Favourite film websites


© Paramount Pictures


At some point during my formative years I realised I was obsessed with films.  Unfortunately, my formative years occurred at a time when being a film obsessive was expensive. 


It meant shelling out money to see the things at the cinema or, a little way into the 1980s, rent them from the video-shop – the alternative was waiting for what seemed like 25 years before they turned up on one of the UK’s four terrestrial TV channels.  But it also meant paying serious money for film magazines to get background information about them.


Actually, from the late 1970s and through the 1980s and 1990s I must have spent an amount equivalent to the Gross Domestic Product of some developing-world countries on film magazines.  At one time or other I was purchasing Cinefantastique, Cinema, Empire, Fangoria, Fantastic Films, House of Hammer, Monster Mag, the Monthly Film Bulletin, Premiere, Sight and Sound, Starburst, Starlog, Stills and Total Film.


How different it is today.  Thanks to the Internet, a million websites devoted to movies old and new are available at a click of the mouse or a tap on the touch-pad; and most of them are free to read.  The magazines above – at least, the ones that’ve survived to the present day – have their own sites but many more movie-websites are creations of the Internet era alone.  Here are a few of my favourites.




According to its blurb 366 Weird Movies is a site dedicated to “the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!”  Hence, it provides articles on everything from 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild to 1955’s Night of the Hunter, from 1990’s The Reflecting Skin to 1973’s O Lucky Man!  Covered here is work by all the cinematic mavericks you’d expect, like David Cronenberg, Terry Gilliam, Peter Greenaway, Ken Russell and Lars von Trier.




One reason why I’m kindly disposed towards this website is because I’m quoted on it.  At the bottom of each film-entry is a What the Critics Say section and my thoughts have been published about, of all things, The Singing Ringing Tree – the freaky 1957 East German fairy-tale movie that was chopped into episodes and broadcast as a children’s TV series by the BBC.  Of which I wrote (originally on this blog): “for pure weirdness you couldn’t beat The Singing Ringing Tree…  (It) resembled a Brothers Grimm story directed by David Lynch.”


© Sol Lesser Productions / RKO


More weirdness appears at Atonal Cinema for Zombies, which focuses on ‘strange black and white American films’ from the 1930s to 1960s.  It gives brief but droll accounts of items like Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949), Teenage Doll (1957), The Maze (1953), I Married a Witch (1942) and Island of Doomed Men (1940), i.e. all those monochrome movies that long ago would be broadcast on TV as filler for the then-graveyard-slots of the late morning, mid-afternoon and late-evening; movies that, even when I saw them as a kid, I found memorably odd.




Meanwhile, the splendidly-titled Jollygood Babylon looks at old British movies.  And not the ones that get celebrated in expensive coffee-table tomes about the history of the British film industry.  It deals with British exploitation movies of yore – all those cheap, unsavoury crime, horror, sex and sex-comedy movies that respectable British critics at the time liked to pretend didn’t exist.  Thus, you get entries on the gloriously tacky likes of 1982’s Xtro (killer aliens, killer toys, slime, sleaze), 1971’s Revenge (child murders, vigilantism, Joan Collins in her underwear) and 1970’s Groupie Girl (swinging London, drugs, foursomes, decadent rock ‘n’ roll bands with names like Orange Butterfly whose music actually sounds more like “Brotherhood of Man than Led Zeppelin”).




Over the decades, horror movies have formed much of the British film industry’s output.  For coverage of older examples of these, i.e. from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, check out British Horror Films.  Alas, this site has been inactive for a few years and its extensive film-review section has become harder to access, although the following link should get you there:




The site’s creator Chris Wood tackles his subject matter with a fond but faintly mocking tone.  Thus, Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1970) gets the endorsement, “Brush up on ‘O’ Level English and watch some extreme violence at the same time” (which were certainly the reasons why I watched it as a teenager); whereas Nicholas Roeg’s much-praised Don’t Look Now (1973) is brought down a peg or two by the observation, “Couple aim to forget daughter’s drowning by moving to Venice – a city full of water.”


© British Lion Films


For modern British horror movies – products of a boom that began in the late 1990s and continues to the present, helped immeasurably by indie filmmakers churning out movies that bypass the cinema-screen and reach an audience via DVD and Video on Demand – look no further than the blog M.J. Simpson: Film Reviews and Interviews.




I don’t agree with all of M.J. Simpson’s opinions – there’s a hint of reverse-snobbery that makes him uncomfortable with anything mainstream, big-budget, critically-acclaimed or directed by Ben Wheatley – but I admire his courage, strength and indefatigability when it comes to reviewing just about everything that appears, no matter how obscure, cheap, nasty or bizarre.  We’re talking items like Devil Dog Shuck Returns (2016), Killer/Saurus (2015), Fluid Boy (2015) and Where Seagulls Cry a Song (2010).  Never heard of those?  Don’t worry, neither had I.  With his ‘someone made it, so someone ought to watch it’ ethic, Simpson is to modern British horror films what the late John Peel was to alternative music, and there’s no higher compliment than that.


© 88 Films


Now from Britain to Italy, home to two of my favourite movie sub-genres.  If you admire the way the Italians reinvented the western, that most American of film-forms, in the 1960s – introducing squinty-eyed heroes, bearded villains, monosyllabic dialogue, shonky dubbing, operatic violence, Catholicism, cigar butts, ponchos, twangy musical scores and the landscapes of Andalusia and Lazio pretending to be the US / Mexican border – then The Spaghetti Western Database is for you.




I don’t know how many films’ details are stored here, but there are a lot; running from 1910 to 2009, with an obvious glut around the glory years of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Productions are listed not just from Italy but also from Spain, Germany, France and Turkey.  British-made Westerns don’t count as spaghetti westerns, though, so there’s no mention of Carry On Cowboy (1965).


The Giallo Files, on the other hand, is an invaluable guide to the Italian horror / thriller form known as giallo – Italian for ‘yellow’, after the colour of the pulp crime paperbacks that were once popular in the country.  The site helpfully defines what constitutes a giallo, narrowing it down to four essentials: being European, being stylish, having (preferably multiple) murders and being mysterious.  “In a giallo, the killer may be a deranged psycho with or without a motive, but his identity is kept a mystery until the end of the movie.” 




There’s also a helpful checklist of things common to giallo movies: ‘murders’, ‘attempted murders’, ‘fake murders’, ‘inept police’, ‘main character in a creative profession’, ‘scene in a cemetery’, ‘bad 1970s art’ (“Apartment and houses in gialli are usually decorated with awful, amateurish abstract art”), ‘spiral staircase’ (“Maybe they symbolise the twisting plot…  Maybe they’re just cool”), ‘red phone’ (“I don’t know why this is a thing but it is”) and J & B Whisky (“The drink of choice for giallo characters”).


Back to horror films now.  A general site about scary cinema that I like is Brutal as Hell which, despite its in-your-face title, manages to be intelligent, thoughtful and balanced.  It tries to review new releases, no matter how gruelling they are, with an open mind; whilst treating old movies (which are usually reviewed when they come out on Blu-ray) with respect and affection.   Mind you, from what I can tell about the site’s contributors, they’re all young enough to qualify as being my offspring.  And when they grumble, occasionally, about the undemanding horror-movie tastes of ‘kids today’, I feel really old.




© Kadokawa Pictures


And finally, my favourite movie website at the moment.  To get to Breakfast in the Ruins you first have to navigate a Content Warning by Google, which is nonsensical.  You’ll see the odd bare boob or splash of blood there (usually from some 1970s schlock-fest that’s tame by today’s standards); but I’ve viewed far worse on more mainstream movie websites. 




A skim down the site’s sidebar shows what sort of films are featured heavily.  For instance, you get German krimi movies, 1960s crime thrillers based on or inspired by the writings of Edgar Wallace.  You get Japanese pinky violence movies, 1970s action films emphasising sex as well as violence but with tough female characters.  You get Japanese movies about Zatoichi, the fictional blind swordsman who made his first cinematic appearance in 1962.  You get movies from the Spanish director Jess Franco, who made all sorts of weird and wonderful (and admittedly sometimes terrible) stuff at an industrial rate.  You get movies from the French director Jean Rollin, who, though his filmography contains about 60 titles, was only a fraction as prolific as Franco.


This eclecticism and internationalism are what make the site so enjoyable.  I check it practically every day in the hope that something new and fascinating has been posted.


The other ‘N’ word


(c) Hat Trick Productions / Channel 4


When, near the end of last week’s Scottish National Party conference, party leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced her intention to open a new Scottish trade base in Berlin and so strengthen Scotland’s ties with the European Union, I had a depressing thought. 


“Who,” I wondered, “will be first to make a reference to the Nazis?”


You see, Berlin is the capital of Germany.  And Germany is where the Nazis used to live.  Meanwhile, many anti-Scottish independence, pro-United Kingdom posters on social media would have you believe that the Scottish National Party is where the Nazis live now.


That might seem a bit harsh on the SNP, considering that lately Nicola Sturgeon has gone out of her way to stress her party’s inclusiveness and promote a vision of Scotland that is welcoming to refugees and “progressive, open, outward-looking”.  This was in contrast to the recent Conservative Party conference, at which some shockingly xenophobic rhetoric was spouted – none worse than when UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd promised to get British firms to publish lists of their non-British employees.  (A promise, incidentally, that was dropped after the backlash it provoked.)


But the SNP, its detractors claim, wants Scotland to be independent of the United Kingdom, which means it doesn’t like English people, which makes it racist.  And if you’ve read your history books, you’ll know that racism was one of the Nazis’ main hobbies.


In fact, the first person I saw make that Nazi reference was Mike Elrick, who at various times was an advisor to the late Labour Party leader John Smith, to the former Labour cabinet minister Dr John Reid and to the former Scottish Labour Party leader Wendy Alexander.  “To think,” he tweeted two days ago, “75 years ago some Nats were looking forward to permanent trade representation in Berlin too.”


I was surprised to read this comment because only a week earlier Mike Elrick had lambasted the SNP MP Mhairi Black for making another Nazi analogy.  Black had described the mood of the aforementioned Conservative Party conference as being “reminiscent of early 1930s Germany.”  At the time Elrick tweeted indignantly: “MP Mhairi Black thinks Tory policies like Nazis.  Insulting, pathetic, juvenile and just plain wrong on every account.”  Obviously, getting one over on your political opponents overrides taking a principled stand on an issue.


(For the record, I should say that I knew Mike Elrick slightly, through a mutual acquaintance, while I lived in London in the early 1990s.  We had several furious arguments but overall I thought we were on reasonably friendly terms – at least, when we were talking about films and music and not talking about politics.  He may not have felt the same way about me, though.)


But then, in turn, Mhairi Black has had the ‘N’ word directed at her.  In February 2015, before she became an MP, she was described in a tweet as “the wee Nazi candidate in Paisley” by Ian Smart, a lawyer, blogger, political pundit and staunch supporter Labour Party supporter.  Smart has also called the SNP ‘racist’, ‘fascists’ and ‘fascist scum’ on Twitter.  A year-and-a-half before 2014’s referendum on Scottish independence he even tweeted: “Better 100 years of Tory rule than the turn on the Poles and the Pakis that would follow independence failing to deliver.”


Well, in 2014, the Scots voted to stay in the UK, which now looks like it will be ruled by the Tories for a hundred years, especially as Smart’s Labour Party is such a dire shambles.  So the Poles will be relieved about that.  It meant that nobody turned on them.  Oh…  Oh wait.






(c) Scottish Political Archive


Fuelling much of Elrick and Smart’s SNP / Nazis invective is the historical case of Arthur Donaldson, who joined the Scottish National Party in 1934 and led it from 1960 to 1969.  In May 1941, Donaldson was arrested and imprisoned for six weeks for activities subversive to Britain’s war effort – he argued for Scottish neutrality and opposed conscription.  More seriously, an MI5 informant alleged that Donaldson had been earmarked by Nazi Germany to be head of a puppet Scottish government once it’d invaded and conquered the UK.  Also, MI5 claimed that it’d unearthed a cache of weapons at Donaldson’s home.


His Wikipedia entry notes that “Donaldson was never charged, and no evidence for the MI5 allegations has ever been produced.”  Nonetheless, many of the SNP’s detractors still cry: “Their former leader was in cahoots with the Nazis!  He was a Nazi!  So all SNP supporters are Nazis now!”


Well, I certainly think Donaldson was stupidly naïve in not, for the sake of the common good, setting aside his political principles and joining the struggle against Hitler.  But if Donaldson really had been conspiring with the Germans and hiding weapons at his house, wouldn’t the authorities have kept him banged up for an awful lot longer than six weeks?  Actually, wouldn’t they have hung him for treason?


The way Donaldson is still talked about contrasts with the case of Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay, whom I’ve written about before on this blog.  He was MP for the Scottish town I’m from, Peebles, when it was part of the Peebles and Southern Midlothian constituency.  He stood for the Scottish Unionist Party, which was associated with but not properly a part of the Conservative Party in England and Wales.  (In 1965 it became a regional branch of the Britain-wide Conservative Party.)  During the late 1930s Ramsay was a leading light in various extreme right-wing, anti-Jewish organisations like the United Christian Front, the Nordic League and the Right Club.  In May 1940 he was arrested under an emergency statute and he spent the next four years in Brixton Prison alongside other potential pro-Nazi subversives like Oswald Mosley, founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists.




You never hear much about Ramsay these days – certainly not in Peebles, where local historians seem to suffer collective amnesia regarding their town’s old wartime MP.  But if you’re going to formulate the equation Arthur Donaldson + Nazis = SNP are Nazis now, you could equally formulate the equation Archibald Maule Ramsay + Nazis = Tories are Nazis now.  Actually, you could do something similar with Ramsay’s fellow inmate at Brixton Prison, Oswald Mosley, who prior to leading Britain’s fascists was a Labour MP.  Indeed, by the late 1920s, he was a minister in Ramsay MacDonald’s cabinet.  So there you go: Oswald Mosley + Fascists = Labour Party are Fascists now.


I’m sure the SNP has attracted its share of bigots over the decades – Scots who genuinely do hate the English and fantasists who believe in the racial superiority of the Celts.  But then again, nutters occasionally find their way into the ranks of every political party.  And there are other things I could mention in response to the modern-day SNP being called Nazis.  Like the fact that extreme right-wing organisations such as the National Front, the British National Party and the English and Scottish Defence Leagues lined up against the SNP and alongside the Labour and Conservative Parties in their opposition to Scottish independence in 2014.


(c) Daily Mirror


Or the fact that the day after the Scottish-independence referendum, independence-supporters in Glasgow’s George Square were attacked by a crowd of ‘no’ supporters who, to quote the Guardian, were “draped in Union flags… chanting the words to Rule Britannia.  Some shouted loyalist slogans and racist abuse, and appeared to make Nazi salutes.”  Even the Daily Mail – the Daily Mail! – described them as “Nazi-saluting thugs.”


Or the fact that the modern-day Labour Party has been caught in a shit-storm of accusations about that most Nazi-ish of activities, anti-Semitism.  No doubt the likes of Mike Elrick and Ian Smart would retort angrily that this was due to crass remarks made by people on the left wing of the party, such as Ken Livingstone and Jackie Walker, who certainly don’t represent their Labour Party.  But hey, surely the distance between them and Livingstone and Walker is no greater than the distance between Nicola Sturgeon and Arthur Donaldson, who’d stepped down as SNP leader before Sturgeon was even born.


But maybe it’s simply worth recalling Godwin’s law, the observation made by US attorney and author Mike Godwin that “(a)s an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler approaches 1”; i.e. in any argument, sooner or later, someone will liken his or her opponents to the gang running the Third Reich.  Which obviously demeans the memory of the millions of people who were victims of that Third Reich.


Political discourse in Scotland would be a lot saner and more edifying if commentators, politicians and social-media posters were just banned from using the ‘N’ word and from making ‘N’ analogies.  I say that not just about Mike Elrick and Ian Smart on the Labour Party side but also Mairi Black on the SNP side – I thought the Conservative Party conference was pretty revolting, but nobody there was proposing the Final Solution.


Mind you, if the people you’re arguing with really are wearing swastikas (and caps with skulls on them)…  By all means, go ahead and call them Nazis.


From matthewjamesbloggs.wordpress.com 


Deep in the heart of Texas: Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum



This may look like a sedate and unremarkable, if pretty, house in a leafy neighbourhood in the Texan city of San Antonio.  However, two features suggest there might be more to it than initially meets the eye.  One is a hand-painted sign half-hidden in the foliage outside, announcing the existence of a museum.  The other hints at something stranger – a toilet bowl and cistern parked in its back garden, used as a big porcelain plant-pot, green blades poking out over the bowl’s rim.



In fact, this is the home of San Antonio’s Toilet Seat Art Museum, created and run by the wonderful Barney Smith who, when a couple of friends and myself visited him a while ago, was 94 years young.  He keeps his museum-collection in a corrugated iron garage.  It’s a big collection and he has a small garage, but Barney has managed to cram the former into the latter in Tardis-like fashion.  


When we telephoned him to say we’d arrived – we’d made an appointment to view the museum a few days earlier – Barney crossed his back garden with the aid of a Zimmer frame, unlocked the big garage door, swung it back and propped it with a stob.  And then it seemed that Aladdin’s Cave had opened, an Aladdin’s Cave of toilet seats.



Now I should clarify something.  This is not a museum of toilet seats per se, not one of antique toilet seats, or exotic toilet seats, or unusual toilet seats.  What Barney has done over many years is take a huge number of toilet seats, or more precisely, toilet-seat lids, and decorate them according to different themes.  The theme might be a country, city or state, or a profession, or an organisation, or a special occasion, or a newsworthy event.  And he works on each seat with the artistry of a medieval craftsman engraving, gilding, inlaying, embossing and enameling the front of a medieval shield.



At the time of our visit, he mentioned that he was currently working on six new toilet seats to add to his collection.  I can’t quite remember how many seats he said he’d already completed, though for some reason the number ‘1172’ is lodged in my memory.


The interior of the garage is absolutely dense with the things: lining the walls, propped along the floor, dangling from the roof, suspended along rails in tightly-packed rows.  Entering it is like venturing into a congested pocket of rainforest, one where the leaves are all big, solid and shaped like loo-covers.  When he leads his visitors inside, such is the clutter that Barney has to swap his Zimmer frame for a walking stick, which handily doubles as a pointer when he’s indicating the more notable items in his collection.



Despite the sheer number of exhibits, each one seems to have its own identity – largely due to the bewildering range of bric-a-brac Barney has used in decorating them.  I saw seats adorned with action figures, badges, baubles, beads, buttons, cards, car number-plates, CDs, chains, cell-phones, cocktail sticks, coins, corkscrews, computer keyboards, coral, crosses, dolls, electronic circuitry, feathers, keyrings, keys, Lego, marbles, medallions, medals, miniature flags, neckties, notes of money, pebbles, penknives, pennants, photographs, rocks, rosettes, scent bottles, sections of plumbing, sew-on patches, shells, smokers’ pipes, spectacles, stained glass, stationery, stones, surgical instruments, taps, toy cars, toy trains and watches.


Barney is also an accomplished artist and calligrapher and many of the seats, in part or in their entirety, are emblazoned with his drawings and / or inscribed with his handwriting.  Indeed, such is the aesthetic effect that you soon forget that what you’re looking at are, essentially, the top parts of latrines.



About the only exhibit I remember seeing that had a connection with an actual toilet was one bearing a souvenir that a visitor, an American soldier back from service in Iraq, had given Barney one day: a chunk of porcelain allegedly salvaged from the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s personal ‘khazi’.


In his time Barney has worked as a plumber, electrician and fireman.  Looking at the exhibits here, and thinking of the many skills that were necessary in fashioning them, I’m sure there are a dozen other professions he could’ve successfully turned his hand to.  He’s also a bit of a publicity hound – clearly, he keeps an eye open for any opportunity to promote himself and the museum.  Thus, the garage comes equipped with a television set and an old VCR, on which he plays footage of his appearances on TV over the years, on programmes like the Tonight Show, Offbeat America and the BBC’s All Over the Place.  As a thank-you for the coverage, those shows have been honoured with their own toilet seats in the collection.



While I didn’t go to the Toilet Seat Art Museum with the intention of scoffing, I expected to have a good chuckle about it.  Where I come from, at least, toilets are supposed to be funny – hence the expression, ‘toilet humour’.  Yet I went away feeling impressed and oddly inspired.  This was partly because of the time spent in Barney Smith’s company.  Despite his advanced years he seemed as alert, vivacious and energetic as a man a third of his age.  Why, the following week, he told us, he was planning to pop up to Tennessee and visit Dollywood, the theme park devoted to the mighty Ms Dolly Parton.



And the sheer variety of things displayed in his garage made me admire his curiosity and enthusiasm for the whole rich tapestry of life.  I particularly admired the way his work showed respect for and gratitude towards those many groups of citizens who keep society ticking over and glued together – all those many professions, services, institutions, associations, sports clubs, social clubs, faith groups, youth groups and so on.  You name them, he’s got a toilet seat dedicated to them.



Tellingly, at a time when the bile, bombast and general ghastliness of the Trump-Clinton race for the presidency have acted as the worst possible advertisement for America, it strikes me that Barney and his eccentric but charming little museum are an advertisement for the very opposite, for America at its best.  Both the man and his creations seem to embody the virtues of a nobler America, virtues such as neighbourliness, civility, loyalty, positivity and all-round decency.



Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 8



For the two-and-a-half years that I’ve been in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, an invasion has been taking place.  I think of it as the Invasion of the Pink Pavements.


This has not been a quiet, surreptitious, barely noticeable invasion as in Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers, which was filmed four times beginning with Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1956.  No, it’s been a full-on, noisy, destructive invasion, like the one conducted by the Martians in H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, filmed most recently by Steven Spielberg in 2005.  For a long time I watched it rage in the busy coastal neighbourhoods south of central Colombo, in Kollupitya, Bambalapitiya and Wellawatta, along two of the main traffic arteries there, Galle Road and Duplication Road.  New pavements were being installed at the sides of those roads, but what’d been there before seemed to put up a hell of a fight against them.  As I wrote in my notebook in the autumn of 2014:


“The objective seems to be, eventually, to replace all the old pavements with new, smart, corporate ones consisting of neat, level surfaces with small, pink bricks organised in geometrical patterns.  And in places, segments of new pavement have appeared; but they’re like small islands of sanity amid the chaos and carnage of yawning holes and trenches, former holes and trenches that’ve been unevenly filled in, hillocks of excavated earth, trucks, JCBs, noise, dust, guys working with shovels, guys idling and leaning on shovels, warning signs, barriers, barricades, milling pedestrians, awkwardly-manoeuvring three-wheelers and confused street-dogs.”


And yet, somehow, suddenly, the work ended and the new pavements were complete.  As I said, they’re composed of small pink bricks, though with occasional zigzags of grey brick woven into them.  They also have yellow seams of grooved or studded tactile paving running through them, to help the visually impaired.


I wonder if the unexpectedly quick and efficient manner with which the job was finished had something to do with the presidential election held in Sri Lanka in January 2015.  I’ve been in enough places to know that, with an election pending, public construction projects that’ve messily meandered on for years suddenly buck up and get completed in a rush.


However, the third main artery in this area of Colombo had been largely untouched by the pink pavements.  Marine Drive runs parallel with Galle Road and Duplication Road and, as its name suggests, follows the coast of the Laccadive Sea.  It’s not quite on the shoreline, as there’s a coastal railway track between them.  Until recently, a pavement existed on the northern stretch of Marine Drive between Kollupitiya and Bambalapitiya Stations; but for the whole way down from Bambalapitya Station to the drive’s end at the southern edge of Wellawatta, pedestrians had to trudge along a dusty, earthen roadside.



However, Marine Drive, which goes past the bottom of my street, experienced a transformation this summer.  I returned from a holiday and hey presto!  I discovered that a new pink pavement had planted itself on the drive’s hitherto-bare seaward side.


I suppose this was unsurprising.  The past few years have seen the once-shabby drive get a dose of gentrification and it’s had fancy new arrivals like the OZO Hotel and the neighbouring NDB Bank building.  No doubt some better-heeled Colombo-ites are walking on it these days and they don’t appreciate getting dirt on their shoes, having their elbows brushed by too-close-to-the-side traffic and having to avoid smelly, open roadside drains.



The new pavement also allows you to properly pause, look out from the shore and admire the sea.  Previously, if you didn’t want vehicles honking at your back, you had to clamber into the middle of the railway tracks to do this.



You can also stop and study the interesting new safety signs that the Sri Lankan railway authorities have erected alongside the train-tracks.  Check out the poor guy in the picture in this sign’s top right-hand corner – actually, it looks like it was designed by the late Herschell Gordon Lewis, the subject of this blog two entries ago.



But this doesn’t mean that pedestrians can navigate all of Marine Drive by pavement now.  A kilometre’s gap still exists immediately south of Bambalapitya Station.  Though the new length of pavement runs up through Wellawatta and part of Bambalapitya, it suddenly stops dead in front of the Westeern Hotel.  There it gives way to a muddle of excavation work.



Coincidentally, the pavement’s current end-point, the Westeern Hotel, is home to Harry’s Bar, which is one of my favourite spit-and-sawdust pubs in Colombo.  So for now it feels like the city authorities have installed a pathway for me personally, so that I can walk with ease to the door of a treasured drinking hole and back.



Make-your-mind-up time


From leftfootforward.org


“What is the basis for removing our EU citizenship?  Voting yes.”  So warned a tweet on September 2nd, 2014, a fortnight before the Scottish electorate voted on whether or not their country should become independent of the United Kingdom, sent by the anti-independence, pro-UK campaign group Better Together.


Better Together wasn’t the only entity to try to frighten Scots who might be thinking of voting for independence with the prospect of a newly-independent Scotland getting kicked out of the European Union.  Plenty of pro-British newspapers were happy to splash big scary headlines across their front pages every time a senior EU official – such as then European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso – hinted darkly about the Scots losing their EU membership if they opted to shed their UK one.


Well, the Scots duly did what the British establishment urged them to do.  They voted to stay in the UK by a majority of 55% to 45%.  Which also preserved their status as citizens of the European Union.  Right?  Wrong of course.  Less than two years later, by a narrow majority, the British electorate followed the advice of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and sundry other right-wing nincompoops and voted for Brexit, i.e. leaving the EU.


Actually, nearly two-thirds of the turn-out in Scotland was in favour of remaining.  But the Scots are heavily outnumbered by the more Brexit-enthused English and so they’ve ended up being dragged out of the EU against their will.  What they were told two years earlier about staying in the UK in order to stay in the EU too has proved to be so much flannel.


Predictably, the same right-wing newspapers who played up the threat of an independent Scotland getting booted out of the EU were among the noisiest campaigners for a ‘leave’ vote in the run-up to this June’s EU referendum.  And they’ve been in seventh heaven since their side pipped it, enraptured by a vision of a future Britain free of EU labour, environmental and financial regulations (and free of ghastly, smelly foreigners): a vision of Britain as Airstrip One, Sweatshop Two and Tax Haven Three.


For a telling insight into the mind of the British right-wing press regarding Brexit, you should look at a video released by the Daily Telegraph on September 30th called 100 Reasons Why Brexit was a Good Thing.  To the strains of William Blake and Sir Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem, that paean to England’s (not Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland’s) ‘green and pleasant land’, it reels off such heart-warming reasons for leaving Europe as NO CLINICAL TRIALS RED TAPE, END WORKING TIME DIRECTIVE and NO EU HUMAN RIGHTS LAW.  Yes, Britons should give thanks that they’ve been freed from such horrible injustices as new drugs getting stringent safety checks, employers being restrained from working their employees into the ground and – shudder! – human rights.


Meanwhile, if the environment-related reasons for which the Telegraph is applauding Brexit come to pass – NO MORE WIND FARMS, NO EU LANDFILL RULES, PROPER WEEDKILLER, FEWER CHEMICALS RESTRICTIONS, OLD FASHIONED LIGHT BULBS and DROP GREEN TARGETS – it’s debatable for how much longer England’s, and indeed Britain’s, green and pleasant land will actually be green and pleasant.




This past weekend, at the beginning of the 2016 Conservative Party conference, those newspapers had a collective right-wing orgasm when Prime Minister Theresa May vowed to trigger Article 50, the clause necessary for starting the Brexit process, by the end of March 2017.  A typical reaction was that of Margaret Thatcher’s old hatchet-man Norman Tebbit (now looking more than ever like Mr Barlow, the chief vampire in the 1979 TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot), who gushed about it in a Sunday Telegraph article headed REJOICE, FOR THERESA MAY HAS STARTED THE AVALANCHE WHICH WILL SET BRITAIN FREE.


From thesteepletimes.com


One of the first things May did on becoming prime minister after Brexit and the resignation of her predecessor, the pig-penetrating David Cameron, was to visit Scotland, meet with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and assure her that she wanted “the Scottish government to be fully engaged in our discussions and our considerations” and would “listen to any options that they bring forward.”  Her comments about the Scottish government at the Tory Party conference have been slightly different in tone: “There is no opt-out from Brexit and I will never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious union of the four nations of our United Kingdom.”  Which is rich coming from someone heading a party of divisive British nationalists who’ve undermined the union of the 28 nations of the EU.


The past months have been uncomfortable for those Scots who voted ‘no’ to independence in 2014 but voted ‘remain’ in this year’s EU referendum.  “But,” they protest, “we want to be Scottish, and British, and European!”  For example, Scottish Labour Party leader Keiza Dugdale told the Guardian on July 11th: “We just don’t know whether Scotland can remain part of Europe and part of the United Kingdom.  I, like the vast majority of Scots, want to be part of both.  That’s what I want to fight for.”  To Dugdale, 55% apparently counts as a ‘vast majority’.


Then there’s the columnist, broadcaster and author Muriel Gray, who tweeted on June 29th: “So Scots who don’t want tribalism.  Want to remain part of everything: UK, EU, libertarian world, humanity in general.  Who’s their champion?”  Her fellow author Irvine Welsh nailed it when he tweeted back, “Santa Claus.”


Well, I sympathise with anyone wishing to be Scottish, British and European.  Even though I supported Scottish independence in 2014, I still feel British myself, at least in the way people in a politically independent Sweden or Norway can still have a cultural and geographical affinity with the larger entity of ‘Scandinavia’.  And I can understand their dismay at what happened on June 24th, even though they’d allowed themselves to be sold a pup about the EU two years earlier.


But now they can’t have it both ways.  With a second referendum on Scottish independence looking likely, they’ll soon have to decide between the ‘British’ bit and the ‘European’ bit.  This is especially so given the sympathetic noises Europe has made towards Scotland since the EU vote.  For instance, former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, appointed as the European Parliament’s lead negotiator in the forthcoming Brexit talks, has said: “If Scotland decides to leave the UK, to be an independent state, and they decide to be part of the EU, I think there is no big obstacle to that.”  Incidentally, the odious and hysterical wee right-wing tabloid the Daily Express has dubbed Verhofstadt ‘the most dangerous man in the EU.’  Its odious and hysterical wee right-wing Siamese twin the Daily Mail had previously dubbed Nicola Sturgeon ‘the most dangerous woman in Britain’, so it all has a nice symmetry.


Like it or not, Keiza Dugdale, Muriel Gray and co. will soon have to decide between sticking with an increasingly insular, increasingly stunted Britain where, with Jeremy Corbyn’s British Labour Party tearing itself to pieces, the Conservatives look likely to reign in perpetuity and the political and cultural agenda will be set by the likes of the Daily Telegraph, Express and Mail; and taking a deep breath, going for the Scottish independence option and being part of something new and hopefully better.


Yes, folks, it’s make-your-mind-up time.


(c) BBC


The Godfather of Gore is no more


From www.denofgeek.com


I didn’t particularly care for the films of American director and producer Herschell Gordon Lewis, who was nicknamed ‘the Godfather of Gore’ and who passed away on September 26th.  That said, I certainly liked the idea of Lewis.


Lewis’s exploitation movies spanned a variety of genres – softcore erotica (usually set in nudist colonies and including the likes of 1963’s Goldilocks and the Three Bares), comedies, children’s movies and at least  one feminist biker flick, 1968’s splendidly titled She-Devils on Wheels.  However, it’s for his horror films that he’ll be remembered, and for the simple but at the time innovative approach that he brought to the horror-film genre.  He made the first horror movies that were truly horrible, i.e. loaded with bloodletting, dismemberment, disembowelment, scalping, eye-gouging, tongue-ripping and so on: Blood Feast (1963), 2000 Maniacs (1964), Colour Me Blood Red (1965), Taste of Blood (1967), The Gruesome Twosome (1967), The Wizard of Gore (1970) and The Gore Gore Girls (1972).


Not unexpectedly, Lewis’s approach did not go down well with mainstream movie critics – “Thoroughly revolting Z-grade garbage” was a typical assessment of Blood Feast – and his horror films were hardly the stuff that mainstream movie audiences flocked to.  But they still packed enough folk into America’s drive-ins for them to turn a tidy profit and, over the years, he found a number of admirers among left-field film fans, filmmakers and commentators.


Needless to say, his work didn’t make its way to Britain anytime soon.  I remember reading about Blood Feast and 2000 Maniacs in film books and magazines when I was a kid and thinking, “Wow, these must be the most hideous and terrifying films ever made!”  But at the same time I knew the chances of me seeing them in the censorious UK were non-existent.  The chances became less than non-existent during the 1980s when politicians, tabloid newspapers and moral campaigners worked themselves into a lather over the ‘video nasties’ scare.


In fact, it wasn’t until the end of the 1980s that I finally laid eyes on some footage from his movies.  This was courtesy of Jonathan Ross’s offbeat TV series The Incredibly Strange Film Show, which devoted a whole episode to Lewis.


© The Jacqueline Kay Inc. / Friedman-Lewis Productions 


How different it is today.  We live in an era when Britain’s Horror Channel – available for all to watch on Freeview – airs Herschell Gordon Lewis double-bills regularly and quite a few of his movies are up on the Internet.  And with modern films featuring high-tech animatronic and computer-generated effects, Lewis’s movie gore – basically all the offal he could find at the local butcher’s shop and lots of bright red paint – looks so primitive it almost has a retro charm.


Blood Feast was the film that made Lewis’s name and it remains his most famous, or infamous, effort.  I have to say it’s a very bad film.  The acting is atrocious, the budget is visibly tiny and the general level of professionalism is not much higher than Ed Wood standards.  And yet…  It might be one of the worst films I’ve seen, but I’ve never been able to forget it.  Somehow, it still creeps me out.  Maybe it’s the stark, single-minded way it goes about its bloody business – something reinforced by the score, a slow, thudding, doom-laden thing that’s little more than a funereal drumbeat.  It’s so minimalist it makes the synth scores that John Carpenter did for his movies sound like Vivaldi.


Among the rest of Lewis’s oeuvre, I’ll admit to liking (a little bit) 2000 Maniacs, possibly because it’s an insolent remake of Brigadoon, the cheesy 1954 MGM musical about a phantom Scottish Highland village that appears out of the mist for one day every century.  But while the village in Brigadoon appears so that Gene Kelly and Van Johnson can use it as a backdrop for song-and-dance numbers like The Heather on the Hill and I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean, the phantom village in 2000 Maniacs has a darker purpose.  It’s a southern USA village whose inhabitants were slaughtered by Northern forces during the Civil War and now, as ghosts, they reappear every so often to take bloody revenge on any hapless Yankee travellers who come their way.  As a commentary on the horrors of the Civil War, it’s hardly in the class of, say, the fiction of Ambrose Bierce; but in its crude, tacky way it’s effective.


I also have to confess to liking, again a little bit, 1970’s The Wizard of Gore, which is about a stage magician who uses power tools to perform mind-bogglingly gruesome tricks on volunteers from the audience.  When the tricks are over, the volunteers seem to be alive, well and in one piece.  But later, after the show, they revert to the grisly state they were in onstage and, obviously, die.  Again, it’s cheap and ineptly made, but the film has a weirdness that’s difficult to forget.  The Wizard of Gore also won Lewis one of his very few acknowledgements from mainstream cinema.  In 2007’s acclaimed comedy-drama Juno, Jason Bateman’s music / comic-book / movie nerd convinces Ellen Page’s Juno that The Wizard of Gore is a better horror movie than Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977).  I have to say that if they honestly believe Lewis’s schlocky little opus to be superior to Argento’s masterpiece, Bateman and Page must be really thick.


© Mayflower Pictures


What I love about Lewis, though, is that in the early 1970s he packed in filmmaking and turned to something very different – advertising!  He established himself as a guru on the subject and made a fortune writing books about it, including 1974’s The Businessman’s Guide to Advertising and Sales Promotion and 1977’s How to Handle your own Public Relations.  His speciality was direct marketing, the practice of blitzing large numbers of people with word of your product via phone calls, texts, emails, leaflets and so on.  While this usually results in the majority of those people ignoring you or getting pissed off at you, it should hook a sufficient minority of them to make the exercise worthwhile.  In a way, that’s the effect Lewis’s horror movies had on the public too.


So Lewis ended up a very wealthy man – an exemplification of the American Dream.  The fact that he achieved that dream on the back of direct marketing and excessive bloodletting seems odd but, also, appropriately American.


AC / Deceased


From ultimateclassicrockcom


One of the saddest things I’ve seen in recent years is the gradual but relentless demise of the heavy metal band AC/DC.


First of all, in 2014, AC/DC lost its founder member and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young after memory-loss and concentration-loss caused by dementia left him unable to play.  Later that same year, the band parted company with long-time drummer Phil Rudd after he ended up in court on drugs charges and, bizarrely, an allegation of ‘attempting to procure a murder’ (though this was dropped soon after).  And then early in 2016, its cap-wearing gravel-voiced Geordie vocalist Brian Johnson departed due to damaged hearing, although Johnson claimed this was caused less by his fronting one of the world’s loudest bands than by his love of auto-racing.  And finally, a week ago, AC/DC’s veteran bassist Cliff Williams, who’d announced his retirement in July, played his final gig with the band.


It reminds me of one of those Final Destination horror movies, wherein a group of people manage somehow to cheat death.  But then by way of revenge, Death – though in AC/DC’s case it’s plain old Bad Luck – starts to ruthlessly hunt them down one by one.


AC/DC and myself go back a long time together, so seeing the band disintegrate like this feels as painful as seeing a once-strong friend grow old and succumb to infirmity and senility.  Their 1979 album Highway to Hell was among the first albums I ever bought and rarely have the opening chords to an album (and its title track) sounded so much like a statement of intent: DUH-DUH-DUH!  DUH-DUH-DUH!  DUH-DUH-DUH, DUH, DUH-DUH!  Here were an outfit, it seemed, who were seriously determined to blow your arse off with their guitars.  Which was surely what heavy metal – and for that matter, rock and roll itself – was all about.


© Atlantic Records


Around the same time I took it upon myself to throw a party for my school friends at my family’s farmhouse near Peebles, Scotland, one Friday while my parents were away for the evening.  The inevitable happened.  Most of the guests turned up armed not only with copious and illegitimately-purchased bottles and cans of booze but also armed with AC/DC records.  Indeed, it seemed that the AC/DC song Touch Too Much, recently released as a single, wasn’t off the turntable for the entire, chaotic, alcohol-drenched evening.  No wonder that after that the music of AC/DC was indelibly linked in my mind with images of drunken teenage debauchery.


(During the short margin of time between the party ending and my parents returning, I managed to cram all the empty bottles and cans into two big sacks and hide them in the rarely-accessed roof-space of a rarely-used outhouse, where they remained undiscovered for nearly 20 years.  They weren’t found until the late 1990s when my parents had the outhouse converted into a holiday cottage.  After the discovery, the building contractor jokingly asked my Dad if he was a secret drinker.)


Briefly, it looked like I’d discovered the band too late, for in 1980 AC/DC’s original vocalist Bon Scott died a sudden and very rock-and-roll death – heavy-partying-related alcohol poisoning.  The band’s two driving forces, Malcolm Young and his brother and fellow guitarist Angus Young, considered calling it a day at this point.  Instead, though, they recruited Brian Johnson as a replacement and AC/DC rumbled on for a further three-and-a-half decades.  It helped that the band’s first post-Bon Scott album was a cracker – 1980’s Back in Black, featuring such splendid tunes as the title track, You Shook Me All Night Long and the epic Hell’s Bells, which begins with the clanging of a huge church-bell before Johnson starts hollering apocalyptic lines like “Lightning flashing across the sky / You’re only young but you’re gonna die!”  By now I was a senior pupil at Peebles High School and Hell’s Bells never seemed to be off the turntable of the stereo in the senior-school common room.


The nice thing about AC/DC was that they never changed.  No matter what terrible events took place in the world – wars, revolutions, earthquakes, droughts, famines, plagues, Simon Cowell – they just carried on, churning out the same (or very similar) riffs and singing songs about partying, shagging, boozing and having a generally good time.  I tracked down and listened to their back catalogue: albums like 1976’s High Voltage (whose opening track It’s a Long Way to the Top if You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll exposed me to the lethal combination of electric guitars and bagpipes – despite being officially Australian, the Young brothers and Bon Scott had been born in Scotland and liked to honour their Caledonian roots); the same year’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, with its storming title track and the naughty music-hall pastiche Big Balls (whose lyrics included such gems as “Some balls are held for charity / Some balls are held for less / But when they’re held for pleasure / They’re the balls that I like best” – yes, it’s sad that I still remember this stuff); and 1978’s Powerage, which no less a personage than Keith Richards has identified as one of his favourite albums ever.


From teamrock.com


There was a lot of love for AC/DC in the world, though you wouldn’t have thought so reading the music press then.  Writers in 1980s music magazines like the New Musical Express and Melody Maker, if they got around to acknowledging the band’s existence at all, were of the opinion that AC/DC and heavy metal generally represented everything ignorant, crass and embarrassing in modern culture – unlike the two ‘in’ musical genres at the time, punk rock and indie music.  (For the record, I should point out I’m a big fan of punk and indie too.)


This disdain was shared by many people I met when I went to college in the early-1980s, who seemed to be either Smiths fans or Style Council fans or Simple Minds fans.  I remember one early college flatmate, a supercilious type who’d been schooled at the prestigious Glasgow Academy, wandering into my room one day, finding me listening to Highway to Hell, and demanding, “How can you listen to that shit?”


To be honest, AC/DC didn’t help their cause during the 1980s because they released a series of shonky albums that were shadows of their 1970s predecessors: 1983’s Flick of the Switch, 1985’s Fly on the Wall and 1988′s Blow Up Your Video.  In 1986 they also did the music for the dire Stephen King movie Maximum Overdrive, released as an album under the title Who Made Who.  Stephen King is a huge AC/DC fan, by the way.


It wasn’t until 1990 that the band rediscovered their mojo with The Razor’s Edge.  Although it wasn’t great, it served up two of their best songs for a long time, Are You Ready and Thunderstruck.  The latter track is still considered so rousing that, Wikipedia informs me, Atlético Madrid play it on their team coach every time they approach their opponents’ stadium for an away game.


Another reason why the band’s star was back in the ascendant was because those pretentious music critics who’d dissed them in the 1980s had been replaced by a younger generation of critics who, like me, had grown up listening to and loving AC/DC and were happy to give them some praise.  AC/DC had also proved more influential than anyone had predicted – their sound imprinted on the DNA of acts like the Cult, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age and the Beastie Boys.  It’s even said that Back in Black was the first song a 14-year-old Kurt Cobain learned to play on guitar.


Thankfully, the band managed to preserve their reputation through the 1990s and early 21st century with a series of albums that, while not earth-shattering, at least delivered the goods and always yielded a single or two that sounded satisfyingly AC/DC-ish: 1995’s Ballbreaker, 2000’s Stiff Upper Lip, 2008’s Black Ice and 2014’s Rock or Bust, which contained the jolly single Play Ball.  As you may have gathered, the word ‘ball’ has an important place in the AC/DC lexicon.


But sadly, it now looks like it’s almost over for AC/DC.  I say ‘almost’ because since Brian Johnson left the line-up, the band has continued performing with vocals provided by Axl Rose of the legendary Los Angeles metal band Guns n’ Roses; and it’s lately been reported that Angus Young and Axl Rose intend to keep recording and performing under the AC/DC moniker.  Rose’s recruitment was met with dismay by many fans, though I have to say I don’t dislike Axl Rose or Guns n’ Roses.  Indeed, I have their albums Appetite for Destruction (1987), Use Your Illusion I and II (1991) and The Spaghetti Incident (1993) in my record collection.  It’s just that Rose’s tremulous American voice doesn’t sound right singing the AC/DC back catalogue.


And call me superstitious if you like…  But the fact that he debuted with AC/DC confined to a wheelchair, with a broken foot, and looking like a heavy metal version of Doctor Strangelove, doesn’t seem a good omen for the vitality and longevity of this weird new incarnation of the band.


© Metro


No, I can’t help but think of AC/DC now in the past tense.  But I’m sure I’ll be reliving that past in years to come by listening to Highway to Hell, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, Powerage and Back in Black a billion more times.


Deep in the heart of Texas: the Alamo



Originally a Roman Catholic mission, later a military fort and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Alamo is found in the Texan city of San Antonio.  Today much of the site is parkland where long-trunked deciduous trees cast dappled shadows and provide shelter from the unrelenting Texan sun.  The atmosphere there is infinitely pleasanter than it was between February 23rd and March 6th, 1836, when, amid a ruckus of cannonballs, rifle-shot, bayonets, flames, smoke and blood, a hundred Texan defenders held out against a besieging Mexican force of 1500.  The siege ended with the deaths of the Texans – who were then known as ‘Texians’ and whose number included such personages as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis – but it had an important legacy, inspiring many to join the Texian army and hasten the success of the Texas Revolution and the formation of the Republic of Texas.    



The few buildings there, such as the chapel and barracks, seem to be kept in pristine condition.  But I have to admit that on the day I was there, I made a mistake common among many visitors.


What happened was, I wandered into the Alamo gift shop, housed in a historical-looking building that, according to www.thealamo.org, was “built in 1937 as one of nine Texas Centennial Museums honouring the hundredth anniversary of Texas independence.  Dedicated in 1938 the Alamo Museum held historical artefacts until the Daughters of the Republic of Texas decided to also use the space to sell souvenirs in order to raise money for care of the mission.”  And as the website notes, this building is “often mistaken as part of the original Alamo compound.”  That’s certainly what I thought.  I went into the eighty-year-old gift-shop building and assumed I was somewhere that’d seen heavy-duty action back in 1836.



Confronting me at the entrance was a sign that urged me to “shop and support”, in order to “preserve the Alamo and its legacy for future generations”.  Fair enough, I thought, but it seemed a bit tough that such stout-hearted defenders of Texan, or Texian, liberty as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis had to depend on hard-core capitalist retailing for the memory of their sacrifice, and the scene of it, to survive into the 21st century.


As I wandered among the wares on sale inside – flags, T-shirts, Davy Crockett-style raccoonskin hats, cuddly-toy eagles, lots of things emblazoned with the defiant old Texian slogan ‘Come and take it’ (which, when you think about it, is actually what the Mexicans did) – I still mistakenly believed that the building containing this shop had existed during the 1836 siege and Texians and Mexicans had really died here.  I got a bit cynical about it.  I found myself thinking sourly: “Here’s where William Travis went down, bravely battling to prevent the Mexicans from taking the Alamo’s supplies of fried-egg shapers…  And here’s where Davy Crockett heroically gave his life whilst holding off the Mexicans from the Alamo’s stock of hoodies…  And over here is where Jim Bowie was bayonetted to death as he tried and failed to stop the Mexicans from getting their hands on those boxes of delicious Alamo fudge.”



Anyway, I later discovered I was wrong.  So while you’re spending money in the Alamo gift shop, don’t feel you’re desecrating a site of the fallen.  The only thing that fell there was the occasional Alamo souvenir, falling off a rack.



In the centre of the shop is big glass case containing a model of the 1836 Alamo and a depiction of the siege with toy soldiers, horses and cannons.  Mind you, the siege is much better represented by a diorama that’s featured in San Antonio’s Briscoe Western Art Museum.  There’s also a selection of Alamo-related DVDs on sale, including films like 2004’s The Alamo with Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric and Patrick Wilson, and 1964’s The Alamo with John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey and Frankie Avalon, and the mid-1950s Disney TV mini-series Davy Crockett with Fess Parker as the raccoonskin-wearing frontiersman.  No sign, though, of the 1969 comedy Viva Max!, in which a rogue Mexican general played by Peter Ustinov leads a small company of Mexican soldiers into present-day Texas and retakes the Alamo.  The original plan was to shoot some of Viva Max! in the real Alamo but the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, its then caretakers, were so outraged that instead it had to be filmed at a replica Alamo elsewhere.



Outside, the most interesting feature for me – being something of a Japan-o-phile – was an inscribed stone from Japan that commemorated the medieval soldier Suneemon Torii.  He’s sometimes known as the ‘Bonham of Japan’, after James Bonham, an Alamo defender who was sent out to get military aid for the garrison, only to have his requests for help turned down.  Bonham finally returned to the Alamo three days before the culmination of the siege, even though in doing so he doomed himself to the same fate as his comrades.  Suneemon Torii performed a similar feat of heroism / martyrdom at the siege of Nagashino Castle in 1575, which has been dubbed ‘the Alamo of Japan’.


I also saw the name ‘Bonham’ sculpted into one side of a square, stone fountain.  As I walked around the fountain, I saw that three more names were sculpted into its three other sides: “Travis… Crockett… Bowie.”  I have to confess that, as a Led Zeppelin lover, I would have been pleasantly surprised if instead the names had read: “Bonham… Page… Plant… Jones.”


From www.musiclipse.com


Coming up for Orwell


© Penguin Books


A couple of years ago something piqued my curiosity about George Orwell’s lesser known novels and since then I’ve been working my way through them.  I’ve read Burmese Days (1934), Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and most recently Coming Up for Air (1939).  I’ve found them surprisingly good.  The worlds they depict may not be as iconic as those of Orwell’s two post-war triumphs, Manor Farm in Animal Farm (1945) and Airstrip One in 1984 (1949).  But they ooze with as much vivid and sordid detail as the non-fiction books he wrote during the 1930s, which are better remembered today – Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and Homage to Catalonia (1938).  Also, they convey similar frustration and despair, their imaginary characters being as much victims of circumstances as the real characters Orwell encountered whilst travelling and researching his non-fiction.


Coming Up for Air, written on the cusp of World War II, maintains the high standard.  Its narrator is George Bowling, a 45-year-old insurance salesman whose exterior is at odds with his interior.  Superficially, he’s “an active, hearty kind of fat man, the athletic bouncing type that’s nicknamed Fatty or Tubby and is always the life and soul of the party”.  Inside, though, he’s suffering what in modern parlance would be called a mid-life crisis – one coinciding with his acquisition of a new set of dentures, which informs the novel’s opening line: “The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.”


But Bowling’s discontent is fuelled by more than his sense of physical decay.  He’s stuck in a little house in one of the countless streets that “fester all over the inner-outer suburbs”, mortgaged to the hilt by something called the Cheerful Credit Building Society.  “Building societies are probably the cleverest racket of modern times,” he broods.  “My own line, insurance, is a swindle I admit, but it’s an open swindle with the cards on the table.”  He shares the house with two noisy offspring – “Two kids in a home the size of ours is like a quart of beer in a pint mug” – and a shrewish wife called Hilda.  “Butter is going up, and the gas-bill is enormous, and the kids’ boots are wearing out and there’s another instalment due on the radio – that’s Hilda’s litany.”


To escape from this, Bowling immerses himself in the past and the book’s central section has him recounting his life-story, especially his boyhood in an Oxfordshire market town called Lower Binfield, “in a bit of a valley, with a low ripple of hills between itself and the Thames, and higher hills behind.”  Thus, he grew up within a stone’s throw of the countryside and it’s his antics there with his young mates – cycling, swimming, ferreting, stealing birds’ eggs, ice-skating in winter – that he recalls most fondly.


But fishing was his main passion as a boy.  “It’s queer, the feeling I had for fishing – and still have, really.  I can’t call myself a fisherman.  I’ve never in my life caught a fish two feet long, and it’s thirty years now since I had a rod in my hands.  And yet when I look back the whole of my boyhood from eight to fifteen seems to have revolved round the days when we went fishing.”  And the memory that haunts him most of all is of visiting Binfield Manor, an estate overlooking the town, and discovering a pool hidden away behind a dense screen of bushes and tree-boughs.  Populating this pool were some huge carp.  “A pool gets forgotten somehow, nobody fishes in it for years and decades and the fish grow to monstrous sizes.”


The idea Bowling has at the book’s start is to sneak away for a few days – pretending to his unsympathetic wife that he’s making a work-trip.  He’ll return to Lower Binfield for the first time in decades, buy a fishing rod and fish in the secret pool.  The final third of the book describes what Bowling finds when he gets there.  Predictably, things have changed and not for the better.


Orwell’s account of Bowling’s early life in Lower Binfield is engrossing.  By a coincidence, a few months earlier, I’d read Cider with Rosie (1959), Laurie Lee’s memoir of growing up in a Cotswolds village in the 1920s.  It’s fun to compare Lee’s famously lyrical and nostalgic work with Coming Up for Air and the more hard-headed approach Orwell takes in it.  “It’s not like I’m trying to put across any of that poetry of childhood stuff.  I know that’s all baloney…  The truth is that kids aren’t in any way poetic, they’re merely savage little animals, except that no animal is as a quarter as selfish.”  Orwell illustrates this with a few examples, most graphically: “We used to catch toads, ram the nozzle of a bicycle pump up their backsides and blow them up till they burst.  That’s what boys are like.  I don’t know why.”  (To be fair to Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie is darker than it usually gets credit for.  At one point it has the villagers closing ranks and hiding the identity of a murderer.  At another it has a gang of boys plotting to rape a girl in the woods.)


But it’s not just the past that’s on Bowling’s mind.  He’s conscious of the future too, a future that’s ominously symbolised at the beginning of the book by a low-flying bomber he notices from his train-window.  A cataclysmic new war is on its way.  “I can hear the air-raid sirens blowing and the loudspeakers bellowing that our glorious troops have taken a hundred thousand prisoners…” he ruminates.  “I can see it all.  I see the posters and the food-queues, and the castor oil and the rubber truncheons and the machine guns squirting out of bedroom windows.”


Later, he wonders, “what’ll happen to chaps like me when we get Fascism in England? The truth is it probably won’t make the slightest difference… the ordinary middling chaps like me will be carrying on just as usual.  And yet it frightens me – I tell you it frightens me.”  Bowling sees not just war ahead but, riding on its coat-tails, the nightmare of totalitarianism.  Indeed, Coming Up for Air feels at times like a precursor to 1984.  Possibly, in the alternative historical timeline of 1984, Bowling survived to the 1960s, after the atomic wars and Britain’s absorption into the super-state of Oceania.  Though I suspect that he’d have been sensible enough to discard his lower middle-class trappings and disappear into the ranks of the Proles.


Unfortunately, this theme causes Coming Up for Air’s one misstep.  Near the end, Orwell describes a traumatic incident in the new, not-necessarily-improved Lower Binfield, which serves both to highlight again the inevitability of war and to convince Bowling that it’s time to abandon the past and return home.  But the incident feels unlikely and contrived.  For me, it makes the book fall a little short of perfection.


But generally it’s an excellent read.  What’s striking about it today are Orwell’s rueful observations about the injustices of the economic system in pre-World War II Britain.  For instance, Bowling is a prisoner of his mortgage (“we don’t own our houses, even when we’ve finished paying for them.  They’re not freehold, only leasehold”); and he recalls how his father’s seed-shop in Lower Binfield was gradually squeezed out of existence by a bigger, better-resourced rival called Sarazins’ (“the big retail seedsmen who had branches all over the home county”).  Such details sound depressingly familiar.  They’re reminders that cutthroat, laissez-faire capitalism didn’t just begin at the end of the 1970s when neoliberals like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to power.  In this respect, Coming Up for Air feels uncomfortably closer to 2016 than it does to 1984.


And now for A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935)…


© Ralph Steadman / New Statesman 


The view from the bridge



The Bandra-Worli Sea Link – the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link, to give it its official title – is a bridge five-and-a-half kilometres long that connects the busy office district of Worli in southern Mumbai with the more residential district of Bandra in western Mumbai.  I have to say that for much of its length it doesn’t feel like a bridge.


When you go onto it at Worli, you speed straight out across Mahim Bay and it seems bridge-like enough.  But then the thing bends around and the next thing you know, Worli is no longer behind you – it’s actually passing alongside you, on the right.  Thus, the Sea Link feels less like a bridge between Place A and Place B and more like a bypass that helps you avoid the congestion of Place A.  Albeit a bypass that rises out of the sea on giant concrete piles, pillars and pylons.



Four lanes of traffic shuttle in either direction along it, between pairs of huge concrete frames that are wishbone-shaped at one point and look like gymnastics high-bars at another, and between myriad cables that fan down at the sides.  Meanwhile, scrolling past inland from the bridge is the burgeoning cityscape of Mumbai – many of its tallest buildings still under construction so that crane-jibs stick up from their summits like lopsided antennae.



It’s only when you arrive at the toll-booths up at the bridge’s Bandra end that you’re reminded of being in India – a country famous for its overabundance of workers.  When drivers stop beside a booth, they don’t hand the bridge-fare to a guy in the booth.  They hand the fare to a guy next to the booth, who then hands it to the guy in the booth.


Now from a link across the sea to a forest in the sky.  In central Mumbai – where my work had sent me for a three-day training course – I often found myself looking out of the window of the office I was in and looking into the concrete-and-steel skeleton of a new monster-building that was taking shape next door.  This structure, an Indian colleague told me, had already been given a name: the Sky Forest.  For the time being, its wall-less floors were desolate and filthy, strewn with construction-rubble and awash with grey pools of monsoon-water.  But according to my colleague, it was envisioned that one day the Sky Forest would have 18 lower floors housing ‘service staff’ and then, on top of those, many more floors of luxury apartment buildings for Mumbai’s best off.



My response to this information?  “Have you ever read a book,” I asked, “or seen a film, called…  High Rise?”