the very last of a certain breed: those high-profile, often brash and larger-than-life, and sometimes narcissistic, men of letters who made the American literary world an eventful and entertaining place in the mid-to-late 20th century.

 

I’m thinking of the likes of Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, John Updike, Gore Vidal and Kurt Vonnegut.  While it’s wrong to generalise, and each one had his own unique context and character, they seemed overall much more dramatically writerly than their British counterparts at the time.  Elephantine egos abounded, many of them loved the spotlight, and there were few qualms about rolling up sleeves and wading into a good literary feud, fight or slagging match with a rival.  For instance, Gore Vidal got punched in the face – or struck by a glass, or headbutted, depending on which story you believe – by Norman Mailer after he’d written a piece comparing Mailer to Charles Manson.  I couldn’t imagine John Fowles doing that to Malcolm Bradbury.

 

Certain members of America’s premier league of post-war writers were also notable boozers.  I seem to remember Martin Amis likening them once to a bunch of drunks you’d find in the back of a police van late on a Saturday night on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street.  (Aye, right, Martin.  Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night.  You’d know all about that.)

 

They generated lots of good copy and anecdotes but thinking about them now they were problematic in many ways.  American literature back then was very much a boys’ club – the attention they got seemed far more than that accorded to America’s post-war women writers.  As a teenager, when I was really getting into books for the first time, I knew of the reclusive Harper Lee; and of Shirley Jackson, though she seemed neglected because she’d written too much ‘genre’ fiction and not enough proper ‘adult’ stuff; but that was about it.  I didn’t hear of people like Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor until much later.

 

There was also a reek of smug, well-to-do WASP / Jewish male privilege hanging around them and, accordingly, their characters seemed frequently to be successful middle-aged blokes working in America’s boardrooms or on its campuses, fraternising with the rich, the powerful and the intellectual and, of course, having their pick of beautiful young ladies.  I know Updike’s fiction wasn’t all like this, but whenever I think of the characters in his short stories now I seem only to recall fifty-something college professors married to twenty-or-thirty-something women who, of course, had started out as their students.

 

Then again, some of them – like Heller, Mailer and Vonnegut – had fought in World War II and belonged to a generation of men who, after that, felt they’d earned their sense of entitlement.  (Mind you, no war-spawned sense of entitlement excuses Mailer from drunkenly sticking a knife into his then-wife in 1960.)

 

I must confess that the only thing I’ve read by Philip Roth is 1969’s Portnoy’s Complaint.  I consumed this as a teenager and greatly enjoyed it – something possibly connected with the fact that the book was about wanking.  For several years I’ve had his 2004 novel The Plot against America, which is set in a parallel universe where Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and sets the USA on a course into fascism, sitting on a shelf somewhere but I’ve never got around to reading it.  I should, as it sounds intriguing.

 

In Roth’s final interview, with the New York Times back in January this year, he was asked if he saw any resemblance between the events depicted in the book and those that have rocked America’s political establishment in the last couple of years.   The octogenarian Roth gave a splendidly robust response.  “Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to Fascism, but he was also – because of the extraordinary feat of his solo trans-Atlantic flight at the age of 25 – an authentic American hero…  Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.”

 

© Vintage

 

Worming my way into Aphelion

 

© Aphelion

 

A quick post to say that the latest issue (May 2018) of the science fiction and fantasy webzine Aphelion features a short story of mine called Bookworm, which I wrote under the pen-name Jim Mountfield.  The issue can be accessed here for the next few weeks.

 

Like several things I’ve written, Bookworm is the result of two different ideas I had that, originally, I assumed would lead to two different stories.  They’d been bouncing around inside my head for a long time and I’d never figured out a way of constructing a coherent narrative around either of them.  Then it occurred to me one day that I could combine those two ideas into one story – wildly dissimilar though they were.

 

In Bookworm’s case, one of the ideas was inspired by an art bookshop in Edinburgh that I occasionally worked in thirty years ago.  To be honest, a mate of mine officially worked there, but he wasn’t available on certain afternoons and asked me to fill in for him.  I was on the dole at the time and for the afternoons I worked there I was paid cash-in-hand.  The bookshop has long since disappeared and its premises are now occupied by a pizzeria, so I think I can say that without getting anyone into trouble.  The shop looked unusual in that it stood just before the junction where George IV Bridge, descending from the Royal Mile, and Candlemaker Row, climbing from the Grassmarket, slanted together.  Because it was at the end of a terrace and stuck between two converging streets, it had a strange, tapering, almost triangular shape.  Also, most of its frontage on the George IV Bridge side was glass.

 

So I’d always wanted to use that bookshop as the setting for a story – with its odd shape (‘like a slice of pie’, as Bookworm puts it); its glass frontage that meant I spent a lot of time just gazing out onto George IV Bridge, people-watching; and its shelves of big, expensive and beautifully-illustrated artbooks.

 

I must admit that the other idea that powers Bookworm is not an original one.  It was something I encountered as a teenager, when I read a 1947 short story called Cellmate by the science fiction and horror writer Theodore Sturgeon.  I thought the premise for that story was so wonderfully bizarre that I’d always wanted to write a variation on it.  I’ve seen the idea turn up in several places since then – for example, in the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi blockbuster Total Recall – so I don’t feel too guilty about nicking it.

 

Theodore Sturgeon was, incidentally, a very interesting character.  I suspect he’s best remembered today not so much for his work (which included scripting a couple of episodes of the original Star Trek TV series in the late 1960s) but for coining the adage known as Sturgeon’s Law, which goes along the lines of: okay, 90% of science fiction is crap but then, 90% of everything is crap.  In his day, though, he was a prolific and popular writer of short stories – he penned about 200 of them and during the 1950s he was said to be the most anthologised short-fiction writer in the English language alive.  And it’s claimed that he was the inspiration for Kilgore Trout, the fictitious sci-fi writer who recurs in the novels of Kurt Vonnegut and becomes their bemused, oddball conscience.  (Sturgeon…  Trout…  Get it?)

 

© Marc Zicree

 

And there you have it.  Long-gone Edinburgh art bookshop + bizarre short story by Theodore Sturgeon = Bookworm.

 

Cinematic heroes 12: Freddie Jones

 

© Associated British Picture Company / Warner Pathé

 

A few nights ago, I discovered the 1970 psychological-horror thriller The Man Who Haunted Himself on YouTube and I persuaded my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, who hadn’t seen it before, to watch it with me.

 

The Man Who Haunted Himself offers a rare opportunity to see the late Sir Roger Moore in a non-smooth, non-bemused, non-eyebrow-hoisting role.  In fact, he plays a staid businessman who gradually becomes convinced he has an evil doppelganger, one plotting against him and trying to remove and replace him in his family, job and social circle.  Not surprisingly, poor Roger’s sanity crumbles as a result.

 

Unfortunately for my partner’s enjoyment of the film, the great British character actor Freddie Jones suddenly appears twenty minutes before the end, playing a psychiatrist to whom the unravelling Roger turns in desperation.  That meant that as the film neared its climax, and she was trying to concentrate on what was happening, I kept distracting and annoying her with exclamations of “Oh look, there’s Freddie again!” and “Just look at Freddie’s expression!” and “Ha-ha, Freddie’s putting on a Scottish accent!”  As you can gather, I’m always delighted when Freddie Jones pops up in a film or TV show.

 

Freddie Jones was born in 1927 in Stoke-on-Trent, an English town famous for its potteries.  Actually, Jones worked in this industry for a decade before becoming, in his thirties, a professional actor – he was originally a lab assistant at a ceramics factory, a job that according to his IMDb entry “came close to making him clinically insane”.  His cinematic breakthrough arrived in 1967 with roles in three well-regarded movies: Peter Brook’s Marat / Sade, Joseph Losey’s Accident and John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd.  By then, however, he was already established as a familiar face on 1960s British TV, appearing in major shows like Z Cars (1963), The Avengers (1967), The Baron (1967), The Saint (1968) and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969).

 

© MGM

 

In the early 1970s, Jones became one of the most deliciously eccentric presences in British cinema – by turns quirky, twitchy, sweaty, sinister, off-the-wall, over-the-top, downright bizarre and occasionally (perhaps a legacy of that ceramics-factory job) demented.  For instance, he gives a short but memorable performance in Douglas Hickox’s underrated crime thriller Sitting Target (1972) as McNeil, a creepy convict who allies himself with fellow inmates Oliver Reed and Ian McShane for an escape attempt.  Indeed, the tense sequence where Freddie, Ollie and Lovejoy bust out of prison is one of the movie’s highlights.  He’s also good in another underrated film, Richard Lester’s disaster movie Juggernaut (1974), as the shifty Sidney Buckland.  Buckland’s a bomb expert who falls under suspicion when a shipping company receives an anonymous call to say that six explosive devices have been placed on one of its cruise liners and will be detonated unless a ransom is paid.  Is Freddie really the big villain?  (Is the Pope a Catholic?  Do bears shit in woods?)

 

Jones’s persona made him a natural for horror movies and he worked a couple of times with Hammer Films, then the world’s most famous horror-movie studio.  In 1969’s Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, he plays the creature pieced together by the title character.  Hammer’s Frankenstein movies tend to focus on Baron Frankenstein himself – usually essayed by the impeccable Peter Cushing, and not the hapless character depicted in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel but an obsessed, ruthless scientist who’ll go to any length to realise his ambitions – and they aren’t terribly interested in the monsters produced by the Baron’s experiments.  That’s said, Jones’s creature in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is the most melancholic and sympathetic one of the series.  He’s not even very monstrous – he’s just a bloke with a ragged scar around his head, to show where the Baron transplanted his brain from another body.  This causes him much misery when he goes to visit his beloved wife and she doesn’t recognise him, because he looks nothing like the original person his soul had inhabited.

 

Even by his normal standards, Cushing’s Frankenstein is an utter shit in this film – stooping to murder, rape and blackmail to get his way – and there’s a satisfying climax where Jones’s despairing creature sets a trap for him inside a burning mansion.

 

© Hammer Studios / Warner Bros – Seven Arts

 

Less acclaimed, but still enjoyable, is The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973).  Set in present-day London, this has Jones at his most pathetic and unhinged.  He plays Dr Keeley, a scientist forced by a mysterious millionaire businessman – who proves to be, yes, Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) – to develop an apocalyptic strain of plague bacterium.  Confronted by Peter Cushing, playing a modern descendant of Dracula’s old nemesis Van Helsing, Jones gibbers: “Evil rules, you know.  It really does.  Evil and violence are the only two measures that hold any power.  Look at the world.  Chaos.  It is a preordained pattern.  Violence, greed, intolerance, sloth, jealousy…  The supreme being is the devil, Lorimer…   Nothing is too vile.  Nothing is too dreadful, too awful.  You need to know the terror, the horror, Lorimer.  You need to feel the threat of disgust, the beauty of obscenity.”

 

Actually, in the early-to-mid 1970s, Jones made three Dracula movies, though only one of these was produced by Hammer and was any good.  He appeared in the spoof Vampira (1974) with David Niven playing Dracula as an aging playboy; which, though painfully unfunny, looks like Citizen Kane compared to the same year’s Son of Dracula, another spoof but this time with added rock music courtesy of Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon, John Bonham and Peter Frampton.  In Son of Dracula, Jones plays Baron Frankenstein to Nilsson’s Dracula Jr and Ringo Starr’s Merlin the Magician – don’t even ask – and Jones’s sonorous performance only highlights the fact that Nilsson and Starr have the acting ability of a pair of talking elevators.  Oh well.  Some of the musical numbers are okay.

 

© Brooksfilms / Paramount Pictures

 

1980 saw Jones appear in the touching David Lynch-directed, Mel Brooks-produced The Elephant Man.  He plays the sadistic freakshow owner Bytes, from whose clutches the saintly Dr Treves (Anthony Hopkins) rescues John Merrick (John Hurt), the tragic Elephant Man of the title.  Jones doesn’t take this lying down and he and Hopkins become almost biblical in their good-versus-evil struggle over the possession of the poor, deformed Merrick.  Later, Jones manages to re-abduct Merrick and reincorporates him into his freakshow, but the show’s other exhibits, led by a kindly dwarf (played by the late Kenny Jones of Star Wars fame), help him to escape again.

 

David Lynch was evidently impressed by Jones for he cast him in two more films, his 1984 sci-fi epic Dune and his 1990 Palme d’Or-winning Wild at Heart.  The 1980s, in fact, saw Jones at the height of his international fame and he featured in several big (or biggish) budgeted movies: Peter Yates’s clodhopping sci-fi fantasy Krull (1983); Mark L. Lester’s 1984 version of Stephen King’s Firestarter, in which Jones plays the scientist responsible for the drug-experiments that give little Drew Barrymore the power to set things alight with her mind; Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1985); Terry Jones’s Erik the Viking; and Clint Eastwood’s Cold War thriller Firefox (1982).  Alas, although Clint-meets-Freddie sounds like a marriage made in heaven, Firefox was hellishly bad.  In 1983, he even got a leading role – admittedly speaking Italian – in Federico Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On, playing a journalist on a voyage to scatter the ashes of a legendary opera singer.

 

If I tried to recount Jones’s entire TV career, meanwhile, I’d been here all night.  Let’s just say he graced many TV shows I have fond memories of: Jason King (1971), The Goodies (1972), Thriller (1975), Space 1999 (1976), The Ghosts of Motley Hall (1976-78), Just William (1977), Van der Valk (1977), Target (1977) and so on.  He was still busy at the dawn of the new millennium, appearing in things like The League of Gentlemen (2000) and Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s reboot of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (2001) – supposedly, Jones and fellow character actor Dudley Sutton are the only people to have appeared in both the original and the remake of that last show.  For me, though, his finest TV moment was as Dai, the crazed and doomed poacher in the 1977 kids’ series Children of the Stones, now regarded as one of the scariest programmes British TV ever made for children – though with a story involving a megalithic stone circle, a druidic cult of brainwashed villagers, ‘time rifts’ and an attempt to harness the power of a black hole, Children was as trippy as it was scary.

 

© HTV West

 

In the late noughties, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen Jones in anything for a while – the last thing I’d spotted him in had been the 2005 Johnny Depp vehicle The Libertine – and I assumed that, now in his eighties, he’d given up acting.  Fair enough, I thought, he’d certainly earned his retirement.  Besides, the family tradition was being continued by his eldest son Toby Jones, who was now playing memorable character roles in films like Finding Neverland (2004), The Mist (2007), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), Berberian Sound Studio (2012), The Girl (2012) and Tale of Tales (2015).

 

Then one evening, while I was back in Scotland and staying at my sister’s house, I happened to notice an elderly and whiskery but very familiar face on the TV screen.  “Wow!” I exclaimed.  “Is that Freddie Jones?”

 

“No,” replied my sister, “that’s Sandy Thomas.  From Emmerdale!”  And I discovered that Jones had been playing widower and ex-sailor Sandy Thomas in the popular, rustic-set ITV soap opera since 2005.  Indeed, it was only in February this year that the now-90-year-old Jones decided to finally call it a day and bow out of Emmerdale.

 

While I’m thankful for the modern career of the very talented Toby Jones, I can’t help but hope we haven’t seen the last of his venerable dad onscreen, either.

 

© ITV Studios

 

Forensic Bangkok

 

 

Wow.  I’d heard that the Songkran Niyomsane Forensic Medicine Museum at Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital was gruesome, but I didn’t expect it to be this gruesome.  The moment I entered it, I saw that the wall on my right sported a gallery of grisly photographs, showing the victims of various types of killings and fatal accidents.  The captions for the photographs explained the manner of death in brief and blunt English: ‘multiple propeller cuts’, ‘car accident’, ‘train accident’, ‘blast force injuries’, ‘throat cut by broken beer bottle’, ‘crush injuries by machine’, ‘blast force injuries (hand grenade)’, ‘gunshot wounds’ and the indelicately phrased ‘chop wound by axe’.  One photograph showing a corpse deeply imprinted with the tread-pattern from a car’s wheels bore the helpful caption, ‘tyre marks’.  No shit, Sherlock.

 

Mind you, after passing that initial gallery of horrors, many exhibits further inside the museum didn’t seem so grotesque.  There were cases containing severed limbs, fractured skulls, shrivelled and blackened smokers’ lungs, organs ruptured by accidents, stab-wounds and gunshots, and hands and feet mangled and crushed in accidents; but those things you’ll see in medical museums elsewhere in the world too.

 

Obviously, much of the forensic work done at Siriraj Hospital relates to crime, but not all of it.  Part of the museum is dedicated to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which devastated several southern Asian countries, including Thailand.  Within a seven-day period after the tsunami, a team of forensic experts from Siriraj processed 1011 ‘cases’ – i.e. dead bodies that, to be identified, had to have their distinguishing features recorded and catalogued.  A year later, the statistics for Thailand’s tsunami victims were as follows: a total of 3777 people had died, 2779 of the bodies had been identified and released to relatives, and a remaining 998 bodies remained unidentified and were classified as ‘pending for antemortem information’.

 

Located beyond the tsunami section are the museum’s most infamous exhibits (according to the travel-guide and blog entries I’ve read about it).  Not only is there a case containing the clothes taken from the body of a female murder-victim – skirt, top, underwear – but there are also four mummified and ghoulish-looking corpses standing on display.  I assume all four are the remains of executed criminals.  A panel beside one of them explains that, alive, he’d been a ‘rape-murderer with (a) death sentence’.

 

Actually, the Forensic Medicine Museum is one of a trio of museums huddling together on the first floor of a modern hospital building, behind a reception counter where you buy a single ticket for entry to all three.  On one side of it is the Ellis Pathological Museum, whose contents include an iron lung manufactured by the ‘J.H. Emerson Company’ of ‘Cambridge, Massachusetts’, which looks like a Jules Verne-esque steampunk contraption; a round, futuristic-looking room dedicated to the human heart; and a display of ‘congenital abnormalities’, such as conjoined twins and babies suffering from mermaid syndrome (where the legs are fused together) and gastroschism (where the digestive tract ends up outside the body).

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

On the other side is the Parasitology Museum.  This, as its name suggests, is dedicated to the icky, at times horrifying creatures that make a home for themselves inside human and animal bodies: liver, blood and intestinal flukes, beef and pork tapeworms, hookworms, pinworms, roundworms and filariasis, the cause of elephantiasis.  One grotesque exhibit showing the potential damage wreaked by the last of these, filariasis, is a scrotum removed from an elephantiasis victim, swollen to a diameter of 75 centimetres.  But even that is less stomach-churning than a photograph of a specimen of asceris lumbricoides – roundworm – being extracted from somebody’s anus.

 

 

Siriraj Hospital is home to a few other museums, but we had time to visit only one of those – the Congdon’s Anatomical Museum on the third floor of an older building, up a broad wooden staircase that looks like it belongs in Castle Dracula.  Established by Professor E.D. Congdon, the ‘father of modern teaching of anatomy in Thailand’, this consists of two large rooms.  The first one is mainly concerned with bones and its most striking feature is a row of nine adult skeletons along a rear wall, standing upright inside glass cabinets like guards in sentry boxes.  Seven of the cabinets have framed photographs of people perched on top, presumably portraits of the skeletons’ donors.  One skeleton even has flowers arranged around its bony feet, giving the floor of its cabinet the look of a shrine.

 

The exhibits in the other room include the following, yummy things: two partly-dissected adult cadavers; four partly-skinned and dissected human heads, showing nerves, facial muscles, facial vessels and the inside of the brain; hearts and their surrounding vessels, so tangled that they that resemble giant ginseng roots; a human torso cut up Damian Hirst-style into a series of slices; and four cases that each contain an entire internal human system, i.e. the skeleton, the muscles and ‘superficial veins’, the arterial and circulatory system, and the nervous system with the brain at the top and a web of nerves sprawling out below.  That last display is devoid of human form and almost resembles a Christmas tree.

 

It must be said that many of the exhibits here, like the building itself, look like they’ve seen better times.  They have a grey, fusty, putty-like texture.  It wouldn’t have surprised me if, had I been able to reach into their cases and touch them, my fingers had encountered a thin, wispy layer of fur growing on them.

 

The most unnerving thing about this museum, though, is the number of foetus, baby and infant cadavers on show.  Clearly, at the time when this institution was founded, infant mortality was high and life generally was cheap in Thailand.  Embryos floating in jars of fluid are often attached umbilically to removed segments of wombs, suggesting they were taken from women who’d died during pregnancy.  And there are a lot of conjoined twins displayed here, along with much information about the various possible forms that conjoining can take – apparently twins can be born as Siamese ones in 13 different ways.  (And I assume the reason why there’s such a preoccupation with conjoined twins in this museum is because Thailand lent its former name, Siam, to the condition, thanks to the fame during the 19th century of the joined-at-the-sternum Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker.)

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

What’s lingered most in my memory about the Anatomical Museum is how some of the cases containing children’s bodies have small toys – dolls, model cars and motorbikes, toy plastic phones and toy animals like ponies, frogs and penguins – arranged on top of them.  I suppose this is a Thai Buddhist custom, done to appease the spirits of the deceased children by providing them with something to play with.  It gives this gloomy old museum a welcome touch of humanity, though a little sadness and even spookiness too.

 

 

Master and servant

 

© Penguin Books

 

I haven’t read a great deal of Robert Louis Stevenson’s oeuvre – just Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886) and a few collections covering his short stories about Scotland, the supernatural (like 1886’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) and the South Sea islands.  When a few weeks ago I bought a copy of The Master of Ballantrae (1889) and started reading it, I assumed I was in for another rousing family-friendly adventure yarn in the spirit of Treasure Island and Kidnapped.

 

On paper, Master has all the elements of an adventure like those experienced by Jim Hawkins and David Balfour.  It begins with the Jacobite uprising of 1745.  The two sons of the Laird of the Durrisdeer Estate in southwest Scotland toss a coin to decide which one of them rides out and joins the uprising and which one remains at home and officially stays loyal to the crown – that way, whichever side wins, the estate should be safe.  Fate decrees that the elder son, James, joins the rebellion.  In due time, the rebellion is put down, James is believed killed, and the younger brother, the mild-mannered Henry, ends up inheriting the estate and finally marrying his deceased sibling’s fiancé.  To everyone’s surprise (apart from the readers’), James then comes back from the dead.  Not only has he survived the uprising and its bloody aftermath, but he’s been embittered and corrupted by his experiences and his soul is now thoroughly rotten.  And so begins a long and wide-ranging struggle between James and Henry for the estate and its wealth.

 

As Stevenson describes that struggle, we get episodes involving smugglers, pirates, slave-traders and hostile North American Indians.  There’s a supposed duel to the death, an arduous trek through the American wilderness, an unexpected interlude in India and a stormy voyage across the Atlantic.  The book’s climax returns to the wintry forests of North America, where the brothers engage in a desperate race to locate some buried pirates’ treasure.  Thus, all the boxes seem ticked on the Robert Louis Stevenson rip-roaring adventure checklist.

 

It’s a surprise to report, then, just how dark and grim Master is.  For example, the pirate section – James and an associate called Francis Burke fall in with a crew of brigands and cut-throats when the ship in which they’re fleeing post-rebellion Scotland is attacked and taken over – is no cosy rewrite of Treasure Island.  These pirates are debauched savages who murder the crews of the ships they board.  At one disturbing moment, Burke recalls: “Twice we found women on board; and though I have seen towns sacked, and of late days in France some very horrid public tumults, there was something in the smallness of the numbers engaged, and the bleak, dangerous sea-surroundings, that made these acts of piracy far the most revolting.  I confess ingeniously I could never proceed unless I was three parts drunk…”

 

Meanwhile, the final pages almost have the intensity of a horror story.  As they journey through the wilds of Canada, searching for the spot where years earlier James buried a cache of pirates’ booty, a party of exhausted men find themselves being stalked by an unseen foe.  Each night, someone skulks into their camp and murders and scalps them one by one as they lie asleep: “…when they rested at last, it was to sleep profoundly; and when they woke, it was to find that the enemy was still at their heels, and death and mutilation had once more lessened and deformed their company.”  It might not be in the league of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), but it certainly suggests the primordial brutality of a modern western movie like Bone Tomahawk or The Revenant (both 2015).

 

Psychologically, Master isn’t a comfortable read either.  We expect Henry to be the good guy, and that’s at least how he starts off.  Not, it should be said, that he gets much credit for his decency – the local people around the estate view him as a coward and traitor for not joining the uprising; and his wife and elderly father ignore him and spend their time mourning James and lionising his memory.  When James reappears and takes his place in the household again, hiding his multitudinous vices from everyone but his brother, Henry’s character failings become increasingly apparent.  He proves incapable of action, the outrage he feels cancelled out by a sense of defeatism.  No wonder he laments, “I am a man of great patience – far too much – far too much.  I begin to despise myself.  And yet, sure, never was a man involved in such a toil!”

 

Later, fate brings both brothers to New York and it seems that Henry has at last turned the tables on James.  He lives in “a decent mansion” and is “a popular man with his intimates” while James, shunned and impoverished, sets up a lowly tailor’s business “in a poor quarter of the town” in “a lonely, small house of boards, overhung with some acacias… with a sort of hutch opening, like a dog’s kennel.”  Yet Henry is possessed by hatred now.  Every day, he makes a point of going to James’s hovel dressed in his finery, standing in front of it and staring gloatingly at his sibling while he sits sewing outside.  Challenged about this obsessive and petty behaviour, he retorts, “You never had such mountains of bitterness upon your heart,” and he expresses a determination to ‘break’ his brother’s ‘spirit’.  Later still, when Henry hears a clearly scurrilous rumour from Britain that he might be disinherited in favour of James, he’s become so paranoid that he chooses to believe it and casts himself into a course of action that proves disastrous for both brothers.

 

As Henry’s character disintegrates, we find ourselves almost welcoming each moment when James arrives onstage.  He’s callous, manipulative, scheming, limitlessly greedy and superhumanly selfish, but he’s consistent and, in his evil way, very entertaining.  In fact, he must rank alongside Alec D’Urberville, Bill Sykes and Count Dracula as one of the great anti-heroes of 19th century British literature.  And it’s not difficult to see him as Henry’s wicked, corrupting alter-ego, nudging his younger brother a little further off the path of virtue and into the realms of sinfulness and madness every time he appears.  Stevenson, of course, had explored this theme three years earlier with The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, though the blueprint for both Master and Jekyll and Hyde lies further back in time, with a work by Stevenson’s fellow Scot, James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824).

 

© Rex Features / The Daily Telegraph

 

All this would make Master a morose novel if it wasn’t for the strong injection of humour it gets from its narrator.  The story is related by Ephraim Mackellar, Henry’s steward and servant, and the idiosyncrasies of Mackellar’s personality flavour the storytelling.  The fussy, prudish, squeamish and conservative Mackellar is an amusingly and peculiarly Scottish creation.  If he was alive today, he’d no doubt be tutting over the stories he reads every week in the Sunday Post.  He’d be serving dutifully as an elder in his local Church of Scotland even though hardly any of his neighbours bother to turn up at the services any more.  And he’d be out canvasing for Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Tories in the hope that they’ll restore discipline in the schools by re-introducing the belt and generally bring back the Good Old Days when everyone knew their place and doffed their caps to their betters.

 

Mackellar’s hapless honesty makes Master very funny in places.  He doesn’t shirk from describing the indignities inflicted upon him – for example, when some smugglers “caused me to dance for their diversion.  The method employed was that of cruelly chipping at my toes with their naked cutlasses, shouting at the same time ‘Square Toes’; and although they did me no bodily mischief, I was none the less deplorably affected, and was indeed for several days confined to my bed; a scandal on the state of Scotland on which no comment is required.”  On the other hand, he’s affecting in the loyalty he shows to Henry and, indeed, he becomes Henry’s conscience when he starts to go to the bad.  Stevenson even hints that Mackellar’s love for his boss might be more than a love engendered by respect and duty: “…I have never had much toleration for the female sex, possibly not much understanding; and being far from a bold man, I have ever shunned their company.”

 

The book’s most amusing section comes when Henry tries to ensnare James in a legal trap, leaving him stranded at the Durrisdeer Estate but with no access to its funds, while he and his family depart for America in the hope of building a new life for themselves.  Mackellar is left behind as James’s custodian and the two men, absolutely opposed in temperament, begin an Odd Couple-like existence in the empty ancestral home.  They end up with a grudging respect, even a perverse affection, for each other.  When Mackellar manages to verbally cut James down to size, the latter cackles, “Who would have guessed… that this old wife had any wit under his petticoats?”  Yet the infernal side of James’s nature is never far away, something illustrated a few pages later when he manages to goad the pious Mackellar into doing something extremely un-Christian, i.e. making an (unsuccessful) attempt on his life.

 

The Master of Ballantrae wasn’t what I’d expected, but I found its mixture of bleakness, humour, tragedy and the macabre admirably haunting.  So confidently does it juggle its disparate elements that you wonder what other literary goodies Robert Louis Stevenson might have produced had he lived beyond the age of 44.