I’m sad to say, he must be on his way


From wikipedia.org / © Masao Yakagami


It was not a great surprise that on November 30th Shane MacGowan, singer, songwriter, musician, raconteur and front-man of much-loved Anglo-Irish folk-punk band the Pogues, breathed his last.  The highs of his musical and song-writing creativity had always been offset by the lows of his industrial-strength alcohol and drug consumption, and that consumption had famously taken a toll on his health.  Plus, he’d been wheelchair-bound since 2015, when an accident outside a Dublin recording studio resulted in him breaking his pelvis, and he’d spent much of the past year in hospital suffering from viral encephalitis.  The writing had been on the wall for poor old Shane for a long time.


Then again, it was absolutely miraculous how long that writing had remained on the wall before the cantankerous old bugger took any notice of it and died.  Indeed, back in the 1990s, the prospect of him making it to even the age of 40 had looked doubtful.  This was when his drunkenness, drug-taking and general unreliability led to him being ejected from the Pogues.  Also, late in the decade, he’d developed a heroin habit so severe that his pal Sinead O’Connor felt compelled to report him to the police before he killed himself with an overdose.


Yet in 2017, he celebrated his 60th birthday.  I remember thinking at the time, Wow, six words I never expected to hear together in a sentence: ‘Shane MacGowan’ and ‘celebrated his 60th birthday’.  As a 60th birthday-bash, MacGowan was honoured with a do at Dublin’s National Concert Hall, where some of his most famous compositions were played and sung by a series of notable musical icons and talents like O’Connor, Carl Barat, Nick Cave, Bobby Gillespie, Glen Hansard, Cerys Matthews, Glen Matlock and Imelda May.  (Bono was at it too.)  There can’t have been single dry eye or lump-free throat in the building when, near the end, the birthday boy himself was wheeled onstage to sing Summer in Siam, from the 1990 Pogues album Hell’s Ditch, with his old mate Cave.  He then brought the event to a close with a solo rendition of the venerable Scottish folk song Wild Mountain Thyme.


McGowan was not at the top of his game for terribly long.  He appeared on the first five Pogues albums from 1984 to 1990 and on two albums by Shane MacGowan and the Popes in 1994 and 1997, and that was really it.  But during that period his songwriting skills were extraordinary.  On one level, his lyrics were shot through with a grim, unflinching realism, documenting the miseries that his characters, invariably Irish ones, had to endure: poverty, violence, oppression, imprisonment, addiction, homelessness and heartbreak.  Tempering these were mentions of the things that offered their existences some fleeting rays of sunshine: their faith, music and song, enjoying a flutter on the dogs and horses, good company and good booze-ups.


Thus, 1987’s Fairy Tale of New York manages in its four minutes to encompass dying old men, drunk tanks, icy winter winds, broken dreams, violent domestic rows, being bedridden on a drip, winning on a horse that ‘came in eighteen to one’, the songs The Rare Old Mountain Dew and Galway Bay, ringing church bells, the New York Police Department choir, Frank Sinatra, singing drunkards…  That’s a lot more ground than your average Christmas song covers.


© Stiff Records


At the same time, and despite his popular public image of slurring befuddlement, MacGowan was a fiercely intelligent type who littered his songs with references to Irish history, literature, religion and myth.  For instance, The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn, from 1985’s Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, alludes to the hero of the ‘Ulster’ cycle of Irish mythology in its title and name-checks the following in its lyrics: famed Irish tenor John McCormack, famed Austrian tenor Richard Tauber, IRA man Frank Ryan who led a contingent of Irish soldiers to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, legendary and (literally) legless Dublin beggar and robber Billy in the Bowl, and County Tipperary parish Cloughprior, which is noted for its 15th-century church and cemetery.


Meanwhile, Streams of Whiskey from 1984’s Red Roses for Me is about a dream where MacGowan meets the late Irish writer and hellraiser Brendan Behan, who once described himself as ‘a drinker with writing problems’.  Its chorus could be MacGowan’s manifesto: “I am going, I am going, where streams of whiskey are flowing.”


I loved the Pogues and enjoyed much of MacGowan’s later music with the Popes, even though I knew that, being a Protestant from a Unionist community in Northern Ireland, he probably wouldn’t have liked me very much.  Mind you, I’m sure there were some staunch members of my family who reciprocated the feeling, viewing him as an unseemly Irish-Republican rabble-rouser.   He once told an interviewer: “I felt ashamed that I didn’t have the guts to join the IRA, so the Pogues was my way of overcoming that guilt.”  Later in life, while an invalid in Dublin, he sometimes had former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams drop by to visit him – “He’s a very easy man to talk to,” was MacGowan’s comment.  Then again, he’d been known to wear a Union Jack-patterned coat and, if you’re to believe his widow, the journalist Victoria Clarke, he watched The Crown (2016-23) avidly and shed tears at the deaths of Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and Princess Diana.  A Northern Irish Proddy I might be, but those are things I wouldn’t countenance doing.


In the summer of 1995 I was in New York when I learned that Shane MacGowan and the Popes were performing at a local venue.  So I bought a ticket.  The gig saw a mightily-inebriated MacGowan manage to sing all of two songs.  He spent another fifteen minutes sitting at the edge of the stage clutching his head while the Popes played a couple of instrumentals.  Then he disappeared.  The band did a few more instrumentals, then followed their leader’s example and exited too.  The crowd rioted.  McGowan did not look like a man who had much of a professional future ahead of him.  Or indeed, much of a future.


Yet he was in better form three years later when I saw him, with the Popes again, at the Fleadh outdoor music festival at London’s Finsbury Park.  At least, he remained standing and remained singing for the entire set, even if he did have the dazed air of a man who’d just been returned to earth after being abducted and probed by aliens.  And it was touching how, when the performance was done, the crowd kept chanting, “Shane-o!  Shane-o!  Shane-o!” until, finally, a big, appreciative grin spread across his bleary features.


And he was better still the next time I saw him, in the early noughties.  He and the rest of the Pogues’ classic line-up – James Fearnley, Jem Finer, Cait O’Riordan, Andrew Ranken, Spider Stacy, Terry Woods, the late Philip Chevron and the late Darryl Hunt – had got together for a Christmas tour and they made an appearance at the Metro Radio Arena in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where I was living at the time.  Admittedly, MacGowan’s voice was weaker than it’d been during the glory days of Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, but he seemed to raise his game whenever Cait O’Riordan sang onstage with him.  And their rendition of Fairy Tale of New York, with O’Riordan taking the place of Kirsty McColl, who’d died four years earlier, was rather wonderful.


The whole event, shameless, nostalgic cash-in though it was, was rather wonderful in fact.  Well, with a combination of the Pogues, Christmas and a few thousand boozed-up Geordies, how could it not be wonderful?


© Pan Books


In the meantime, in 2001, MacGowan and his missus Victoria Clarke had published a book called A Drink with Shane MacGowan.  A rambling mixture of memoirs, anecdotes, opinions and philosophy related by the great man and recorded and edited by Clarke, A Drink… is very entertaining, fascinating in parts and knowingly hilarious in others.  I particularly liked the bit in it where MacGowan theorises why Irish playwright Samuel Beckett was such an existentialist misery-guts – it was because he was the only man in the whole of Ireland who liked cricket.  Mind you, I suspect there’s some artistic license in MacGowan’s claims that he was drinking, smoking and betting on the horses when he was five years old.


Here’s a list of my ten favourite Shane MacGowan songs – ones he wrote and / or ones he sang.


The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn (from the 1985 Pogues album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash).  Glasses of punch, whiskey, ghosts, banshees, angels, the devil, midnight mass, rattling death-trains, pissing yourself, getting syphilis, kicking in the windows of Euston taverns and decking “some f**king blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids…”  Yes, this is the song that truly sets out the Pogues’ stall.


Sally MacLennane (from Rum, Sodomy and the Lash).  Equally rousing and elegiac, this is the perfect song for bidding adieu to an old friend: “I’m sad to say, I must be on my way, so buy me beer and whiskey cos I’m going far away…  FAR AWAY!


© Pogue Mahone / Warner Music Group


If I Should Fall from Grace with God (from the 1988 Pogues album of the same name).  And this is the perfect go-wild-on-the-dance-floor song for Pogues fans.


Thousands are Sailing (from If I Should Fall from Grace with God).  Written by Philip Chevron, this paean to the millions of Irish people who migrated to North America in the 19th and 20th centuries receives much of its power from MacGowan’s vocals, simultaneously wistful and exultant.  It just didn’t sound the same when, minus MacGowan, the Pogues performed it in the 1990s.  Those who dismiss the band as propagandists for Ireland and all things Irish should note the disdain for the mother-country expressed in the lyrics: “Where e’er we go, we celebrate the land that makes us refugees, from fear of priests with empty plates, from guilt and weeping effigies.


Down All the Days (from the 1989 Pogues album Peace and Love).  A tribute to the severely-palsied Irish writer Christy Brown, who had to “Type with me toes, drink stout through me nose, and where it’s going to end, God only knows,” this also contains the memorable lines, “I’ve often had to depend upon the kindness of strangers, but I’ve never been asked and never replied if I supported Glasgow Rangers.”


What a Wonderful World (a 1992 duet with Nick Cave, available on the 2005 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album B-Sides and Rarities).  MacGowan and Cave’s amusing, but still tender and respectful, version of the Louis Armstrong classic is the song I want played at my funeral.


God Help Me (from the 1994 Jesus and Mary Chain album Stoned and Dethroned).  Considering what MacGowan was going through at the time, this melancholic, low-key collaboration with the usually abrasive, feedback-drenched Scottish alternative-rock band the Jesus and Mary Chain is probably aptly titled.


That Woman’s got me Drinking (from the 1994 Shane MacGowan and the Popes album The Snake).  This features one of the best choruses ever: “That woman’s got me drinking, look at the state I’m in, give me one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten bottles of gin!


Her Father Didn’t Like Me Anyway (from The Snake).  Gerry Rafferty’s rumination on a relationship that’s gone wrong is reworked by MacGowan and the Popes in their own inimitable manner.  I wonder what Rafferty thought about the subtle change made to the lyrics at the very end of his song.  The Rafferty version simply concludes, “Her father didn’t like me anyway.”  The MacGowan one concludes, “Her father was a right c*nt anyway.


Fix It (from the 2010 Alabama 3 album Revolver Soul).  You hardly hear MacGowan on this effort from celebrated London blues-country-electronica-trip-hop-acid-house outfit the Albama 3.  Here and there he spectrally moans one simple, plaintive line.  But his spirit infuses the song, making it rueful yet ultimately soaring.


And no, I haven’t put Fairy Tale of New York on this list – because I’ve heard it so many times I’m now a bit sick of it.  After the sad news of November 30th, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s this year’s Christmas number one.


© Elektra / Wea

Rab Foster puts his boots on


© Schlock! Webzine


The horror, science-fiction and fantasy fiction ezine Schlock! Webzine has just made its December 2023 edition available.  This contains the first instalment of a two-part story written by Rab Foster, the pseudonym I use when I pen fantasy fiction.


Entitled The Boots of the Cat, the story is about the adventures – or misadventures – that befall a handful of mercenaries attached to a military outfit called the Legion of Beasts.  Their legion has been sequestered in the middle of a city that’s less than welcoming to them, both climatically (because it’s raining incessantly) and attitudinally (because the place is bourgeoisie and snooty), and inevitably conflict arises between them and the locals.


As the story progresses, the influence of a certain, popular fairy tale becomes more and more apparent.  And no, despite the title The Boots of the Cat, that fairy tale isn’t Puss in Boots.


For the next month, the first part of The Boots of the Cat can be read here, while Schlock! Webzine’s home page can be accessed here.

Favourite Scots words, P-R


From pixabay.com / © Dimitris Vetsikas


Today, November 30th, is Saint Andrew’s Day, the national day of Scotland.  Also, I’m in the middle of reading Douglas Stuart’s 2022 novel Young Mungo, which is set in Glasgow during the 1990s and is choc-a-bloc with cherishable Scots vocabulary: bevvy, chib, doo, midden, schemie, sook, smirr, tattiebogle, wean, winchin’…  Thus, this seems an opportune time to post the latest instalment of my attempt to catalogue my favourite words from the Scots language.


Patter (n) – A long time ago, I remember Iain Jenkins, my English teacher at Peebles High School, trying to explain to my class why William Shakespeare placed Mercutio’s monologue about Queen Mab in the middle of Act 1, Scene 4 of Romeo and Juliet.  After all, the monologue didn’t have any bearing on the plot that came before or after it.  It was merely Shakespeare showing off his own verbal flamboyance and inventiveness.  Eventually, Jenkins exclaimed, “Patter!  It’s just patter!  It’s Mercutio indulging in a bit of patter!”


Patter, then, is smooth talk, smart talk or funny talk – often delivered by someone, like a politician or a salesman, who’s trying to sell you something.  The word crops in phrases like, “I gave her the auld patter,” or “Enough ay yer patter!”   And a person who comes out with it a lot is called a pattermerchant.  The city of Glasgow seems full of pattermerchants, surprisingly enough.


Pawkie (adj) – used to describe a person possessed of a dry and quietly mocking sense of humour.


Pech (v) – to gasp or wheeze breathlessly.  In Robert Louis Stevenson’s short supernatural story Thrawn Janet, you get the line: “Even the auld folk cuist the covers frae their beds an’ lay pechin’ for their breath.”


© Kypros Press


Peely-wally (adj) – looking pale and sick-looking.  That’s why in Solo (2013), the James Bond ‘continuity’ novel written by William Boyd, there’s a bit where an injured Bond is scolded by May, his formidable old Scottish housekeeper, for looking ‘awfy peely-wally’.


I’d assumed this was derived from ‘peeling wall’, something that obviously doesn’t look healthy.  But I’ve recently learnt that peely comes from an early 19th century word peelie, meaning ‘a gaunt, pale person’.  And wally is a Scots word meaning ‘made of china’.  Even now, people refer to an ornamental china dog as a wally dug and to false teeth (once made of porcelain) as wallies.  So peelywally really means ‘as pale as china’.


Peep (n) – the lowest level at which you can set a gas flame before it goes out.  To ‘put someone’s gas at a peep’ is to seriously knock them out of their stride or deprive them of their vigour.


Peewit (n) – a lapwing.


Pieces (n) – sandwiches.  Years ago, while I was living with my Dad, I got a job at a local warehouse.  I needed to make myself a packed lunch every morning, to eat during the short break I got in the middle of the day.  My Dad would always inquire before I left the house if I’d remembered to get my pieces together.


Pisht (adj) – drunk.  Just as the Eskimos are said to have a hundred words for snow, there must be at least a hundred words in Scots for being inebriated.  See also arsed, bevied, bleezin’, blootered, buckled, fou’, gubbered, hingin’, minced, mingin’, miraculous, miracked, mortal, reekin’, reelin’, steamboats, steamin’, stocious, wellied, etc.  This, of course, is a tragic reflection on the state of the Scottish psyche…  I wrote, whilst sipping a large whisky.


From pixabay.com / © rebcenter-moscow


Plook (n) – the curse of many a Scottish person’s adolescence,  plooks are pus-filled pimples.  It was rumoured at my school that every time you ate a Mars Bar, you got a plook.  The adjective is plooky and, predictably, this figured in countless playground insults: “Ye plooky bastart, ye!”


Plump (n) – as in ‘a plump ay rain’, i.e., a sudden downpour.


Poke (n) – a small paper bag.  I suspect this word is most commonly heard in Scotland’s chippies, where people request ‘a poke ay chips’.


Poultice (n) – an arsehole.  For example, “Thon Boris Johnson is a right poultice, so he is.”


Puddock (n) – a frog.


Pure (adv) – popularised by the actress Elaine C. Smith, whose character in the Glasgow-set comedy TV show City Lights (1984-1991) used the catchphrase, “Pure deid brilliant!”  Placed before adjectives to amplify their meaning to the nth degree, it crops up in phrases like ‘pure mental’, ‘pure radge’ and ‘pure sleekit’.


Puggled (adj) – exhausted.


Quaich (n) – in the words of the Meriam-Webster dictionary, ‘a small shallow drinking vessel with ears for use as handles.’  These days, ornate quaichs are often used as pint-sized trophies at Scottish sports events.


Quine (n) – a girl or young woman.  This is commonly used in Scotland’s North-East, where boys and young men are also described as loons, so you hear a lot about quines an’ loons.  In the early 1990s, a group of Scottish feminists, including the journalist Lesley Riddich, started up a magazine called Harpies and Quines – harpy being a word commonly used in Scotland to describe a grumpy, ill-tempered and mean-minded woman.  The famous high-society magazine Harpers and Queen failed to see the joke and attempted to sue them.


© Channel Four Films / Polygram Filmed Entertainment


Radge (adj) – violently wild and crazy.  Used as a noun, it refers to a mad hooligan.  It had humble beginnings in Eastern Scotland, where it may have come from a Romany word with a similar meaning, ‘raj’, but radge was for a while a trendy term used the length and breadth of Britain.  This was because of its copious use in Danny Boyle’s hit movie Trainspotting (1996), where it was associated with Robert Carlyle’s ultra-violent character Frank Begbie.  I seem to remember the author Irvine Welsh, on whose novel the film was based, remarking disgustedly that he’d heard Hooray Henrys using the word radge in London wine bars.  And I also remember Q magazine running an interview with Robert Carlyle under the memorable headline RADGE AGAINST THE MACHINE.


Rammy (n) – a fight or brawl.  A stairheid rammy is a brawl that breaks out among the womenfolk in the staircases and on the landings of Scotland’s urban tenement buildings.  During the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, a heated television debate between then-SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon and then-Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont was described afterwards by journalist Ruth Wishart as “a right good stairheid rammy” that “made strong men avert their eyes”.


Randan (n) – a drunken knees-up, as in “He’s away oot on the randan!


Rector (n) – the Scottish term for headmaster.


Redd (v) – to tidy up.  I’ve rarely heard this verb used in Scotland, or at least in the parts of it I’ve inhabited.  But I frequently heard it during my childhood in Northern Ireland, where a good number of the people are descended from Scots.  My Mum would frequently explain, “Get this room redd up!” or “Give that place a wee redd!


Riddy (n) – an embarrassment.  As in: “Liz Truss!  What an absolute riddy!


Right (adj) – uttered with the appropriate intonation, right becomes a contemptuous response, dismissing something that another person has just said.  Though for maximum impact, use the phrase Aye, right.  “Maggie Thatcher wis the best prime minister since Churchill?  Aye, right.”  And indeed, Glasgow’s annual book festival is called Aye Write.


© Glasgow Life


Rone (n) – the length of guttering along the edge of a roof for collecting and removing rainwater.


That’s all for now.  More Scots words, and more example-sentences that insult famous Conservative Party politicians, will come shortly…

The per-Suede-er



At first glance, the pairing of the Manic Street Preachers and Suede at the concert I attended at Singapore’s Star Theatre on November 22nd seemed the musical equivalent of Neil Simon’s play The Odd Couple (1965).  Famous for their left-wing politics, the Manics got together as a band while they were at a comprehensive school in south Wales and they’ve forged a sound described by their Wikipedia page as variously ‘alternative’, ‘hard’, ‘punk’ and ‘glam’ rock.  The founders of Suede, on the other hand, put their band together while they were at University College London.  They were influenced by David Bowie and Roxy Music and their Wikipedia page describes their music with, among other things, the dreaded term ‘arthouse rock’.


Yes, as a former London university-student, Brett Anderson, Suede’s singer, lyricist and general lynchpin, seemed to me far removed from James Dean Bradfield and the other working-class Welsh lads in the Manic Street Preachers.  Which is unfair of me, as Anderson is actually the son of a taxi-driver.  (Maybe the name ‘Brett’ makes me biased.  The only other Brett I can think of is Lord Brett Sinclair, the posh playboy aristocrat played by Roger Moore in that dreadful / brilliant old TV show from 1972, The Persuaders.)


Still, in certain ways, the two bands are similar.  Both achieved success in the early 1990s, shortly before the advent of the Britpop movement that briefly set the world – or, at least, set those excitable hacks in the English media – on fire.  And instead of worshipping 1960s outfits like the Beatles and the Kinks, like the Britpop musicians did, the Manics and Suede were inspired by other things, such as the aforementioned punk rock and David Bowie.


Anyway, having experienced the Manics on the evening of the 22nd, I then sat through an hour-and-a-half of Suede.  And I was surprised.  I’d never seen the band before and I’d assumed that Brett Anderson was a cerebral, aesthetic type, not given to extroversion.  At least, that was the impression I’d got from interviews with him I’d read.  (I also seem to remember reading an interview that he’d conducted once, with one of his heroes, Brian Eno.)  So, I didn’t expect him to be the showman that he was tonight.  He strutted around, dropped dramatically onto his knees, perched himself on top of the front stage lights, and a couple of times descended into the stalls, where he prowled between the stage and the barrier holding back the audience.  He even went behind the barrier and into the audience.  He was a pretty belligerent in his showmanship too, constantly getting the crowd going, goading them to sing along and clap their hands.  This was Freddie Mercury with attitude.


The set-list was weighted with songs from their eponymous first album, released in 1993, and their most recent album, 2022’s Autofiction, which between them accounted for more than half the numbers played.  Autofiction has been described as a ‘back-to-basics triumph’ and its songs slotted in seamlessly with the jagged, urgent sound of early 1990s classics like Animal Nitrate, Metal Mickey and So Young.  Since Anderson is now in his fifties, with So Young he must be starting to feel like the Who’s Roger Daltrey every time he sings the ‘Hope I die before I get old’ line from 1965’s My Generation.



I was slightly disappointed that almost nothing was featured from 1994’s Dog Man Star, Suede’s second album, which is my favourite thing among their output.  Mind you, the one item from Dog Man Star that was played, The Wild Ones, was certainly memorable.  Anderson performed it by himself, on acoustic guitar, and made it even more memorable by preceding it with a rant at certain members of the audience who were filming the show on their phones.  He pleaded: “It’s so much better if you could possibly put your phones down…  Put your f**king phones down.  If you want to film, go to the back.  Don’t take up space out here.  These people want to have fun.  If you want to stare at you f**king phone, go to the f**king back.  Am I right…?  It just kills the gig.”


Being at the rear end, and at the very top, of the auditorium – from where the theatre’s lower level had looked so densely flecked with dots of phone-light that I sometimes felt I was flying over a city at night-time – I hadn’t been able to see precisely what Anderson was doing during his forays into the stalls.  However, according to the following day’s report in the Straits Times newspaper, he’d “tussled with a front-row male audience member, demanding that he put down his device” and “leapt over the barricade… confronted those in the front section of the venue who were busy filming him… started pushing fans’ hands down, grabbing phones off them, and putting them on the floor.”


Well, good on Brett Anderson, I say.  These days at concerts there seems to exist a great divide.  On one side of it are folk who simply want to experience and lose themselves in the live-music performance.  On the other side are numpties with one arm permanently hoicked up in the air, with a hand clutching the latest slab of technology from Motorola, Sony, Apple or Nokia, with eyes fastened on a tiny screen where tinier figures move around on a stage, with a mind focused only on getting the clips despatched to social-media platforms as swiftly as possible to show off to their ‘followers’.  I know which side of that gulf I’m on.  The other side can just f**k off into the sea.


Anyway, that piece of drama merely added to the emotionality and intensity of the Suede experience.  The band produced a glorious clangour of noise that,  thanks to the Star Theatre’s excellent acoustics, reached me and rattled me even at the very back of the venue.  I still had ghostly reverberations from Animal Nitrate in my ears while I travelled home on the Singapore MRT.


This being my first-ever Suede concert, and not having heard their music for many years, I hadn’t known what to expect during the second leg of tonight’s show.  But yes, I ended up per-Suede-ed.


Old against the soul



One week before November 22nd, the evening I went to see Welsh rock band the Manic Street Preachers perform at Singapore’s Star Theatre, I read John Niven’s satirical 2018 novel Kill ‘Em All.


Kill ‘Em All is a sequel to Niven’s Kill Your Friends, written a decade earlier.  It continues the adventures of Steven Stelfox, a record-company A&R agent so devoid of things like conscience, empathy or decency, and so determined to climb the corporate ladder and make pots of money, that he’ll countenance doing anything, murder included.  In Kill ‘Em All, Stelfox has become a millionaire through helming a hit reality TV show called American Pop Star – I wonder if Niven had a real person in mind when he constructed that scenario? – and the immoral, money-grasping monster has taken to the late 2010s, the era of President Donald Trump, like the proverbial pig to shit.  He’s particularly enamoured with the phenomena of fake news, online conspiracy theories, social-media rabbit-holes, and bot-farm-generated misinformation and propaganda, which the Trump presidency elevated to a new level.  At one point, referencing the title of the Manic Street Preachers’ 1998 album, he sneers: “This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, those Welsh socialist miner f**ks sang, way back in the day, before all of this happened.  Nowadays?  This Is My Lie Prove Me Wrong.”


That wasn’t the only coincidence I experienced with the November 22nd show.  I’ll explain the other coincidence later.


Anyway, the backdrop for the Manic Street Preachers’ gig in the plush, sweeping amphitheatre of the Star Theatre seemed in defiance of Stellfox and the rapacious, corporate world he represents.  It was a reproduction of the cover for their 2011 compilation album National Treasures – the Complete Singles, depicting a girl clutching a French horn, clad in a brass-band uniform (presumably a colliery band) and standing in front of a pithead (presumably a Welsh one).  Reassuringly, this suggested the Manics – who in 2000 released a single called The Masses against the Classes (2000), which begins with a quote by Noam Chomsky and has the Cuban flag on its sleeve – remained proud ‘Welsh socialist miner f**ks’.


© Columbia


Nonetheless, I felt apprehensive about what lay ahead of me.  I’d only seen the band once before, in 1993, when they were promoting their album Gold Against the Soul.  They turned up in the Japanese city of Sapporo, where I’d recently started a job, and delivered one of the most memorable live-music shows I’d ever attended.  It was also rather odd.  In Britain they might have had a reputation for being radical, shit-stirring retro-punks, but in Japan they were seen as a sort of Guns n’ Roses-lite, possibly thanks to their predilection for wearing eye-liner and slightly glam clothes.  Accordingly, their gig at Sapporo’s Penny Lane attracted a squad of young Japanese ladies dressed in floppy hats and silk scarves who spent their time squealing ‘Rich-ee!’ at the band’s iconic but troubled guitarist, Richey Edwards.  Tragically, Edwards was to disappear, and never be seen again, two years later.


That 1993 gig was emblematic for me.  The young Manic Street Preachers had throbbed onstage with a brash, youthful energy that mirrored how I felt too at the time – I was young, full of beans, ready to take on the world.  And later, looking back, the memory of it made me feel a little melancholic in a wistful, where-did-my-youth-go? sort of way.  This was emphasised by something that happened a decade afterwards.  I listened to my copy of Gold Against the Soul, which I’d bought in Japan, for the first time in ages.  It was only then that I discovered the bulky CD case contained a second tray I hadn’t noticed before.  This tray held a second, bonus CD – a live one of them performing during their 1993 Japan tour.  I played it and immediately felt a nostalgic sadness, for in the crowd I could hear those ladies shouting “Rich-ee!” again at the Manics’ now-vanished guitarist.  It wasn’t so much a CD as a time capsule.


So, how would the band strike me in 2023, now that they and I were well into our middle-age?  And in the Star Theatre, a venue that seemed the antithesis of the small, intimate and cheerfully dingy place that Penny Lane had been?  (One major point of difference between them was the purchasing of alcohol.  In Penny Lane you got tins of Sapporo beer out of a cheapish vending machine at the back of the little auditorium.  At the Star, where your bags were painstakingly checked before you entered the premises to ensure you weren’t bringing in any food or drink – not even water – you joined a long queue for the privilege of buying a pint of beer for 24 Singaporean dollars, which is about 14 British pounds.  Phew.  Steven Stelfox could have been running the catering.)


But enough of the brooding introspection.  The Manics came onstage just after half-past-seven and launched into Motorcycle Emptiness, from their first album, Generation Terrorists (1992).  And undeniably, they sounded good.  They didn’t show the raw, sometimes-nervous, sometimes-ragged energy that they’d shown in 1993, but played with the confidence and professionalism you’d expect from an outfit who’ve been together for more than three decades.



Yet it wasn’t the slick, on-autopilot, by-the-numbers performance of a jaded old rock band.  The Manics retained their pleasing idiosyncrasies of old.  Sporting a white dress-jacket and (for a bloke his age) an astonishingly skinny pair of jeans, tall, gangling bassist Nicky Wire still looked like he’d been assembled out of pipe cleaners – and still ambled about like a man with a new pair of legs who was testing out what they could do.  Meanwhile, vocalist / guitarist James Dean Bradfield, during those moments when he let himself go, behaved like a dad secretly dancing to his favourite music in his bedroom, twirling around, pogoing on one leg, attempting a Chuck-Berry-style duck-walk.


When the Manics had played Penny Lane in 1993, their set had consisted entirely of numbers from Generation Terrorists and Gold Against the Soul, the only albums they’d released by then, so tonight I was treated to much broader palette of music.  There were five songs from Generation Terrorists: Little Baby Nothing, Slash ‘n’ Burn, Stay Beautiful and You Love Us, as well as Motorcycle Emptiness.  Wire dedicated Stay Beautiful to the memory of Richey Edwards.  From Gold Against the Soul – an album that, despite me really liking it, has never been highly regarded in the Manics’ oeuvre – only From Despair to Where got an airing.  From the late 1990s, when the band were perhaps at their commercial and critical peak, they played A Design for Life, Everything Must Go, Australia (all 1996), If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next and You Stole the Sun from My Heart (both 1998), while the band’s 21st-century career was represented by a smattering of singles like Your Love Alone is Not Enough (2007), Walk Me to the Bridge (2014) and International Blue (2018).


Thus, it was almost a greatest-hit package, which went down well with the audience.  Many of them seemed to be long-term fans.  Despite the constraints of the Star Theatre, with its wall-to-wall seating, a lot of folk were soon on their feet, jumping about as if they were in an open venue.  Two big, macho-looking guys a few rows in front of me, obviously well refreshed, got extremely emotional – arms wrapped around each other, bodies swaying precipitously from side to side.  If the gig had lasted another half-hour, they’d probably have shagged each other in public.  I even thought I heard a distant, communal chant of “Wales! Wales! Wales!’ at one moment.  (In addition to the backdrop’s picture of a Welsh colliery, a Welsh flag was draped over one of the units behind the band, and Bradfield and Wire mentioned their home country several times during their between-songs banter.)



Most bands who are still recording would pepper their set-list with ‘new songs’ off the ‘new album’.  But the Manics trotted out only one number from their most recent offering, 2021’s The Ultra Vivid Lament, an album I’d never heard and knew nothing about.  I was really surprised, then, when the song they played from it turned out to be called Still Snowing in Sapporo.  Later, when I researched the song, I discovered that it’d been inspired by the concert they’d done in Sapporo 30 years ago – the one I’d attended.  According to songfacts.com: “When the Manic Street Preachers toured Japan in 1993 they played a gig there.  The song is a reverie of a magic moment, when they felt they could pretty much do anything.”  Wow!  That was how I’d felt about myself, that I could do anything, when I saw them.  And how weird to hear them perform a song inspired by a long-ago gig and realise I was (probably) the only person in the audience who’d been at that long-ago gig.


So, now, I feel more psychically attuned to the band than ever…  Strictly speaking, though, the Manics’ Sapporo concert was on October 22nd, 1993, which makes the song-title Snow Falling on Sapporo redundant.  Snow wouldn’t have started falling on the city yet.  But I’ll allow them poetic licence.


When the band finally trooped off the stage, they left behind an extremely satisfied crowd.  A man beside me remarked, “Suede will have to be bloody good to top that.”


Oh.  Did I say Suede were playing on the bill too?  Well, they were.  But that’ll be the subject of another blog-post.


Jim Mountfield goes to the dogs


© The Stygian Lepus


My short story A Man about a Dog is featured in the new, eighth issue of The Stygian Lepus Magazine, a short-fiction and poetry publication that ‘leans to the dark side’.  And as usual with my writing that leans that way – dark-wards – it appears under the penname of Jim Mountfield.


A parable about how human beings treat and mistreat dogs and, indeed, how human beings treat and mistreat each other, A Man about a Dog is set in an anonymous north-of-England city during the grim, austerity-stricken years of the 2010s.  Well, the setting was inspired by the three years I spent living in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which strictly speaking isn’t a north-of-England city but a northeast-of-England one.  I lived there from 2002 to 2005, when the place had a buzz and sense of optimism about it, largely due to new developments like the Quayside, the Millennium Bridge, the Baltic Gallery, the Sage (now known as the Glasshouse) Music Centre and Antony Gormley’s striking Angel of the North statue.  Okay, most of those things are actually in Gateshead, which has its own council, independent of the Newcastle one.  So, I’m really talking about ‘Newcastle-Gateshead’ here.


From all accounts, though, the place took a battering during the 2010s, when the just-installed Conservative government imposed an austerity programme on Britain.  300 million pounds had been cut from Newcastle’s council budget by 2019 and the decade saw the closure of local libraries, youth clubs, children’s centres and other amenities.  Between 2013 and 2018 there was even an 89% reduction in the number of its lollipop men and women, leaving just seven of them to shepherd the city’s schoolkids safely across the roads.  By an evil coincidence, the week A Man About a Dog was published also saw the return to public office of the smug, oleaginous and stuck-up architect of austerity, former British prime minister David Cameron – Rishi Sunak has ennobled him as ‘Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton’ and made him the country’s Foreign Secretary.


An American publication, The Stygian Lepus requests its contributors to submit their work in American English.  I slipped up slightly and made a few references to ‘wheelie-bins’ in my submitted story.  When I saw the version of A Man about a Dog that appears in the magazine, it amused me that the wheelie-bins had been changed to ‘dumpsters’.  So, it’s just as well I kept the city in the story anonymous and didn’t identify it as Newcastle.  You don’t hear many Geordies talking about dumpsters.


For the next while, A Man About a Dog is accessible to read here, while the main page for The Stygian Lepus, Issue 8, can be reached here.

The return of Steve Cashel


© Close 2 the Bone Publishing


Because I have a dull name, I’ve normally written fiction under pseudonyms.  Most of the stories I’ve had published have been horror ones, which I’ve written under the pen-name Jim Mountfield, or fantasy ones, which I’ve written as Rab Foster.  However, many years ago, I had a couple of pieces published that didn’t qualify as horror or fantasy.  One was a crime story and I suppose the other was ‘non-genre’ – what snobby critics approvingly describe as ‘mainstream literature’.  Both were set in Scotland and I thought I’d attribute them to a different pseudonym: ‘Steve Cashel’.


Well, since then, I seem to have specialised in being a horror and fantasy writer and the names Jim Mountfield and Rab Foster have appeared fairly regularly in various short-fiction magazines and ezines.  On the other hand, I’d assumed that Steve Cashel had been retired… Until now.


That’s because I’ve just had a crime story entitled The Folkie published in the online magazine Close 2 the Bone.  As the story’s action takes place in Scotland, in Edinburgh, it seemed appropriate to put Steve Cashel’s name at the top of it.


The Folkie is about three hoodlums tasked with hurting someone who’s antagonised their crime-lord employer.  Searching for their victim, they go round several Edinburgh pubs he’s known to frequent.  They find to their disgust that he’s a folk-music fan, for the pubs are ones offering live folk music and drawing crowds of enthusiastic folk-music fans, i.e., folkies.  And then things take the inevitable Unexpected Turn…  The three pubs appearing in the story are based on real ones – the Royal Oak on Edinburgh’s Infirmary Street, the Tass on the High Street and the Hebrides Bar on Market Street.  Though for the purposes of the plot, I changed the layout of the Hebrides’ interior.


Due to its conflicting story-elements, The Folkie is a rare beast indeed – a tale that references Coolio, the great Dick Gaughan (whom I was lucky enough to see perform once, at Norwich Labour Club in 1998) and…  Andy Stewart.


For now, at least, The Folkie can be read here, while you can access the main page of Close 2 the Bone here.


© Hallmark



From abc.net.au / © BBC


‘Woke’…  What does that word even mean?


Here’s failed US presidential candidate and failed insurrectionist Donald Trump using it to denigrate the American women’s soccer team, who do un-Trumpian things like ‘taking the knee’ during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner.  “Woke equals failure!” he barked on TruthSocial, his minor social-media platform, when the team was knocked out of this year’s Women’s Football World Cup.


And here’s John Cleese grumping about the BBC being woke because it banned that episode of Fawlty Towers (1975-79) where the Major uses some unfashionable language to describe the West Indies cricket team.  (In fact, the episode was temporarily pulled from the BBC-owned streaming service UKTV, and reviewed, and reinstated with a content warning.)  Cleese is so incensed by wokeness that he’s started hosting a TV chat-show in which he fulminates against it.  His show is called The Dinosaur Hour (2023) and it’s broadcast on the right-wing, alleged ‘news’ channel GB News.  Amusingly, Cleese was peeved to discover that his new employers at GB News had just signed Boris Johnson, whom he considers a ‘serial liar’, to host a show too.  Well, John, when you lie down with dogs, expect to get up with fleas.  In this case, big, blonde, bloviating, bonking Boris-fleas.


Another household name much concerned about woke behaviour is Elon Musk, who last year purchased Twitter (or X, as he calls it now) and set about purging it of wokeness.  He’s certainly done that.  He’s also purged the platform of half of its advertising revenue and half of the value of its acquisition price.  Musk has described wokeness as a ‘mind-virus’ and ‘communism rebranded’ – and communism, he’ll tell you, is a very bad thing.  Though that hasn’t stopped him opening a big Tesla plant in communist China, in Shanghai, and being warmly welcomed every time he visits the country, and declaring that democratic, capitalist Taiwan is actually Chinese property.  Musk is also introducing to Twitter a ‘snarky, anti-woke AI chatbot’ called ‘Grok’, which sounds like a character from the sci-fi comic 2000 AD (1977-present).


From britishcomic.fandom.com / © Rebellion Developments


I don’t agree with Musk on much but he’s right to liken wokeness to a virus.  Because the moment that people with his right-wing politics come into contact with it, they seem to turn red-eyed, froth at the mouth and gibber insanely, like the infected did in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2003).


© DNA Films / UK Film Council / Fox Searchlight Pictures


But if you need refuge from wokeness, just move to Florida.  There, Governor Ron DeSantis has been pushing a ‘Stop-Woke Act’ in the hope that the state will be ‘the place where woke goes to die’.  In fact, DeSantis’s Florida is now so anti-woke, and so determinedly opposed to the teaching of wokey things like Critical Race Theory, that its State Board of Education has kids learning in school that slavery was a good thing because it helped the black slaves to develop ‘skills which, in some cases, could be applied for their personal benefit‘.  Wow.  Who knew?


I’m sure DeSantis’s achievements in Florida are admired by Suella Braverman, the belligerent and self-serving British Conservative politician who was very recently sacked from her position as the UK’s Home Secretary.  During her time in office, she slammed the British police force for being too woke.  One example was when she claimed to have reprimanded officers in Essex for the woke act of raiding a pub and removing a display of racist golliwogs.  (Except that she didn’t – it turned out that Suella had been disingenuous, or stupid, or both, which is perfectly possible in her case.)  Suella, or ‘Sewer-ella’ as I like to think of her, also famously condemned a faction she called the ‘Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati’.  Supposedly, these have formed a ‘coalition of chaos’ with the opposition parties and are responsible for all of Britain’s ills.  She said this whilst serving in the brief but tumultuous government of Liz Truss.  Accusing someone else of being part of a coalition of chaos?  That’s a bit rich, given the context.


Elsewhere, the Daily Mail has complained that woke builders are daring to ‘enjoy yoga, muesli, listening to Radio 4 and sharing their feelings’ rather than ‘devouring greasy-spoon breakfasts and discussing sport.’  Xbox games consoles have been accused of being woke for getting updated with an ‘energy saver’ mode to lessen their power consumption – because, as you know, attempting to be more environmentally-friendly just drips with contemptible wokeness.  The makers of The Simpsons (1989-present) have been lambasted for being woke, coincidentally by Cleese’s associates at GB News, for no longer having scenes where Homer loses his rag at Bart, picks him up by the throat and strangles him until his eyes bulge and tongue protrudes.  Not wanting to strangle children?  How hideously woke.


So, what does ‘woke’ actually mean?  Well, according to Wikipedia, it’s “an adjective derived from African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) meaning ‘alert to racial prejudice and discrimination’.  Beginning in the 2010s, it came to encompass a broader awareness of social inequalities such as racial injustice, sexism and LGBT rights.”  Fascinatingly, the phrase ‘stay woke’ goes all the way back to 1938, when it was first heard on a recording of a song called Scottsboro Boys by the legendary blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, aka, Lead Belly.


From wikipedia.org / © William P. Gottlieb Collection


Though how the term ‘woke’ became elastic enough to encompass eating tofu, and builders talking about their feelings, and Xboxes having energy-saving modes, and Homer Simpson not throttling his offspring, is anyone’s guess.  Perhaps a simpler definition of the term – certainly when you look at the people mentioned above who’ve railed against it, like Trump, Musk, DeSantis, Braverman, the Daily Mail and GB News – might be: ‘Anything that right-wing tossers don’t like.’


Indeed, as somebody who considers himself partly Scottish, I felt a surge of pride a while ago when Gavin McInnes, founder of the neo-fascist American militia the Proud Boys, denounced Scotland as ‘the most woke country in the world.”  No wonder Scottish novelist Christopher Brookmyre responded to McInnes’s ravings by saying: “That delighted me…”


Unfortunately, nobody ever lost money by underestimating human beings’ intelligence.  There’s clearly political mileage in ranting endlessly about wokeness. Gradually, you brainwash millions of people, mainly older ones who don’t get out much, and sit and watch Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News all day, into believing that dark, malevolent woke forces do indeed lurk in the world, planning to deprive them of their Bibles, guns, gas-guzzling automobiles, Big Macs, racist jokes, un-politically-correct 1970s TV shows, etc.  It’s also convenient for the likes of Trump (currently facing 91 felony counts) and Britain’s Conservative government (trying to justify why the country is such a horrible, unhappy mess when they’ve been in charge of it for the past 13 years) to peddle the narrative that the establishment is riddled with hostile woke agents.  The civil service, the courts, the police…  A giant woke conspiracy is being implemented from society’s corridors of power and it’s trying to discredit them and stymie their every move.


I’m not claiming, by the way, that stupidity is confined to right-wingers.  The left is also capable of it.  In recent years the American right has infiltrated school-boards and removed books they disapprove of from syllabuses and libraries, books deemed too woke, often written by people of colour or members of the LGBT community, and often featuring characters of colour or LGBT characters.  There was even a book suspended in Alabama because officials didn’t like the sound of the author’s name, Marie-Louise Gay.  But left-wing educators have done themselves no favours by trying to ban books that offend their sensibilities too.


For example, I lately came across the case of a school board in Washington State pulling Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) off its required reading list for ninth-graders because a group of ‘progressive’ teachers objected to it.  Sure, you can argue that To Kill a Mockingbird portrays its black characters with less depth than its white characters and has a ‘white saviour’ narrative that’s offensive to many.  But shouldn’t teachers focus on developing their students’ powers of critical thinking, argument and self-expression so that they can articulate why they object to the book?  Engaging with – certainly, studying – literature shouldn’t be limited to books you’re personally comfortable with.  You should have to experience ones you find discomforting too, whilst developing the ability to formulate logical and coherent responses to them.


I don’t deny there are works that some people will find upsetting because of their beliefs or backgrounds or difficult experiences they’ve had in their lives.  And I don’t see anything wrong with books and stories having trigger warnings, which inform readers the content they’re about to immerse themselves in may be uncomfortable or even traumatising.  I say that as a writer who’s had trigger warnings attached to his fiction in the past.  But banning books altogether?  I don’t agree with censorship, unless it’s of something that’s completely off-the-scale in promulgating odious stereotypes and stirring up hatred.


Otherwise, I don’t have much of a problem with wokeness.  Especially as it seems to annoy all the right – and I mean ‘right’ – people.  So, now, it’s time to sign off and grab some lunch.  What will I have…?  Why, tofu of course.  Up yours, Sewer-ella.


From wikipedia.org / © UK Government Web Archive

10 scary pictures for Halloween 2023


From pixabay.com / © socialneuron


It’s Halloween today.  In keeping with tradition on this blog, I’ll celebrate the occasion by displaying ten pieces of macabre, spooky or unsettling artwork that I’ve come across and liked during the past year.


To start on a musical note…  Here’s a flutist painted by the late Polish artist Zdzislaw Beksinski, whose work suggested Hieronymus Bosch combined with H.R. Giger and frequently depicted apocalyptic hellscapes populated by wraith-like figures.  By Beksinski’s standards, this is a fairly sedate and playful piece.  Its ochre-bathed figure is characteristically skeletal, but what impresses is how its multiple fingers, knuckles, joints, bones and tendons fuse chaotically to the flute and become a grotesque mechanism that’s an extension of it.


Beksinski met a tragic end in 2005 – after a traumatic few years during which he’d seen the death of his wife and the suicide of his son, he was murdered in a dispute over a small sum of money.  Still, interest in his art has burgeoned since his death and there’s now a host of stuff about him on YouTube.


© Zdzislaw Beksinski


Moving eastwards from Poland to Ukraine – yes, a place that’s suffered plenty of real-life horror in the past two years.  Yuri Hill is a Kiev-based artist who specialises in digital painting and whose work often depicts things worryingly pagan and primordial lurking in the forest.  This piece is particularly good.  As you study its crepuscular grey-blue murk, more and more details filter into view – not just the drooping, feathery branches of towering conifers, but the strange, bestial furriness of the figures and the Herne-the-Hunter-like antlers sprouting from their heads.  The fact that they’re moving about on stilts just adds to the strangeness.  For those of you wanting to see more of his work, Hill’s Instagram account is accessible here and his page on artstation.com here.


© Yuri Hill


From folk-horror to J-horror, i.e., Japanese horror, whose psychological, supernatural and urban-myth-derived traditions clearly inform this painting.  Entitled Red Laugh, it’s the work of Yuko Tatsushima, who’s been described as both a ‘rockstar’ and an ‘outsider’ in Japanese painting.  Even before we get to the grotesque subject matter, with the face missing an eyeball and some prominent, autopsy-like stitches running up its throat, the scratchy paint-strokes almost make you wonder if the artist did it with broken, bloody fingernails.


Indeed, the composition has a howl of rage about it that’s common in Tatsushima’s work.  It frequently addresses sexual oppression, harassment and assault, things Japanese society – all societies, for that matter – often tries to look away from and things the artist has been a victim of herself.  Such is the Francis Bacon-style intensity of Tatsushima’s creations that this YouTube film about her comes with a warning that its images might be ‘too disturbing for more sensitive viewers’.


© Yuko Tatsushima / From sugoii-Japan.com


That seems far, far removed from my next picture, which celebrates the cosy tradition of classical British horror fiction, set in wooden-panelled Victorian and Edwardian drawing rooms and populated by crusty, tweedy gentlemen.  It’s by Charles W. Stewart, one of the few people who can claim to have been born in the Philippines but brought up in Galloway in Scotland, and whose enthusiasm for illustrating was apparently matched for his enthusiasm for ballet and costume design.  Stewart, clearly a man of many interests, selected the stories and did the illustrations for a 1997 collection entitled Ghost Stories, and Other Horrid Tales, which was published four years before his death.  The volume includes fiction by Sheridan Le Fanu, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lafcadio Hearn, Vernon Lee, M.R. James and Walter de la Mare.


Stewart’s illustration here, which shows an antiquarian discovering he has unexpected company whilst engaged in some nocturnal research, is presumably for M.R. James’s Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book.  The story ends with the fictional equivalent of a cinematic jump-scare: “…his attention was caught by an object lying on the red cloth just by his left elbow…  Pale, dusky skin, covering nothing but bones and tendons of appalling strength; coarse black hairs, longer than ever grew on a human hand; nails rising from the ends of the fingers and curving sharply down, grey, horny and wrinkled…”


© Folio Society


One of the greatest early scares in film history occurred in the 1925 silent version of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, which starred the remarkable Lon Chaney Sr in the title role.  The mysterious masked phantom gets unmasked whilst playing at his beloved organ.  Unable to stop herself, the singer Christine (Mary Philbin) whips the mask off from behind. The audience is confronted by the phantom’s horribly gaunt, stretched and skull-like face in the screen’s foreground – at this point, supposedly, some 1925 audience-members fainted.  Then he turns around and the audience is traumatised a second time as they see Christine reacting in horror to his deformed visage too.  Anyway, here’s a regal portrait of Chaney Sr’s Phantom of the Opera, sans mask, courtesy of Pittsburgh artist Daniel R. Horne, who’s painted a number of classic movie monsters.


© Daniel R. Horne


There were scares a-plenty in the films of director Alfred Hitchcock.  Indeed, he was perhaps cinema’s greatest practitioner in the genres of suspense and horror.  So popular was Hitchcock among the public in his heyday that he licensed his name to dozens of collections of crime, mystery, thriller, espionage and horror short stories, whose titles ranged from Alfred Hitchcock’s Coffin Break (1974) to Alfred Hitchcock’s Hard Day at the Scaffold (1967), from Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum (1965) to Alfred Hitchcock’s Sinister Spies (1966).  These had introductions purporting to be written by the great man himself, but they were actually penned by publishing-house editors.


I’m partial to this cover illustration from the collection Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbinders in Suspense (1967), which includes Daphne du Maurier’s short story The Birds (alongside the likes of Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game, Roald Dahl’s Man from the South and Robert Bloch’s Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper).  Hitchcock, of course, filmed The Birds in 1963.  The cover’s artist isn’t identified, but with those brutally-pecky gulls, and the victim’s screaming face, he or she does a good job of capturing the directness of du Maurier’s grim, claustrophobic original.  Hitchcock’s treatment of it is more mannered and expansive, though still brilliant.


© Lions, London


While many modern artists have taken their inspiration from the cinema, the American painter and illustrator Burt Shonberg could boast that his work turned up in movies. Most notably, Shonberg provided the disturbingly dark-eyed and corpse-faced portraits of former members of the Usher family, which Roderick Usher (Vincent Price) shows to Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) in Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptation House of Usher (1960).


Acclaimed as ‘the premier psychedelic artist of Los Angeles’ from the 1950s until his death in 1977, Shonberg’s work extended beyond hippy-era psychedelia and he flirted with cubism and did some fine pen-and-ink drawings.  Here, however, I’m showing a languid, sultry composition entitled Magical Landscape or Lucifer in the Garden, which depicts an unsettlingly youthful version of Auld Nick.  Obviously, representations of the Devil abound throughout the history of art, but what makes this one memorable are those particularly long pasterns and the strange little sphinx resting on his lap.


From cvltnation.com


In these art-themed Halloween posts, I also like to honour the festival that comes straight after Halloween – Mexico’s Dia de Muertos, the Day of the Dead, at the start of November, which features skulls and skeletons as a major theme.  This next picture gets straight to the point.  It’s by David Lozeau, a San Diego artist who’s dedicated much of his career to creating Day of the Dead-inspired artwork, and it shows two skeletons raucously celebrating…  Day of the Dead.  I assume that yellow stuff in the señorita skeleton’s bottle is reposado tequila, which acquires its colour from the oak barrels it matures in.


© David Lozeau


There’s also an admirable directness about this picture, of a vampire lady, by Argentinian artist Hector Garrido, who passed away in 2020 when he was in his nineties.  Put Garrido’s name into Google Images and you’ll be assailed by countless pictures of G.I. Joe toy-packaging, which he designed back in the 1980s.  However, his main work was creating book covers, most popularly for gothic and romantic novels and for the series about the wholesome juvenile sleuths Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.  But Garrido’s CV includes covers for the likes of John Brunner, Ramsey Campbell, Agatha Christie, John Christopher, Robert A. Heinlein, Richard Matheson and Robert Silverberg too.


This one comes from a book called A Walk with the Beast, actually a collection of ‘vintage tales of human monsters and were-beasts’ edited by Charles M. Walker.  The stories include one by Vernon Lee, who also appeared in Charles W. Stewart’s Ghost Stories, and Other Horrid Tales.  ‘All fun’ says the book’s single reviewer on amazon.com, so evidently it ‘does what it says on the tin’.


© Avon Books


And finally, for my final picture, it’s back to Japan for something similarly fun and schlocky – not the cover of a book but one of a Japanese comic-book.  This effort by the late manga-artist Marina Shirakawa is wonderfully sinewy and eye-catching.  It’s full of typical manga-style details – see those simultaneously hideous and gleeful ghouls in the background – and peculiarly Japanese ones, such as the heroine’s sailor-suit school uniform.  Its colour scheme of dark, blue-grey hues, with smudges of blood-red at the back, is memorable too.


© From monsterbrains.blogspot.com


And that’s it for another year.  Happy Halloween…

Hey, hey, we’re the munchies


© Duckworth Books


Another Halloween-inspired post…


Zombie movies used to be my favourite sub-genre of horror cinema.  Okay, at first, it’s difficult to see the charms of a school of movies about reanimated corpses shambling around and trying to munch on the living.  But what I liked about zombies was that they could be a brilliant metaphor for any group that was large in number but, according to the powers-that-be, mindless: consumers, blue-collar workers, the homeless, etc.  This gave filmmakers endless opportunities for social comment and allowed zombie movies to have brains figuratively as well as literally.


Thus, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is a parable about a United States rattled by racial tensions and the Vietnam War.  His 1979 sequel Dawn of the Dead takes potshots at a consumerist America where shopping malls had become part of both the landscape and the social fabric.  Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) reflects a Britain where anger was an increasingly common social phenomenon, terms like ‘road rage’ and ‘air rage’ having entered the popular vernacular.  Its sequel, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later (2007) is an allegory about the post-war occupation of Iraq.  And Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) takes the piss out of a twenty-something slacker generation who can’t tell if someone’s a zombie or just stoned, drunk or hungover.


But I said I used to be fond of zombie movies, because in the last few years I feel there’s been too damned many of them, offering the same old apocalyptic visions and same old shambling tropes.  Zombies have become ubiquitous, not just in the cinema but in TV series, books, graphic novels and computer games.  With popular TV shows like The Walking Dead (2010-present), derived from a graphic novel, and The Last of Us (2023), derived from a computer game, filling our screens with zombie carnage week after week after week, surely it’s impossible now to do anything fresh with the concept?


Despite my zombie-fatigue, however, I recently read Max Brooks’ bestselling 2006 novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.  This is probably the number-two urtext in the zombie pantheon.  (Obviously, the number-one urtext is George A. Romero’s original trilogy of Living Dead movies, Night, Dawn and 1986’s Day of the Dead, which created the template: the flesh-eating, the infection being spread by bites, the need to shoot them in the head, the humans reacting to the crisis soon becoming more monstrous than the zombies themselves.)  Brooks updated the sub-genre for the 21st century and imagined a zombie plague happening on a global scale, with different countries responding in different ways.


From wikipedia.org / © Rhododendrites


World War Z is a mock non-fictional tome modelled on Studs Terkel’s The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (1984).  It’s purportedly a compilation of interviews by a United Nations expert who, sometime after a worldwide zombie crisis ended, worked on a UN Postwar Commission Report.  He collected oral testimonies from survivors but, ultimately, the commission’s chairperson decided not to include the testimonies in the report, reasoning: “It was all too intimate…  Too many opinions, too many feelings.  That’s not what this report is about.  We need clear facts and figures, unclouded by the human factor.”  So instead, the UN expert publishes the survivors’ stories in book-form.


One’s first impression of World War Z is that Brooks – who in real life is the son of venerable funnyman and comic filmmaker Mel Brooks – has not only set his sights high but done his homework.  The book believably presents the voices not just of ordinary people, but of politicians, scientists, doctors, soldiers, mercenaries, pilots, etc.  It nicely captures their particular sets of jargon, slang and cadences as they describe their  experiences of the conflict with the undead.  The political protocols, science, technology, medicine, weaponry and equipment referred to sound convincingly well-researched.  Brooks is also authoritative when his UN official interviews people from more specialist walks of life, such as deep-sea divers (these zombies can move underwater) and astronauts (there’s a section about the crew of the International Space Station who, after things kick off, find themselves in orbit for longer than planned and do all they can to help humanity below).


The jargon occasionally gets a bit dense.  For instance, a diver grumps: “Kids today… f*ckin’ A.  I sound like my pops, but it’s true, the kids today, the new ADS divers in the Mark 3s and 4s, they have this ZeVDek – Zero Visibility Detection Kit – with colour-imaging sonar and low-light optics…  We couldn’t see, we couldn’t hear – we couldn’t even feel if a G was trying to grab us from behind.”  But then, people in any profession use plenty of jargon when they talk with passion about their work.  And you have to be passionate about your work when it involves relentless waves of zombies coming at you.


From pixabay.com / © Syaibatul Hamadi


A few entries stray into stereotypes and caricature, though.  An account by one Kondo Tatsumi, a teenaged computer geek so addicted to hacking into systems and obtaining information that he stays at his bedroom computer long after his parents have vanished, and the zombies have started eating his neighbours, without any awareness of the peril he’s in, ladles on the stereotype of the Japanese otaku too thickly.  To rub it in, Kondo is described as being at the time ‘a skinny acne-faced teenager with dull red eyes and bleached blond highlights streaking his unkempt hair.’


Another Japanese-set instalment is rather cheesy too.  It concerns an elderly blind man called ‘Sensei’ Tomonaga Ijiro.  Though old and blind, his sense of hearing and smell are acute and he’s also skilled at using a samurai sword – well, it’s really a sharp-bladed shovel that he used during his pre-World-War-Z days working as a gardener.  He manages to survive for years in the forested mountains of Hokkaido, slaying any zombie that ventures near him.  Here, Brooks is clearly riffing on the legendary blind swordman Zatoichi, a fixture of Japanese cinema and fiction.  But the story’s unlikeliness is out-of-place in a tome that generally aims for documentary realism.  Even if Sensei Tomonaga’s non-visual senses and swordsmanship enable him to fight off zombies for several years, I don’t see how an old blind bloke could stay alive in Hokkaido, in the open, for so long.  I’ve lived in Hokkaido and know how brutal its winters are.


Worst of all is the testimony of David Allen Forbes, a stereotypical Richard Curtis / Hugh Grant-style silly-ass Englishman whom Brooks’ dad could have featured in one of his films – Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), say, or Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995).  An expert on castles, he begins by explaining how modern-day humans used the medieval structures as refuge against the zombie hordes.  Then he gets onto his own experiences of World War Z, which he spent holed up in Windsor Castle, just outside London.  There’s some utter guff where Forbes gets teary recalling Queen Elizabeth II.  She refused to join the rest of the Royal Family when they were evacuated to Ireland – yes, it shows how desperate things were that the Royal Family, for their safety, had to be sent to Ireland.  Instead, she stayed with the garrison in Windsor to ‘be an example to the rest of us, the strongest, and bravest, and absolute best of us.’  Of castles and Her Majesty, Forbes concludes: “One defended our bodies, the other, our souls.”  That bit turned my stomach more than the most graphic gore I’ve seen in a zombie movie.


Still, the good parts of World War Z more than outweigh the duff ones.  Most effective for me is a section where an American woman, Jesika Hendricks, recalls her experiences as a girl early in the crisis.  Following government advice to move north – by then it’d been noticed that zombies freeze up in cold weather – her urban, white-collar family load up a van and head for Canada.  They join some fellow refugees who’ve set up camp beside a lake.  Initially, everything is cheery, with communal bonhomie, singing around the campfire, and the nearby forest and lake-waters providing fuel and food.  Then, as the trees get cut down, and the fish get dynamited to non-existence, and the days grow shorter and colder, the mood sours.  “The camp became a mess, nobody picking up their trash anymore.  A couple of times I stepped in human shit.  Nobody was even bothering to bury it.”  By mid-winter, things have become truly nasty.  It’s a grim and believable account of what frightened and unprepared people can end up doing in an emergency.  And the zombies aren’t even around.  They figure in the punchline, though: “It took a lot of time, but eventually the sun did come out, the weather began to warm, and the snow finally began to melt.. spring was finally here, and so were the living dead.”


Meanwhile, Brooks devises a neat explanation for the zombies’ origins and how they spread everywhere.  The zombie-creating virus first appeared in China – possibly somehow spawned in the areas flooded by the Three Gorges dam project – and went on to infect the country’s supply of organs that’d been forcibly-harvested in its prisons.  Some of these organs were exported around the world and they released the virus into the bodies of their recipients.  Incidentally, in real life, China announced in 2014 that it would no longer use prisoners as forced organ-donors.


© Skydance Productions / Paramount Pictures


This premise didn’t make it into the big-budget, but disappointing movie version that Hollywood made of World War Z in 2013.  No doubt the studio, Paramount Pictures, was mindful of the growing importance of Chinese audiences for international movie profits and didn’t want to include anything that might annoy the Chinese government.


Finally, I noticed how the book makes references, mostly indirectly, to personages like Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro and the aforementioned Queen Elizabeth II.  This gives it an oddly historical feel now.  Its story evidently began in the mid-noughties and concluded sometime in the 2010s.  And while Brooks pours scorn on inept and corrupt politicians, and other assholes in positions of power and influence (like a crooked pharma tycoon who lulls the West into a false sense of security with an ‘anti-rabies’ vaccination), he obviously believes the era still has enough people with the leadership skills, knowhow and courage to win the day for humanity.


But the mind boggles at the thought of such a scenario occurring in 2023.  For years now, we’ve been subjected to the callousness, venality and stupidity of leaders like Putin, Bolsonaro, Modi, Netanyahu, Johnson and, of course, Trump.  Also, we’ve seen how so many of them botched the handling of the Covid-19 epidemic.  If a zombie apocalypse started under the watch of the far-right-wing populist authoritarians who currently run too many countries in the world, they’d probably use it as an excuse to invade neighbouring countries, burn the Amazon, bash the Muslims, avoid corruption charges, hold raucous parties, inject themselves with bleach or, indeed, abandon the ‘blue states’ to the zombies.


And on the fake-news front, millions of ‘zombie sceptics’ would agree with Alex Jones, who’d dismiss news footage of zombie carnage as the work of ‘crisis actors’.  Millions of supposed ‘freethinkers’ would applaud the tweets of Right Said Fred and Neil Oliver, who’d dismiss the thing as a hoax engineered by a shadowy global cabal wanting to foist a ‘world government’ on us all.  Actually, I could imagine Oliver defying zombie-emergency lockdown by announcing on GB News: “If your freedom means I might get bitten by a zombie then so be it.  If my freedom means you might get bitten by a zombie, then so be it.”


Max Brooks’ 2006 World War Z chronicles a horror-show, but in hindsight, there’s ultimately something positive and uplifting about it.  A 2023 World War Z would be a horror-show full-stop.


From invaluable.com / © Motik One