Temple town

 

 

The Thai city of Ayutthaya is an hour-and-a-half’s journey by train north of Bangkok.  Central Ayutthaya stands on an island, surrounded by a natural and manmade moat consisting of the Chao Phraya, Lopburi and Pasak Rivers and the Klong Muang Canal.  In 1991 it received World Heritage Site status from UNESCO in recognition of its many  ruins, of temples, monasteries and palaces, which are leftovers from its four centuries as capital city of the Kingdom of Siam.  This golden period of its history came to a destructive end in 1767 when Burmese forces seized and razed it.

 

Though most tourists are content to visit a handful of key sites in Ayutthaya, there are plenty of less well-known historical landmarks dotted across the city, both inside and outside the World Heritage Park and within and beyond the boundaries of the central city’s moat.  For example, standing across the road from our hotel just north of the Klong Muang Canal was the modest, unpublicised and unvisited but perfectly pleasant Wat Hasadavas.

 

 

During our recent holiday in Thailand my partner and I had a single day to spend temple-hopping in Ayutthaya, so we hired a tuk-tuk to shuttle us around half-a-dozen of the most auspicious attractions.  If you’re accustomed to the spacious tuk-tuks of Bangkok, be warned that the Ayutthaya tuk-tuk is a different species.  It resembles one that’s been crossbred with a pick-up truck, with the driver sitting in a cab at the front and the passengers sitting in a cramped compartment around the back.  Passengers of above-average-Thai height, like myself, will regularly knock their heads on the roof.

 

After a quick visit to the museum above the local tourist information centre, to get some background information about the places we were planning to visit, we headed across the Pasak River to Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon southeast of the central city.  As well as being the first temple we went to, it was also probably the busiest with tourists.  It has a handsome if slightly discoloured main chedi whose upper chamber is accessible by a flight of steep stone steps.  Around it stand many timeworn but intact Buddha statues and there’s also a giant reclining one, mostly swathed in a huge golden-covered sheet.

 

 

It was here, unfortunately, that we spied a couple of strong contenders for the title of ‘Biggest Knobhead Tourist during our Trip to Thailand’.  Firstly, a British woman carrying a baby thought nothing of placing the baby on a plinth and changing its nappy in front of a large statue of Buddha, so that for a few minutes one dirty baby-arse got waggled at the most sacred image in Buddhism.  Secondly, a seedy-looking guy with a North European accent, in the company of three backpacking British girls whom he was desperately trying to impress, scrambled up atop another plinth that was also near the large Buddha statue.  “Look at me, look at me!” he exclaimed.  “I am zee Spiderman!”

 

From there we headed back over the moat to the central city and to the Heritage Park proper, where our first stop was Wat Mahathat.  This site, dating back to 1374, contains lots of beehive-shaped prangs built of rust-orange and ash-grey bricks, some with subsiding foundations and a slightly lopsided tilt; and a few tapering chedi, and tiled paths and pavilions, and some grey-stone Buddhas.  The most photographed item at Wat Mahathat, though, is a stone Buddha face peering out through a gap in a dense mesh of tree-roots.  I remembered seeing this the previous time I was in Ayutthaya, back in 2005, and it was quite a tourist draw then.  But Thailand has since opened up to the Chinese tourist market and today the crowd looked ten times bigger.  There was even a security guard seated on a chair next to the roots and face, hurrying the sightseers on if they took too long with their selfies and held up the queue behind them.

 

 

Five minutes’ walk along the road from Wat Mahathat is Wat Ratchaburana, a structure that resembles a vertical torpedo – well, half of a vertical torpedo, one that’s planted in a mass of arched brick porches and stone staircases.  It looks particularly impressive when seen framed in the doorway of the site’s entrance.  I climbed a staircase to a point midway up its side, from where I had a good view of the surrounding premises – lines of nearly disappeared walls, stumps of demolished chedi and prangs, and patterns of lawns and pathways.  I was also unlucky enough to spot the ‘I am zee Spiderman’ guy from Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon wandering down below.  Even from a distance, he sounded obnoxious.

 

 

In central Ayutthaya too is Wat Phra Mongkhon Bophit, which contains one of the biggest bronze images of Buddha in Thailand.  According to a sign, it’s ‘9.55 metres at the widest point across the lap’ and ‘12.45 metres high without the base’.  I have to say, though, that I got as much enjoyment from walking along the passage around the main image and looking at the smaller-scale Buddha figures and Buddha heads on display there, with their offbeat colours and embellished surfaces.

 

 

Next door is Wat Phra Si Samphet, the entrance to which features a monument with the UNESCO plaque certifying Ayutthaya as a World Heritage Site.  This has rows of fantastically ornate chedi, resembling cakes that’ve been iced by a psychopathically decorative cakemaker.  There’s something very organic about the flowing lines and curves of the structures here, which make them seem almost part of the surrounding woodland.  Lounging at the top of a narrow, off-limits staircase climbing to an opening high in the side of one chedi was a black-and-white dog.  He looked like he was guarding it and I hoped that if ‘zee Spiderman’ guy flouted the rules again and ventured up the staircase to do more showing off, the dog would bite him on the bum.

 

 

Also close by is Wat Phra Ram, another vertical, torpedo-shaped structure in the style of Wat Ratchaburana.  Actually, this one seems even taller and more elongated and has the look of a rocket on its launchpad.  The raw colour of its brickwork – which was maybe the result of the light, which at this point in the late afternoon was starting to dim – gave this site an eerier, more primordial feel than the others we visited.

 

 

Our final port of call that day was the sizeable complex of Wat Chai Watthanaram, southwest of central Ayutthaya and by the shore of the Chao Phraya River.  Here we witnessed another witless intrusion by an idiot tourist.  Despite the very visible signs telling people not to do this, someone was operating a drone and having it buzz around the site’s highest pinnacles.  However, Wat Chai Watthanaram did treat us to the most gorgeous spectacle of the day.  Getting to its entrance involved walking along a path by the riverside, from where we had a stunning view of the complex silhouetted against an evening sky of faded pink and violet.  Meanwhile, the setting sun peered between its chedi, prangs and treetops and burnished them with orange light.

 

 

The wild Gover

 

From bdnews24.com

 

In a blog entry a few weeks ago, I jokingly stated that the contenders in the race to take over as British Prime Minister from Theresa May were so dismal that even Tony Montana, the ultra-violent, ultra-sweary, cocaine-dealing and cocaine-hoovering crime baron featured in Brian De Palma’s classic 1983 movie Scarface, would do a better job as PM.

 

There was something prophetic about those words, for now it transpires that one person with a credible chance of becoming PM has indeed a touch of Tony Montana and Scarface about him.  Not that he’s ultra-violent or ultra-sweary – though the sight of his shilpit features and the sound of his prissy voice on TV are enough to make me ultra-sweary and at least feel like being ultra-violent.  And not that, to the best of my knowledge, he’s ever dealt in cocaine.  But it’s emerged from an interview in the Daily Mail that Michael Gove, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and former Secretary of State for Education and for Justice, hoovered up amounts of the white stuff ‘on several occasions’ in his pre-political days, while he was working as a journalist.

 

Now I’m not saying that Gove’s appetite for cocaine was the same as that displayed by Tony Montana, whose head by the end of Scarface looked in danger of disappearing under the powder that was piled, mountainously, on his desk.  But such have been the howls of derision and delight about this revelation on social media that I suspect that from now on in Britain all the normal nicknames for cocaine will be abandoned.  Forget about calling it ‘coke’, ‘blow’, ‘toot’, ‘snow’, ‘ching’, ‘nose candy’, ‘the devil’s dandruff’, ‘the Big C’, ‘pearl’, ‘bump’ and the rest.  For years to come, in nightclubs, unsavoury figures will be sidling up to you and whispering, “Psst!  You fancy a few lines of Michael Gove?”

 

Actually, Gove isn’t the only prime ministerial hopeful whose partaking of certain substances has been revealed lately.  We’ve also heard that International Development Secretary Rory Stewart once smoked opium at a wedding in Iran; Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt once drank a cannabis lassi in India; and both Andrea Leadsom and Dominic Raab smoked cannabis while at university.  From the Mussolini-type rubbish Raab has spouted recently, you’d expect his drug-taking to have consisted of frying his brain with LSD.  The confessions were coming at such a rate that yesterday someone on Twitter speculated if Jacob Rees Mogg would admit to ‘abusing Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup in 1871’.

 

I’ve noticed one strange thing about Conservative politicians.  None of them ever seem to take drugs because they like taking them.  They’re not as ordinary folk, who indulge in illicit substances because they ‘enjoy the buzz’ or ‘the high’, or want ‘to get loaded’ and ‘have a good time’, or want to recreate the stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) inside their heads.  No, Tory politicians only take drugs out of some masochistic impulse that leaves them feeling terrible, shameful and morally besmirched afterwards.  “It was a mistake,” wailed Gove about the cocaine business.  “I look back and think I wish I hadn’t done that.”  Of his experience ‘chasing the dragon’, Stewart lamented: “It was something that was very wrong.  I made a stupid mistake.”

 

If Gove were an ordinary person, I wouldn’t give a toss whether he took cocaine or not since: (1) I’m of the opinion that human beings have the right to imbibe, ingest, inject or snort into their bodies whatever they want, provided this doesn’t negatively impact on their fellow human beings; and (2) I don’t see any point in having drugs outlawed and drug-users stigmatised when strict anti-drug legislation in the West has proved as useless as the USA’s prohibition laws did between 1920 and 1933, in that they’ve managed only to empower organised crime.  (The third chapter of the 2018 European Drugs Report is damning about how the anti-drug policies of Gove’s Conservative government have failed Britain.  It says ‘at least 7,929 overdose deaths, involving one or more illicit drug, occurred in the European Union in 2016.’  34% of these deaths occurred in the UK alone.)

 

What makes Gove a hypocrite of Godzilla-sized proportions is that, as the Observer has pointed out, while he was sandblasting his nasal passages with the Big C, he was also using a column in the Times to condemn middle-class professionals who wanted drugs laws to be relaxed.  Indeed, anybody who’s fallen foul of Britain’s laws about cocaine possession during the period that Gove and his band of merry pranksters have been in power must be feeling hard done-by, since Gove has made this admission with no apparent threat to his pocket or liberty – cocaine possession in the UK is, theoretically, punishable with up to seven years’ imprisonment – and with no apparent lessening in his belief that he’s the right man to take on the highest office in the land.  During Gove’s watch as Education Secretary, I very much doubt if anyone who had a criminal record involving cocaine would have been allowed through the doors of the teaching profession.

 

So far, the only possible negative consequence of Gove’s drugs admission I’ve heard mentioned is that it might put him in the awkward position of being British Prime Minister but being denied entry to the USA.  Actually, that would reduce the amount of time he’d have to spend in the company of the current denizen of the White House, so it doesn’t sound like much of a punishment.

 

Thus, the message seems to be that, yes, drug-taking is terribly bad, but it’s not so bad – or not bad at all – when it’s done by a Tory who’s held a string of senior governmental positions and who’s lectured us sanctimoniously in the past on a number of topics, including the badness of drug-taking.  Such logic is worthy of Tony Montana, who once explained in Scarface: “I always tell the truth.  Even when I lie.”

 

From youtube.com / © Channel 4

 

End of the Roky road

 

© Sumet Sound Studios

 

Roky Erickson, the Texan singer-songwriter, guitarist and harmonica player who passed away on May 31st at the age of 71, was a man who suffered for his art.  Diagnosed with acute schizophrenia in 1968, and a year later claiming he was insane to avoid jail after a drugs-bust, he was incarcerated in a series of psychiatric and state hospitals and put though electroconvulsive therapy and Thorazine treatment.

 

Later he displayed levels of paranoia, delusion and obsessiveness that a Philip K. Dick character (or indeed, Philip K. Dick himself) would be familiar with.  By 1982 he believed that he was an alien – one under psychic attack from the human beings around him.  Later in the decade he was charged with the theft of his neighbours’ mail – not only was the postally-crazed Erickson stealing the mail but he was plastering it all over his walls.  Only after 2001, when Erickson ended up in the legal custody of his brother Sumner Erickson, did his mental health and his situation generally begin to improve.

 

No doubt most if not all of Erickson’s demons sprang from the amount of acid that he and his comrades in the psychedelic rock band the 13th Floor Elevators consumed during the 1960s in their quest for a state of heightened perception that, in turn, would add more depth and profundity to their music.  It makes you wonder how much you should applaud the art, knowing that the circumstances that helped produce the art also wrecked the body and soul of the artist.  Erickson was unlucky enough to belong to a tradition of tormented musicians, writers, poets, composers and painters whose ranks include Thomas de Quincy, Malcolm Lowry, Toulouse Lautrec, Edgar Allan Poe and Edvard Munch (who once made the sad confession that “without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder.”)

 

Well, I have to applaud the art of the 13th Floor Elevators.  That’s although before I heard them I hadn’t much patience with the psychedelic-music genre to which they belonged.  Previously, I’d mainly been exposed to British psychedelic bands who seemed to sing about garden gnomes, bicycles, teapots, newspaper taxis (presumably black London cabs made out of copies of the Evening Standard) and marmalade skies – artefacts of a twee, stereotypical Little England, viewed as much through a prism of Lewis Carroll as through a haze of consciousness-altering drugs.  But the 13th Floor Elevators sounded literally far out.  Theirs was a frequently distorted noise that might’ve been made on another planet.  It consisted of Erickson’s yelping voice, Stacy Sutherland’s fuzzy guitar, John Ike Walton’s berserk drums and Tommy Hall’s electric jug.  The jug was an instrument that accompanied the songs with eerie wibbling sounds and sometimes made you wonder if there was a flock of turkeys gabbling in a corner of the Elevators’ recording studio.

 

Somehow, out of what initially seemed an unpromising clatter of disparate noises, there emerged great tunes: Reverberation, Roller Coaster, Slip Inside This House, You’re Going to Miss Me and Kingdom of Heaven.  Meanwhile, the Elevators’ takes on other people’s songs, like Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue and Them’s Gloria, predictably bent them into new and fantastical shapes.

 

You’re Going to Miss Me became an unexpected hit and the Elevators got to perform it on American Bandstand (1952-1989).  “Who is the head man of this band here, gentlemen?” inquired Dick Clark afterwards.  “Well,” came the perfect reply, “we’re all heads.”  And Kingdom of Heaven was used by T Bone Burnett on the musical soundtrack of the first and best season of True Detective (2014-2019).  It provided an unsettling but soaring accompaniment to the finale of the second episode, when Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey discover a sinister human figure with antlers painted on the wall of a burnt-out church.

 

The Elevators managed four albums between 1966 and 1969, though Erickson’s contribution was increasingly diminished by his mental problems.  Thereafter, I quite like the two albums that he and a new band recorded as Roky Erickson and the Aliens – aptly titled, since at the time Erickson did think he was an alien.

 

And unlike another famous casualty of the psychedelic era, Syd Barrett of the Pink Floyd – note how I called it ‘the’ Pink Floyd, to distinguish the earlier Barrett incarnation of the band from the bloated, Jeremy Clarkson-friendly soft-rock behemoth that it mutated into later – Erickson enjoyed something of a musical comeback in his later years, gigging in America, Europe and the Antipodes and even participating in a 13th Floor Elevators reunion in 2015.

 

Incidentally, the Elevators exerted a fascination over Scottish rock bands of a certain vintage.  Slip Inside This House was covered by both Primal Scream and the Shamen, while the Jesus and Mary Chain, possibly my favourite band ever, did a splendid if sleek and cleaned-up take on Reverberation.  (Yes, it says something about the original version that it makes the Jesus and Mary Chain version sound sleek and cleaned-up.)  And Erickson himself appeared on Devil Rides, a track on the 2008 Batcat EP by the rumbly Glasgow band Mogwai.

 

Mogwai member Stuart Braithwaite spoke for a lot of music fans the other day when, hearing of Erikson’s death, he tweeted: “The worst news.  Rest in peace Roky.”  Mind you, considering everything that he’d been through, maybe we should just celebrate the fact that Roky Erickson made it to the age of 71.

 

From boingboinb.net

 

The Ken and Ollie show

 

© Russo Productions / Warner Bros.

 

Twenty years ago this month, Oliver Reed – possibly the most rambunctious and unpredictable actor in British film history, and surely the thirstiest – breathed his last.

 

He’d been in Malta filming Gladiator (1999) for Ridley Scott and, incidentally, quietly stealing the show from Russell Crowe.  (“I wasn’t the best because I killed quickly…  I was the best because the crowd loved me.”)  One afternoon, he accompanied his wife to a Chinese restaurant in Valetta only to find that the restaurant was closed and they ended up instead in a nearby pub.  Here, the 61-year-old Reed proceeded to knock back rums at an industrial rate and engage sailors just off a Royal Navy warship in arm-wrestling bouts until, suddenly, his heart packed in.  So I thought I would mark May 2019, twentieth anniversary of the great man’s death, by writing about one of his classic films.  And there’s no more classic an Ollie Reed movie than 1971’s ultra-controversial The Devils, scripted and directed by his friend, and some would say partner-in-crime, Ken Russell.

 

By the way, the following comments are based on the version of The Devils I own, an 111-minute DVD from the British Film Institute with an introduction by Mark Kermode.  I’ve heard, though, that since 2004 there’s been a 117-minute version with restored footage on the go.  If you’ve never seen the movie, don’t read on – there will be spoilers galore.

 

Based on historical events in 17th century France, and on two works inspired by those events, Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudon (1952) and John Whiting’s play The Devils (1961), the film deals with skulduggery at national and local levels.  The power-hungry Cardinal Richelieu (played by Christopher Logue, who was best known as a poet) encourages Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) to create a centralised and authoritarian France, with the Catholic Church entrenched as keeper of the national faith.  This means taking action against certain French cities that have become laws onto themselves and function like city-states.

 

© Russo Productions / Warner Bros.

 

Particularly irksome to Richelieu is the city of Loudon, which has kept its autonomy thanks to its huge fortified city walls and which has a dismaying tendency to treat its Protestant citizens as equals to the Catholic ones.  Richelieu sends his agent, Baron Jean de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), with orders to demolish Loudon’s walls and bring the city to heel.  However, de Laubardemont is thwarted when confronted by Urbain Grandier (Reed), an eloquent and powerful city priest who’s able to bring the citizenry onto the streets to resist him and his soldiers.

 

Grandier’s political principles might be high-minded but his personal ones are anything but.  A philanderer and predator, he’s already impregnated and abandoned one woman (Georgina Hale) and is busy wooing another (Gemma Jones), whom he marries in a secret ceremony after claiming to have found theological justification that priests can become husbands.

 

Meanwhile, de Laubardemont joins forces with members of the local clergy, judiciary and trades whom Grandier has offended for personal or professional reasons and they conspire to destroy him.  Their means of doing so comes from an unexpected source – the scoliosis-stricken Sister Jeanne des Anges (Vanessa Redgrave), abbess of a Loudon convent.  Although she’s never met Grandier, Sister Jeanne has worshipped him from afar, first in a spiritual way and then – through a series of increasingly graphic and disturbing visions – in an ungodly, sensual one.  Eventually she becomes deranged, her hysteria infects the nuns under her governance, and she accuses Grandier of using witchcraft to possess and corrupt her and her convent.  De Laubardemont and his allies promptly summon the witch-hunting Father Barre (Michael Gothard) to investigate.  When they’ve gathered enough ‘evidence’, they have Grandier charged with witchcraft and put him on trial for his life.

 

© Russo Productions / Warner Bros.

 

With its brew of politics, sex, violence and religion, which in turn are depicted cynically, explicitly, unflinchingly and sacrilegiously, The Devils was and still is a provocative watch.  It had an ‘X’ certificate slapped on it in the USA, which meant few Americans got to see it – X-certificate movies were assumed to be pornographic ones and got few theatre-bookings.  In addition, both the studio, Warner Brothers, and the censors took scissors to its more inflammatory scenes.  And Britain’s establishment critics were aghast.  The prissy and grumpy Leslie Halliwell, whose Filmgoers’ Companion books were for many years the only film-reference books British people read, dismissed it as ‘outrageously sick’ and ‘in howling bad taste from beginning to end’, while the hostility shown by the Evening Standard’s Alexander Walker culminated in a bust-up in a TV studio where Russell smacked the critic over the head with a rolled-up copy of his own newspaper.

 

These days, predictably, all that condemnatory water has passed well under the bridge.  Younger critics and filmmakers recognise Russell as a flamboyant auteur who added welcome dashes of flair, colour, imagination and daringness to a British film industry that was long accustomed to making stodgy historical costume dramas and dreary kitchen-sink dramas and seemed unaware that cinema is supposed to be, you know, cinematic.  And The Devils is acknowledged as his masterpiece.  For instance, Ben Wheatley, director of Kill List (2011) and High Rise (2016), has said, “The Devils to me stands alone in Ken Russell’s work.  It has all the fierceness and craziness of his movies, but it also has a seriousness and an intensity that isn’t in his other movies.”

 

Anyway, what’s my assessment of The Devils?  Well, I’ll start with what I see as the movie’s weakness.  Although it’s intended to be over the top, it goes a bit too over the top during the lengthy sequences where Father Barre and his lackeys invade the convent searching for proof of Grandier’s demonic influence.  Barre has already, secretly, threatened the nuns with execution unless they agree to behave hysterically.  And on cue, those nuns put on a hell of a show – a chaotic fracas of nudity, licentiousness, writhing, screaming, eye-goggling, tongue-waggling, attempted copulation with candlesticks and some carry-on with a giant effigy of Christ on the cross that the Vatican probably wouldn’t approve of.  At this point, you feel you’re watching not so much a Ken Russell film as a parody of a Ken Russell film – which come to think of it, was what his later Lair of the White Worm (1988) was.

 

© Russo Productions / Warner Bros.

 

Otherwise, I think The Devils is magnificent.  Its highlights include the stylised sets by a young Derek Jarman, which eschew the grime, grubbiness and gloom you associate with life four centuries ago and instead are dazzlingly white and clean but also disturbingly clinical.  These include Sister’s Jeanne’s convent, whose warren of chambers and passageways have the look of some germ-free medical institution, and Richelieu’s headquarters, which resemble a cross between a giant bank-vault and a well-scrubbed prison and are disconcertingly staffed by priests and nuns.  The Devils’ policy of telling a historical story but not with historically accurate backdrops would appear in later British movies, most notably those made by Jarman himself when he became a director, such as Caravaggio (1986) and Edward II (1991).  And I suspect that an also-young Peter Greenaway was making notes because The Devils contains sequences reminiscent of his later films – for example, one where Russell’s camera closes in on the figure of de Laubardemont while he stands against a painting-like tableau.

 

The performances are another highlight.  The band of conspirators set on eliminating Grandier are played by a glorious rogue’s gallery of British character actors.  Dudley Sutton makes a credibly villainous de Laubardemont, his rottenness tempered with a soldierly practicality and matter-of-factness.  Northern Irish actor Max Adrian and British sitcom stalwart Brian Murphy – yes, that’s George from George and Mildred (1976-1980) – are fabulously contemptible as the pair of quack medical practitioners who fall out with Grandier when he catches them trying to treat a plague victim with glass globes containing bees placed over the buboes and also, bizarrely, with a stuffed crocodile.  “What fresh lunacy is this?” Grandier bellows at them, a line that became the title of Robert Sellars’ biography of Oliver Reed, published in 2013.

 

There are excellent turns too from the impish Georgina Hale, embittered but endearing as the woman Grandier has wronged, and John Woodvine – Doctor Hirsch in the 1981 classic An American Werewolf in London – as her magistrate father, whose enmity for Grandier helps seal his fate.  Meanwhile, decked out in hippy-esque hair and John Lennon specs, Michael Gothard gives a barnstorming performance as the witch-hunting Father Barre.  Indeed, his volubility will surprise viewers who remember him chiefly as Locque, Roger Moore’s silent, expressionless foe in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only.  More nuanced is Murray Melvin, playing Father Mignon, a priest suspicious of Grandier who first alerts the conspirators to what’s happening in the convent.  Later – but too late – he realises that Grandier is innocent of the charges against him.

 

© Russo Productions / Warner Bros.

 

Gemma Jones is sympathetic and convincing as Madeleine, the woman whom Grandier covertly marries and the film’s only properly virtuous character.  Abandoning his philandering ways, he comes to regard her as his soulmate.  It’s difficult to imagine that Jones in The Devils is the same actress who plays the title character’s mother in the Bridget Jones trilogy – three movies that are the extreme opposite of everything that Russell stood for in the British film industry.

 

Ultimately, though, The Devils belongs to its two stars.  Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of Sister Jeanne ranges from the unhinged and monstrous to the pitiful and pathetic, often within the same scene.  The war in her soul between sensuous yearning and stultifying piety is symbolised externally by the contrast between her comely face and the grotesque hump protruding from her back.

 

Then there’s Reed, at the height of his physical and acting powers – powers that, alas, would wane as he grew evermore fond of the bottle, his drunken antics on chat-shows like Aspel, The Word and After Dark became the stuff of legend and his career went through the floor.  Here, though, he dominates the film.  He makes Grandier absolutely believable as, simultaneously, a heroic leader of men, a cerebral theologian and a sensation-hungry scoundrel.   His performance reaches a peak of intensity during the trial scenes.  Reed stuck to films and avoided the theatre, lacking the patience to go out and parrot the same lines night after night, but when you see him in verbal combat with Sutton before a row of judges (fearsomely clad in Ku Klux Klan-like white robes), you feel this would have been a brilliant piece of acting to watch live on a stage.

 

There follows the film’s cruel and despairing finale.  Grandier is found guilty and tortured by Barre, who uses a hammer to smash his feet to a pulp.  Then he’s burned alive in the middle of a city square, in front of a nightmarishly drunken and jeering crowd – no longer does Grandier command the loyalty and affection of Loudon’s citizens.  (Unlike Gladiator, this is an Oliver Reed film where the crowd doesn’t love him.)  Particularly horrible are the moments when Grandier continues to pontificate in a half-defiant, half-pleading voice while his face blackens and blisters in the flames.  The scene was filmed long before the advent of CGI and its impact comes from the skills of the actors, make-up artists and practical special-effects team.  I can’t imagine it was a comfortable one for Reed to shoot.

 

The Devils certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  My partner, who’s no prude, doesn’t like it especially.  She admires the performances and set design, but the dearth of sympathetic characters and the glut of totally unsympathetic ones, and the unrelenting venality, hypocrisy and superstitious stupidity on display, prevent her from enjoying it much.  However, if you can stomach the film’s bleak view of humanity, and you value Ken Russell’s operatic directing style, The Devils is second to none.

 

Or indeed, second to nun…  Well, I’m sure Ken and Ollie would have appreciated the pun.

 

© Russo Productions / Warner Bros.

 

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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