F*ckety-bye

 

From qz.com

 

When I was in the United Kingdom for a few weeks earlier this year, and got chatting about politics with friends, family-members and acquaintances, I’d hear a common sentiment: “Well, I don’t like Theresa May.  But I do feel sorry for her.”

 

The reasoning behind this sentiment was that Theresa May, who yesterday announced her impending resignation as British Prime Minister, deserved sympathy for her doggedness in carrying on despite overwhelmingly adverse circumstances.  Indeed, having lost her House of Commons majority after an epically misjudged general election campaign in 2017, and having had her attempts to pass a Brexit Bill in the Commons thwarted again and again, she’d become the political equivalent of Al Pacino at the end of Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983).  By that point, you may remember, Pacino’s Tony Montana character was massively bloodied and bullet-ridden, his body apparently having absorbed more ammunition than was fired in the whole of World War II.  Yet he kept stumbling on and kept blasting away at his enemies with an auto-converted AR-15-cum-M203 grenade launcher, which he referred to with the memorable line, “Say hello to my little friend!”

 

The difference being that May, although similarly (metaphorically) bloodied and bullet-ridden while she stumbled on, didn’t have any friends.  Not even little ones, to say hello to.

 

Well, count me out of that sentiment.  I do not feel sorry for Theresa May.  When she delivered her resignation speech outside Number 10 Downing Street yesterday and teared up at the end of it, I felt not one shred of pity.  In fact, you could examine my soul at a sub-atomic level and you still wouldn’t find anything approaching sympathy for the person who spent six years as Britain’s Home Secretary followed by another three, monumentally hapless ones as its Prime Minister.

 

Let’s look at May’s record.  She ascended to the role of Home Secretary with the advent of David Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010 and presided over the notorious ‘hostile environment’ policy, which was meant to make living in the UK as difficult as possible for people deemed to be undesirable foreigners and so bolster David Cameron’s image among right-wingers.  May herself announced that the intention was to “create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.”  The reality was that she helped engineer such horrors as the Windrush scandal, where West Indian immigrants who’d spent their entire lives in Britain were deported in their old age for not having the right documentation – documentation that during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s they’d been told they didn’t need.

 

Also on the charge sheet against Home Secretary May are the rapes that were allegedly committed at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire – seemingly, the allegations were hushed up to avoid damaging the business interests of Serco, the company that took over the centre’s running in 2014, under May’s watch.  Plus the deportation of LGBT asylum seekers back to repressive regimes where they were likely to be persecuted for their sexual orientation.  You can read Stonewall’s report on this nasty affair here.

 

May’s tenure at the Home Office was summed up by the Orwellian ‘go home’ vans that in 2013 her department sent out to patrol the streets of London, emblazoned with the threat: “In the UK illegally?  Go home or face arrest.”  Even right-wing rabble-rouser Nigel Farage said he found the things ‘unpleasant’.

 

2016 saw the referendum about Britain’s continued membership of the European Union and the surprise – if narrow – vote to leave it.  David Cameron promptly resigned and May became Prime Minister because her competitors for the position, like Andrea Leadsom, Michael Gove and Liam Fox, were so rubbish that they made her look like the proverbial ‘safe pair of hands’.  With hindsight, you appreciate how utterly rubbish those competitors must have been.  May had campaigned, quietly, for a remain vote during the referendum campaign but once installed as PM she threw her principles, and the 48% of the electorate who’d voted to remain, under the bus and became a full-blooded Brexiteer.  For a little while, she was the darling of Britain’s gung-ho right-wing press and the xenophobic nutters in her party who believed that Brexit would somehow turn Britain back into the imperial superpower it’d been in the 19th century.

 

In January 2017, when she announced that Britain would quit the single market, renegotiate the customs union and leave the European court of justice, the Daily Mail bore the front-page headline ‘STEEL OF THE NEW IRON LADY’ while crowing above it, “We will walk away from a bad deal and make EU pay.”  How long ago that seems now.  And on March 29th, 2017, she activated Article 50, giving the EU notice that Britain would be leaving in two years’ time.  Again, the Brexiteers roared with approval, but the idea that Britain could conclude negotiations with the EU and leave the organisation in so short a time with a deal that didn’t entail economic disaster was jaw-droppingly stupid.

 

© Daily Mail

 

The peak of the nauseating, Little Englander parochialism that accompanied the honeymoon part of Prime Minister May’s reign came during 2016’s Conservative Party conference.  This was when she declared, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”  To which I – someone who’s spent a good part of his life living overseas and working in a variety of Asian, African and European cultures, and is proud of the fact – responded by thinking, “F**k right off.”

 

Meanwhile, with Brexit consuming her energies and her not-substantial intellect, it was business as usual on the domestic front.  The austerity programme inaugurated by David Cameron and his little helpers in the Liberal Democrats continued, with brutal measures imposed by the Department of Work and Pensions taking a hideous toll on the weak, disadvantaged, vulnerable and disabled.  It’s no surprise that the United Nations has just published a damning and shameful report about the millions of folk currently living in poverty in Britain.

 

June 2017 saw May holding a general election on the assumption that she’d win a massive majority in the House of Commons and so would be able to implement her version of Brexit with ease.  “CRUSH THE SABOTEURS!” thundered the Daily Mail on cue.  But she fought the election campaign with such astonishing ineptness that her party ended up losing the slim majority it already had.  To maintain control, she had to do a deal with the sectarian, homophobic, science-denying and generally medieval Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland – a deal the DUP sewed up by insisting May threw a billion-pound bung at them.  All of a sudden, everybody, including the Daily Mail, had stopped calling her the ‘new Iron Lady’.

 

After that, with her authority in tatters, and with realisation sinking in that leaving the EU without a deal would wreak terrible damage on the British economy, May shuttled back and forth between London and an increasingly bemused and contemptuous Brussels whilst trying to get some sort of compromise deal passed by the House of Commons.  Predictably, her efforts were shot down again and again by the remain-favouring politicians whom she’d pissed off with her original uncompromising pro-Brexit stance and by the leave-favouring politicians who’d been stoked up by her original rhetoric but now saw her as a sell-out.  Anyone with an ounce of intuition would have avoided getting themselves into this predicament in the first place.

 

Theresa May is the author of her own downfall, but should she be considered a bad person?  Her lack of imagination and empathy with her fellow human beings is legendary – see her visit to the aftermath of the Grenfell fire disaster in 2017, where she determinedly avoided meeting survivors who’d lost their loved ones, homes and possessions.  It puts me in mind of a quote from the 2007 novel The Steep Approach to Garbadale by the late, great Iain Banks.  At one point, the novel’s narrator muses on the connection between being right wing and not having an imagination: “We got talking about how some people were selfish and some weren’t, and the difference between right-wing people and left-wing people.  You said it all came down to imagination.  Conservative people don’t usually have very much, so they find it hard to imagine what life is like for people who aren’t just like them.  They can only empathise with people just like they are: the same sex, the same age, the same class, the same golf club or nation or race or whatever.  Liberals can pretty much empathise with anybody else, no matter how different they are.  It’s all to do with imagination, empathy and imagination are almost the same thing, and it’s why artists, creative people, are almost all liberals, left-leaning.

 

So yes, I think May’s disdain for immigrants, asylum seekers, struggling DWP claimants, remain voters and people like me who consider themselves ‘citizens of the world’ is due to her chronic lack of imagination and, consequentially, her lack of empathy.  But there’s also a famous saying attributed to Socrates: “to do is to be”.   She did a lot of bad things as Home Secretary and Prime Minister that define her as a person and, as a result, I regard her as being bad.  So no, I didn’t sympathise when she lost her composure during her resignation announcement yesterday.

 

Still, though May was a shit Prime Minister, there is the unhappy likelihood that her successor as Prime Minister will be even more shit.

 

I was tempted to finish here by featuring a picture of Boris Johnson doing something stupid.  But that joke isn’t funny anymore.  So here’s a picture of Tony Montana from Scarface instead.  Even he’d be better as Prime Minister than the idiotic and conniving Johnson.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

The importance of being Ernst

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(c) Eon Productions
(c) Eon Productions

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Details of the forthcoming 25th official James Bond movie were announced via a media rollout on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook on April 25th, 2019.  This came after a series of delays, script rewrites and changes of director that, depending on your point of view, is a sign that the long-running James Bond franchise is in trouble or is just part-and-parcel of the cumbersome business of getting a Bond epic to the screen.  Anyway, two important questions remain unanswered.  Firstly, what is the new Bond movie actually going to be called?  And secondly, will Bond’s archenemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who made his long-awaited comeback in the previous instalment Spectre (2015), return for this new one? 

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It’s been reported that Christoph Waltz, who played Blofeld in Spectre, won’t be in the new film.  However, previous films and the Ian Fleming books that inspired them have depicted Blofeld as someone with a penchant for radically altering his appearance.  So it’s still possible that he’ll be back in Bond 25, played by a different actor – perhaps Rami Malik, who’s been unveiled as the film’s main ‘villain’.

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Ernst Stavro Blofeld, super-intelligent and super-nasty leader of the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion organisation (SPECTRE for short), is a paradoxical figure.  On one hand, in popular consciousness, he’s as much a part of Bond tradition as Q’s gadgets, shaken-not-stirred dry martinis and the Aston Martin DB5.  Mention of him conjures up images of a sinister foreigner sporting a shaven head, wearing a white Mao-suit, stroking a white cat and feeding minions to piranha fish when they fail to carry out his orders.  It’s no surprise that when Mike Myers lovingly spoofed the Bond movies with his Austen Powers ones (1997-2002), he made sure he spoofed Blofeld too with the character of the bald-headed, Mao-suit-wearing, cat-stroking, piranha-feeding Dr Evil.

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But on the other hand, Blofeld isn’t really in the Bond books and movies that much.  He appears in only three of Ian Fleming’s 14 Bond novels and short-story collections, and in one of those, 1961’s Thunderball, Bond and Blofeld never meet – Bond spends the novel tangling with Blofeld’s lieutenant, Emilio Largo.  Meanwhile, Blofeld is featured in seven of the 24 Bond movies made over the past six decades by Eon Productions, but makes only fleeting appearances in three of them.  And three of the four films where Blofeld is a substantial character were made during the first decade of the franchise.  Before Waltz stepped into Blofeld’s shoes in Spectre, we’d hardly seen anything of the old rogue since 1971’s Diamonds are Forever

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(Still, in terms of presence in popular mythology versus lack-of-presence in the original source material, Blofeld has nothing on Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Professor Moriarty, who doesn’t figure in 58 of the 60 Holmes stories.  He only properly appears in one story and lurks offstage in one other.)

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(c) Jonathan Cape

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Thunderball, the novel in which Blofeld made his debut, was really a collaborative effort.  It was written by Fleming but based on a script he’d put together with Irish writer-director Kevin McClory and British playwright and screenwriter Jack Whittingham for a Bond film in the late 1950s.  The film came to nothing and Fleming’s publication of the novel a few years later resulted in legal action from McClory and Whittingham.  Although who came up with which ideas in Thunderball has been a matter of dispute, I’m inclined to believe Blofeld was the product of Fleming’s imagination rather than McClory or Whittingham’s.  For one thing, Fleming had attended Eton in the company of one Thomas Blofeld and he probably borrowed his old schoolmate’s surname for the character.  (This real Blofeld was the father of the famous cricket commentator Henry Blofeld.)  

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Meanwhile, Blofeld’s Wikipedia entry suggests that Fleming took inspiration for his personality from the infamous Greek arms dealer Basil Zaharoff.  After escapades in his youth as a confidence man, bigamist, possible arsonist, dodgy goods exporter and general manipulator and social climber, Zaharoff came to specialise in selling weaponry – weaponry that sometimes didn’t work, as with the Nordenfelt 1 submarine that he flogged off to Greece, Turkey and Russia.  Zaharoff also had no qualms about supplying arms to countries that were fighting on either side of a conflict, which is a very Blofeld-ish thing to do.

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(c) Jonathan Cape

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Over the course of three novels – Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963) and You Only Live Twice (1964) – Blofeld is quite a shapeshifter.  In Thunderball, he’s a whale of a man, some 20 stones in weight.  In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he’s slimmed down to 12 stones, wears green-tinted contact lenses and, disconcertingly, has a syphilitic gumma on his nose.  And in You Only Live Twice, he’s bulked out again, though with muscle rather than fat.  His mouth flashes a gold-capped tooth and his nose has been fixed. 

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More interesting, though, is how Fleming charts Blofeld’s mental development (or degeneration).  The Blofeld of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has succumbed to that most bourgeois of diseases, snobbery, and is pestering the College of Arms in London to acknowledge him as a reigning aristocrat, the Comte Balthazar de Bleuville.   (A genealogy expert tells Bond how respectable people lose all dignity when they’re angling for a title or a coat of arms: “they dwindle and dwindle in front of you… until they’re no more than homunculi.”)  By You Only Live Twice, Blofeld’s state-of-mind has gone from snobbery to insanity.  He lives in a castle on the Japanese island of Kyushu and has installed a bizarre ‘garden of death’, teeming with deadly flora and fauna and riddled with sulphurous fumaroles, which has become a popular visiting spot for people wanting to commit suicide.  To be fair, by this point Bond isn’t much saner than Blofeld, due to Blofeld having murdered his wife Tracy at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

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(c) Eon Productions

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The films, in tune with the escapist mood of the 1960s, were happy to use Blofeld and SPECTRE as their fantasy baddies from the start – unlike the earliest novels, which were set in the Cold War and had the Russians providing the villainy.  Blofeld makes his first appearance in 1963’s From Russia with Love.  “Let his death be a particularly unpleasant and humiliating one!” he decrees of Bond.  However, he has only a minor role and remains hidden within a large chair, and we only see his hands stroking the glossy white fur of a Persian cat.  (The white cat was a detail added by the filmmakers, although in Fleming’s books Auric Goldfinger did own a ginger cat – a rather unfortunate one, for he ends up being given as dinner to Goldfinger’s sidekick, Oddjob.)  Blofeld was played physically by the Scottish actor Anthony Dawson, while his mellifluous voice was supplied by the Austrian actor Eric Pohlmann.  Two years later, Dawson and Pohlmann reteamed to play Blofeld bodily and vocally in the film version of Thunderball, but again it was a minor, away-from-the-action role. 

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It wasn’t until the 1967 movie You Only Live Twice – which confusingly preceded the movie version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1968), even though they appeared the other way around as books – that we get to see Blofeld’s face for the first time, as does Bond.  And he’s played by the sublimely sinister Donald Pleasence with all the classic Blofeld accoutrements (bald head, Mao-suit, cat, piranhas).  Interestingly, though, as soon as the filmmakers had created the definite Blofeld template with the goblin-like Pleasence, they immediately chose not to continue with that version of the character.  For when Blofeld reappears in 1968 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he’s played very differently by the celebrated Greek-American actor Telly Savalas.

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(c) Eon Productions

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Savalas’s Blofeld is physical, macho and, when we see him flirting with heroine Diana Rigg, brutishly charming.  To be honest, he’s a shade too physical and macho for the role and you can’t help feeling he’d have made a better henchman than the Big Villain.  But Savalas is certainly believable when doing the strenuous outdoors things required by the script, such as leading a ski-group in pursuit of Bond and wrestling with him during a breakneck bobsleigh ride.  Much as I like Donald Pleasance, I couldn’t imagine the creepy, pop-eyed English character actor hurtling down a mountainside on a bobsleigh.

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Incidentally, when Bond and Blofeld meet up in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the script glaringly contradicts the continuity established by its predecessor.  Despite coming face-to-face at the climax of You Only Live Twice, in the new film Blofeld doesn’t recognise Bond at all.  (Admittedly, Bond does look different all of a sudden because producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Salzman had just replaced Sean Connery with George Lazenby, but let’s not go into that.) 

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Like its literary equivalent, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ends with Blofeld murdering Bond’s wife Tracey.  As Blofeld also features in the next Bond movie, 1971’s Diamonds are Forever, you’d expect it to be a tough and intense affair.  But Diamonds are Forever is nothing of the sort.  Sean Connery (enticed back into 007’s shoes by a 1.25-million-pound paycheque after George Lazenby jumped ship) is given five minutes at the beginning to look vengeful and that’s it.  Then the film becomes the epitome of cinematic Bond laziness, its plot meandering nonsensically from one action set-piece to another, its visuals packed with easy-on-the-eye spectacle and lavishness.  No doubt this was because the melancholic On Her Majesty’s Secret Service hadn’t been a big success and producers Broccoli and Saltzman wanted to play it safe and return to a formula that audiences were comfortable with. 

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Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever is played acerbically and amusingly by English character actor Charles Gray.  While he’s wreaking havoc with a deadly laser gun mounted on a satellite, he sneers: “The satellite is now over Kansas.   Well, if we destroy Kansas, the world may not hear about it for years.”  Indeed, Gray and the bemused, past-caring Connery make quite the double act.  “What do you intend to do with those diamonds?” demands Bond at one point.  Blofeld retorts, “An excellent question, and one which will be hanging on the lips of the world quite soon.  If I were to break the news to anyone, it would be to you first, Mr Bond.  You know that.”

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(c) Eon Productions

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Diamonds are Forever was the last Bond film for a long time in which Blofeld (and SPECTRE) are prominent.  This was due to ongoing legal issues with Kevin McClory, which stemmed from the controversy over the novel and original film script of Thunderball.  However, a villain who’s obviously Blofeld – though he isn’t named for the aforementioned legal reasons – does turn up at the beginning of the fifth Bond movie starring Roger Moore, For Your Eyes Only (1981).  He’s bald, has a white cat, is now in a wheelchair and neck-brace and, returning to the policy of From Russia with Love and Thunderball, he’s physically played by one actor, John Hollis, and voiced by another, Robert Rietti.  In the film’s pre-credits sequence, Blofeld traps Bond above London in a remote-controlled helicopter.  Alas, what begins as an exciting action set-piece descends into typical Moore-era silliness when Bond gains manual control of the helicopter, and somehow scoops Blofeld and his wheelchair up on one of the helicopter’s landing skids, and drops him into a factory chimney. 

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Having won the right to remake Thunderball, Kevin McClory did so in 1983.  His production company brought out Never Say Never Again, a rogue Bond film unconnected with the Eon series – although it did have Sean Connery, no doubt keen to thumb his nose at his former employers, reprising the role of Bond.  Since McClory had the rights to Blofeld too, it was inevitable that Bond’s old nemesis should feature in the plot. This time he’s played by the mighty Swedish actor Max von Sydow but, like in the original Thunderball, he doesn’t have much to do.  Now I admire von Sydow, but all I remember about him in this film is my surprise at seeing Blofeld with a beard and in a grey business suit.  And from the way von Sydow clutches the little fellow to his chest, this Blofeld really loves his white cat.

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(c) Taliafilm / Warner Bros.

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In 2013 the legal row was finally settled with Kevin McClory’s estate and Eon Productions were free to use Blofeld and SPECTRE again – and they did in their very next film, the emphatically titled Spectre.  In the role of the 21st century Blofeld is Christoph Waltz, who plays him as a charismatic but psychotic Euro-scumbag.  Unlike most Blofelds of old, he sports a full head of hair and commits crimes against fashion as well as against humanity by wearing his loafers without socks.  But he still has the cat. 

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The new Blofeld also goes by another name, Franz Oberhauser, and we learn eventually that he’s connected to Bond through his father, Hannes Oberhauser, who brought up the young James Bond after his parents were killed in a climbing accident.  This backstory involving Blofeld and Bond brought hoots of derision from many movie critics, though I didn’t have much of a problem with it – the adoptive father-figure of Hannes Oberhauser existed in Ian Fleming’s original, literary Bond-universe and Bond talked about him in the short story Octopussy, published in 1966.  It’s just unfortunate that the third Austen Powers film, Goldmember (2002), has a similar revelation linking Powers and Dr Evil.

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And so the million-dollar question now is, with Waltz seemingly departed, will Rami Malik be playing yet another incarnation of Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Bond 25?  And if so, what will the latest Blofeld be like?  One thing I’m fairly sure about, though.  If Blofeld is returning, I reckon the theatrical agent of a certain fluffy, white Persian will be getting a telephone call very soon.     

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(c) Eon Productions

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Auld Reekie robots

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Anyone who read my previous blog-post won’t be surprised to hear that my opinion of humanity is not terribly high at the moment.  So here’s a post that’s about the opposite of humanity.  It’s about artificial, mechanical and / or synthetic humanity rather than the flesh-and-blood variety.  Robots, in other words.

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Robots is the name of an exhibition that’s been in progress at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.  A few weeks ago I got a chance to visit it.  Containing more than 100 exhibits, it tells the story of, to quote the blurb, ‘our 500-year quest to make machines human’ and it ranges ‘from early mechanised human forms to today’s cutting-edge technology.’  The exhibition runs until May 5th which, come to think of it, is today.  So if you’re in the Edinburgh area, haven’t seen it yet but fancy giving it a try, you’d better grab your coat and hat and run to the museum… now!

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The first sections of the exhibition chart the progress made by human science and technology towards the creation of robots prior to the 20th century.  This progress includes automatons, which were ‘mass-produced for the first time’ during the Industrial Revolution and ‘were not toys, but reflected their owners’ prosperity and fascination with exotic places.’  Among the automatons on display are a mechanical monkey, a mechanical bird in a cage and an eye-rolling, cigar-puffing human face that once adorned the wall of a tobacconist’s.  They’re charming, but I was disappointed that there weren’t more items like these on show.

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There’s also a section about the development of clockwork and it features some antiquated devices running on elaborate systems of springs and gearwheels.  These include a huge, multicoloured time-keeping dial with Roman numerals, the months and the signs of the zodiac on it; an orrery with long, straight, horizontal ‘branches’ and vertical ‘twigs’ supporting various planets and moons; and another orrery consisting of metal balls (the sun, earth, moon) and metal rings (their orbits).  Again, I wished the exhibition had had more space to exhibit more of these because I found them fascinating.

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After walking past some factory machines that helped to make the Industrial Revolution so revolutionary, you arrive at a section devoted to robots of the cinema screen, printed page and comic strip.  No doubt contrary to many visitors’ expectations, this section is quite brief.  There are some display cases with movie posters, pictures, books and toys and two life-sized representations of robots from two classic films, and that’s it.  The life-sized representations are of the utterly iconic Maria from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), who stands in the middle of a circular, segmented, flower-like stage drenched in an unsettling purple light; and, leering across at her from a glass case, the fearsome mechanical endoskeleton of T-800 from the original and best Terminator movie (1984).

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I was pleased to see T-800 on display because he – sorry, it – is a very rare example of the cinema getting robots right.  Too often, filmmakers anthropomorphise robots, i.e. invest them with human traits and emotions, just as we do with animals in children’s books, fables, cartoons and so on.  Hence, you get movie robots fretting like camp English butlers in the Star Wars franchise or acting as gruff, wisecracking sidekicks to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-81).  And don’t get me started on bloody K9.

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T-800, however, properly behaves like a machine.  It never deviates from its programming, which means it relentlessly pursues Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) with the purpose of destroying her, whilst eliminating anything or anyone else that gets in its way and threatens to impede its mission.  And that’s it.  Like a genuine machine, it does what it’s designed to do.  Other rare but honourable examples of cinematic robots that do only what it says on the tin (or on the packaging case), without any interference from human emotions, include the deadly, self-assembling, self-repairing war-droid M.A.R.K. 13 in Richard Stanley’s Hardware (1990) and Yul Brynner’s android gunslinger in Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1974).  Actually, the Brynner android follows its programming, which is to allow human tourists to shoot it ‘dead’ in mock Wild West gun battles at the Delos amusement park, up to a point.  Then it malfunctions and follows what the malfunction tells it to do, which is to hunt those tourists down and kill them…

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But back to the Robots exhibition.  After the viewing those glamorous movie robots, you get to see some ‘real’ robots from the 1950s and 1960s, which look so clunky they make the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz (1939) seem sleek and elegant.  By ‘real’, I mean they were built by inventors but steered by controls and were incapable of autonomous movement.  Actually, I felt rather sorry for them, with their bucket heads, slit mouths, wedged noses, boiler-shaped torsos, clamp-like hands and massive slabbed feet.  Compared with what’s just ahead of them in the exhibition, they resemble old folk sitting uncomprehending and lost in a corner of a party predominantly attended by youngsters.

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And then it’s into the realm of modern robotry and we get to see the results of how scientists, engineers and technicians have attempted to replicate the skeletal, muscular, nervous, circulatory and other systems of the human body in machine form, using intricate networks of rods, pistons, levers, wires, cables, tubes and so on.  There are some truly odd things on display here.  The designs of a couple of the robots have been so modelled on human anatomy that they – vaguely – resemble flayed or dissected cadavers.

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The exhibition saves its trump card for the end.  Its final stretch is an identity parade composed of some of the 21st century’s most notable robots.  I’ve seen clips of individual ones on TV news reports or online videos, but it’s rather overwhelming to see so many of them together in one place.  They include Robina (‘Robot as Intelligent Assistant’), which was developed by Toyota and from 2007 to 2009 ‘was used as a museum tour-guide’.  It resembles a food-blender base with giant arms and pincer-like hands, topped with what is sometimes called a ‘classic alien face’ (i.e. oval-shaped and having big black eyes).  Also equipped with pincers is the more ominous-looking Baxter, ‘the world’s first two-armed robot designed to work together with people.’  With a part-cylindrical, part-oblong, all-black torso, a TV-shaped head and a pair of powerful red arms, Baxter looks faintly arachnid-like, despite having only two limbs.

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Elsewhere, there’s Kodomoroid, whose name is derived from kodomo – Japanese for ‘child’ – and ‘android’.  Its flexible silicon skin was sculpted ‘from a whole head cast of a female model’, its teeth sculpted ‘from a separate cast of the model’s mouth’ and each of its hairs was inserted ‘on its body by hand’.  In fact, Kodomoroid didn’t strike me as particularly child-like.  Seated on a white cube, it looks like a prim and slightly shrunken Japanese auntie, incongruously dressed in a surgical gown, white ballerina shoes and a microphoned headset.  Japanese technology has also produced the Human Support Robot, which can ‘be operated directly by home users’ and ‘obey simple voice commands, for example, to fetch medication or draw the curtains.’  Basically a long, multi-jointed arm attached to a mobile cylinder with a face-like panel on top, the Human Support Robot is aimed at elderly people who are housebound or bedbound but who feel it’s unbecoming to depend on the services of a human home-help.

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I like the thinking behind Kaspar, a little robot doll designed as a ‘social companion’ for children with autism and other communicative issues.  For example, it can tell the kids if they’re holding it too tightly, thanks to it having pressure-sensors under its skin.   However, the show-stealer when I was there was RoboThespian, who can ‘deliver its lines in over 40 languages, wink, roll its eyes and lock gazes with individuals using facial recognition technology’ and who looks like a somewhat stripped-down C3PO with a dish-shaped face and square eyes.  A couple of kids were leaning towards it over the barrier when suddenly it lurched into motion, pointed at the them and blared, “Here’s looking at you, kid!”  Those kids promptly sprang a yard backwards.

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I’d expected a longer viewing experience at Robots, having paid ten pounds for a ticket, but I guess it was a costly business filling even the relatively-small area of the exhibition with so much hi-tech hardware from so many countries.  Still, it was always absorbing – and occasionally enthralling.   

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Under the shadow

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As you will no doubt know from the news, the past few days have been tragic ones for Sri Lanka, the country that’s been my home for the past five years.  On the morning of April 21st, Easter Sunday, a series of suicide bombings caused carnage at St Anthony’s Shrine and the Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury Hotels in Colombo, at St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo and at the Zion Church in Batticaloa.  Six days later, the death toll stands at 253.  It’s no comfort to the victims and their loved ones, of course, but two days ago the authorities scaled down this number – earlier, they’d stated that 359 people had been killed.  Meanwhile, according to figures from UNICEF, at least 45 of the dead were children.

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My partner and I were lucky enough to be, at the time, in a district of Colombo spared by the bombers.  However, a friend and his wife were caught up in explosions at one of the hotels.  He’s currently in an intensive unit, his condition serious but stable.  His wife suffered injuries too.  Both are coping as well as can be expected considering the horrific ordeal they went through.

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And only yesterday, we learned that a staff-member at our apartment building, an unfailingly friendly and cheerful man, had also been injured during the bombings.  It’s customary at this time of year to give gifts of money to the staff as Buddhist New Year presents, but he told us he felt uncomfortable about this because he’s not a Buddhist but a Roman Catholic.  So we got into the habit of giving him a gift for Easter instead.  Last Saturday we gave him his Easter 2019 gift, never dreaming that one day later he’d be hurt in a terrorist atrocity. 

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Although it’s just a decade since the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, which according to Wikipedia cost the lives of over 100,000 civilians and 50,000 combatants, Colombo for the time that I’ve lived here has struck me as a relaxed and hopeful place.  The downtown area has been a site of burgeoning development, with tower-blocks and new luxury hotels sprouting up seemingly overnight.  There was a palpable sense of pride when Lonely Planet recently judged Sri Lanka to be the world’s number one tourist destination.  And people have generally gone about their business with smiles on their faces. 

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This happy, optimistic Sri Lanka, with its dark recent history consigned to the past, seems a very different place from the one I’ve experienced in Colombo over the past week.  The streets have been eerily quiet. Armed soldiers stand guard outside important buildings and at block-corners along the thoroughfares.  People look subdued and fearful.  Rumours and counter-rumours circulate with an intensity that sometimes makes you wonder if you should even venture beyond your front door.  From older Sri Lankans I have heard words to the despairing effect of: “I really thought this sort of thing was finished with…”  Younger ones have seemed dazed, wondering what sort of country – and lives – they and their children have to look forward to.

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In other words, a shadow has fallen over the place.

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It’s a shadow that I’m not unfamiliar with.  I spent my childhood and boyhood in Northern Ireland during the 1970s, when the Troubles were at their very worst.  The bloodiest years were 1972 (with 480 people killed), 1976 (297 killed) and 1974 (294 killed).  If those numbers sound insignificant compared to the numbers of fatalities in other conflicts before and since, they certainly didn’t feel insignificant to us, not in a province that was only a fraction larger than Yorkshire and had just a million-and-a-half inhabitants.

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Describing what life was like for me back then isn’t easy.  I tried explaining it to another friend a few evenings ago and my words sounded contradictory even as they came out of my mouth.  On one hand, I had a great childhood.  I have many happy memories of playing outside, having pretend adventures and really exercising my imagination.  I was lucky in that regard. My family lived on a farm where the farmstead was built against the bottom of a hill and spread over three levels, with copious passageways and spaces to explore and re-explore between the backs of the buildings and the sides of the terraced hillside behind them. You could even step from one level of the farmstead onto the roofs of the farm-buildings standing on the level below it, which was exciting for a budding Spiderman-fan like me but understandably worrying for my mother.  In addition, a river flowed past the front of our farmhouse and an area of forestry plantation stood just beyond its far bank, and – best of all – my grandparents lived up the road in a former railway station, the grounds of which still contained platforms, signal boxes and railway sheds.  You couldn’t live amid all this and not have fun.

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On the other hand, and even as a kid, I knew clearly that the Troubles were happening, mostly in distant-sounding places like Belfast and Armagh, but also occasionally close enough to impinge on my own experiences.  And there weren’t just moments when the Troubles did, objectively, intrude, like the night when I was woken up in my bed by the noise of a bomb going off, or the day that I was taken to the funeral of a youth who’d been shot dead by the IRA – I spent the funeral marveling at the heavy security presence, with helicopters circling and army marksmen lurking on the roofs of the surrounding buildings.  I also have very personal memories, particular to me only, which sprang from my awareness that there were close members of my family who qualified as targets for the terrorists. 

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One such experience occurred when my family went to visit the annual agricultural show held in Enniskillen.  I went back to where our car was parked slightly earlier than the rest of the family and discovered a bulky package in a brown-paper bag sitting on its bonnet.  Automatically, I reached out to lift the thing and a woman standing nearby suddenly shrieked, “Don’t touch it!  It might be a bomb!”  (We’d given my grandfather a lift to Enniskillen so that he could do some shopping, and the bag actually contained his groceries, which he not-very-wisely had left on top of the car before going in to look at the agricultural show himself.)  Also engraved on my memory is an evening when I and at least one of my siblings had been left in the custody of our grandmother.  Our father was supposed to come at a particular time to collect us – but he didn’t show up.  As the evening wore on and it became dark, the atmosphere in the house grew increasingly tense, with our grandmother fretting and then panicking.  She telephoned all the places where she thought our father might be, but everyone she called said they hadn’t seen him and had no idea of his whereabouts.  He arrived in the end, but by this time the poor old woman was out of her wits with worry and we, as kids, were petrified – as much by her behavior as by the awful possibility of what might have happened outside.

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It was like a shadow – not one that was always cast over you, but one that never seemed that far away either.  You could forget about it and have the normal, happy, carefree life that kids are supposed to have, but you could never forget about it for long.

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And I feel sorry for the people of Sri Lanka who’ve just had this baleful shadow fall over them – in the case of many of the younger people, for the first time.

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Still, what can decent people do?  I honestly believe the answer is just to bash on with things – doing the activities you find rewarding, hanging out with the people whose company you get pleasure from, visiting the places you find interesting and welcoming.  And at the same time, you have to not let your behaviour and thinking become reined in by fear.  Because the moment you allow yourself to be cowed by evil bastards and allow their vile actions to dictate what you do and think is the moment you hand them victory.  Which is simply not acceptable.

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It’s gone all J.G.

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(c) Fay Godwin / The Paris Review

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It’s on record that the visionary writer James Graham Ballard, known to his readers as ‘J.G.’, succumbed to prostate cancer and ceased to be a presence in our universe on April 19th, 2009 – exactly ten years ago today. 

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However, the past decade has been so baroquely and surreally insane that at times I’ve had a troubling thought.  Ten years ago, did Ballard cease to exist in the universe or did something like the reverse happen?  Did the universe stop existing as a physical entity at that moment and, since then, has it continued only as a figment of J.G. Ballard’s imagination?  Could we be living now as ghosts in Ballard’s fiction without realising it?

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Some recent trends have suggested this is not simply a crazy hypothesis on my part.  The fact that people are finally talking seriously about the dire threat to human civilisation posed by global warming – talking seriously but, alas, still doing very little about it – makes me think of Ballard’s 1962 novel The Drowned World (where climate change has jacked up the temperatures, melted the ice caps, inundated London with water and turned the city into a balmy and hallucinogenic landscape of lagoons and tropical flora and fauna); or the following year’s novel with the self-explanatory title The Drought; or his 1961 short story Deep End (where ‘oxygen mining’ has drained the oceans and a few remaining humans skulk around their dried-out beds at night-time, when the heat and radiation levels aren’t as lethal as they are in the daytime). 

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Meanwhile, our ever-spiralling-out-of-control and ecologically suicidal dependency on the internal combustion engine, and all the social maladies that go with it, such as road rage, make me think of 1973’s Crash – the initial manuscript of which caused one publisher’s reader to splutter, “This author is beyond psychiatric help.”  Whereas the increasing fragmentation of society through the proliferation of social media platforms and devices brings to mind Ballard’s short story The Intensive Care Unit, which turned up in the 1982 collection Myths of the Near Future and contained the prophetic line, “All interaction is mediated through personal cameras and TV screens.”  And the tendency among the elite to shut themselves off in gated communities, where they not only relax, play and sleep but also, increasingly, work, evokes such novels as 1975’s High Rise and 2000’s Super-Cannes – where in both cases the set-up memorably ends in tears.

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More generally, spending a few minutes channel-surfing through TV’s 24/7 news outlets is enough to make you feel you’re inhabiting Ballard’s experimental, narrative-less collage of ‘condensed novels’, 1970’s aptly-titled The Atrocity Exhibition.  And the sorry state of Trump-era America reminds me of his 1981 novel Hello America, which has an ecologically devastated USA run by someone calling himself ‘President Charles Manson’.

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(c) David Pelham / Penguin

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And as I witness the madness of Brexit, facilitated by a cadre of rich, privately-educated posh-boys like Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, I can think of half-a-dozen Ballard stories that have rich, privately-educated Britishers losing their marbles, becoming deranged and embracing chaos and catastrophe. 

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Occasionally, the thought that we could be living unawares in a giant virtual-reality system dreamed into existence by J.G. Ballard strikes me on a personal level.  For example, while I was living in Tunisia just after the 2011 revolution and the advent of the so-called Arab Spring, I arranged one afternoon to meet up with friends in Carthage, the swankiest of Tunis’s suburbs.  My friends hadn’t appeared yet when I got off at the TCM station, next door to Carthage’s branch of the French supermarket-chain Monoprix.  So I waited there and passed the time by reading a few pages of Ballard’s final novel, 2006’s Kingdom Come.  It took me a minute to notice that the Monoprix was closed.  And not just closed.  During the revolution, it’d been trashed and looted and left a razed shell.  Its ruins looked sinisterly incongruous in the middle of this plush neighbourhood of high white walls and thick iron gates, four-by-fours and swimming pools, orange trees and jasmine plants.  And what was Kingdom Come about?  A community succumbing to dystopian chaos thanks to the arrival of a fancy new shopping centre.

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Ballard’s writing is famous nowadays for not being influenced so much by other writing (except perhaps for that of William S. Burroughs) as by visual forces like surrealism and Dadaism and the ‘media landscape’ of modern-day advertising and consumerism.  But I have to say I find him a very traditional author in some ways.  Reality may be crumbling around the edges of his scenarios, but at the same time he shows an admirable commitment to telling a gripping, old-fashioned yarn.  Stiff-upper-lipped British types – rather emotionally-repressed, able only to address each other by their surnames as if they were still back at boarding school – have adventures in exotic locales while they try to do the right thing, though as some hallucinogenic apocalypse unfolds and madness leaks into their thought processes, they invariably end up doing the wrong thing. 

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Ballard’s work calls to mind – my mind, anyway – the work of another storyteller not adverse to spicing his highbrow themes with derring-do and intrigue, Graham Greene.  Indeed, I’ve sometimes thought of Greene as a mirror image of Ballard.  That’s with Greene in the real world, though, posing before a fairground mirror and with Ballard as his warped, twisted reflection.  (While Greene’s characters are usually tortured by Catholicism, Ballard’s usually have to contend with creeping and finally overwhelming psychosis.) 

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(c) David Pelham / Penguin

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And besides Greene, another literary influence on Ballard is surely Joseph Conrad.  I wouldn’t say Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) lurks in the DNA of every Ballard story, but a good many of them feature darkness of some form and, yes, a character who feels duty-bound to journey into the heart of it.  When I was in my mid-teens, the first book by Ballard I ever read was his short-story collection The Terminal Beach (1964) and its opening story, A Question of Re-entry, begins with these deliciously Conradian lines: “All day they had moved steadily upstream, occasionally pausing to raise the propeller and cut away the knots of weed, and by two o’clock had covered some 75 miles…  Now and then the channel would widen into a flat expanse of what appeared to be stationary water, the slow oily swells which disturbed its surface transforming it into a sluggish mirror of the distant, enigmatic sky, the islands of rotten balsa logs refracted by the layers of haze like the drifting archipelagos of a dream.  Then the channel would narrow again and the cooling jungle darkness enveloped the launch.” 

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And from that moment on, I was, as they say, hooked.

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Now, nearly 40 years later, I still haven’t quite read all of Ballard’s works.  For the record, though, here are my favourite things among what I have read.  Among his novels, The Drowned World, Crash, High Rise, Hello America, Empire of the Sun (1984) and Rushing to Paradise (1994). 

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Good though his novels are, I think his short fiction is even better.  Picking a favourite dozen from his short stories is a near-impossible task, but I’ll have a go.  Off the top of my head, I would nominate A Question of Re-entry, Deep End, The Illuminated Man – later expanded into the 1966 novel The Crystal World – and The Drowned Giant from The Terminal Beach; Chronopolis, The Garden of Time and The Watch Towers from the collection The 4-Dimensional Nightmare (1963); Concentration City and Now Wakes the Sea from The Disaster Area (1967); The Smile from Myths of the Near Future; and The Enormous Space and The Air Disaster from War Fever (1990).

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Meanwhile, of his 19 novels, I have yet to read 1961’s The Wind from Nowhere, 1988’s Running Wild and 1996’s Cocaine Nights.  And there’s at least one of his short story collections, 1976’s Low-Flying Aircraft, that I haven’t read either.  Which is good.  I might be an old git now, but I’m glad that reading some new stuff by J.G. Ballard is still one of the things I can look forward to in life.

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(c) David Pelham / Penguin

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McEwan gets a doin’

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(c) Penguin

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Earlier this week I was burning the proverbial midnight oil writing a new blog-post about a recent visit I’d made to the National Museum of Scotland, where I’d seen an exhibition with the self-explanatory title Robots.  It was a coincidence, then, when I decided to take a break from my labours, surfed a bit on the Internet and found myself reading a Observer interview with author Ian McEwan, talking about his new novel Machines Like Me: which is about robots too.  And about the general implications that come with the existence of artificial intelligence, and the troubling fact that, in McEwan’s words, humanity is “in the process of handing over responsibility for safety, but also for ethical decisions, to machines.”

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Then, half-a-dozen paragraphs into the interview, I read an assertion by the interviewer, Tim Adams, and some more comments by McEwan, which made my jaw drop.  “McEwan has an abiding faith that novels are the best place to examine such ethical dilemmas, though he has little time for conventional science fiction. ‘There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.’”

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What? I thought.  Oh, come on

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I also thought: f**k off!

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I know from reading other interviews with McEwan that he’s no fan of science fiction and thus he’s unlikely to have read the very long list of sci-fi stories that do indeed deal with whether a machine that ‘seems like a human’ has ‘responsibilities and rights and all the rest.’  These include Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Ray Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains (1950), Harlan Ellison’s I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream (1967), Arthur C. Clarke’s literary version of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and dozens, if not hundreds of other things going back to Isaac Asimov’s robot stories of the 1940s (later collected as 1950’s I, Robot) and probably before that too.  But I thought McEwan would have vegged out on the sofa in front of the TV at least once or twice and let himself watch a classic science fiction movie dealing with the topic, such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), itself based on the afore-mentioned Philip K. Dick novel, or Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic version of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed (1977), or Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014) – so that he would have some awareness that writing about this theme is not some startlingly original idea on his part but one that has a long, long pedigree in science fiction.

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(c)Film 4/DNA Films/Universal Pictures

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Predictably, twitter was soon busy with science fiction enthusiasts pouring scorn on McEwan’s assumption that sci-fi writers had never entertained the thought that the creation of robots and artificial intelligence might have some interesting ethical ramifications.  Among them were a few modern writers of science fiction.  For example, Charlie Stross tweeted: “Famous literary author reinvents the wheel, says something profoundly stupid about genre fiction not having wheels, while standing in front of genre fiction motorway crammed nose-to-tail with genre fiction trucks.”  And Adam Roberts speculated about McEwan’s thinking if he ever decided to write an opera: “Obviously I never listen to opera because it’s all crap but I had this idea for two doomed young lovers, a duel and a fat lady singing a really high note and I thought: nobody’s ever done that before so I will.” 

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What also makes this a bit rich is another remark that McEwan made, this time in an interview for the Glasgow Herald, to the effect that he doesn’t like science fiction because he finds it unscientific: “Although I am fascinated by science in general, my toes curl when people are crossing the universe at a trillion times the speed of light because the empiricist in me is saying: ‘Well, if they’re exceeding the speed of light, then we have to have a whole new physics.’” 

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Hmm. The premise of Machines Like Me is that it takes place in 1982, though in a parallel universe where Alan Turing didn’t commit suicide in 1954 but lived on to revolutionise computer science, to the extent that artificial humans have been created. (Both male and female ones, called – amazingly original thinking, Ian! – Adams and Eves.)  These are super-intelligent and can read literature, fall in love and even, in the case of the male ones, achieve erections ‘thanks to a reservoir of distilled water’ in their buttocks.  But even if Alan Turing had still been on the go, I find the notion that human technology would have reached this advanced stage by 1982 as scientifically laughable as, well, the moon hurtling out of orbit and carrying 300 people on a moonbase away on a tour of the universe.  (Yes, Space 1999, I’m looking at you.)

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Still, maybe it isn’t so much McEwan’s fault that he’s blinkered.  Maybe it’s the fault of the literary bubble that surrounds him and his contemporaries, the fault of all the critics, publishers, agents, supplements, magazines and so on who between them create a micro-verse that’s so precious, pretentious and stuck-up it makes anyone who spends time in it blinkered.  Britain’s literary establishment despises anything that falls into the category of ‘genre’ fiction, be it science fiction, crime, horror, humour, whatever, yet when an acceptably literary ‘name’ repackages an idea that’s been knocking around genre fiction for decades, said ‘name’ is applauded for their innovation and genius.  Hence, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow (1991) got shortlisted for the Booker Prize, even though its premise of a world where time runs backwards was one that’d seen duty away back in Philip K. Dick’s Counter-Clock World (1967) and J.G. Ballard’s Mr F is Mr F (1961).  And I’ve heard folk enthuse about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) (a novel that, incidentally, I like) as if Ishiguro was the first writer in history to put pen to paper about the subject of cloning.  Arthur C. Clarke (author of 1975’s Imperial Earth) or Ira Levin (author of 1976’s The Boys from Brazil) might disagree.  As might a certain Aldous Huxley, who once wrote a wee book called Brave New World (1932). 

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(c) Penguin

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Ironically, this disdain for genre fiction was not shared by some of the big names in Britain’s previous generation of ‘literary’ authors.  Both Anthony Burgess and Kingsley Amis (Martin’s dad) were happy to write science fiction, espionage thrillers and comedies and, in Amis’s case, a ghost story.  In 1983, Burgess put together a list of what he considered the 99 best novels written in English since the start of the second World War and he found space for science fiction ones by J.G. Ballard, Keith Roberts and George Orwell – after all, 1984 (1949) is sci-fi – as well as fantasy (Mervyn Peake), crime (Raymond Chandler) and spy (Ian Fleming) ones.  Kingsley Amis was a champion of traditional science fiction (though he loathed the ‘New Wave’ school of sci-fi that surfaced in the 1960s) and once wrote a book on the subject, New Maps of Hell (1960).

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It cuts both ways, of course.  The gatekeepers of respectable literary fiction would do well to take science fiction more seriously because, over the decades, the field has seen some great writers with great ideas – Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, William Gibson, Ursula K. LeGuin, Thomas M. Disch, Brian Aldiss, Harry Harrison and dozens of others – and it would be good if they were discovered by a wider readership.  But an awful lot of dire crap has been written in the name of science fiction too, often by fanboys – and they tended to be boys – who’d never read anything outside the parameters of sci-fi and who probably thought that Sir Walter Scott was the chief engineer on board the Starship Enterprise.  Even today, I suspect there are some sci-fi hacks whose work would improve (slightly) if they broadened their reading horizons and sampled something for a change that wasn’t science fiction.  (Personally, I have little time for the old-school likes of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt, and anything that takes place in a spaceship, space station or space colony and has more than a minimum of futuristic technobabble usually leaves me cold.  That said, I’m partial to the works of the technology-loving Arthur C. Clarke.)

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It’s a shame to see McEwan make a dick of himself like this because I actually like his books, especially Atonement (2001) and the faintly science-fictional The Child in Time (1987).  I certainly prefer his work to that of his mate Martin Amis, which I find largely unreadable.  And incidentally, I was really into McEwan’s earlier writings when I was a teenager.  This was the phase of McEwan’s career that produced the novel The Cement Garden (1978) and the short stories that were gathered together in the collections First Love, Last Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets (1978), all of which were dark, morbid and macabre.  In fact, they gave me the impression that McEwan was a horror writer.  I wonder how the genre-disdaining McEwan would react if I ran into him now and exclaimed: “Oi, Ian, you’re a master of horror – every bit as good as James Herbert and Stephen King!”  Yeah, I bet he’d really love that.

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Indeed, one of his stories from In Between the Sheets, Pornography, was included in the 22nd Pan Book of Horror Stories (1981).  Ha!

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(c) Pan Books

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One other thing.  If McEwan is as dismissive of science fiction as he makes out, it probably wasn’t wise to let the Observer take a photo of him dressed as Tom Baker, the fourth Doctor Who.   

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(c) Suki Dhanda / The Observer
(c) BBC

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Old man shouts at Edinburgh

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I spent a total of two years living in Edinburgh, one year at the end of the 1980s and the other at the end of the 1990s.  And although I have lived in other cities for similar or longer periods (Aberdeen, Sapporo, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Pyongyang, Tunis, Colombo), Edinburgh is the place I name if anyone asks me what my ‘home-city’ is. 

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I was originally a rural dweller rather than an urban one.  My dad was a farmer and, during my adolescence, I lived on a farm on the edge of the town of Peebles, population 8000.  However, Peebles is just one hour’s bus-ride from Edinburgh, and I soon got into the habit of making regular visits to the city to get those cultural experiences that weren’t available in a wee country town: browsing for hours in the (now-defunct) Science Fiction Bookshop on West Crosscauseway near the campus of Edinburgh University; spending more hours browsing in second-hand record shops; and stuffing myself with foreign food that wasn’t Italian or Chinese.  (Those were the days before Peebles acquired its excellent Indian restaurant, the Prince of India.)  Maybe it’s those distant but fond memories that, more than anything, make me think of Edinburgh as ‘my’ city.

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A few weeks ago, I was back in Scotland and, as is customary during my visits home, I hopped on the bus and went to ‘my’ city several times.  I expected, as ever, to notice a few changes.  After all, the world’s truest maxim says: “Everything changes except the law of change.”  And I expected, as ever, to be unimpressed by most of those changes.  It’s also a sad fact that as human beings grow older, they tend to become less tolerant of change.  However, even as an ageing person in an ever-changing world, I feel I am justified this time in shaking my head, waving my fist and shouting: “Edinburgh, what the hell are you doing?”

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Here are some reasons why.

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1. They’ve cut down the trees next to the Scottish National Gallery.

Yes, that attractive strip of sloping parkland hemmed in by Waverley Bridge, Princes Street, the Mound and the railway tracks leaving westwards from Waverley Station, and whose perimeter is dotted by such landmarks as the Scott Monument, the Royal Scottish Academy and the Scottish National Gallery, has been pulverised.  As the photo at the top of this entry shows, the trees that used to stand there have gone and the area is now a basin of unappealing grey-brown slag with a couple of JCBs howking around in its squalor. 

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This devastation, sorry, revamp, has been carried out at the behest of the National Galleries of Scotland organisation, who want to “create a new, sloped path that will make the gardens and gallery fully accessible to people with mobility impairments, prams and pushchairs.”  They’ve promised to plant saplings to replace the felled trees, though obviously these won’t reach the size and gorgeousness of their predecessors till after I’m dead and gone.  I notice, by the way, that the site of this work is also the site of Edinburgh’s annual Christmas fair.  And if I was a wee bit cynical (which, of course, I’m not), I’d suspect that the real reason for getting those pesky trees out of the way is so that they can shoehorn more rides and stalls into the fair every December / January and wring even more money out of it.

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2. They’ve stuck an architectural horror in the corner of St Andrew’s Square.

The corner formed by South St David Street and the southern side of St Andrew’s Square, once home to the B-listed Scottish Provident building – ‘B-listed’ apparently doesn’t carry much weight in Edinburgh these days – is now occupied by a gruesome new structure containing branches of the likes of TK Maxx and Wagamama.  There’s something positively indecent about how it flaunts its blingy frontage at poor old Jenners Department Store across South St David Street.  When I first laid eyes on this horror, I had to retreat into a local hostelry (the Abbotsford) and down a pint to recover from the shock.  And it was in the pub that I took out my notebook and penned this description of the beast: “its vertically-slatted façade looks like a wall of razor blades fiendishly designed to cause mayhem and mutilation in a Saw movie.” 

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3. It’s gone all Airbnb.

Airbnb short-term lets are everywhere in modern Edinburgh.  Recent figures suggest that the city contains 10,000 of the things, which works out at one Airbnb per 48 inhabitants.  This leads to problems like anti-social behaviour – I’ll bet half the renters are hen and stag parties – rising rents and property prices, loss of housing supply and the general ‘hollowing out’ of communties.  Walk around the Grassmarket, for example, and you find so may Airbnb lockboxes in view that it looks as if a plague of giant metallic woodlice has descended from outer space, and they’ve attached themselves to the doorposts and started eating the woodwork.

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I’ve heard people say with weary resignation that it can’t be helped.  This is Edinburgh, which has always been a touristy city and where accommodation has always been expensive.  But why make a bad situation even worse?  With my perennially shaky finances, I can’t imagine myself being ever able to live in the city again. So your loss, Edinburgh.

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4.  Edinburgh’s record shops are dying out.

I’ve lamented previously on this blog about the disappearance of Edinburgh’s live-music venues – my pessimistic conclusion was that the city was becoming ‘as musically bereft and barren as one of Simon Cowell’s armpits.’  Now it looks like it’ll not only be impossible soon to hear live music performed in Edinburgh.  It’ll be impossible too to buy music in physical form there.

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Before my return to the city, I’d heard the sad news that one of my all-time favourite second-hand record shops, Hog’s Head Music on South Clerk Street, had closed down.  I thought that I could at least console myself by going to Coda Music, the excellent world and folk music record shop at the top of the Mound.  Imagine my horror when I nipped down to Coda Music from the Royal Mile, came around a corner and was confronted by another derelict property with a notice in its window from the shop’s owners, announcing that they too had decided to call it a day. 

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Now I can’t rant at venal and short-sighted city planners and local politicians about this one.  The disappearance of these shops seems down to two simple and unavoidable reasons.  Firstly, of course, most people these days purchase their music online – something that did for the Hog’s Head.  Secondly, these places were run back in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s by music-loving young Turks who, by 2019, are getting rather long in the tooth.  And I doubt if there’s any up-and-coming new generation willing to take the businesses over from them. In Coda’s case, the owners reported that the shop was still enjoying a good trade, but they’d reached an age where they just wanted to stop working and enjoy some retirement.

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At least the small but durable Record Shak at 69 Clerk Street is still operating.  With admirable disregard for modern trends in sound technology and listening habits, it even continues to sell cassette tapes.  For how much longer, though?

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5. They’ve knocked down the St James Centre.

Okay, this is one thing I don’t feel sad about.  For more than 40 years, the St James Centre’s brutalist architecture made it not so much a carbuncle as a cancerous tumour on the face of central Edinburgh.  Now it’s gone.  Tower cranes loom over the site where the building once stood, looking like skeletal buzzards picking at its collapsed, unloved, concrete-y carcass. 

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But of course, this being 21st century Edinburgh, the powers-that-be couldn’t miss the opportunity to replace the loathsome-looking St James Centre with something even more loathsome-looking.  Et voilà.  We are getting a new – the sound you hear is my heart sinking – ‘shopping and retail’ complex with a 214-room hotel as a showcase feature at its centre.  The unusual outline of the proposed hotel has caused local people to dub it ‘the Golden Turd’.  (Anywhere else in Scotland, it would be called ‘the Golden Jobby’.  But as this is Edinburgh, the posher word ‘turd’ is preferred.)  Actually, looking at computer simulations of the thing, I think it resembles something even less appetising than a turd.  It looks like a turd with a giant, just-extracted-from-someone’s-arse tapeworm wound around it.  Yummy.

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(c) Laing O’Rourke

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Let’s kill Hitler

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(c) BBC
(c) Penguin Books

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For a novel whose plot hinges around an attempt to kill Adolf Hitler, there’s remarkably little about Hitler in Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male.  In fact, the genocidal German dictator isn’t mentioned once.  Presumably this is because although Rogue Male first appeared in print in late 1939, after war had broken out between Britain and Germany, it was written before the outbreak of war when Household evidently felt it would be diplomatic not to name names. 

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Thus, the book’s hero goes boar-hunting in Poland, crosses the border into a neighbouring country that isn’t identified, and one day ends up with the brutish leader of that country, also not identified, in the sights of his hunting rifle.  Is he actually in Germany and on the point of bagging Hitler?  Or could he be somewhere else, Russia say, where he’s targeting Joseph Stalin?  But although Household keeps it ambiguous, given historical events soon after the story’s late-1930s setting, it’s impossible to read Rogue Male now and not visualise in those sights a bloke with a square-shaped scrap of a moustache, an oily side-parting and a swastika armband.

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Incidentally, when Rogue Male was brought to the screen afterwards, the filmmakers didn’t follow Household’s ambiguity.  A 1941 Hollywood adaptation called Manhunt, directed by Fritz Lang – who’d bailed out of Germany in 1933 after Joseph Goebbels started taking an interest in him – depicted the target as Hitler and, viewed today, the film feels like an unabashed wartime propaganda piece.  (It was, however, made just before the USA entered the war and its anti-German stance caused the studio some nervousness.)  Meanwhile, a 1976 adaptation by the BBC, directed by Clive Donner, was also unequivocal that its hero was going after Hitler.  There’s a still from the BBC version at the top of this entry and the actor playing Hitler is none other than Michael Sheard, fondly remembered by kids of my generation for playing Mr Bronson, the hard-nut deputy headmaster on the BBC’s much-loved school drama / soap opera Grange Hill (1978-2008).

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Just as the book’s target is anonymous, so is its hero, even though he tells the story in the first person.  (Again, the film versions differ from the book in giving him an identity.  In 1941’s Manhunt, he’s called Captain Thorndyke and is played by Walter Pidgeon.  In 1976’s Rogue Male, he’s called Sir Robert Hunter and is played by the late, great Peter O’Toole.)  There’s even vagueness about whether or not he ever intended to pull the trigger in the first place.  Perhaps, it’s suggested, he only wanted to have the Führer in his sights for a moment to satisfy his instincts as a hunter. 

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Whatever his intentions, he’s apprehended by a guard and subjected to a brutal interrogation, before his captors decide that the easiest way to deal with him is to bump him off and make his death look like an unfortunate hunting accident.  The ensuing story can be divided into two parts, with each part having a similar, funnelling structure where the action begins in an expansive setting but ends in a cramped, claustrophobic one.  First, Rogue Male’s hero manages to escape from his captors and is pursued by them across the countryside of whatever foreign nation he’s in – okay, for the sake of simplicity, let’s just say his captors are the Gestapo and the nation is Germany.  His pursuers close in but he manages to elude them by stowing away on a London-bound ship, hiding on board inside an empty water tank. 

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Then begins the second, longer part of the narrative.  Back in Blighty, he discovers that Hitler’s agents are still on his trail.  They don’t just want to eliminate him but also want to make him sign a document saying that he carried out his attempted assassination with the blessing of the British government.  Again, the pursuit begins against a broad vista, this time the streets of London and landscapes of southern England.  But again, his options narrow and eventually he goes to ground – literally to ground, because he digs himself a little cubbyhole under an unruly and remote hedgerow marking the boundary between two farms in Dorset and hides there.

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(c) BBC

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One thing that surely inspired Rogue Male was Richard Connell’s short story The Most Dangerous Game (1924) about a big-game hunter who gets hunted as game by another, even bigger-game hunter.   However, while Household borrows this ironic scenario of a hunter becoming the hunted, he explores it in surprising depth.  His hero obviously grew up in a rural aristocratic culture of shooting and foxhunting but he’s strangely empathetic with the creatures on the receiving end of the bullets and bloodhounds.  He mentions once or twice that he got sick of hunting rabbits because of their defencelessness and, holed up in his Dorset burrow, he becomes rabbit-like himself. 

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He also bonds with a cat living wild in the hedgerow above him, whom he names ‘Asmodeus’ (presumably after the ‘worst of demons’ described in the Book of Tobit).  At one point he speculates of Asmodeus, “there is, I believe, some slight thought transference between us…  back and forth between us go thoughts of fear and disconnected dreams of action.  I should call these dreams madness, did I not know they came from him and that his mind is, by our human standards, mad.” 

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Later, he comments, “I had begun to think as an animal; I was afraid but a little proud of it.  Instinct, saving instinct, had preserved me time and again…  Gone was my disgust with my burrow; gone my determination to take to open country whatever the difficulties of food and shelter.  I didn’t think, didn’t reason.  I was no longer the man who had challenged and nearly beaten all the cunning and loyalty of a first-class power.  Living as a beast, I had become a beast, unable to question emotional stress, unable to distinguish danger in general from a particular source of danger.”

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While Rogue Male’s central character becomes unhealthily animal-like, his main adversary is a sinister caricature of a gentleman hunter.  A German agent masquerading as a tweedy English major called Quive-Smith appears on the scene, displaying impeccable upper-class charm towards the civilians he encounters whilst pursuing his quarry with extreme ruthlessness.  Quive-Smith books a room in one of the farms adjacent to the hedgerow and burrow, pretending that he wants to spend a few weeks in the area doing some shooting.  Spying on him from afar, Household’s narrator notes uneasily that “the major carried one of those awkward German weapons with a rifled barrel below the two gun barrels… the three barrels were admirably adapted to his purpose of ostensibly shooting rabbits while actually expecting bigger game.”

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(c) 20th Century Fox

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In addition to The Most Dangerous Game, Household was probably influenced by a novel about another manhunt, John Buchan’s The 39 Steps (1915).  But while there’s more to Buchan’s story than its conventional action-adventure reputation would suggest (due to its recurrent themes of disguise and imposture), I think Rogue Male is superior in terms of characterisation and psychological tension.  Buchan’s Richard Hannay is an outsider in that he’s a veteran of the African colonies who finds life back in the ‘Old Country’ stuffy, pretentious and tedious; but the hero of Rogue Male is an outsider in more complex ways.  He comes from a world of wealth and entitlement but treats that world indifferently and it’s noticeable that when he’s back in London he has a lack of friends in high places to call upon for help.  Indeed, he’s such a loner that at times you wonder if he wants to resign from the human race itself. This is even without the mental and physical stresses of being hunted making him feel more like an animal than a man.  Household provides a few clues about a past tragedy that may explain his misanthropy but wisely doesn’t get bogged down in too much backstory.

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And though Richard Hannay is no shrinking violet, it’s doubtful if he could put up with living for long in the burrow that the narrator digs for himself in Dorset and where he spends a good part of 90 pages – first hiding in it from Quive-Smith and his men, and then besieged in it by them.  Household doesn’t excessively describe the dirt, muck and claustrophobic darkness of this hideaway but he still manages to imply its squalor.  His hero gets accustomed to it while he’s inside it but realises how horrible it is when he leaves and then comes back: “The stench was appalling.  I had been out only half an hour, but that was enough for me to notice, as if it had been created by another person, the atmosphere in which I had been living.”  Then again, like many men of his generation, he’s already undergone something traumatic that puts this experience in perspective: “…my God, I remembered that there were men at Ypres in 1915 whose dugouts were smaller and damper than mine!”

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I’ve known the story of Rogue Male for a long time thanks to seeing the two film adaptations.  I didn’t much like the 1941 Hollywood version, which downplays the rawness of the novel and turns it into a typical espionage thriller, reducing the amount of time Walter Pidgeon spends in the burrow and padding things out with extra characters and plot twists elsewhere.  (When Pidgeon gets off the ship, he’s promptly greeted by a parade of Cockney Pearly Kings and Queens waltzing and singing down a foggy street – the filmmakers’ way of assuring American audiences that, yes, he is back in London.) 

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But I enjoyed the 1976 BBC version.  Its scriptwriter, Frederic Raphael, streamlines parts of Household’s narrative and embellishes others – most notably, adding a new character, a pompous and unhelpful representative of the British government sublimely played by Alastair Sim – but it’s gritty and, for the time, brutal, even if Peter O’Toole never quite becomes the desperate, filthy, animalistic figure that his counterpart in the book becomes.  It also has a great cast (John Standing, Harold Pinter, Michael Byrne and Mark McManus as well as O’Toole and Sim) and it even slips in a cheeky visual reference to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s wartime classic, The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943).  

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However, I only read the novel a few days ago after discovering a battered old Penguin edition of it in Priorsford Books, a charming second-hand bookshop that opened recently in my hometown of Peebles.  And coincidentally, it looks like Rogue Male could soon be back in vogue for a while back it was announced that Benedict Cumberbatch plans to produce, and presumably star in, a new version of it.  Let’s hope the Cumberbatch version, if it appears, is closer to the sombre tone of the 1976 adaptation than the anodyne, crowd-pleasing tone of the 1941 one.  Or, better still, it makes a real effort to capture the fascinatingly introspective, misanthropic and grimy mood of the novel that inspired those versions in the first place.

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(c) BBC

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Barging into Bangkok

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Barges are a common sight on the Chao Phraya River in modern-day Bangkok.  Unfortunately, these happen to be huge, ugly, industrial things that, pulled by tugs, crawl along the water like convoys of giant, mutant cockroaches, their cargoes sealed under dark tarpaulin, their sides and ends padded with chains of car and truck-tyres. 

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But to view the traditional barges of Bangkok – those famously sleek and gliding vessels that were often propelled by ‘more than 100 oarsmen’, went on their way ‘accompanied by the harmonious sounds of rhythmic chanting’, were ‘delicately carved with gilded lacquer and mirrored glass decorations’ and had prows fashioned in the forms of ‘mythical creatures’ – you need to pay a visit to the city’s National Museum of Royal Barges.

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The museum is next to the Bangkok Noi Khlong (Canal) just before it joins the Chao Phraya River.  If you go there by river-ferry, you can disembark at the Phra Pin Klao Bridge pier north of the canal-river junction and make your way by foot.  Be warned that the route from the pier to the museum is a slightly torturous (albeit signposted) one, which takes you through a labyrinth of narrow, twisting alleyways.  These are lined with low, sun-bleached walls, large potted plants and the doors, verandas and gardens of tightly-packed houses; and punctuated with occasional tiny shops, occasional crumbling spirit-houses and occasional footbridges straddling narrow waterways.  An added piece of local colour for my partner and I when we traversed this area was a drunk Thai guy sitting on some alleyway steps and happily shouting “Happy New Year!” in English at everyone who went by.  (It was only noon at the time but it was almost New Year.)

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We were starting to wonder if we would ever find the Barge Museum in that charming but disorientating neighbourhood when, suddenly, we arrived at its side door.  The museum is contained in a hangar that opens onto the canal, with the canal-water entering the building between a series of indoor piers.  The barges are moored in the channels between the piers.  Each vessel is accompanied by a sign giving its vital statistics – its length, width and ‘depth’, its number of oarsmen and crewmembers (apparently, oarsmen didn’t count as proper ‘crew’) and the years when it was built and when it was restored.  As well as complete ones, there are also a few sections of barges, resting on girders above the water.  The signs by these truncated specimens usually feature the line: ‘Damaged by a bomb during World War II.’

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Some of the exhibits here are gorgeous.  Their gold-lacquered hulls are patterned with vines, leaves, flowers and processions of serpentine naga and squatting garuda.  The ‘pavilions’ in the centre of their decks are topped with gracefully tiered or spired roofs.  And their figureheads are fantastically sculpted.   The most striking of those figureheads include a golden dragon’s head on a high, slender neck and sporting a long, gharial-like snout; a pugnacious-looking, red-bodied, golden-beaked garuda; and a spectacular naga with turquoise-centred, gold-edged scales, great flame-like crests and a tangle of seven heads.  I have to say that, thanks to my inner movie nerd, that last one reminded me of King Ghidorah in the Godzilla films.

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Another sign informed us, apologetically, that ‘craftsmen are restoring the decoration of the Royal Barges preparing for the Royal Barges Procession in 2019.’  Accordingly, individual restorers and pairs and teams of them were hard at work on most of the barges when we visited, scraping, cleaning, repainting and polishing their intricate carvings, patterns and figureheads.  These restorers were of all shapes, sizes and ages and their presence didn’t spoil our enjoyment of the museum at all. 

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Indeed, watching them carry out their painstaking restoration work was rather inspiring.  They exuded a quiet enthusiasm for and pride in their craft.  I couldn’t help but hope that somewhere out there is an alternative universe where I entered a different line of work from the line I entered in this universe and where I ended up having as my professional title: Restorer of Thai Barges.  (Just as I sometimes like to imagine there are other alternative universes where I’m employed as an Egyptologist, or as a wolf biologist, or as a repairer of 18th century automatons…)

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A Fluffi-shambles

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From the National

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Last week was not an auspicious one for politicians who’ve served as Member of Parliament for Peebles, my hometown in Scotland. 

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Firstly, Lord David Steel, who was the town’s MP from 1965 until 1997 (while it was part of the constituencies of Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles and then Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) and who is also a former leader of the Liberal Party (now the Liberal Democrats) found himself in some severe shit.  He admitted in a hearing for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) that in 1979 he’d ‘assumed’ his fellow Liberal MP Cyril Smith was guilty of child abuse at a hostel in Smith’s constituency of Rochdale.  Not only did Steel appear to turn a blind eye to this matter at the time, but nine years later he recommended Smith for a knighthood.  Since Smith’s death in 2010, police have uncovered ‘overwhelming evidence’ that he was an abuser of young boys.  By Thursday last week, it’d been announced that “the office bearers of the Scottish Liberal Democrats have met and agreed that an investigation is needed.  The party membership of Lord Steel has been suspended pending the outcome of that investigation.”

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Then there were the desperate and undignified squirmings of David Mundell, the Conservative MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, a constituency that Peebles got lumped in with in 2005.  Since 2015, Mundell, or ‘Fluffy’ as he’s commonly known, has also served as Secretary of State for Scotland in the Conservative governments of David Cameron and Theresa May.  He didn’t win this position because of the possession of a stunning intellect, abilities or personality but because in 2015 he was the only Conservative MP left in Scotland.  (Back then, at the yearly Agricultural Show held in Peebles, the Conservative Party would invariably set up a tent and Mundell, aka The Only Tory MP In Scotland, would sit inside, ready to press the flesh with his constituents, should any present themselves.  Passers-by would invariably point and crack the well-worn joke: “Look, there’s the Rare Breeds Tent.”)

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Last week, it became clear that the UK government and parliament were in omni-shambles mode.  The parliament managed to vote against Theresa May’s Brexit deal, against the holding of a second Brexit referendum, against the UK leaving the European Union without a deal, against the so-called Malthouse Compromise and against parliament being allowed to take control of the whole sorry Brexit process.  But even in the midst of this omni-shambles, Mundell’s behaviour stood out as particularly shambolic – his was the Fluffi-shambles. 

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He found himself caught between the rock of his party’s enthusiasm for Brexit and the hard place of knowing, quietly, how damaging Brexit is likely to be for Scotland (which voted overwhelming against leaving Europe), for his heavily agriculture-dependent Scottish constituency and for his own re-election prospects.  Finally, he defied the government whip when the vote was called on ruling out an economically disastrous no-deal Brexit.  The Conservative government demanded he voted against it being ruled out, whereas Mundell wanted it ruled out.  Being spineless, though, he chose to abstain rather than vote the other way from his political peers and masters. 

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In ordinary times, even Mundell’s abstention would be treated as a defiance of government policy and a resigning matter for a minister.  However, in these extraordinary times, with Theresa May exerting about as much authority as a wet paper bag, Mundell got away with it without resigning.  Happily for him – the basic salary for an ordinary MP was £77,379 in 2018, but as Secretary of State for Scotland he can claim £67,505 on top of that (well, going by 2017 figures). 

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A subsequent interview saw Mundell give a less-than-polished account of himself: “I’m not, er, resigning because I support the Prime Minister in her course, er, of action.  Her course of action is, er, to leave, er, with a deal, er, in an orderly Brexit but I just… I’m very clear that I don’t support, er, a no-deal, er, Brexit and I’ve made, er, I’ve made that clear on numerous occasions, the House has made its view clear, and the government is responding and taking forward, er, the decision of the House today…  There are a number of cabinet ministers, ministerial colleagues, er, who didn’t wish to oppose what was clearly, er, the will of the House on not leaving, er, without, er, on not leaving with, er, in a no-deal, er, Brexit…”

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I’d say that during the interview Mundell looked like a rabbit frozen in some car headlights, but that would disparage the courage, grit and determination displayed by rabbits frozen in car headlights everywhere.  Indeed, Mundell’s snivelling performance would make the average rabbit frozen in car headlights look like Mel Gibson leading the Scottish forces into action at the Battle of Stirling in Braveheart (1995).

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Oddly, the ‘numerous occasions’ when Mundell made it clear he was against a no-deal Brexit didn’t extend to an amendment tabled in parliament in late February to rule out that very thing.  Mundell refused to support it, or even abstain on it, because those tabling the amendment were the Scottish National Party.  He dismissed this as a ‘stunt’ and claimed that the SNP actually want the chaos that a no-deal Brexit would cause.  Which is evidently why they proposed an amendment calling on the UK government to prevent a no-deal Brexit from happening…  What?

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From twitter.com / @scottishlabour

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When it comes to tying himself in knots like this, Mundell has form.  In October last year, he and Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson threatened that they “would resign if Northern Ireland faces new controls that separate it from the rest of the UK” in some new Brexit deal.  Officially, this was because they feared it would “fuel the case for Scottish independence.”  Unofficially, I suspect they were playing to the hard-line Protestant, Glasgow Rangers-supporting gallery in the west of Scotland that has strong ties with the pro-British Protestant community in Northern Ireland, a gallery whose votes they’ve benefited from in recent years.  A few days later Mundell turned round and declared that he hadn’t intended to resign at all – and by mid-November May had indeed proposed a Brexit deal that might involve separate arrangements for Northern Ireland.  At least his £67,505 ministerial top-up salary was safe.

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In fact, whenever I see yet another cringing turn by David Mundell, I wonder why there’s any point in having a Secretary of State for Scotland at all.  After all, responsibility for the running of Scotland’s domestic affairs doesn’t lie with him but with the Scottish government, at the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, which was set up in 1999.  But the real reason why there’s a Secretary of State is obvious – the Scottish government is run by the pesky SNP and London feels the need to have the likes of David Mundell hovering in the background, looking on and harrumphing disapprovingly, like history’s crappest colonial governor ever. 

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And I sometimes wonder too if Theresa May, whose empathy, emotional intelligence and people skills are not thought to be large, even knows who poor old Mundell is.  It wouldn’t surprise me if she believes he’s some fluffy-faced Caledonian footman who’s on hand to tend to her whenever her advisors decree that she visits the God-forsaken northern regions of her domain. 

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Still, awesomely hapless though he is, at least last week Mundell didn’t vote to leave the door open for a no-deal Brexit, even though by abstaining he didn’t vote against it either.  That’s more than could be said for most of his dozen fellow Scottish Conservative MPs, who cravenly ignored the pro-EU wishes of their electorates and voted with the government.  These include such specimens as Kirstene Hair, the intellectually-challenged MP for Angus, who once admitted to not voting in the Brexit referendum because she found the choice on offer ‘very difficult’.  Or the splendidly unhinged Ross Thomson, MP for Aberdeen South, who last month got involved in a stushie in the UK parliament’s Strangers’ Bar, where he was accused of groping a number of people’s bottoms.  Thomson’s defence was that he’d been drinking for five hours and was merely grabbing those bottoms in order to stop himself falling over, like they were handles or ledges.  From this, I can only surmise that there are some very peculiarly shaped bottoms in the pubs of Westminster.

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Actually, should Mundell decide that he can’t take it any longer, don’t be surprised if Mad Ross ends up as the next Secretary of State for Scotland. It’s not as if he’ll have to live up to the reputation of a distinguished predecessor.

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From the Evening Times

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