Whatever happened to kids’ Euro-telly?

 

© Franco London Films / ZDF Television

 

What a melancholy coincidence…  A few weeks ago, for the first time in years, something got me thinking about the 1960s children’s TV show The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and I watched part of an episode of it on YouTube.  I wondered if its star, the Austrian actor Robert Hoffman, was still on the go, googled him and was pleased to find that he was.  Then, the other day, I read on social media that Hoffman had just passed away.

 

Anyway, here’s something I originally posted in 2012, which mentions Hoffman and The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.  It’s now been updated for 2022.   

 

Politics, the economy and, indeed, cultural attitudes in Britain in the last half-dozen years have been dominated by Brexit.  This, depending on your point-of-view, has either been a joyous and much-needed liberation of Britain from the stifling bureaucracy and political interference it’d had to put up while it was a member of the European Union; or the most disastrous decision Britain has made since the 1956 Suez Crisis, one that’ll doom the country to being a parochial, xenophobic wee dump that backpedals towards the 1950s while the other European nations get on with living in the 21st century.  Anyone who regularly reads this blog will know which view I subscribe to.  Namely, that if you believe there’s anything positive about Brexit, you must have one of those heads that proverbially ‘zip up the back’.

 

The Brexit vote in 2016 came 43 years after Britain joined the European Union, or the European Economic Community (EEC) as it was then.  However, it’d be wrong to believe before 1973 Britons were wholly detached from the culture of continental Europe.  Indeed, though I was a mere mite before 1973, much of my headspace had already been colonised by the continent.  This was thanks to children’s television.

 

In the early 1970s, the BBC felt obliged not only to entertain kids after they’d arrived home from school and broadcast juvenile programmes from 4.00 to 5.45 PM, but also to broadcast such programmes during the mornings of school-holiday periods.  The morning schedules of the summer holidays in particular were a challenge for the BBC to fill with kiddie-related material.  As a result, the channel had to regularly raid its archives for old, dubbed children’s shows from France, Germany and elsewhere and broadcast those.

 

Let’s begin with my least favourite show.  Growing up on a Northern Irish farm where there weren’t many neighbours to mix with, I depended for company during the summer holidays on the elderly couple who lived a few hundred yards along the road from our farmhouse.  More precisely, I depended on their two granddaughters, who were around my age and usually came to spend much of the summer with them.  Luckily for me, the neighbours’ granddaughters were a pair of Tomboys who were dependable for games of cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, and other activities normally more associated with young males.  However, they had one weakness, a fondness for a show called White Horses.

 

This was a co-production between German and Yugoslavian TV that’d been made back in 1965 but that rarely seemed to be off the BBC’s children’s holiday schedules in the early-to-mid-1970s.   It followed the adventures of a girl from Belgrade, Julia, who was staying on her uncle’s horse ranch.  Populating the farm were handsome white steeds that made my two female playmates swoon with adoration.

 

As a boy, and not a fan of horses (white or otherwise), I thought this was the dumbest programme ever.  And it constantly annoyed me that on those summer mornings the games of cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians would abruptly stop and my two playmates would run indoors to sit goggle-eyed in front of their television the moment White Horses came on.  I have to say, though, that while I generally remember other kids’ TV programmes from then but not the details of individual episodes, two episodes of White Horses remain etched on my mind.

 

In one episode Julia found a metallic, saucer-shaped object on the grounds of the ranch and carried it to her uncle, who immediately screamed, “It’s a mine!” and flung it away as far as he could.  At which point it exploded.  In the other episode, the ranch’s dog was seen frothing at the mouth and in the ensuing pandemonium all the ranch-hands tore around on horseback, trying to hunt the rabid beast down.  Come to think of it, for a silly girls’ show, White Horses was actually quite dark.  It left me with the conviction that the European continent was a real danger zone, riddled with unexploded World War II landmines and overrun with rabid mammals.  That’s a message I’m sure Brexiters like Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg would approve of.

 

© Philips

 

One thing that really annoyed me about White Horses was the sickly theme song.  This wasn’t a feature of the original German-Yugoslavian show but had been recorded by the Dublin singer Jackie Lee and stuck onto the dubbed BBC version.  The lyrics went: “On my horses let me ride away, to my world of dreams so far away, let me run, to the sun, to a world my heart can understand, it’s a gentle warm and wonderland, faraway, stars away, where the clouds are made of candyfloss, as the day is born, when the stars are gone, we’ll race to meet the dawn…”  Despite my intense dislike for it, however, the song is now regarded as a kitsch classic and has been covered many times, usually by ‘knowing’ indie-pop bands like Kitchens of Distinction and the Trashcan Sinatras.  Even Catatonia’s Cerys Matthews has had a go at singing it.  Here, if you can stomach it, is the original version.

 

Now if you wanted a Euro-kids’ TV show with a seriously bad-ass theme song, you didn’t have to look any further than The Flashing Blade, a historical swashbuckler made by France’s Office de Radiodiffusion Television Francaise (ORTF) in 1967.  Set in the early 17th century, during the War of Mantuan Succession between France and Spain, the show’s theme song was accompanied by footage at the start of each episode showing the principals racing manically across countryside on horseback.  Their manic-ness, of course, was increased by the fact that the film was wildly speeded up.  The singer implored: “You’ve got to fight for what you want, and all that you believe, it’s right to fight for what we want, to live the way we please, as long as we have done our best, then no one can do more, and life and love and happiness, are well worth fighting for.”  Here’s the show’s blood-stirring opening on YouTube.

 

Unlike White Horses, I don’t remember much about the story of The Flashing Blade, except that to my impressionable young mind it was very like The Three Musketeers.  For some reason, however, I’ve never forgotten a scene where two characters – one presumably villainous because he sported a pointed beard – were playing chess and the villain made a comment about the uselessness of pawns with regard to the outcome of the game.  The other player immediately came back with an observation along the lines of: “Even the smallest pebble can shatter the most beautiful of mirrors.”  As a seven-year-old, this seemed the profoundest thing I’d ever heard.

 

© Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française 

 

Also originating with France’s ORTF in 1967 was Les Chevaliers du Ciel, which ran on Gallic television for the next three years.  By the time it turned up in anglicised form on British TV it’d been retitled The Aeronauts and given a new, hard-rockin’, by BBC standards, English-language theme song by the Canadian musician and TV presenter Rick Jones.  His Aeronauts song went: “Better than best, boys, we pass every test, you’re ahead of the rest, when those crime-fighting Aeronauts are cutting those bounds, in a fury of sound, you’re a loser all round, against the crook-catching Aeronauts, so play in the wind, boys, you better give in, because your troubles begin when those two daring aeronauts fly!“  I can’t find the opening sequence for this one, only the song itself.

 

Incidentally, the memorably bearded, balding and intense-looking Rick Jones was no stranger to children’s TV programmes, as in 1972 he hosted Fingerbobs, which must’ve featured the cheapest and most low-fi puppets in the history of television.  Over seven years he also worked on the BBC’s long-running show for pre-school kids, Play School (1964-88), a stint that ended when, to quote his Wikipedia entry, he was ‘fired by the BBC, after a fan sent him two cannabis spliffs at the corporation’s address’.  Jones, alas, died in San Francisco last year.

 

Once again, though I remember the theme music well, I can’t recall much of what went on in The Aeronauts.  Maybe that was just as well, since the show was about two hunky young guys called Ernest and Michel who were pilots in the French Air Force.  As such, they might’ve spent the episodes bombing la merde out of insurgents in North Africa or Greenpeace activists in the South Pacific.

 

© Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française 

 

I’ve spoken ironically about the music on The Flashing Blade and The Aeronauts, but there’s no disputing the fact that the theme tune of Belle and Sebastian had a genuine haunting quality.  This was the Anglicised version of Belle et Sebastien, which ran on French television from 1965 to 1970 and was based on the novel by Cecile Aubrey about a boy and his big Pyrenean mountain dog.  It’s fitting that wistful Glaswegian indie-pop band Belle & Sebastian took their name from this show.  And apparently its theme song was covered by New Zealand singer-songwriter Bic Runga a few years ago.  Here’s the original version.

 

There are a number of things I remember about Belle and Sebastian, apart from its music and its obvious star, the hefty canine Belle.  I remember being awed by the sheer, bleak mountain landscapes that formed its backdrop – it’d been filmed around the village of Belvedere in the Alpes-Maritimes.  Indeed, years later, when I finally saw the Alps for real, the first association I made in my head was with that old French kids’ TV show.

 

I also remember how the voices in Belle and Sebastian puzzled me.  Not being aware of dubbing procedures or the fact that the BBC employed a small group of actors to do the English dialogue for these imported shows, I couldn’t figure out at the time why the adults in Belle and Sebastian sounded exactly like the adults in White Horses.  By the way, Sebastian in the show was played by Mehdi el Glaoui, who was Cecile Audrey’s son.  Little Mehdi’s father was Moroccan and indeed his grandfather had been the Pasha of Marrakech.

 

© Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française 

 

However, musically, the best Euro-kids’ programme of all was surely The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.  Robinson Crusoe was of course a British cultural property, but this children’s drama version of the story had been made in 1964 by France’s Franco London Films (FLF) and starred Austrian actor Robert Hoffman in the title role.  The BBC got its hands on it, dubbed it and broadcast it regularly during its children’s TV schedules from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s.

 

The BBC added a lovely, mock-classical score composed by Robert Mellin and P. Reverberi, which managed to be both stirring and slightly desolate.  I’ve read somewhere that the spiralling opening chords were meant to represent the breakers striking the beach of Crusoe’s desert island.  It doesn’t surprise me that when electronica band The Orbital put together 19 of their favourite tracks in 2002 for the Back to Mine compilation series, they decided to close their compilation with this tune.

 

To be fair to The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, a lot more of the show has remained with me over the years than just its theme music.  For a long time, Hoffman’s youthful features formed my image of how the character should look – so that when I saw other versions of the story later on, such as a 1974 BBC adaptation with Stanley Baker and a more politically correct movie adaptation called Man Friday (1975) with Peter O’Toole and Richard Roundtree, I couldn’t accept them.  The series took liberties with Daniel Dafoe’s novel, though.  For example, it climaxed with a shipload of pirates invading Crusoe’s island.  At which point, Man Friday took off and hid in the island’s jungle, and started killing the pirates off one by one.

 

Finally, for pure weirdness, you couldn’t beat The Singing Ringing Tree, which had started life as a film made by an East German studio, Das Singende Klingende Baumchen.  The BBC duly chopped it into TV-serial form.  Even by the standards of the other Euro-kids’ shows I saw at the time, The Singing Ringing Tree was particularly venerable, dating back to 1957.  It lingers in my mind because, although it was ostensibly a fairy tale, it spooked the hell out of me.

 

© Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft

 

With characters including an evil dwarf, a humanoid bear creature (who was actually a prince transformed by a magic spell) and a gigantic goldfish, the series resembled a Brothers Grimm story directed by David Lynch.  Reviewers, at least those who took the show seriously, noted an influence of German expressionism on how it looked and an influence of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) in particular.  To my seven-year-old sensibilities, the fate suffered by the dwarf at the end was especially traumatising.  He was last seen swooping around in the air and then plunging through the thin-crusted ground and vanishing in a belch of volcanic, sulphurous smoke.

 

If this makes me sound wimpish, I should point out that I wasn’t alone in being scared by the show.  The comedian and impersonator Paul Whitehouse said of The Singing Ringing Tree that it used to make him ‘pee his pants’ when he was a kid.  Perhaps as a way of exorcism, Whitehouse staged a spoof of it on his popular comedy programme The Fast Show (1994-97) called The Singing Ringing Binging Plinging Tinging Plinking Plonking Boinging Tree with, somewhat inevitably, the ubiquitous Warwick Davies in the role of the dwarf.  And in 2006, the show lent its name to a ‘wind powered sound sculpture’ in the Pennines in Lancashire.

 

And there ends my round-up of kids’ Euro-telly.  They might have been a set of old, cheap and badly-dubbed TV shows, but nonetheless they converted me into a good little European – even if at the time I still thought Brussels was something you were force-fed at Christmas, not the hub of one of the most important political and trading alliances in the world.

 

© Franco London Films / ZDF Television

First men in the moon

 

© Carolco Pictures / Tri-Star

 

One of the depressing things about being in your (later) middle years is that the people who were your heroes in your youth start to die with an alarming frequency.  Yes, they’ve become old and this is to be expected, but it’s still depressing.  This month has seen the departures of Alan Grant, the Scottish comic-book writer whose career took him from DC Thomson in Dundee to DC Comics in America, and who played a big role in shaping Judge Dredd, the signature character and strip of 2000AD, my favourite comic, as well as writing stories for Strontium Dog, RoboHunter and Batman; of the actor L.Q. Jones, who was best known for appearing in American western movies and TV shows of the 1950s and 1960s and was one of the very last, recognisable ‘cowboy actors’ still alive; and of the wonderful English character-actor David Warner, about whom I wrote this blog-entry on his 80th birthday last year.  By a sad coincidence, Jones and Warner were also the final survivors of the repertoire who worked with director Sam Peckinpah in a string of classic movies.

 

And July 2022 saw the death of director Bob Rafelson, whose credits include Head (1968), Five Easy Pieces (1971) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981).  By way of a tribute, here’s a slightly updated piece I wrote eight years ago about a Rafelson movie that, I felt, had unfairly disappeared under the radar – 1990’s Mountains of the Moon

 

Some of you may be old enough to remember the heyday of Ladybird Books, a company that published children’s books emphasising the educational, the wholesome and the patriotic.  The library at my primary school was stuffed full of them.  Their historical tomes were given special prominence on the shelves.  These dealt with famous figures in British history like Admiral Nelson, Captain Cook, Florence Nightingale and David Livingstone and painted glowing and sanitised portraits of them.

 

These historical characters, according to Ladybird, were fine, upstanding and virtuous, qualities that British people had traditionally prided themselves on having.  Also, the establishment they represented, back in the days of British imperialism and the British Empire, was by extension a fine, upstanding and virtuous thing too.  Needless to say, Ladybird Books didn’t trouble the minds of its young readers with such topics as Admiral Nelson’s dalliance with Mrs Emma Hamilton, or Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer’s orchestration of the Amritsar Massacre in 1919, or indeed Winston Churchill’s opinions of Afghans, the ‘feeble-minded’, women, Jews, Trade Unionists, the Irish, Indians and using chemical weapons.

 

And yet… I can understand anyone, at a young age, being enthusiastic about the damned things.  In my childhood, I loved the Ladybird history books because they served up two things that were vital for a kid: heroes and adventures.  Never mind the fact that they overlooked the moral complexities of character and the moral ambiguities of history.  It was simply, viscerally exciting to read about people who were, supposedly, both incredibly decent and incredibly brave, setting off to perform feats of derring-do in a world that, a couple of centuries ago, seemed full of danger and mystery.

 

© Carolco Pictures / Tri-Star

 

This brings me in a roundabout way to Mountains of the Moon, the Bob Rafelson-directed movie from 1990, which tells the story of Victorian explorers Richard Burton and John Speke and their 1857 expedition to find the source of the River Nile.  I suspect the reason I like this film so much is because it lets me have my cake and eat it.  On one hand, it offers a tale of British historical adventure that’s as thrilling as anything in the old Ladybird Books.  On the other hand, it’s critical of the British Empire and the people who ran it.  You can enjoy the exploits of the two protagonists as they battle their way past peril after peril but, simultaneously, you don’t have to feel guilty for doing so.

 

Mind you, I don’t ever remember seeing a Ladybird volume dedicated to Sir Richard Francis Burton, despite the fact that Burton, as his Wikipedia entry puts it, was a ‘geographer, explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, Egyptologist and diplomat’ and spoke 29 languages, including Icelandic, Swahili, Amharic, Sanskrit and Hebrew.  The lack of a Ladybird biography on Burton may be down to Burton’s fascination with the sexual practices of the many cultures he visited, which ‘led him to take measurements of the lengths of the sexual organs of male inhabitants of various regions which he included in his travel books’; or to the rumour that during his military career he once went ‘undercover to investigate a male brothel reputed to be frequented by British soldiers’.  Less salaciously, Burton was simply a loose cannon.  His unruly reputation prevented him from being promoted to the very heights of the British establishment, either as a soldier or as a diplomat.

 

In the Mountains of the Moon, Burton is played by Irish actor Patrick Bergin.  From the movie’s opening scenes – when we see Burton have a spear thrust his mouth by some natives in Somalia, a mishap that’d deter most other people from ever wanting to set foot beyond their front gate again, but with Burton seems only to enflame his passion further for travel and exploration – Bergin does a good job of capturing the man’s versatility, unpredictability and boundless energy.  Indeed, if there’s one thing the film conveys beautifully, it’s the glorious insanity that propels Burton and Speke into the unknown, determined to make sense of it; whilst enduring hardships, indignities and degradations a million miles removed from the cosy, cloistered lives they led in upper-class Victorian Britain.  During the 1857 expedition, Speke – who in Mountains of the Moon is played by Iain Glen – is almost driven mad by beetles crawling into his ears while Burton becomes crippled, his legs swelling up to the point where they need to be lanced.  Come to think of it, the Ladybird books kept clear of stuff like this too.

 

While the film celebrates the two men’s heroism – and heroic powers of endurance – it disdains a British imperial establishment that’s supportive of them because it hopes to enjoy the prestige of their achievements; but that’s also manipulative and untrustworthy.  It’s a historical fact that by the early 1860s Burton and Speke had fallen out, due to a claim by Speke that the source of the Nile lay in Lake Victoria.  This was something that the British press of the time was only too happy to believe and it led to Speke being feted and celebrated.  Meanwhile, Burton’s role in the 1857 expedition was played down.

 

Mountains of the Moon would have you believe that one reason for this was Burton’s Irishness.  His father was of Anglo-Irish stock, though Burton himself was born in Devon.  Here, with Bergin in the role and displaying a recognisable Celtic brogue, Burton seems more Irish than he probably was in real-life.  Speke on the other hand was an English gentleman of the stiff-upper-lip variety, whom the establishment found more palatable to sell as a hero of the Empire.  Actually, it’s a bit ironic that actor Iain Glen is a Scotsman, from Edinburgh.

 

© Carolco Pictures / Tri-Star

 

The feud between the two explorers came to a sudden and unexpected end in September 1864, one day before Burton and Speke were scheduled to debate the Nile’s source at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.  Hunting on a relative’s estate, Speke was killed when his gun discharged itself into him while he was climbing over a wall.  This caused speculation that the controversy that’d soured things so badly between him and his old comrade had led Speke to kill himself, although a jury later ruled that it’d been an accident.  Mountains of the Moon remains ambiguous about Speke’s death, but the door is left open for the possibility that, upset about how the establishment had set him and Burton at each other’s throats, Speke committed suicide.

 

Also indicative of British attitudes at the time is the neglect shown to the African guide Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who in Mountains of the Moon is engagingly played by the Kenyan actor Paul Onsongo.  He proved invaluable to Burton and Speke, and later served with Henry Morton Stanley, and crossed Africa from east to west in 1873, and became the British Empire’s most travelled citizen in Africa.  Eventually, he clocked up some 9600 kilometres, most of it covered on foot.  Despite this, we learn in a postscript that nobody ever thought of inviting Bombay to Britain, presumably because of his lowly ‘native’ status.

 

The rest of the cast is good too.  The distinguished theatrical actress Fiona Shaw turns in a lovely performance as Isabel Burton, the woman who manages to capture the rumbustious Burton’s heart.  She doesn’t, though, capture it to the point where he stops voyaging off to the back of beyond for years on end.  As Speke’s publisher, Richard E. Grant gives a performance of superciliousness that only Grant himself seems capable of.  And Bernard Hill sneaks in an endearing late-minute cameo as Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone, who gets involved in a somewhat homoerotic duel with Burton.  Desperate to impress each other, both men strip off to compare their Africa-acquired scars.

 

© Carolco Pictures / Tri-Star

 

In retrospect, the only things that are regrettable about Mountains of the Moon are: (1) how overlooked the film is; and (2) how low-key Patrick Bergin’s film career has been since.  Regarding the second point, although he made a stir as Julia Roberts’ psychotic husband in 1991’s popular but not-very-good Sleeping with the Enemy, Bergin’s fortunes took a tumble with a couple of unfortunate film choices afterwards.  His performance as Robin Hood in the 1991 movie of the same name was buried by the success of the same year’s bigger, brasher, sillier, Kevin Costner-starring, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. Meanwhile he was unlucky enough to play a villain in 1992’s ignorant Tom Clancy / IRA thriller Patriot Games, or as it was known in Ireland, Patronising Games.

 

I suspect these days Bergin derives more pleasure from his music.  He has a band called Patrick Bergin and the Spirit Merchants and they’ve made the Irish top ten.  That said, a few years ago, I was delighted to see him turn up in Ben Wheatley’s tongue-in-cheek gangster / terrorist bloodbath Free Fire (2016).

 

As for the commercial failure of Mountains of the Moon, it certainly didn’t help that its production company (Carolco Pictures) was in the process of going bankrupt at the time and its distributor (Tri-Star) was more interested in promoting another historical drama, Edward Zwick’s Glory (1989), which it’d produced itself.  Neither did the film’s lack of bankable ‘big-name’ stars help its fortunes.  But the way the film has been critically neglected is  harder to fathom.  Maybe it had the bad luck to appear at a time when imperial-era British costume epics of the David Lean / James Ivory school were starting to out of fashion, although Mountains of the Moon certainly doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with such staid fare as Chariots of Fire (1982) or A Room with a View (1985).

 

Director Bob Rafelson, alas, has just passed away and the titles that’ll likely be inscribed on his tombstone are of his earlier films, like 1972’s Five Easy Pieces or 1981’s The Postman Always Rings Twice or even Head, that trippy 1968 epic featuring the Monkees.  But at least Rafelson himself recognised the quality of his lost 1990 classic.  “(W)hen people ask me, ‘If you were to come to our country and we will give you some kind of an homage, what movie would you want to show?’” he once told an interviewer, “…I always say, ‘Top of the list is Mountains of the Moon.’”

 

From imdb.com / © Carolco Pictures / Tri-Star

The brothers grim

 

From efe.com

 

The second half of my tuppence-worth about the current, dire situation in Sri Lanka and the shower responsible for it.  

 

The feel-good factor generated in 2015 by the election to the Sri Lankan presidency of Maithripala Sirisena, and the expulsion from that presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, didn’t last for long.  As I mentioned in my previous post, inflation got worse under Sirisena, and he soon faced criticisms that in Sri Lankan politics sounded depressingly familiar – about nepotism, corruption and bullying the media.  He even managed to make the world’s headlines, and make a dick of himself, regarding Enrique Iglesias of all people.  The Latin heartthrob held a concert in Colombo and some excited local ladies threw their knickers at him and ran onstage to kiss him.  Such women were ‘highly uncivilised,’ declared the unimpressed president, and he called for the concert’s organisers to be ‘beaten with toxic stingray tails.’

 

My Sri Lankan colleagues were soon grumbling to me that the new president was as bad as the old one and that the country’s politicians, whatever their supposed political hue, were “all the same.”  Their cynicism was spectacularly validated in 2018 when Sirisena tried to remove his Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe.  A constitutional crisis erupted because Wickremesinghe refused to leave office.  And who did Sirisena want to replace Wickremesinghe with as PM?  Why, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man whom he’d ousted in 2015.

 

Sirisena’s attempt to usurp Wickremesinghe failed, but the resulting governmental dysfunction surely contributed to intelligence failures that enabled the Easter Bombings in Sri Lanka the following year.  Indian Intelligence had warned that the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) were going to carry out a terrorist attack, but no action was taken.  269 men, women and children died as a result. Sirisena’s government later had to apologise for its ineptitude.  This was surely the last nail in its coffin – and the beginning of the return of the old dynasty.  I remember looking at Twitter on the day of the bombings, just before social media was suspended in an effort to stop the spread of misinformation, and seeing calls for the reinstatement of ‘Iron-man Rajapaksa’ to clean up the mess.

 

Thus, the election later that year, 2019, was a foregone conclusion.  Not that we were spared the usual dodgy campaigning.  I was running another training course, this time in the northern, predominantly Tamil city of Jaffna, when the Rajapaksa roadshow rolled into town and a rally was held beside the training building.  Sri Lankan politicians like their rallies, although often there’s not much correspondence between the people attending the rally and the location where the rally takes place.  Accordingly, I doubt if you’d find many Rajapaksa supporters living in Jaffna, but a great crowd of people still turned up, which possibly had something to do with the dozens of buses parked along the sides of the neighbourhood’s streets.  Soon, amplified voices were blasting through the walls of the training building, speechifying in praise of the House of Rajapaksa.  I remember the face of one of my trainees, a Tamil Catholic priest, contorting in disgust and rage at them.  (Priests had not been spared during the end-of-war massacres in northern Sri Lanka.)

 

From twitter.com

 

However, this time, it wasn’t Mahinda Rajapaksa who bagged the presidency.  Getting the job instead was his brother Gotabaya, former Secretary of the Ministry of Defence and former Lieutenant Colonel in the Sri Lankan army, less flamboyant than Mahinda but no less mired in allegations of human rights abuses, media intimidation and corruption.  Mahinda settled for the post of Prime Minister.  Let’s not say those Rajapaksa boys are undemocratic.  Meanwhile, youngest brother Basil got the post of Minister of Finance and oldest brother Chamal got the unwieldy-sounding portfolio of ‘Minister of Internal Trade, Food Security and Consumer Welfare, Mahaweli, Agriculture, Irrigation and Rural Development’.  In addition, there was now a brood of younger Rajapaksas to accommodate.  Chamal’s son Shasheendra became Advanced Agriculture Minister in 2021.  Mahinda’s sons Yoshitha and Namal became, respectively, PM’s Chief of Staff and Sports Minister in 2020.

 

A word about Namal Rajapaksa, until recently seen as the family’s heir apparent, as the man who’d take the reins and ensure that Sri Lanka remained a loyal Rajapaksa fiefdom well into the 21st century.  Appropriately for a Sports Minister, he has some sporting achievements on his CV.  He’d been a keen rugby player, or as local sports journalists would term it, ‘a keen ruggerite’.  (I love Sri Lankan English, but I wish the word ‘ruggerite’ would be expunged from the language.)  He captained the national Sri Lankan rugby team from 2013 to 2014, an honour I’m sure he got on account of his playing ability and not who his dad was. In a portent of what his family would do to the country, his captaincy saw the team get demolished 132-10 by Japan.  A less funny and far darker rugby connection was, to quote his Wikipedia entry, the allegation of his ‘involvement in (the) murder and torture of Wasim Thajudeen’.  Thajudeen was a fellow rugby player whom he had a feud with.

 

In March this year, when Sri Lanka’s economy had dropped through the floor and the population was panicking about finding fuel and paying for food, Namal lit up the country’s social media with images of himself living it up and enjoying luxury water-sports facilities in the Maldives.  It doesn’t surprise me that a friend who got introduced to him at a reception described him as one the most insufferably entitled people he’d ever met.

 

Thus, the 2019 election resulted in the government being infested with more Rajapaksas than ever.. The great Rajapaksa kleptocracy was back on track.  To keep everyone happy, President Gotabaya – ‘Gota’ – initiated sweeping tax cuts, a move that with hindsight was a wee bit unwise.

 

So, what could go wrong?  Well, as we’ve just seen, everything.

 

Shortly after my departure from Sri Lanka, things got really bad.  There were massive, daily power cuts.  Photographs and film clips of seemingly endless lines of vehicles, queuing for hours or even days in the heat – heat in which, tragically, several people died – outside depleted petrol stations became familiar images on the world’s media.  Meanwhile, protests against the Rajapaksas gathered a head of steam.  The protestors, whose slogans included ‘Gota’s gotta go’, must have included many people who’d voted for the clan in 2019.  Given the damage inflicted by the fertiliser fiasco, I can’t imagine even the rural, conservative, Sinhalese heartlands feeling any love for them now.

 

© Lilith & Cupid Studios

 

Basil Rajapaksa resigned as Minister of Finance on April 8th.  Chamal Rajapaksa, now just ‘Minister of Irrigation’, quit five days earlier.  Mahinda clung on to the post of PM until May 9th.  Then, in an effort to escape resignation, he used the familiar ploy of bussing in supporters to stage a show of strength.  This backfired, to say the least.  He brought a mob of goons, stooges and thugs to the Prime Minister’s Residence of Temple Trees on Galle Road.  The mob assured him that everyone still loved him and didn’t want him to resign.  No doubt they got boozed up on free arrack as well.  Then they spilled out onto the street, proceeded to Galle Face Green and attacked the anti-government protestors who’d been camped there peacefully for weeks.  When the general populace saw what was happening on TV and social media, they reacted in fury and took to the streets themselves.  (A timeline of the shenanigans on May 9th is provided here by the excellent factchecking and investigatory group Watchdog, whose founders include the Sri Lankan data scientist and science fiction writer Yudhanjaya Wijeratne.)

 

It was lucky that the country didn’t tip over into violence and anarchy then. Afterwards, Mahinda Rajapaksa had no choice but to resign.  One consequence of the unrest provoked by his stunt was that the Rajapaksa Museum down in Hambantota, built with state funds and using the manpower of the Sri Lankan Navy, got trashed.  Talk about karma.

 

After that, it was just President Gota who, politically speaking, was the last Rajapaksa standing.  He didn’t depart until after a deluge of protestors invaded the presidential residence in Colombo’s Fort area on July 9th  which led to another glut of images on social media, this time of protestors enjoying the cool waters of the presidential swimming pool, lying on the presidential four-poster bed, watching news coverage of their own demonstration on the presidential TV, and so on.  Allegedly, the protestors also discovered bags containing 17.8 million rupees.  Even by presidential standards, that’s a lot of loose change to keep lying around the house.  Gotabaya didn’t agree to resign until a few days later – after he’d got out of the country.  His efforts, and his brother Basil’s efforts, to flee had a tragi-comic quality.  Attempts to leave Sri Lanka using commercial flights were thwarted by immigration officials refusing to process their papers and by fears that their fellow passengers would beat them up.

 

However, Gotabaya has definitely left now.  He flew in a military aircraft to the Maldives and from there travelled to Singapore.  Yes, at the moment, he’s in the country that I’m in.  Indeed, if the rumours are true about him being holed up in hotel in the Singaporean neighbourhood of Orchard, he might only be a stone’s throw away from my workplace.  The Singaporean authorities are adamant that he won’t be getting asylum.  While he’s here, I’m sure they won’t be taking any advice from him on how to run their economy either.

 

© Lilith & Cupid Studios

 

While it’s gratifying to see the Rajapaksas scuttle off like this, disgraced and despised, every Sri Lankan I’ve spoken to has insisted that they should stay in the country.  They should be put on trial for their many crimes, have their corrupt ways exposed and, most importantly, be stripped of all the money they’ve looted from Sri Lanka during the past two decades.  That money should be returned to the country in its greatest hour of need.

 

What happens next?  I’m afraid I’m not optimistic.  The Sri Lankan economy is now a disaster, and where there’s disaster, disaster capitalism is never far away.  I can see the country being at the mercy of the IMF and having to re-structure its economy in the extreme, impoverishing, free market-worshipping manner described by Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine (2005).  From past experience, that means the sale of public assets, with the result that the majority of people get poorer and an already-rich minority, able to take advantage of the new, rapacious economic climate, become even richer.

 

Meanwhile, the old Sri Lankan practice of confining politics to a small, wealthy, well-connected elite – which, come to think of it, they may have inherited from the British – shows no sign of going away.  The ubiquitous Ranil Wickremesinghe, who’s served as Prime Minster six times (yes, six!) in the past, has now installed himself in the presidency, has denounced the anti-government protestors as ‘fascists’, and has sent in police and security forces to violently clear the protestors from their encampment in Galle Face.  All this from a man who on May 9th condemned the attack by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s minions on the same protestors.

 

From twitter.com

 

It’s not the removal of a few, corrupt old faces that Sri Lanka needs.  it’s an overhaul of the whole, entitled, business-as-usual political system.  But I wonder how much chance there is of that happening.

 

As the Who sang, “Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss…”  But let’s hope Sri Lanka won’t get fooled again.

Percy, prince of darkness

 

From wikipedia.org / © Prime Minister’s Office

 

In late February this year, I moved from Sri Lanka to Singapore.  It’s fair to say, though, that Sri Lanka still occupies most of my headspace. The country has made the headlines lately for all the wrong reasons and I’m constantly visiting the websites of Sri Lankan news outlets, following events on Sri Lankan social media, getting WhatsApp messages from friends still living in Sri Lanka and discussing the situation there with Sri Lankans I know in Singapore.  It will definitely be some time before I switch to a Singaporean frame of mind.

 

The crisis in Sri Lanka supports Ernest Hemmingway’s famous assertion that things first develop ‘gradually’ and then develop ‘suddenly’.  During the second half of 2021 it was apparent that, slowly but surely, the country was going off the rails.  Inflation had been an issue for a long time – I can think of many commodities that, within a couple of years of my arrival in Sri Lanka in 2014, had doubled in price – but even by recent standards prices were surging upwards. Also creeping up relentlessly were fuel prices, one symptom of which was the constant upping of fares by the country’s army of tuk-tuk drivers.

 

Then there was the exploding gas-canister phenomenon.  From the start of November until the middle of December 2021, almost 730 canisters had exploded, often in people’s kitchens. The majority of these had been bought from Sri Lanka’s state-run Litro Gas Lanka Ltd but nobody, company executives or politicians, seemed in a hurry to take responsibility or hold someone else responsible for the carnage. I heard rumours that Litro had changed the make-up of the canisters’ contents to cut costs, inadvertently making them dangerously volatile.  For a time, Litro and the other main supplier, Laugfs, had to stop selling their normal canisters and only sell ones that’d been approved by the country’s Standards Institute, which caused the gas supply to dry up.  This wasn’t ideal in a country where just over 40% of the population used the stuff and nothing else for cooking.

 

And then there was the fertiliser fiasco.  In April last year, the government banned all chemical fertilisers, plus pesticides, weedicides and fungicides, for the supposed purpose of converting Sri Lanka’s two million farmers to organic farming – overnight, apparently.  While this attempt to make the agricultural sector ‘go green’ might seem a noble, if fatally rushed and over-ambitious, undertaking, the Sri Lankan rumour mill suggested darker reasons for why the government did this – namely, that it was a ploy to make thousands of farmers bankrupt, so that powerful interests could buy up their land at reduced prices.  Whatever the real reason for it, the policy had quick, tangible but negative results. By October, food inflation was at nearly 12% and experts were predicting the output of the country’s paddy fields to drop by 43% in 2021.

 

With hindsight, I realise I left Sri Lanka near the end of the ‘gradually’ part of the process whereby things went tits up.  The ‘suddenly’ part happened a few weeks later. That was when the country was stricken by power cuts lasting many hours and its fuel supplies ran out, due to it having no more revenue to pay for imports.  The weeks after my departure was also when mass protests began against the government.  These protests culminated in the Rajapaksa clan being chased out of office and last week, in the case of the Rajapaksa who’d been president, chased out of the country.

 

Ah, the Rajapaksas.  Living in Sri Lanka for the last eight years was like living in a beautiful house with a beautiful garden and beautiful views, but with dodgy drains.  The Rajapaksa dynasty were like a bad smell from those drains, sometimes faint, sometimes severe, which never wafted away.

 

When I arrived in 2014, Mahinda Rajapaksa had been president for nine years.  In November 2005, during the later years of the Civil War between government forces (representative of the Sinhalese majority) and the northern-based Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, aka the Tamil Tigers, he’d taken power after winning an election with a slim majority of 190,000 votes.  He was fortunate that the Tamil Tigers forbade the Tamil people, who’d have definitely voted against him, from participating in the election.   It was as if the Tamil Tigers had wanted a Sinhalese-nationalist hard man like Rajapaksa to win.  There’d be no pussyfooting around.  There’d be a bloody fight, all Tamils would rally to the LTTE’s cause and hopefully, with Rajapaksa hammering at them, they’d win more international sympathy and support.

 

If that was the calculation, they got the fight they wanted but not the end-result.  By 2009, the Sri Lankan military had crushed the Tigers in the country’s northeast and Rajapaksa could declare victory.  Ignored, hushed-up and forgotten in the rush to celebrate the war’s end was the civilian death toll in the zone where Rajapaksa’s forces had wiped the Tigers out.  According to the United Nations in 2011, troops slaughtered some 40,000 people there, and that’s one of the more conservative estimates.

 

Among those demanding that the Sri Lankan government investigate its military for war crimes was Britain’s then-British Prime Minister David Cameron, who raised the issue at a Commonwealth summit in 2013.  Rajapaksa did not take this well and I suspect it contributed to the long, long wait I had subsequently before I could get a visa to live and work in Sri Lanka.  I have British and Irish passports, but the British passport was the one I applied for a visa with, and British passports weren’t flavour of the month at Colombo’s immigration office.  As is usually the case when Britain criticises its former colonies, Cameron’s criticism came with a large dollop of irony.  It was Britain, in its role as imperial overlord, that gave the Rajapaksa clan their first opportunity to shimmy up the greasy pole of Sri Lankan national politics.  In 1936, Don Matthew Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s uncle, was elected to the State Council of Ceylon, which the British had set up based on the model of London County Council.

 

As a foreigner, life in Sri Lanka was superficially pleasant, but I wasn’t there long before I became aware of things going on behind the scenes that you’d associate with bullying, semi-authoritarian, ‘strong-man’ regimes such as Erdogan’s Turkey, Orbán’s Hungary and Bolsonaro’s Brazil – discrimination against minorities, intimidation of journalists and so on.  Meanwhile, Rajapaksa’s face was ubiquitous.  It wasn’t quite George Orwell’s 1984 and ‘Big Brother is Watching You’ but you sometimes wondered if the place was setting off along that road.  I particularly remember seeing billboards depicting the president, plump, moustached and clad in a white jathika anduma, while he grasped the wheel of a ship.

 

It seemed appropriate that his birth-name was Percy Mahendra Rajapaksa.  He definitely looked like a Percy.  In fact, he reminded me of a well-fed Terry-Thomas, the comic actor who’d specialised in playing upper-class cads, bounders and scoundrels in old British movies, including one called Sir Percy Ware-Armitage in Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965).

 

 

But Percy, sorry, Mahinda Rajapaksa wasn’t a one-man band.  He had three siblings who were also politicians: younger brother Gotabaya, a former military man who’d served as Secretary to the Ministry of Defence since 2005; younger brother Basil, who’d been Minister of Economic Development from 2010; and older brother Chamal, who’d been Speaker of Parliament from 2010 too.  Needless to say, holding such power, and with few, effective systems in place for public accountability, the family were in a position to squirrel large sums of government and party money away into their own bank accounts and businesses.  Meanwhile, money that was spent in public view was often borrowed and shovelled towards self-aggrandising white-elephant projects.  These included the Colombo Lotus Tower, commissioned in 2012 and finally opened in 2019.  Meant to represent a sacred lotus flower, I always thought of that tower as ‘the hand-grenade on a stick’.

 

The billboard depicting Mahinda Rajapaksa at the helm of a ship reflected the fact that another election was coming up.  In late 2014, as the election neared, I was running a training course on Colombo’s Duplication Road.  One day, for five minutes, the training was disrupted by a cacophony of revving engines and blaring horns outside the building.  This came from a procession of motorcyclists and tuk-tuk drivers, many with Sri Lankan flags fluttering from their vehicles, who were driving by in a stage-managed rally to show support for their beloved President Rajapaksa.  A Sri Lankan trainee explained to me that the rally would wind up at one of Rajapaksa’s residences, where the drivers would be treated to free grub and arrack.  “And that,” she concluded bitterly, “is what our taxes get spent on.”

 

As it turned out, thanks to some wily manoeuvring by Maithripala Sirisena, who’d served as Rajapaksa’s Minister of Agriculture and then Health, the plump, moustached incumbent-president lost the election.  Sirisena replaced him in the presidency.  Sri Lankans I knew reckoned Sirisena had squeezed ahead of Rajapaksa thanks to the combined support of the country’ ethnic and religious minorities – Tamils, Muslims, Christians – and the more liberal-minded citizens living in Colombo.  My experiences bore that out.  When I was in the countryside of central and south Sri Lanka, where people were more conservative and Singhalese nationalism was more of a thing, the tuk-tuk drivers would regularly drop Rajapaksa into their conversations and tell me what a great guy he was.  The tuk-tuk drivers who took me to and from work in Colombo every day were less willing to gush about the topic of Rajapaksa’s greatness.

 

Power was handed over peacefully, though later there were allegations that once he’d realised the game was up, Rajapaksa attempted to do a Trump and trigger a coup.  The military, however, wouldn’t play ball.  Soon afterwards, Pope Francis came to visit Sri Lanka and told everyone how wonderful they all were.  The feel-good factor was high.  Folk were full of optimism, and felt not a little relief.  Surely a corner had been turned.

 

Would it last?  Of course not.

 

© Lilith & Cupid Studios

 

To be continued.

Make it stop

 

From wikipedia.org / twitter.com

 

I firmly believe that if the Covid-19 virus, aeons from now, evolves into a multi-cellular organism, and further aeons from that, evolves into a humanoid being with homo sapiens’ abilities of thought and speech, it will look and sound a lot like Britain’s current, though hopefully soon to be ex, Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

 

The big, blonde, blobby and bloviating Johnson and the humble 50 to 140-nanometre-wide Covid-19 virus already share many characteristics.  Both of them made life miserable for large numbers of people in the early 2020s. And both have similar effects on the human physique.  They both induce headaches, exhaustion and severe respiratory problems.  Though with Covid-19, the respiratory problems are the result of it filling the lungs’ air sacs with fluid, which seriously reduces their capacity to take in oxygen.  Whereas with Johnson, the problems come from exposure to his non-stop idiocies, venality, lying and gaslighting, which destroys your will to continue breathing.

 

Meanwhile, just as Covid-19 keeps mutating and keeps coming back at us in a dismayingly endless series of variants, such as the alpha, beta, delta, gamma and omicron ones, so too has a variety of Johnson variants appeared over the years.

 

The 1980s saw the Bullingdon Johnson variant – he was an enthusiastic member of the Bullingdon Club, the Oxford University dining club for posh yobs, who liked to strut around in tailcoats, waistcoats and bowties, wreck restaurants and burn money in front of homeless people. This was followed by the Sacked Trainee Journalist Johnson – the Times dismissed him when they discovered he’d made up a quote for a front-page story – and the Criminal Accessory Johnson – he agreed to supply his old Bullingdon mate, the businessman and future jailbird Darius Guppy, with the address of a journalist to whom Guppy wanted to administer a severe beating.

 

In the 1990s there emerged the Lying-about-Europe Johnson, courtesy of the Daily Telegraph, who’d offered him refuge after his fall from grace with the Times – as the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, Johnson wrote wildly exaggerated pieces on how the evil EU was imposing nasty and stupid regulations on plucky little Britain, helping generate the Euro-scepticism that eventually won the 2016 referendum in favour of Brexit.

 

From unsplash.com / © Annie Spratt

 

Around this time, certain Johnson variants appeared that have persisted to the present day. For example, the Racist, Homophobic Johnson – he’s described black African people as ‘piccaninnies’, described gay men as ‘tank-topped bumboys’, called Chinese workers ‘puffing coolies’, likened gay marriage to bestiality and compared Muslim women to ‘letterboxes’.  That last remark, made in a notorious column in the Telegraph in 2018, was followed by a 375% rise in incidents of Islamophobia reported in the UK.

 

So too emerged the Shagger Johnson – he’s had extra-marital affairs with Marina Wheeler, whom he married in 1993 a dozen days after his marriage to Allegra Mostyn-Owen was annulled, with Petronella Wyatt, allegedly with Anna Fazackerley, with Helen Macintyre, with Jennifer Arcuri, and with Carrie Symonds, whom he married in 2021 following the end of his marriage to the long-suffering Wheeler.  He also tried to punt Symonds into a six-figure-salary job in the Foreign Office in 2018, while he was Britain’s Foreign secretary and she was still his mistress.

 

As Johnson has shimmied up the slimy pole of politics, from Member of Parliament to Mayor of London to leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister, further variants have materialised.  There’s been the Partying with Oligarchs Johnson – in 2018, while Foreign Secretary, he was seen stumbling about an Italian airport suffering from a severe hangover, and lacking his security detail, after attending a shindig thrown by Russian media magnate Evgeny Lebedev at his castle near Perugia.  Oddly enough, Lebedev subsequently received a peerage and now, technically, is ‘Baron Lebedev, of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond on Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation’.  The Talking Gibberish Johnson has also been observed – blabbering about Peppa Pig during an address to the Confederation of British Industry or filling the 2021 Tory Party Conference with excruciating riffs on his ‘Build Back Better’ slogan, such as ‘Build Back Butter!’ and ‘Build Back Beaver!’

 

Of course, we can never forget the Corrupt Johnson – detected, for instance, during the Wallpapergate saga wherein he and his missus tried to get Tory Party donors to foot the bill for more than 200,000 pounds’ worth of refurbishments to their flat, or during Johnson’s abortive attempts to get dodgy MP Owen Paterson off the hook after the Commons Select Committee on Standards recommended that he be suspended for breaking paid advocacy rules.  Nor can we overlook the Breaking Lockdown Johnson – he seemingly presided over non-stop partying at No 10 Downing Street while the nation was under strict lockdown rules to slow the spread of Covid-19, which resulted in the police issuing 126 fines to Johnson, his wife, his Chancellor and their staff, making No 10 the most lawbreaking address in Britain during the pandemic.

 

From the BBC / © Daily Record

 

Obviously, the most virulent variant is the Big Fat Liar Johnson, which basically manifests itself every time he opens his mouth.  To Conrad Black, media magnate and owner of the Spectator, in 1999 – make me Spectator editor and I won’t become an MP!  (He did.)  To the people of the constituency of Henley in 2001 – make me your MP and I’ll step down as editor of the Spectator!  (He didn’t.)  In response to claims that a mistress had to have an abortion in 2004 – it’s an inverted pyramid of piffle!  (It wasn’t.)  During campaigning for the 2016 Brexit referendum – if we leave the EU, we’ll be able to give an extra 350 million pounds to the National Health Service every week!  (We weren’t.)  To Londoners – I’ll build a garden bridge across the Thames!  (He didn’t.)  To Northern Irish Unionists – I won’t stick a trade border in the Irish Sea between you and the rest of the UK!  (He most certainly did.)

 

To Keir Starmer – as Director of Public Prosecutions at the time, it was your fault Jimmy Saville escaped prosecution for his crimes!  (It wasn’t.)  In response to Partygate – I didn’t know about the parties! / The parties weren’t my fault! / I didn’t realise they were parties! / They didn’t actually break any rules! / I was only at them for a minute!  (He did / They were / He did / They did / He wasn’t.)  On the scandal involving the promotion of MP and serial groper Chris Pincher to the position of the Tory Party’s Deputy Chief Whip – I didn’t know he was a sex pest before I appointed him!  (Oh yes you did.)

 

The Pincher scandal proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for those Tory politicians who’d supported Johnson or at least tolerated him.  Last week, his ministers and MPs turned against him, first with the resignations of Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Education Minister Sajid Javid, and then with a deluge of resignations by MPs serving as ministers of state, private parliamentary secretaries and trade envoys.  Even David Mundell, the embarrassingly cringy and spineless MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, the constituency I’m from in Scotland, quit his position as Trade Envoy to New Zealand.  On July 7th, Johnson at last accepted that the game was up and announced his resignation as Prime Minister.  Here was a scrape that even he couldn’t squirm, worm and wriggle his way out of.  The greased piglet, as David Cameron once called him, had finally been degreased, and spitted, and roasted.

 

Or had he?  People have noted that his supposed resignation speech suspiciously lacked mention of the word ‘resignation’.  Indeed, it lacked anything hinting at the vaguest feeling of remorse or apology.  And Johnson only agreed to resign on the condition that he remain in post as ‘caretaker’ Prime Minister until the autumn, after a new Tory leader and Prime Minister has been chosen.  Ominously, Johnson’s old advisor, now bitter enemy, Dominic Cummings tweeted on the matter: “I know that guy & I’m telling you – he doesn’t think it’s over, he’s thinking, ‘there’s a war, weird shit happens in a war, play for time, play for time, I can still get out of this, I got a mandate, members love me, get to September…’  If MPs leave him in situ there’ll be CARNAGE.”

 

Yes, just as we dread that Covid-19 will never be defeated, and will become a permanent, malignant feature of our increasingly fraught world, so Boris Johnson might never depart either.  God help us.

 

From unsplash.com / © CDC

A selfie of Jim Mountfield

 

© The Sirens Call 

 

A few years ago, my partner and I were on holiday in Thailand.  One evening we were having dinner in a restaurant in the historical town of Ayutthaya, which is about 50 miles north of Bangkok.  Come to think of it, this was one of our very last trips abroad, before the Covid-19 pandemic put the brakes on international travel.  The restaurant was called the Old Place and it overlooked Ayutthaya’s River Pasak so that, in the darkness, chains of big, cargo-laden barges were drifting past the terrace where we were eating.

 

It came to our notice that amid the restaurant’s waiters and its (mainly tourist) customers, a young Asian woman was wandering around with a smartphone.  Every half-minute she’d stop somewhere, pose for and take a selfie, then wander off in search of another suitable selfie-spot.  She did this all through our meal: wander about, pause, take a selfie, go somewhere else, pause, take a selfie, ad infinitum.  Presumably the waiters were too busy to approach this strange, restless, selfie-loving lady and demand why she wasn’t sitting down and ordering food like everyone else.

 

And I thought: This could be the start of a story…

 

Well, I’m pleased to say that the story has now been written.  It’s also just been published in the Summer 2022 issue of the dark fiction and poetry magazine The Sirens Call.  It’s entitled Selfless and is attributed to Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym under which I write horror stories.  This new edition of The Sirens Call clocks in at a whopping 239 pages and can be downloaded – for free! – here.

Literary things

 

© The Turman-Foster Company / Universal Pictures

 

I reckon John Carpenter’s 1982 movie The Thing is one of the best horror films ever.  Its story of a shape-shifting alien organism that infiltrates a base in Antarctica, absorbing and assuming the forms of more and more of the base’s human (and canine) personnel, is a masterpiece of claustrophobia, paranoia and all-round scariness.

 

And its special effects, courtesy of make-up / effects genius Rob Bottin, massively raised the bar for what was achievable in horror movies at the time.  During those moments when it reveals itself, Bottin’s alien Thing is a hellish, glistening, squirming, tentacled nightmare made of bits and pieces of all the Earth creatures it’s consumed already.  It resembles a canvas painted and splattered simultaneously by Hieronymus Bosch and Jackson Pollock.

 

What makes Bottin’s work all the more remarkable, and believable, is that it consists of real, solid, practical effects.  For The Thing was made in the days was before digital technology took over and filmmakers went crazy using cartoonish and insubstantial-looking computer-generated imagery.  That’s the reason why I’ve never bothered watching Matthijs van Heijningen Jr’s 2011 prequel to Carpenter’s movie, also called The Thing.  Although practical special effects were used during the prequel’s shooting, studio executives later lost their nerve, decided 2011 audiences couldn’t handle an absence of CGI and had the wretched stuff superimposed over those practical effects in post-production.

 

Anyway, today – June 25th – is exactly 40 years since Carpenter’s The Thing was first released in cinemas.  Which, as well as making me feel bloody ancient, makes we want to post something about it on this blog.  But rather than write about the movie itself, as countless film critics, commentators and enthusiasts have over the years, I thought I’d look instead at its literary roots.  Because The Thing is an adaptation (scripted by Bill Lancaster, son of Burt) of a novella called Who Goes There?, written by science-fiction writer and editor John W. Campbell and published in 1938.

 

Who Goes There? had already been filmed in 1951 as The Thing from Another World, directed by Christian Nyby and produced by the legendary Howard Hawks.  The 1951 version keeps the story’s basic premise of the crew of a polar camp coming up against a malevolent alien.  But instead of depicting it as a shape-shifting beastie, which would have been difficult to do convincingly in 1951, the Hawks / Nyby film merely depicts it as a lumbering, pasty-skinned, dome-headed muscle-man played by none other than James Arness, later to star in the 1950s-1970s Western TV show Gunsmoke.   Howard Hawks’s trademark no-nonsense directorial style and brisk, punchy dialogue are much in evidence in The Thing from Another World and it’s often been speculated that he, rather than Nyby, shot much of the film.

 

© Winchester Pictures Corporation / RKO

 

John Carpenter was well-known for his admiration of Howard Hawks and his 1976 movie Assault on Precinct 13 in particular shows a big Hawksian influence.  So, when Carpenter’s version of The Thing was announced, I suspect many critics assumed it’d be a straightforward remake of the 1951 movie.  And I suspect that’s why it got such a hostile reception when it was released in 1982.  For although the movie has since been reappraised and is now regarded as a sci-fi / horror classic, it initially earned Carpenter some of the worst reviews of his career.  I seem to remember, for instance, the Observer slamming it under the headline JUST ONE DAMNED THING AFTER ANOTHER.  Those 1982 critics got something very different from what they were expecting and didn’t react well.

 

What they got, in fact, was a film capturing the shape-shifting concept of the alien in the real source material, the 1938 story by John W. Campbell – a story most of those critics were probably unfamiliar with.

 

I recently came across and read Who Goes There? online.  What did I think of it?

 

Well, what I immediately thought after reading it was “Phew!”  Experienced in 2022, with its dollops of torturous pose and pages upon pages of dialogue-framed exposition, Campbell’s story is hard going indeed.

 

It’s fun to see so many character-names that crop up in Carpenter’s film – McReady (in the film spelt ‘MacReady’), Blair, Copper, Garry, Norris, Clark, Benning – but the descriptions of those characters are madly overwrought.  The hero McReady is likened by Campbell to “a figure from some forgotten myth, a looming, bronze statue that held life, and walked.  Six-feet-four inches he stood…  And he was bronze – his great red-bronze beard, the heavy hair that matched it.  The gnarled, corded hands gripping, relaxing on the table planks were bronze.  Even the deep-sunken eyes beneath the heavy brows were bronze.”  This Wagnerian, and bronze, version of McReady is far removed from the morose, tetchy git played in the film by Kurt Russell.

 

The scientist Blair, meanwhile, is described with this peculiar sentence: “His little birdlike motions of suppressed eagerness danced his shadow across the fringe of dingy grey underwear hanging from the low ceiling, the equatorial quiff of stiff, greying hair around his naked skull a comical halo about the shadow’s head.”  At least he sounds more like his cinematic incarnation, who’s played by the character actor Wilfred Brimley.

 

© Barnes & Noble

 

How the characters discover and bring into their camp their soon-to-be-unwelcome visitor is related in three pages of conversational backstory, which includes such unlikely pieces of dialogue as: “Right there, where that buried thing was, there is an ice-drowned mountain ridge, a granite wall of unshakable strength that has dammed back the ice creeping from the south.”   Later, as the Thing starts to imitate the base’s inhabitants, there are many talky pages where people speculate on its biology, its capabilities and how it can be detected; and also, where they start to crack up with paranoia.  “You sit as still as a bunch of graven images,” exclaims one man while his colleagues regard him suspiciously.  “You don’t say a word, but oh Lord, what expressive eyes you’ve got.  They roll around like a bunch of glass marbles spilling down a table.  They wink and blink and stare and whisper things.”

 

There are moments when Campbell’s prose conveys the bleakness of the situation, recording how the Antarctic wind created an “uneasy, malicious gurgling in the pipe of the galley stove” and how “the snow picked up by the mumbling wind fled in level, blinding lines across the face of the buried camp”.  But overall, thanks to its dire writing, Who Goes There? is a work to be endured rather than enjoyed.   It isn’t a patch on that other famous 1930s tale of Antarctica-set horror, H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936).

 

Still, the story provides the film with its most celebrated scene, the ‘blood-test’ one wherein McReady hits on a method of identifying who’s-been-got and who’s not.  However, while John W. Campbell has McReady laboriously testing the blood of some 35 base-members, in the movie John Carpenter waits until there’s only half-a-dozen men left standing, which makes his enactment of the scene much more intense, focused and suspenseful.

 

And to be fair to Campbell, his story clarifies the Thing’s modus operandi.  At times the film is hazy about just what the humans are up against.  For example, watching The Thing, I was initially puzzled by the idea that the intruder could take the form of more than one victim at a time.  In the story, it’s made clear that when it absorbs an organism it adds the organism’s body mass to its own; and when the organism is replaced, that hives off again with the original’s massMeanwhile, the original Thing goes back to its original bulk too, free to absorb and replicate something else.

 

Then there’s the sub-plot with Blair.  In both the novella and film, Blair loses his mind as the horror unfolds and is locked up for his own and everyone else’s safety.  It later becomes apparent that he’s part of the Thing too, has its alien intelligence, and has spent his time in captivity assembling a mysterious machine.  The novella describes how he’s imprisoned in an equipment storeroom, where he uses pieces of the equipment to fashion a small anti-gravity device that’ll transport him from Antarctica to a populated continent where he can start replicating.  The film is murkier about what he’s up to.  We get a glimpse of some sort of capsule, like a mini-flying saucer, but there’s little explanation why and nothing about his place of incarceration being an equipment storeroom.  I was left with the impression that Blair for some reason had managed to construct a spacecraft out of empty soup cans and pieces of string.

 

Finally, I should point out that Who Goes There? isn’t the only literary work connected with the scary world of The Thing.  In 2010, Clarkesworld Magazine published a short story called The Things, written by Peter Watts, which retells the events of Carpenter’s movie through the eyes, if that’s the word, of the Thing itself.

 

Here, the Thing isn’t such a bad old thing.  It genuinely believes it’s doing the humans a favour by taking them over, which it describes as an act of ‘communion’.  It views their biology as ‘ill-adapted’, ‘inefficient’ and ‘disabled’ and wants to ‘fix’ them.  At times, it’s repulsed by their physical circumstances, calling their brains ‘tumours’ and their bodies ‘bony caverns’.  No wonder it’s upset when the humans respond to its kindness by using flamethrowers on it.

 

A thought-provoking and bleakly-amusing take on John Carpenter’s movie from the very last character in it you’d expect, Peter Watts’ The Things can be read on this webpage.  Meanwhile, John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? is available for reading here.  The 2010 story is 7,000 words long while the 1938 one clocks in at a hefty 30,000 words.  Comparing them, I have to say I agree with the old adage that the best Things come in small packages.

 

© Shasta Publishers

Rock star insults

 

From youtube.com

 

This blog entry starts with Kate Bush… but isn’t about Kate Bush.

 

The other day I read a news report about how Kate Bush’s 1985 song Running Up That Hill had just gone to number one in the United Kingdom, Australia, Belgium and Sweden and reached number five in the United States.  The renewed popularity of the song was due to it being featured in season four of the American sci-fi / horror TV series Stranger Things.  My curiosity was sufficiently piqued for me to go to YouTube and type ‘running up that hill’ into its search-bar, wondering if it would provide the clip from the TV show where the song was used.  That didn’t happen, however.  Instead, YouTube – presumably its algorithms had taken note of my past musical preferences at the site – sent me to a cover version of Running Up That Hill performed by the late 1990s / early 2000s band Placebo.  I have to say the cover version didn’t sound bad at all.  And incidentally, the comments below were full of Americans saying things like, “I’d always assumed this was an original Placebo song.  I hadn’t known some English chick had sung it first, back in the 1980s!”

 

Meanwhile, my reaction at that time was: Placebo?  Wow, I haven’t heard of them for years…

 

And then I thought: Hold on! They were responsible for the greatest rock ‘n’ roll insult I’ve ever heard live!

 

Let me explain.  In 1999, I attended T in the Park, then the biggest annual music festival held in Scotland.  Placebo was one of the bands performing on the main stage and I was near the front of the crowd at the start of their set.  Also appearing that day was the rock band Gay Dad, who’d recently scored hit singles with the songs To Earth with Love and Joy, although sceptics grumbled that the hype surrounding the band was nothing to do with quality and everything to do with the fact that its singer Cliff Jones had previously been a music journalist – his former colleagues in the media were promoting his outfit as a favour.  Placebo’s singer Brian Molko was obviously one of the sceptics.  Before they began playing, Molko apologised for the band being slightly late in coming onstage.

 

This, he said, was because: “I was getting a blowjob backstage from the singer of Gay Dad.”  He paused, then added with timing worthy of a master comedian: “Believe me, it’s not just their music that sucks!”

 

Anyway, that memory got me thinking about the following question.  What are the best rock star insults of all time?

 

There are a few famous ones that come immediately to mind.  I recall Robert Smith of the Cure saying of the self-consciously fey and militantly vegetarian frontman of the Smiths, “If Morrissey says not to eat meat, then I eat meat. That’s how much I hate Morrissey.”  Also memorable was Nick Cave’s comment on a well-known Californian funk-rock band: “I’m forever near a stereo saying, ‘What the f*ck is this garbage?’ And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”  Van Halen singer Dave Lee Roth was pretty brutal about a certain post-punk troubadour of the late 1970s and early 1980s: “Music journalists like Elvis Costello because music journalists look like Elvis Costello.”  Though for brutality, you can’t beat the Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards talking about Slowdive, one of the key bands of the shoegaze movement of the late 1980s: “We hate Slowdive more than we hate Hitler.”

 

George Melly, though strictly speaking not a rock star – he was a jazz / blues singer – deserves inclusion here for his response to Mick Jagger.  Melly had drawn attention to the deep grooves on the Rolling Stone’s face and Jagger had tried to dismiss them as ‘laughter-lines’.  “Nothing,” pronounced Melly, “is that funny.”  Meanwhile, I was never a fan of Boy George but I’ve always chuckled at his verdict on Elton John: “All that money and he’s still got hair like a f*cking dinner lady.”  And just to prove that the art of the rock-star insult remains alive and well in 2022, there was recently a spat between Joan Jett and gun-humping, Trump-worshipping rock-neanderthal Ted Nugent, which produced this Jett-gem: “Ted Nugent has to live with being Ted Nugent.  He has to be in that body, so that’s punishment enough.”

 

From wikipedia.org / © Will Fresch

 

The world of rock contains certain individuals who can be relied upon to denigrate their contemporaries practically every time they open their mouths.  Two who spring to mind are siblings Liam and Noel Gallagher, late of Britpop mega-band Oasis.  Among those suffering the wrath of Liam Gallagher have been Keith Richards and George Harrison (“jealous and senile and not getting enough f*cking meat pies”), Bob Dylan (“a bit of a miserable c*nt”), Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day (“I don’t like his head”), Bono (“he looks like a fanny”) and Florence Welch from Florence and the Machine (“sounds like someone’s stood on her f*cking foot”).  For my money, though, his best insult was heard at a Q Magazine Awards ceremony, where he yelled at Coldplay’s Chris Martin, “You’re a plant pot!”

 

As the older and supposedly more cerebral Gallagher, Noel’s insults have been more elaborate, if a tad less savage.  Of the musical output of Justin Bieber, he once opined, “My cat sounds more rock ‘n’ roll than that.”   He likened the appearance of the White Stripes’ Jack White to “Zorro on doughnuts” and mused about skatey Canadian punk rockers Sum 41: “After I heard Sum 41, I thought, I’m actually alive to hear the shittiest band of all time.”  Needless to say, Oasis’s Britpop arch-enemies Blur came in for some stick too: “I wish Blur were dead, John Lennon was alive and the Beatles would reform.”  And inevitably he’s had some choice words for his wayward younger brother since they acrimoniously parted company in 2009.  That same year he famously described Liam to “a man with a fork in a world of soup.”  (For his part, the younger Gallagher has repeatedly referred to Noel as a ‘potato’ and called his post-Oasis band the High Flying Birds ‘the High Flying Smurfs’.)

 

© Weidenfeld & Nicolson

 

The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards has also had a famously barbed tongue, powered by his apparent disdain for any form of music that isn’t structured around a 12-bar blues progression.  He’s dissed Prince as “an overrated midget”, REM as “a whiny college rock band” and P Diddy as “bereft of imagination.  What a piece of crap.”  He dumped on the Grateful Dead for “Just poodling about for hours and hours.  Jerry Garcia, boring shit, man. ”  Of Metallica he speculated, “I don’t know where Metallica’s inspiration comes from, but if it’s from me, I f*cked up.”  Hilariously, he said of Elton John after the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and after John had reworked his 1973 ode to Marilyn Monroe, Candle in the Wind, as a tribute to the deceased princess: “His writing is limited to songs about dead blondes.”  (To which Elton John retorted that the venerable Stones guitarist resembled “a monkey with arthritis.”)

 

But surely the man who’s suffered the most ignominious put-down from Keith Richards is his long-term singer, writing partner and fellow Rolling Stone Mick Jagger.  Jagger’s image as a tireless lothario took a dent when Richards wrote about his manhood in his 2010 autobiography Life: “Marianne Faithful had no fun with his tiny todger.  I know he’s got an enormous pair of balls but it doesn’t quite fill the gap.”

 

From vassifer.blogs.com

 

However, when it comes to rock-star insults, one man is – or alas, was – the undisputed champion.  Mark E. Smith, for four decades until his death in 2018 the driving force behind the fascinatingly off-the-wall post-punk / alternative rock group the Fall, was never more entertaining in interviews than when he directed his guns at his peers and rivals in the music world.  Among those getting it in the neck from Smith over the years were Badly Drawn Boy (“fat git”), Echo and the Bunnymen (“old crocks”), Garbage (“like watching paint dry”), Bob Geldof (“a dickhead”), Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore (“should have his rock licence revoked”), Mumford and Sons (“We were playing a festival in Dublin…  There was this other group, like, warming up… and they were terrible.  I said, ‘Shut them c*nts up!’  And they were still warming up, so I threw a bottle at them…  I just thought they were a load of retarded Irish folk singers”), Pavement (“They haven’t got an original thought in their heads”), Ed Sheeran (like “a duff singer songwriter from the 70s you find in charity shops”) and Suede (“Never heard of them,” said Smith cruelly, just after off coming off a tour where Suede were the support band).

 

And in fact, not even a songstress as lauded as Kate Bush escaped Smith’s vitriol.  In 2014, when Bush’s Before the Dawn concerts – her first live performances since 1979 – triggered massive interest in her and her music again, Smith told the Manchester Evening News: “Who decided it was time to start liking her again?  I never even liked her the first time round.  It’s like all these radio DJs have been raiding their mam and dad’s record collections and decided that Kate Bush is cool again.  But I’m not having it!”

 

It’s a shame the wonderfully curmudgeonly Smith isn’t around today to witness Kate Bush’s latest return to prominence with Running Up That Hill.  I’m sure he’d have some entertaining pronouncements to make on the matter.

 

© EMI

Climbing Mount Ulysses

 

© Penguin

 

Today is June 16th, a day that connoisseurs of Irish literature will recognise as Bloomsday, the date on which the events described in James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses took place in Dublin in 1904.  Literary legend has it that on the real June 16th, 1904, Joyce and his muse and future wife Nora Barnacle – “She stuck to him like a limpet!” one of my university lecturers liked to quip – acquired carnal knowledge of each other for the first time.  And since 2022 is the centenary of Ulysses‘ original publication in 1922, today is a special Bloomsday indeed.

 

Ah, Ulysses.  I first encountered it in 1982, when I spied a hefty copy of it reposing on a rack in Whitie’s, the main bookshop in my hometown of Peebles.  As someone who was into books and writing, I decided that this was something I ought to experience.  So I purchased it, lugged it home and started reading: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from a stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed…”

 

The task took me several months.  This amused my school English teacher Iain Jenkins, who cheerfully admitted that he’d never read Ulysses and never intended to, believing it to be a pile of pretentious twaddle.  Whenever he bumped into me, he’d mischievously inquire how I was getting on with Joyce’s masterwork, assuming sooner or later I’d throw in the towel and never get to the end of Bloomsday.

 

But I persevered.  The months passed.  April, May, June, July…  In fact, the countries I was in changed too, for I finished school in May and left Scotland for some pre-university wandering: France, Northern Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Belgium…  And I took Ulysses with me.

 

As far as I can remember, it was in a chilly youth hostel in Brussels in November, as far away from Dublin on June 16th as seemed possible, that I navigated the book’s final section.  This is the lengthy stream of consciousness going on inside Molly Bloom’s head that ends: “…yes I said yes I will Yes.

 

I should point out that during those half-dozen months I didn’t just read Ulysses. Over the same period I remember reading stuff by Ernest Hemmingway, Ray Bradbury, Jerome K. Jerome, Sean O’Faolain and Anthony Burgess.  Incidentally, Burgess, who was still alive at the time, was probably the world’s most famous Joyce authority and had written a book about him called Here Comes Everybody in 1965.  It actually helped that I would read a section of Ulysess, leave the book for a couple of weeks, read something by someone else, and return to it.  I’d discovered how episodic it was, each episode having its own theme, style and literary gimmicks, and reading it this way gave me time to process one episode before I started on the next.

 

Famously, the episodes of Ulysses parallel the adventures of the mythological Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey, although this didn’t dawn on my 16 / 17-year-old self until the scene set in Barney Kiernan’s Pub.  This climaxes with the Citizen hurling a biscuit tin at Leopold Bloom’s head, which I realised was a representation of Polyphemus the Cyclops lobbing a rock after the escaping Ulysses in the Odyssey.

 

How did I find it? Well, there were times early on when it was bloody hard work.  At one point in June, while I was in France, I nearly did give up.  I was possibly mired in the book’s third section, which is notoriously abstruse.  But later it all seemed to click for me.  Joyce’s prose, however complicated it got, settled into a comforting, familiar rhythm.  The external and internal voices of its two main characters, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, became like the banter of old friends.  And when I finished, I felt I’d read a truly great book.  I suspect, though, my admiration for it then was like the admiration a climber feels for the grandeur of Mount Everest while standing on its summit.  The admiration is mingled with his or her own sense of achievement at having climbed the beast.

 

One thing that impressed me was that Joyce had obviously gone out and done some living.  He knew and was able to convincingly portray Dublin and its inhabitants – all its inhabitants, not just the posh or arty ones.  Perhaps that’s why I was never enthused by the works of Virginia Woolf, which I tackled soon afterwards.  Surely Woolf and her affected Bloomsbury (as opposed to Bloomsday) set wouldn’t have lasted long in Barney Kiernan’s Pub.

 

Talking of pubs, while I was wandering around Switzerland in October that year, I happened across an establishment in Zurich called the James Joyce Pub.  It cashed in on the fact that much of Joyce’s post-Ireland life had been spent in Zurich.  Eagerly, I popped inside for a Guinness. What a disappointment the place was.  It was full of people who regarded themselves as intellectuals and took themselves way too seriously – the opposite of what I believed Ulysses, in which all human life seemed present, was about.

 

And now?  Well, I wouldn’t like to read the book again.  One thing I’ve noticed about growing older is that, as the years and experiences accumulate, it becomes harder to feel impressed.  New people I meet, whom I would have found fascinating in my youth, make less of an impression because I’ve met their type before and their personality traits no longer seem special.  The same goes with books.  Literary razzle-dazzle that might have blown me away when I was younger just annoys me in my middle-age.  Sorry, I’ve seen all that already.  When I read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) in my twenties, I thought, “Wow!  This the profoundest book ever!”  Whereas I read Kundera’s Slowness (1995) last month and thought, “Oh, stop showing off, you poser.”  I’d hate it if I read Joyce’s opus again and reacted with the same weariness.

 

Some things are best left in the past. And though I still think it’s a great book, Ulysses is probably one of them.

 

From wikipedia.org

Grovel, Britannia

 

From wikipedia.org / © Joel Rouse / Ministry of Defence

 

A week has now passed since the Platinum Jubilee festivities – and the accompanying tsunami of media hype – that celebrated Queen Elizabeth II reaching the 70th year of her reign on the British throne.  I’ve now emerged from my bunker and feel ready to articulate my thoughts about the British Royal Family.  It’s fair to say my tolerance of the institution has waxed and waned over the years.

 

In my youth, during the 1980s and 1990s, I detested them.  They seemed a bloody awful lot and it sickened me how much the media kept ramming them down everyone’s throats, though of course, a lot of the public seemed happy to have them rammed down their throats: the aloof Queen and her grumpy husband; the weird and socially awkward Prince Charles and his vacuous-seeming wife Princess Diana who, as it turned out, was sharper than she looked; the porcine Prince Andrew who, as it turned out, was viler than he looked; and the insipid would-be thespian Prince Edward.  Princess Anne, however, I didn’t think was that bad, though that was probably only because she supported the national Scottish rugby team.

 

I knew ordinary people who were every bit as mediocre or dysfunctional as the royals, of course, but I didn’t have to hear about them every time I switched on the television or read about them every time I opened a newspaper.  It also galled me that not liking them or even not wanting to know about them was considered unpatriotic in 1980s and 1990s Britain.

 

Fast forward to 2012, the time of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and my opinion was more sanguine, at least of Elizabeth.  It was one of indifference tempered with a certain, grudging respect for the old biddy.  This was partly because I’d concluded that countries needed their symbolic heads of state – someone to open the supermarkets, launch the ships and sit down and sip tea with the US President or the Pope or whatever foreign dignitary happened to be in town.  This was the stuff that the prime minister didn’t have time to do because he or she had a country to run.  And the Queen had won a modicum of respect from me simply by doing her job for so long.  She grew older, greyer, smaller, but still she did her walkabouts, made her public appearances, indulged in boring chit-chat with members of women’s institutes, rotary clubs and Boy Scout troops who’d turned out to see her, and had disreputable politicians come through the doors of Buckingham Palace – Bush, Berlusconi, Sarkozy – whom she put on a smile for.

 

If someone had forced an 86-year-old relative of mine onto the street every morning and made her tramp around the neighbourhood all day long, saying hello to people, and then when she finally returned to her house, foisted a shower of crooks and chancers upon her for company, I’d have reported them to the police.  The Queen might have been one of the richest women on the planet, but what was the point of having shed-loads of money if you were subjected to torture like that every day of your life?

 

So back in 2012, I thought I could tolerate the idea of a British monarchy.  That toleration, though, came with the proviso that the thing needed to be massively scaled down.  The inhabitants of the Low Countries and Scandinavia had modestly-sized royal institutions and seemed no less respectful of their monarchs like Albert, Beatrix, Margrethe, Harald and Carl XVI Gustav, so why couldn’t that be the case in Britain?  Why did the British Royal Family have to be such a massive and costly operation, featuring as many cast-members as an opulent and labyrinthine American soap opera like Dallas or Dynasty?

 

That was then, however.  Maybe at the time I’d been infected by Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony at the 2012 London Olympics and believed that with a bit of tweaking – for instance, modifying but not removing the Royal Family – Britain could become a decent, balanced, good-humoured and modern-minded country.  Also, I was a big James Bond fan and, at the Opening Ceremony, I thought it was pretty cool when the Queen, or possibly her stunt double, parachuted out of a plane with Daniel Craig.

 

From pixabay.com / © Ben Kerckx

 

Now I just want the whole thing gone.  Abolishing the monarchy the moment the Queen dies would be fine by me.  My reversion to republicanism isn’t so much to do with the Queen herself, though she certainly hasn’t done herself any favours in recent years with the revelations about how much of her money is invested in dodgy, tax-avoiding offshore accounts or her eagerness to fund her second son’s 12-million-pound settlement with Virginia Giuffre, who claimed Andrew had sexually assaulted her while she was being trafficked as a minor by Jeffrey Epstein.  (Andrew was unable to make an appearance at last week’s Platinum Jubilee festivities because he was stricken, supposedly, with Covid-19.  Aye, right.)  It’s more to do with the state of Britain.  The place is now such a basket-case that it needs to have its Royal Family surgically removed – one of many drastic treatments required if it’s to make any sort of recovery.

 

For one thing, the Royal Family is the ultimate symbol of Britain’s neurotic obsession with the past.  Remove that symbol and you might go some way to breaking the obsession, which hobbles the country left, right and centre.

 

There’s the dire state of its governing institutions, where more attention is paid to witless Ruritanian flummery like the State Opening of Parliament (the crown getting transported to the Houses of Parliament in a carriage of its own, the ridiculously ruffed Black Rod getting Parliament’s door slammed in his or her face) than to the constitution, which is unwritten and open to abuse by unscrupulous politicians, like the shower we have in office at the moment.  The argument is that Britain’s constitution is protected by some absurd, Boy’s Own Paper-style, ‘good chaps’ theory of government.  I’d struggle to describe the grinning war criminal Tony Blair, or the squish-faced posho David Cameron, or the Mother of Tears herself Margaret Thatcher as ‘good chaps’; but surely not even the most naïve person in the universe would bestow that term on the current incumbent of No 10 Downing Street.

 

There’s also the embarrassing preoccupation many Britons have with the Second World War and everything that goes with it (Churchill, the Blitz, Spitfires, Dame Vera Lynn), although to have even childhood memories about the conflict now you’d need to be in your 80s.  In 2016, that finest-hour, standing-alone, ourselves-against-the-world narrative was exploited by self-serving ratbags like Nigel Farage, who managed to conflate the European Union with the Third Reich in some people’s minds and got them to vote for the economic and political disaster of Brexit.

 

Predictably, Britain’s obsession with the past is focused on the nice bits of history – pomp, pageantry, Ladybird Adventure from History books, stiff-upper-lipped World War II movies.  There’s not much focus on the misery, poverty and injustices that the British Empire inflicted on millions of its ‘subjects’.  Meanwhile, with this mentality, Britain is never to going to have a scaled-down monarchy like the Swedes, Dutch, Belgians, etc., have.  It’s always going to be the full-on, super-expensive deal with parades, carriages, horses, bands, guardsmen and so on.  It’s like some balding, beer-gutted, 50-something football hooligan covering himself in bling and believing he still looks ‘hard’.

 

I’d do away with the monarchy too because of the depressing sycophancy it engenders in British society.  Everyone who comes into contact with the royals, and with the Establishment generally, seems to immediately de-evolve into a mollusc, apparently on the assumption that the more obsequious you are, the better your chances are of securing a CBE, OBE, knighthood or whatever.  This is never more obvious than in the country’s press.  British journalists do so much brown-nosing – presumably hoping that one day Her Majesty will reward them with an honour for services to toadying – that their pages, or webpages, seem to turn the colour of shite while you read them.

 

Inevitably, this brown-nosing was at its brownest during last week’s Platinum Jubilee. And it wasn’t done just by right-wing journalists and politicians wanting to use the Queen as a Culture War ruse to distract attention from the fact that under the current Conservative government there’s a lying sleazeball as Prime Minister, the country’s economic growth is on track to be second-worst in the G20 (after Putin’s pariah-status Russia), and nearly 180,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the last two years.

 

Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party and someone whom you’d expect to be at least a teensy-weensy bit socialist, wrote in the swivel-eyed, reactionary Daily Telegraph that it was our ‘patriotic duty’ to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee.  There it is again – you’re not patriotic if you don’t like the Queen.  Meanwhile, former Liberal Democratic leader Tim Farron tweeted: “You don’t need to think that everything about Britain is wonderful, just that being British is wonderful and that the Queen’s reign has been remarkable.”  No, Tim, the Queen doesn’t know who you are.  She isn’t going to give you a knighthood.

 

So yes, I just want the monarchy gone.  Goodbye Queen, goodbye Prince Charles, goodbye William, Kate and the kids, goodbye all of them.  But obviously, that isn’t going to happen.  The British Royal Family will endure, undeservedly.  And as for the country they’re supposed to represent…  Well, I now think it’s beyond all hope.

 

From pixabay.com / © Sabine Lang