My name is Amis, Kingsley Amis

 

© Vintage Classics

 

There’s been much talk in recent years about the obsolescence of James Bond.  The thinking goes that as a privileged, white, stuck-up, sexist macho-man rooted in the early decades of the Cold War, Bond has become an embarrassing anachronism in our politically correct, socially aware era today.  Here’s Laurie Penny’s contribution to the debate, for instance, in the New Statesman.

 

Well, forgive me for being sceptical about this line of thought.  For one thing, with the likes of Donald Trump and Brexit dominating political discourse just now, our times are clearly less enlightened than many would like to think.  Which means there are probably millions of unreconstructed souls out there who don’t give two hoots about political correctness and still clutch old snobby, sexist 007 to their bosoms.  For better or for worse, I don’t think Bond is going to disappear off the popular radar for a while yet.

 

Also, modern-day Bond-bashers overlook the fact that the Bond franchise – the movies, anyway – has had fun for a long time already with the idea of its hero being outmoded and anachronistic.  In 1983’s Never Say Never Again, Edward Fox’s M tells Sean Connery’s Bond: “It’s no secret that I hold your methods in much less regard than my illustrious predecessor did.”  Thereafter, he lectures Bond on healthy eating and avoiding free radicals: “They’re toxins that destroy the body and the brain, caused by eating too much red meat and white bread.  Too many dry martinis!”  In 1995’s Goldeneye, another M, Judi Dench, takes Pierce Brosnan’s Bond to task for being ‘a sexist, misogynistic dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War…’  And in 2015’s Spectre, Daniel Craig’s Bond is faced with a new, tech-obsessed superior called C (Andrew Scott), who vows to ‘bring British intelligence out of the dark ages, into the light’, where ‘an agent in the field’ can’t ‘last long against all those drones and satellites.’

 

But however fashionable or unfashionable Bond is these days, nobody can deny that well-regarded authors are still keen to follow in the footsteps of Ian Fleming and have a go at writing new James Bond novels: for example, Sebastian Foulkes (with 2008’s Devil May Care), Jeffery Deaver (with 2011’s Carte Blanche), William Boyd (with 2013’s Solo) and Anthony Horowitz (with 2015’s Trigger Mortis).  And it’s been announced that Horowitz will be unveiling a second Bond novel, Forever and a Day, later this year.

 

Long before Foulkes, Deaver, Boyd and Horowitz got in on the act, though, another writer attempted to construct a novel around Ian Fleming’s legendary creation.  In 1968, just four years after Fleming’s death, Kingsley Amis wrote a Bond adventure called Colonel Sun and published it under the pseudonym Robert Markham.  By then, of course, Amis was a big noise in British letters thanks to works like 1954’s Lucky Jim and 1960’s Take a Girl Like You.  I should say that my 2015 Vintage Classics edition of Colonel Sun makes no mention of Robert Markham on its front cover and advertises it unapologetically as a Kingsley Amis novel.

 

© The Times

 

A few weeks ago, I finally found the time to read Amis’s take on Bond and I thought I’d offer my thoughts on it.  If you haven’t yet read Colonel Sun but intend to, beware – there are spoilers ahead.

 

Set a little while after the events of Fleming’s Bond swansong, The Man with the Golden Gun (1965) (which Amis is rumoured to have polished up when Fleming died before he could revise it himself), Colonel Sun begins with an audacious attempt by some unidentified villains to kidnap both Bond and M.  They’re only half-successful – M is abducted and whisked out of England, but Bond manages to elude his would-be kidnappers and is then tasked with tracking down his boss.  He soon homes in on an island in the Aegean Sea.  There, M is being held by a Chinese officer, ‘Colonel Sun Liang-tan of the Special Activities Committee, People’s Liberation Army’.

 

The dastardly Colonel has hatched a dastardly plan.  The Soviet Union is hosting a secret international conference in the area and Sun plans to destroy it and the delegates in a mortar attack, the blame for which will then be pinned on Britain – Sun intends to make it look like one of the last mortars blew up accidentally, before firing, and leave Bond and M’s dead, but still identifiable, bodies in the wreckage.  Thus, China will benefit from the discrediting not only of the USSR for sloppy security, but also of the UK for warmongering.

 

To rescue M and thwart Sun’s scheme, Bond joins forces with a woman called Ariadne Alexandrou, a Greek communist who’s been working for the Soviets; and a Greek World War II veteran called Niko Litsas who, after fighting Nazis, fought communists during the 1946-49 Greek Civil War.  (Amis discreetly skates over Britain’s sorry role in this episode of Greek history.  In 1944 the British government decided to back the anti-communist faction in Greece against the left-leaning one, even though the former faction contained many former Nazi sympathisers and collaborators and the latter contained many partisans who’d fought for the Allies.)  Despite their ideological differences, the trio bond – ouch! – and are soon prowling the Aegean Sea in a vessel called The Altair whilst figuring a way of taking the fight to Sun and his many henchmen.

 

Amis’s plot is a generic one and a few things don’t make sense.  For example, why does Sun want to plant the elderly and normally deskbound M at the scene of the crime?  (This is the literary M we’re talking about, not the feistier and more empowered cinematic version played by the likes of Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes.)  Wouldn’t it look more believable if the body of another, physically-able British agent was found there next to Bond’s?  It’s hard to see this as anything more than a perfunctory excuse for the novel’s main gimmick, the kidnapping of M.

 

© Bantam Books

 

But Colonel Sun is still good entertainment and it feels more credible as a Bond novel than the other non-Fleming Bonds, like Solo and Trigger Mortis, that I’ve read.  For one thing, unlike the rather bland villains in the Boyd and Horowitz novels, Colonel Sun makes a memorable baddie.

 

Yes, he belongs to a long tradition of Oriental supervillains found in pulpy colonial adventure fiction – the Fu Manchu books being the most famous, and notorious, examples.  He’s not even the first bad guy in the Bond canon to follow this dubious blueprint, an honour that belongs to the titular character of Fleming’s Dr No (1957).  But Sun is splendidly eccentric.  He’s irritatingly polite and addresses friends and foes alike by their first names.  He also sees himself as an Anglophile: “Sun did not share his colleagues’ often-expressed contempt… for everything British.  He was fond of many aspects of their culture and considered it regrettable in some ways that that culture had such a short time left.”

 

Then there’s his troubling penchant for torture.  Near the novel’s end and just before he lays into Bond with an array of kitchen utensils (‘knives, skewers, broom-straws’), he explains: “True sadism has nothing whatever to do with sex.  The intimacy I was referring to is moral and spiritual, the union of two souls in a rather mystical way.”  Later still, he surprises us when he confesses to Bond that “I didn’t feel like a god when I was torturing you back there.  I felt sick and guilty and ashamed.”

 

Admittedly, I could have done without the linguistic quirk that Amis bestows on his villain.  Thanks to his ‘quick ear and passionate desire to learn’ English and a ‘total ignorance of the British dialect pattern’, he’s ended up with a bizarre accent combining the ‘tones of Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, Belfast, Newcastle, Cardiff and several sorts of London…’  As a result, every time that Colonel Sun opens his mouth in the book, I imagine him sounding like Liam Gallagher, Billy Connolly, Ringo Starr, George Best, Jimmy Nail, Charlotte Church and Bob Hoskins fed through a mixing desk.

 

Colonel Sun also feels like a proper Bond novel because Kingsley Amis’s authorial voice doesn’t sound that different from Ian Fleming’s.  Putting it more crudely, it feels closer to the originals than the modern pastiches do because Amis was as much of a curmudgeonly snob as Fleming was.  By the 1960s, Bond’s rarefied world of Bentleys, dinner jackets and private members’ clubs were on their way out; and Amis bellyaches about it as you’d imagine Fleming would.  When Bond drives through some English farmland, he writes: “Places like this would last longest as memorials of what England had once been.  As if to contradict this idea, there appeared ahead of him a B.E.A. Trident newly taken off from London Airport, full of tourists bearing their fish-and-chip culture to the Spanish resorts, to Portugal’s lovely Algarve province, and now… as far as Morocco.”  Also activating Amis’s Licence to Grump is the prospect of the great unwashed discovering the Greek islands.  Describing a waterfront, he observes: “At the near end were whitewashed cottages with blue or tan shutters and doors, then a grocery, a ship’s supplier, harbour offices, a tavérna with a faded green awning.  No neon, no cars, no souvenir shops.  Not yet.”

 

© Eon Productions

 

Still, some aspects of Colonel Sun are surprisingly liberal, considering that Amis was well-known for his cranky right-wing politics.  Ariadne, the book’s heroine, is resourceful and able to look after herself and Bond comes across as less of a sexist boor than one might have expected.  Meanwhile, some of the Soviet characters are depicted sympathetically: for example, Gordienko, Moscow’s man in Athens who believes Bond’s warnings that something fishy is afoot and will have bad consequences for both their countries; and Yermolov, the pragmatic, vodka-loving dignitary who at the end expresses the USSR’s gratitude to Bond for foiling Sun’s plan.  Indeed, Yermolov feels like a prototype for the craggy but avuncular General Gogol, the KGB head played by Walter Gottel who appeared in every Bond movie from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) to The Living Daylights (1987).  In Colonel Sun, Yermolov even offers Bond the Order of the Red Banner; just as Gogol awards Roger Moore (‘Comrade Bond’) the Order of Lenin at the end of 1985’s A View to a Kill.

 

But before we assume that old Kingsley has gone all hippy-dippy and peace-and-love, we should bear in mind that the Soviets are the good guys here only comparatively – because the bad guys are the Chinese.  The novel even postulates that the West and the Soviet Union are on the brink of working together because of the increasing threat posed by China.  (Richard Nixon’s jaunt to China in 1972 must have knocked that fanciful notion on the head.)  Happily, by the time of the 1997 Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, which has Pierce Brosnan joining forces with Michelle Yeoh to take on evil media mogul Jonathan Pryce (basically playing Rupert Murdoch), the Bond-verse had decided that the Chinese could be good guys too.

 

Talking of which, while Colonel Sun has never been filmed, it’s interesting to see how a few of its ideas have turned up in the Bond movies.  The kidnapping of M was a key plot element in 1999’s Tomorrow Never Dies, while a villain called Colonel Tan-Sun Moon features in 2002’s Die Another Day.  And if Colonel Sun’s musings during the book’s climactic torture scene sound familiar – “Torture is easy, on a superficial level.  A man can watch himself being disembowelled and derive great horror from the experience, but it’s still going on at a distance…  a man lives inside his head.  That’s where the seed of his soul is…  So James, I’m going to penetrate to where you are.  To the inside of your head….” – it’s because they were used as dialogue in 2015’s Spectre, for the scene where Christoph Waltz violates Daniel Craig’s skull using a torture device that looks like a dentist’s drill attached to a robotic tentacle.

 

In Spectre, Waltz’s character is revealed as being none other than Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  Having James Bond’s great arch-enemy nick his best lines?  I’m sure Colonel Sun would have been flattered.

 

© Eon Productions

 

The Corbynite maneouvre

 

From knowyourmeme.com

 

Two steps forward, two steps back.  That’s how I feel about Jeremy Bernard Corbyn, Member of Parliament for Islington North, cyclist, allotment gardener, pescatarian, supporter of Arsenal Football Club, keen photographer of decorative manhole covers, and leader of the UK Labour Party and Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition in Westminster.

 

Apart from a few occasions in the past when ultra-lefty stupidity has got the better of him and he’s expressed sympathy for some dodgy Irish and Middle Eastern terrorist organisations, I don’t think Corbyn is a bad bloke – certainly not as politicians go.  Indeed, I think most of his views about where British society and the world generally ought to be heading are sane ones.

 

(Please note that I’m talking about Jeremy Corbyn, not necessarily about all members of the Labour Party.  And I’m certainly not talking about the Scottish branch of the Labour Party whom, as I’ve said before on this blog, I regard mostly as a bunch of diddies whose gigantic sense of entitlement is in inverse proportion to their abilities.)

 

For instance, I cheered when Corbyn responded to a recent Twitter pronouncement by Donald Trump.  (‘Pronouncements’ hardly seems the best word for Trump’s Twitter output.  ‘Emissions’?  ‘Discharges’?)  Referring to a demonstration calling itself NHS in Crisis: Fix it Now that’d recently taken place in London and drawn thousands of marchers, President Brainless Blabbermouth Baldy-locks tweeted on February 5th that the demo was evidence of a universal, free-on-the-point-of-delivery healthcare system not working and evidence why nothing similar should be attempted in the USA: “The Democrats are pushing for Universal HealthCare while thousands of people are marching in the UK because their U system is going broke and not working…  No thanks!”

 

(This came after Trump had watched Nigel Farage on his main news source, the loony right-wing Fox News network.  Farage, whom Fox would have you believe is the only British person with an opinion on the planet, had been spouting off about how Britain’s NHS was at ‘breaking point’ and how this was all the fault of beastly immigrants.  Predictably, shit-gibbon Farage sidestepped the fact that 12.5% of NHS staff in England are non-British nationals, i.e. immigrants.)

 

Of course, the London demonstration was really in support of Britain’s National Health Service and its principles; and was protesting at what the organisers, the People’s Assembly and Health Campaigns Together, saw as Theresa May’s Conservative government’s underfunding of it and insidious moves to push parts of it towards privatisation.  Jeremy Corbyn responded to Trump’s tweet and nailed its dishonesty: “Wrong. People were marching because we love our NHS and hate what the Tories are doing to it. Healthcare is a human right.”

 

From youtube.com

 

My attitude towards Corbyn is like that old catchphrase from The X-Files: “I want to believe.”  Yet despite his good points, he’s repeatedly left me feeling annoyed, frustrated and let-down because of his determined obfuscation about another issue, the none-too-trivial one of Britain quitting the European Union.  With Corbyn at its helm, the Labour Party seems happy just to bob along in the Conservatives’ slipstream on this.  Indeed, Corbyn imposed a three-line whip in the House of Commons to make his MPs vote in favour of the activation of Article 50, which triggered the whole sorry process of Brexit.

 

And can anyone make sense of Corbyn’s position on whether or not Britain should have membership of the EU’s Single Market (like non-EU-members Norway and Switzerland) or Customs Union (like Turkey)?  Corbyn and his Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer have been contradicting each other, and themselves, about this for months.  Their incoherence on the matter has been, well, Trumpian.

 

It was especially maddening that Corbyn missed an open goal at this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, after some Treasury forecasts about the dire economic impact of Brexit on the UK found their way onto Buzzfeed.  Rather than raising the matter and using it as a rhetorical machete to reduce Theresa May to sashimi, he chose to bang on about policing and law and order instead.

 

Why has Corbyn has been so vague in his Brexit policies and so toothless about Brexit when confronting the Tories?  Well, first, I suppose Corbyn thinks it makes sense to keep schtum about the topic while the Conservative government is making such a spectacular hash of the Brexit negotiations and while pro and anti-EU factions in the Conservative party are busy eviscerating each other.  (See Anna Soubry’s recent outburst against Jacob Rees Mogg, the new champion of the Brexiting Tory right and a man who looks like the result of a sinister experiment splicing together DNA from Lord Snooty and Dr Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow in Batman).  Why shouldn’t he just sit back and let his opponents get on with destroying themselves?

 

Second, many pro-EU Labour MPs are in the uncomfortable position of having to represent constituencies in Labour’s English heartlands where a majority of people voted for Brexit.  No wonder a lot of Labour politicians, including Corbyn, prefer to bite their tongues about it.

 

And third, I’m pretty sure that Corbyn, for all his endorsements of a ‘remain’ vote before the 2016 Brexit referendum, doesn’t really like the EU that much.  In fact, he’s been anti-Europe at various times in the past – he opposed Britain’s membership of the then-EEC in the 1975 European Communities Referendum, opposed the Maastricht Treaty in the 1990s and opposed the Lisbon Treaty in the 2000s.  I doubt if his attitude differs much from that of his old left-wing guru the late Anthony Wedgewood Benn, who once claimed that “Britain’s continuing membership of the (European) Community would mean the end of Britain as a completely self-governing nation.”

 

© New Statesman

 

By ducking Brexit, Corbyn no doubt reckons he’s doing the right thing by his own beliefs and doing the wise thing by political expediency.  But I suspect it’s a policy that’s going to end in tears, especially if it entails the Labour Party sitting on their hands until it’s too late.  For one thing, those Treasury forecasts make horrendous reading and Labour areas – ones that, paradoxically, voted most enthusiastically for Brexit – are predicted to take the worst economic hits.  The UK generally is expected to see a 2% decline in economic growth under the very best-case scenario, which would be remaining in the Single Market, and an 8% decline under the worst-case one, which would be quitting the EU with no deal at all.  However, the figures range between a 3% decline and an eyewatering 16% one in what’s predicted to be the worst-affected area, England’s North-East.

 

Anyone who’s read Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine (2007) must be wondering if an economically-traumatised post-Brexit Britain is being lined up for a strong dose of disaster capitalism; whereby its resources, assets and public services get flogged off in a fire-sale to piratical corporations, oligarchs and free-marketeers by a government desperately trying to pay the bills.  The NHS would surely be top of the auction-list.  At Prime Minister’s Questions this week, it took Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats – remember them? – to raise the scary prospect of American firms taking over chunks of the NHS if Britain has to wheedle a post-Brexit trade deal out of the Trump administration.  Typically, May refused to give any guarantees.  This possibility, combined with potential losses among the NHS’s non-British workforce, suggests that the venerable institution is heading for a horror-story ending.

 

For old Jeremy, these Corbynite manoeuvres around – and avoiding – Brexit might make sense.  But I fear they may well spell disaster for his beloved NHS and for the country as a whole.

 

Tourist-geddon

 

 

It grieves me to say I didn’t particularly enjoy my visit to Bangkok’s 255-year-old Grand Palace complex until the last half-hour of it.  And my lack of enjoyment was solely due to the hordes of sightseers packed into the place.  The complex has an overall area of 218,000 square metres, but that didn’t prevent the courtyards and thoroughfares from being so crowded that there wasn’t room in them to swing the proverbial cat.

 

(I haven’t been so put-off by the crowds at a major tourist attraction since the day several years ago when I went to the Vatican.  The nadir of that visit was when I entered the Sistine Chapel.  I was barely able to pause for a moment and look up and admire Michelangelo’s angels and demons because of all the bodies around me and the fact that the guards kept herding everyone along, across the floor and out through the exit.  Dan Brown, that was all your fault.)

 

One reason why the Grand Palace was choc-a-bloc was because of the preponderance of tour parties.  They oozed through the rest of the sightseers with squawking, flag-bearing tour-guides at their heads or simply sat along the tops of the low walls looking exhausted.  Also, the statues and building-facades were clogged with huge numbers of people taking selfies.  Incidentally, has anyone made a horror movie yet wherein a serial killer starts murdering tourists by shoving their selfie-sticks down their throats?  If so, I’d pay money to watch it.

 

I found it bewildering that so many people were posing for photos in front of images of Buddha.  As a resident of Sri Lanka, I’m used to Sri Lankans getting upset about people doing this at their country’s Buddhist temples and shrines, which they find very disrespectful.  (However, taking a picture of the image itself, without some halfwit grinning and making peace-signs in front of it, is okay.)  I guess in Thailand there are just so many dumb, narcissistic tourists using these sacred images as backgrounds for their selfies that the Thais are unable to enforce any rules against it.  (I found it odd too that many of the tourists snapping pictures of themselves in front of Buddha seemed to come from a country I’d always regarded as a Buddhist one.)

 

But I suppose I should have been thankful for small mercies, because the truly thick tourists who came to the Grand Palace weren’t allowed inside.  I’m talking about the ones who ignored all the advice to enter the place ‘respectfully dressed’ and then were surprised when the palace security staff saw them, raised their hands and said, “No way.”  Needless to say, these were all Westerners.  I’m thinking of one guy who was refused entry because he appeared in skimpy shorts, below which his legs were slathered in swirling, Celtic-y tattoos.  Or a woman who turned up in a pair of jeans so full of holes that they might have been worn by Warren Beatty at the conclusion of Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

 

Anyway, enough of the grumbling.  (I realise I’m hardly in a position to complain about the volume of tourists at the Grand Palace when I went as a tourist myself.)  There were some things I really liked about the place, for example…

 

 

I liked Phra Mondop, a library-building containing items of Buddhist scripture.  It had soaring, enamelled and gold-leafed pillars and a conical roof that was byzantine in its amount of detail.  It was also notable for the golden naga-like creatures slithering down the tops of the curving stair-walls outside it.  Each creature ended in a hydra-esque cluster of necks that supported five human faces.

 

 

I liked the dozen hulking statues of what I believe are known locally as yakshasThese are ogres with blue skins, snarling faces, goggling eyes, bat ears, snub noses and boar tusks, and clad in tiered, lampshade-like helmets and intricately-patterned armour.  The complex had many gorgeous statues, in fact: including one of Cheewok Komaraphat, who was doctor to Buddha and the founder of Thai herbal medicine; and ones of some gruff-faced Chinese men with tendrilled beards, which were imported from China in the early days of Thailand’s current Chakri Dynasty; and ones of some camp-looking lions.

 

 

And I liked the mural paintings depicting the Ramakien, Thailand’s national epic.  Many of these showed a battle between demon-king Tosakanth and the human king Rama – who enlisted an army of monkey-warriors (led by the ubiquitous monkey-deity Hanuman) to fight against the demons after Tosankanth kidnapped his queen.  Amid the murals’ imagery was what looked like the kirtimukha, a vast Hindu / Buddhist monster customarily depicted as a giant face in the process of swallowing everyone and everything.  Meanwhile, lines of armoured monkeys could be seen standing, with arms and legs outstretched, around the lowest levels of the tiered stupas that flank the Prasat Phra Dhepbidorn (Royal Pavilion).

 

 

Although I mentioned earlier that during peak visitor-hours in the Grand Palace you couldn’t swing a cat, there were actually a few real cats slinking about the premises, admirably unfazed by the mayhem of the tourist crowds around them.  Here’s a picture of my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, about to photograph one of them.

 

 

By the late afternoon, closing time had come and gone and the palace staff had succeeded in steering most of the crowds out through the exits.  We were among the very last stragglers.  An unexpected and eerie – but pleasant – quietness descended over the complex.  The only things preventing it from being wholly silent were a rustling breeze, the tinkling of small, swinging bells, and the chanting of monks from the main building, the Chapel of the Emerald Buddha.  And, finally, I felt glad we’d made the effort to come here.

 

 

Lucifer no longer over Lancashire

 

© BBC

 

According to the Book of Job, Chapter 1, Verse 21, “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.”  That maxim has been demonstrated this month.  January 15th saw a star-studded concert held at Dublin’s National Concert Hall to celebrate the fact that Irish singer, songwriter and musician Shane MacGowan had celebrated his 60th birthday despite a lifetime of heavy-duty boozing and wild living that would cut most people down before they got anywhere near 60.  And yet, just nine days later, another musical star famous for his boozing and wild living was cut down – with a spooky symmetry, aged 60 years old too.  I’m talking about the Salford-born, Prestwich-bred Mark E. Smith, for four decades the driving force behind the great post-punk / alternative rock group the Fall.

 

(If you’re to believe MacGowan’s 2001 memoir A Drink with Shane MacGowan, he and Smith did not see eye to eye.  Though supposedly Smith once remarked, during a discussion about ecstasy: “It was horrible, it makes you fall in love with everyone.  I couldn’t keep me hands off Shane MacGowan.”)

 

To be honest, Smith’s death on January 24th shouldn’t have been surprising.  His hazardous lifestyle had lately taken its toll on his appearance, to the point where he looked like a wizened cross between William S. Burroughs and Dobby the House Elf from Harry Potter.   And it wasn’t unusual for newspaper interviews with him to take place during punishing drinking sessions in various Manchester pubs.  But no matter what state he was in, Smith kept recording and performing so that today, according to Wikipedia, there are 31 Fall studio albums, 40 compilation albums, 32 live albums and five ‘part studio, part live albums’, and this remorseless, cussed work-ethic gave the impression that the curmudgeonly old devil was going to last forever.

 

When he wasn’t making music, he was famously busy hiring and firing bandmembers.  In 2011 the journalist Robert Chalmers put the number of musicians who’d collaborated with Smith in the Fall at 66.  Saying he was a hard taskmaster is possibly as much of an understatement as saying Vlad the Impaler was a bit harsh on his prisoners.  Among the multitude who’d been expelled from the band over the years was bassist, guitarist and keyboard player (and future DJ) Marc Riley, who got his marching orders in part because Smith had seen him dancing to Deep Purple in an Australian nightclub.  (“Get in the hotel and stay there till I tell you.  You don’t need to be dancing to Smoke on the Water.”)  Then again, even Riley was lucky compared to a sound engineer who, legend has it, was fired by Smith for ordering a salad.  (“The salad was the last straw.”)  Inevitably, this tribe of ex-Fall bandmembers became the subject of a book, Dave Simpson’s The Fallen in 2008.  By the time The Fallen appeared in paperback the following year, it’d acquired an additional front-cover blurb saying, “Now with added ex-members!”

 

© Step-Forward Records

 

But Smith’s reputation for brutal band-management shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow the music, much of which was great – see such songs as Industrial Estate (1978), The Container Drivers (1980), Hip Priest (1982), Who Makes the Nazis? (1982), Eat Y’Self Fitter (1983), Spoilt Victorian Child (1985), Cruiser’s Creek (1985), Lucifer over Lancashire (1985), Carry Bag Man (1988), Hit the North (1988), Edinburgh Man (1991) and Hey Luciani (1993).  Admittedly, my favourite Fall stuff comes from the first half of their 40-year career, but I find all their music fascinating – even at its most clunking, abrasive and repetitious, even when it verges on the unlistenable, it exerts a hypnotic effect thanks to Smith’s snarling stream-of-consciousness lyrics, which sound like James Joyce on crystal meth.  Only in a Fall song would you hear such demented poetry as “Got 18 months for espionage / Too much brandy for breakfast” or “The Siberian mushroom Santa / Was in fact Rasputin’s brother” or “He had a parka on and a black cardboard bishop’s hat / With a green fuzz skull and crossbones / He’d just got back from the backward kids’ party.”

 

Incidentally, if you’re intrigued by Smith’s wordplay, you should check out an Internet site called the Fall Quote Generator, which throws random Fall lyrics at you when you click on a button.  It recommends that you “use it like the I Ching, remembering to ask a question first.”  (When I asked it how Donald Trump got elected, I received the answer: “Out drift dog pet dogs street bullshit / Dog shit baby bit ass-lick dog mirror.”  So that explains it.)

 

It seemed appropriate that the Fall became the favourite band of Britain’s greatest-ever DJ John Peel, who got them to record no fewer than 24 sessions for his radio show.  Indeed, the words, “And now, in session, the mighty Fall” – intoned in Peel’s lugubrious Liverpudlian burr – were the closest thing he had to a catchphrase.

 

I first saw the Fall perform in 1985 in Aberdeen, where they were supported by the Membranes.  (Wow, whatever happened to the Membranes?  Well, actually…)  The band were impressively focused and intense – helped, I suspect, by the presence of Smith’s then-wife and guitarist Brix Smith, the woman credited with inspiring a certain tunefulness in the Fall, helping them crack the Top Forty a couple of times and generally sprucing Smith up a bit during the mid-to-late 1980s.

 

From thefall.org / © Michael Pollard

 

I saw them again in 1999 in Edinburgh, with their support band none other than former Britpop-darlings Elastica.  They seemed rather ragged this time, though Fall fans I chatted to in the crowd were simply delighted that the band had managed to deliver a coherent set.  This was a year after a notorious gig in upstate New York when a mid-performance row between Smith and the other bandmembers turned nasty, resulting in violence both onstage and off it and Smith getting arrested.

 

I didn’t see the Fall again after that but, one evening in 2004 while I was working in Dublin, I was drinking in Cassidy’s Bar on Camden Street when an acquaintance remarked, “Look over there – it’s your man Mark E. Smith from that band the Fall.”  And sure enough, there he was, enjoying a pint.  I entertained the thought of going over and saying hello but – probably wisely – decided not to.  By a sad coincidence, the very next morning, the Irish newspapers were reporting that the Fall’s great champion, John Peel, had died of a heart attack whilst on holiday in Peru.

 

Music aside, there were two reasons why I liked Mark E. Smith.  One was his considerable sardonic wit.  Interviews with him, no matter how shambolic the setting and dishevelled the interviewee, usually produced a couple of nuggets that had me laughing out loud.  This was never more so than when Smith directed his guns – or tongue – at his contemporaries and rivals in the music world.  Among those getting it in the neck from Smith over the years were Badly Drawn Boy (“fat git”), Kate Bush (“Who decided it was time to start liking her again?”), Echo and the Bunnymen (“old crocks”), Garbage (“like watching paint dry”), Bob Geldof (“a dickhead”), Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore (“should have his rock licence revoked”), Mumford and Sons (“We were playing a festival in Dublin…  There was this other group, like, warming up… and they were terrible.  I said, ‘Shut them c*nts up!’  And they were still warming up, so I threw a bottle at them…  I just thought they were a load of retarded Irish folk singers”), Pavement (“They haven’t got an original thought in their heads”), Ed Sheeran (like “a duff singer songwriter from the 70s you find in charity shops”) and Suede (“Never heard of them,” said Smith cruelly, just after finishing a tour where Suede were the support band).

 

© Kamera Records

 

I also liked Smith because he was a lover of books – after all, he named the Fall after the 1956 Albert Camus novel La Chute – and I often got the impression during interviews that he’d be happier discussing literature than music.  He admired Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Philip K. Dick and especially the Welsh occult writer Arthur Machen.  “M.R. James is good,” he once told the Independent newspaper, “but Machen’s f**king brilliant!”

 

Then there was his love for the legendary American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, which culminated in him doing a reading of Lovecraft’s short story The Colour out of Space for the BBC’s ‘interactive culture magazine’ Collective.  This was an unsettling experience wherein Smith’s thick Mancunian accent and the Massachusetts accents of Lovecraft’s characters battled for supremacy.  (The result was a mangled draw.)  Also, the bits during the reading where Smith paused and stuck out and wiggled his tongue were as frightening as any of the eldritch horrors in the story.

 

Anyway, there you have it.  40 years, 31 albums, 66+ bandmembers, one Fall… and one incomparable Mark E. Smith.

 

© Sanctuary Records

 

Ursula departs

 

© The Washington Post

 

Following the tributes paid in the last few days to the legendary science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin, who passed away on January 22nd, I feel a little embarrassed to admit that I have only read one work by her.

 

This was a collection of her first three Earthsea novels (1968-72), set in an imaginary archipelago where magic, wizards and dragons are all prominent.  I read it when I was 12 or 13 and it wasn’t until I was halfway through that I realised I’d got its title completely wrong.  The front cover of the book bore the name The Earthsea Trilogy, but ‘Earthsea’ was inscribed in such ornate medieval lettering (especially the ‘E’ and the ‘h’) that I misread it as The Fartisea Trilogy, which would have been pronounced as the flatulent-sounding Farty-Sea Trilogy.  Thus, while I read, I kept wondering when the characters were going to pack their bags, leave Earthsea and move to the obviously-more-important Fartisea of the title.  D’uh!

 

Anyhow, the Earthsea stories really impressed me.  It was a revelation at that age to read a work of serious epic fantasy that gradually built a whole fantastical world around its characters but did so in clear, unpretentious prose.  The quality of the writing especially struck me because a little while earlier I’d tried to read Lord Foul’s Bane (1977), the first of ten volumes of Tolkein-esque fantasy written by Stephen Donaldson and known collectively as The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.  But I’d soon given up, defeated by Donaldson’s pompous, overwrought prose-style.

 

Other things that I liked about Earthsea are neatly encapsulated in this tribute that the American science fiction writer John Scalzi wrote about Le Guin in the Los Angeles Times the other day: “This was a subtle gift that Le Guin gave to a young person wanting to be a writer – the idea that there was more to writing fiction than ticking off plot points, that a rewarding story can be told without overt conflict, and that a world wide and deep can be its own reward, for those building the world and those who walk through it.”

 

Coincidentally, I’ve recently been reading a collection of short stories called The Dream Archipelago (1999) by Christopher Priest, which like Earthsea are set on an imaginary group of islands that have fantastical properties.  One story, The Negation, is about a young, naïve man called Dik who aspires to be a writer but who gets drafted into the military and assigned to a bleak snowbound frontier-town when war breaks out between his country and a neighbour.  He discovers that as a propaganda stunt / cultural morale booster, the government is sending a writer called Moylita Kaine to live in and write about the town for a period; and, because Kaine wrote the novel that first fuelled Dik’s writerly ambitions, he arranges to meet her.  He subsequently gets into trouble when Kaine decides to involve her trusting young admirer in an act of subversion.  I hadn’t realised that The Negation was autobiographical, but on his blog the other day, whilst paying his respects to Le Guin, Priest described the story as “a disguised but also explicit account of my meetings with her.”  He’d known her while she and her husband were living in London in the mid-1970s.

 

Knowing this, it’s easy to imagine Le Guin (who was then in her 40s) as the enigmatic Kaine, brusque but self-effacing, “sometimes… deliberately vague”, her eyes sparkling “in the snowy light from the window”; and the younger Priest as the story’s shy, unsure-of-himself hero.

 

One thing’s for sure.  I need to track down and read copies of Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) soon.

 

© Penguin Books

 

Yet another 25 Scots words that must not die

 

© Vanity Fair

 

My better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, recently drew my attention to a Youtube video in which Gerard Butler, now a meaty big Hollywood action-movie star but once a humble wee lad from the Scottish town of Paisley, talked about his favourite lexical items in the Scots language.  These included words like ‘bawbags’ and ‘jobbies’ and phrases like “Yer bum’s oot the windae!” and “Haud yer wheesht!”  Come to think of it, Gerard was probably shouting all of these things last year when he read the reviews of his movie Geostorm.

 

(The script for Geostorm would actually have made more sense if it’d been written in Scots: “Och shite, they’ve jist drapt a muckle heat-jobbie on Hong Kong!”)

 

This, along with the fact that today is January 25th and tonight is Burns Night – annual celebration of the life and works of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard and one of literature’s greatest writers in the medium of Scots – has inspired me to list 25 more of my favourite Scots words and expressions.  Previous lists can be read here, here and here.

 

Awaw an’ bile yer heid (idiom) – basically, “Go away and boil your head.”  Or less elegantly still, “F**k off.”

 

Clamjamfry (n) – a troublesome, noisy, chaotic mob of people.

 

Clawbaws (n) – a derogatory term for a male who constantly has his hand down the front of his trousers, presumably playing with himself.  The suffix ‘baws’ is a popular one in Scots – see also fannybaws, believed to have originated in the Scottish TV comedy sketch-show Chewin’ the Fat (1999-2005) and being, according to the Urban Dictionary website, a “Glasgow word meaning stupid bastard”.

 

Fankle (n) – a confused tangle.  One reason why I gave up fishing as a kid was because I always managed to get my fishing line in a ‘fankle’.

 

Fash (n / v) – to do with annoyance.  “Dae fash yerself” means “Don’t get annoyed”, while “He’s in a right fash” means “He’s having a right strop.”  The word dates back to old French (and no doubt to the days of Scotland’s ‘Auld Alliance’ with France) and is related to the French verb fâcher, to be or make angry.

 

© Channel Four Films / PolyGram / Miramax

 

Gash (adv) – meaning badly, grimly, terribly.  ‘Gash’ is a word that got a new lease of life thanks to the success of Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting (1993) and its subsequent 1996 movie adaptation by Danny Boyle.  In the movie, Kevin McKidd’s Tommy shudderingly recounts how he once played a game of pool against Robert Carlyle’s psychotic Begbie: “…But Begbie is playing absolutely f**king gash…  He’s got a hangover so bad he can hardly hold the cue…”

 

Haar (n) – a weather-word and, like most weather-words in Scots, one that refers to crappy climatic conditions.  A ‘haar’ is a wet, clammy fog you might encounter along the coast.

 

Heid bummer (n) – the person in charge.

 

Hoachin (adj) – infested with or full of, as in: “The puir bairn’s hair wis hoachin wi nits.” The late A.A. Gill, born in Edinburgh and a notoriously snobby food-critic at the Sunday Times, once remarked during a diatribe about the awfulness of Scotland’s cuisine: “The place is hoaching with some of the best raw ingredients in the world, yet finding a scallop on a menu is like trying to go dogging in Riyadh.”  I assume that by dropping ‘hoachin’ into that sentence, Gill was trying to show his Scottish street-credibility even while he slammed the place.  It didn’t work.

 

Lug (n) – a well-known word for ear, ‘lug’ also appears in the compound adjective lang-luggit, referring to a nosy person who likes listening in on other people’s conversations; and in the phrase to nip someone’s lugs, meaning to irritate someone with constant nagging or meaningless chatter.

 

Messages (n) – shopping.  So ‘doing my messages’ means ‘doing my shopping’.

 

© Antony Spencer / E+ / Getty Images

 

Moonbroch (n) – a lovely astronomical term.  Historically, a broch was a round stone tower.  From that, a ‘moonbroch’ is the ghostly rainbow-like halo you see around the moon on a night when the moonlight refracts through ice crystals in the upper atmosphere.

 

Orraman (n) – an odd-job man able to turn his hand to a variety of tasks, very useful to have on a farm.   An ‘orraman’ figures in the lyrics of The Portree Kid, a spoof on the country-and-western classic Ghost Riders in the Sky, composed and sung by the legendary Scottish folk duo The Corries: “His sidekick was an orraman and oh but he was mean / He was called the Midnight Ploughboy and he came fae Aberdeen…

 

Plook (n) – the Scots equivalent of the English slang word ‘zit’, meaning a pus-filled pimple.  When I was at school, kids used to assure me that “evrae time ye eat a Mars Bar, ye get a plook”.  (Lawyers for Cadbury UK Limited please note – there is absolutely no scientific proof that this assertion is true.)

 

Poke (n) – a bag.  I think this must have been a common word in English generally at one point – see the expression ‘to buy a pig in a poke’.  However, I’ve only ever heard this word used in Scotland, in the context of fish-and-chip shops where customers might ask for ‘a poke o’ chips’.

 

Polis (n) – not a city-state in ancient Greece like Athens, Delphi, Rhodes or Sparta, but the Scots word for ‘police’.

 

Puddock (n) – a frog or toad.  A particularly ill-fated one appears in the 1930s poem The Puddock by John M. Caie, which ends with the lines: “A heron was hungry an’ needin’ tae sup / So he nabbit th’ puddock and gollup’t him up.”

 

© The Muppets Studio / Walt Disney

 

Skelp (n / v) – to slap or beat with your hand.  Not to be confused with the more fleeting but possibly sharper blow implied by the word skite.  Therefore, you might say, “Not only did the teacher skelp him on his lug but he skited him roond his legs wi the cane.”

 

Skrieve (v) – to write.

 

Sleekit (adj) – dangerously crafty and cunning, but with a deceptively charming exterior.  In the 1980s, I remember Scottish Labour Members of Parliament denouncing the SNP MP Jim Sillars for being ‘sleekit’.  However, for outright, concentrated ‘sleekitness’, the Labour Party outdid themselves later on when they invented Tony Blair.

 

Smeddum (n) – a flour or fine powder.  From that, it has also come to mean the kernel or unbreakable essence of something; and from that, to mean someone’s spirit, energy and drive.  It’s no doubt the third of these meanings that’s referenced by the title of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s short story Smeddum (1934), about a tough matriarch called Meg Menzies who works ‘like a big roan mare’ in the harsh environment of rural north-eastern Scotland.

 

Stowed oot (adj) – packed with people.  On many an occasion in my youth, I was turned away from a bar or club by a not-so-apologetic bouncer who told me, “Sorry pal, it’s awready stowed oot.”

 

Tablet (n) – not, in this post-Trainspotting era, a drugs reference but a type of Scottish confectionery.  According to my well-thumbed copy of the Collins Pocket Scots Dictionary, it’s “like a firmer version of fudge, made from butter, sugar and sometimes condensed milk.”

 

Tumshie (n) – a turnip.  By extension, if you call someone a tumshie-heid, you’re calling them a ‘turnip-head’, i.e. a moron.

 

Tattiebogle (n) – a scarecrow.  This quaint word is derived from the words tattie, meaning a potato, and bogle, meaning a ghost.  It implies the roughness of the Scottish soil compared with that of England, in that the ‘tattiebogle’ is more likely to be scaring craws or corbies away from a potato-patch than from a wheat-field.

 

From Pixabay.com

 

Houses of the spirits

 

 

I recently visited Thailand and soon after my arrival I was out and about with my camera, snapping pictures of one of my favourite Thai things: spirit houses.

 

I’ve written before on this blog about San Phra Phum, as they’re known locally.  They’re the miniature buildings you see outside nearly every Thai home and business, held aloft like bird-tables on wooden pillars, fragranced by smouldering incense sticks and often garlanded with flowers.  Their raison d’être is to provide accommodation for the spirits residing on the premises and to keep those spirits contented, so that they don’t move into the human building and cause ghostly high-jinks there.

 

 

Spirit houses need to be carefully positioned in relation to the neighbouring human abode and a Brahman priest should be consulted to identify the best spot for it – which is usually, I’ve read, north of the human house so that there’s no danger of the spirit house having a shadow cast over it.  Once the spirit house is erected, certain things are placed inside.  These include a representation of the angel-like Hindu deity Phra Chai Mongkol, who bears a sword and a bag of money, presumably to ensure protection and good fortune for the house’s ethereal inhabitants; human figures to keep the spirits company; dolls’-house-style pieces of furniture for their comfort; and possibly models of horses and elephants, to help them get around.  I’ve even seen spirit houses cluttered with model cars and other toys, to give the spirits something to play with; and ones bedecked with strings of fancy coloured lights, to allow them some illumination after nightfall.

 

 

One memorable sight I saw recently was in the northern Thai town of Chiang Mai, while I was passing a construction site.  An old building had just been demolished and a new one was shortly to be built there.  Nearly everything in the area had been flattened and a digger was prowling around, removing the last remnants of the old building – but remaining untouched and intact in the middle of the rubble were a pair of spirit houses.  Apparently, it’s a bad idea to destroy spirit houses and render their inhabitants homeless.  So even Thai developers who wouldn’t think twice about bulldozering an old human property need to exercise caution in how they treat the miniature wooden dwelling next door to it.

 

 

It’s alive

 

From GuitarParty.com

 

Christmas Day last year marked not only the 2017th birthday of Jesus Christ.  It was also the day that Shane MacGowan, singer, songwriter, musician, raconteur and front-man of the much-loved Anglo-Irish folk-punk band the Pogues, celebrated his 60th birthday.  Wow, I have just written six words that I never expected to write together in a sentence: namely ‘Shane MacGowan’ and ‘celebrated his 60th birthday’.

 

Indeed, back in the 1990s, the prospect of the famously and fearfully hard-living MacGowan reaching even his 40th birthday looked doubtful.  A man whose modus operandi had always been to be the Brendan Behan of the musical world, his industrial-level alcohol consumption and resultant unreliability had by this time led to him being ejected, temporarily, from the Pogues.  Also, late in the decade, he’d developed a heroin habit so severe that his pal Sinead O’Connor felt compelled to report him to the police before he killed himself with an overdose.

 

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

 

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

 

© WEA

 

He was in better form the next time I saw him, in the early noughties.  He and the rest of the Pogues’ classic line-up – James Fearnley, Jem Finer, Darryl Hunt, Andrew Ranken, Spider Stacy, Terry Woods and the late Philip Chevron, plus original bassist and sometime-vocalist Cait O’Riordan – had got together for a Christmas tour and they made an appearance at the Metro Radio Arena in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where I was living at the time.  Admittedly, MacGowan’s voice was weaker than it’d been during the glory days of Pogues albums like Rum, Sodomy and the Lash (1985) and If I Should Fall from Grace with God (1988), but he seemed to raise his game whenever Cait O’Riordan sang onstage with him; and their rendition of 1988’s famous Christmas song Fairy Tale of New York, with O’Riordan taking the place of the late Kirsty McColl, was rather wonderful.

 

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

 

In the meantime, in 2001, MacGowan and his long-time partner, the journalist Victoria Mary Clarke, had published a book called A Drink with Shane MacGowan.  A rambling mixture of memoirs, anecdotes, opinions and philosophy related by MacGowan and recorded and edited by Clarke, A Drink… is great.  It’s both fascinating and knowingly hilarious.  I particularly liked the bit in it where he theorises why Samuel Beckett was such an existentialist misery-guts.  (It was because Beckett was the only man in the whole of Ireland who liked cricket.)

 

© Pan Books

 

Anyway, the other evening, three weeks after his sixtieth, MacGowan was honoured with a belated birthday-bash at Dublin’s National Concert Hall.  During the proceedings, some of his most famous compositions were played and sung by various musical talents, luminaries and icons (and Bono).  Near the end, the birthday boy himself was wheeled onstage – he’s been largely wheelchair-bound since 2015, when an accident outside a Dublin recording studio left him with a broken pelvis – to sing Summer in Siam, from the 1990 Pogues album Hell’s Ditch, with his old mate Nick Cave.  He then brought the event to a close with a solo rendition of the venerable Scottish folk song Wild Mountain Thyme, his now-weary and gravelly but somehow more-affecting-than-ever voice probably ensuring that there wasn’t a single dry eye or lump-free throat in the building.

 

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

 

The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn (from the 1985 Pogue album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash).  Glasses of punch, whiskey, banshees, ghosts, angels, devils, rattling death-trains, midnight mass, Euston taverns, “lousy drunken bastards”, pissing yourself, getting syphilis and decking “some f**king blackshirt who was cursing all the Yids…”  If ever a song was the Pogues’ manifesto, it’s this one.

 

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

 

If I Should Fall from Grace with God (from the 1988 Pogues album of the same name).  This is surely the one that makes all Pogues fans ‘go wild on the dance floor’.

 

Fairy Tale of New York (from If I Should Fall from Grace with God).  Obviously.

 

Thousands are Sailing (from If I Should Fall from Grace with God).  Written by Philip Chevron, this paean to the millions of Irish people forced to migrate to North America in the 19th century receives much of its power from MacGowan’s vocals, simultaneously wistful and exultant.  It just didn’t sound the same when, minus MacGowan, the Pogues performed it in the 1990s.

 

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

 

© Mute Records

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Motör-dead

 

© Daily Mirror

 

“The party’s through there,” said the mother of a schoolmate who’d invited me to a shindig at her house one evening in 1980.  With a grimace she added, “Just follow the noise.”

 

And what a noise it was – a relentless, clattering, crashing onslaught of guitars and drums with a sepulchral voice growling over the top of it: “If you like to gamble, I tell you I’m your man, you win some, lose some, it’s all the same to me…”  Yes, the noise was Ace of Spades, signature song of the mighty rock-and-heavy-metal band Motörhead.

 

And when my fifteen-year-old self obeyed my friend’s mum’s directions – moving awkwardly because of the one-litre bottle of Woodpecker Cider I had stuffed up and hopefully concealed inside my T-shirt – and walked along a passageway and passed through a door into the house’s living room, I entered a blitzkrieg of extreme sensations.  The sound of Motörhead, hitherto muffled by the living-room door, suddenly jumped to a truly skull-cracking volume.  And I was assailed by the heat, commotion and flying dandruff generated by two-dozen schoolmates whose heads churned in unison to the music.  Meanwhile, I observed lurking in a corner a few members of the local Ska and Mod communities, clad in their customary tight jackets, polo shirts, braces, rolled-at-the-cuff jeans, drainpipes, Doc Martens, loafers, trilbies and pork-pie hats, all with expressions on their faces reminiscent of Dracula’s when Van Helsing tore down the curtains and flooded the room with early-morning sunlight.

 

An evening’s partying ahead of me, a litre of cider, a roomful of friends, Motörhead going full-blast on the hi-fi and a bunch of Mods and Ska-kids looking miserable?  Wow, I thought.  What a great time to be alive!

 

‘Alive’, alas, is no longer an adjective that can be applied to the line-up of Motörhead that were playing on the stereo at that memorable moment in time.  I write this having just heard of the death of guitarist ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke, who along with vocalist / bassist / main-man Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilminster and drummer Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor constituted the band’s ‘classic’ line-up from 1976 to 1982.  (Lemmy and Phil Taylor died within two months of each other at the end of 2015.)  During those half-dozen years, they released a half-dozen albums, Motörhead in 1977, Overkill and Bomber in 1979, Ace of Spades in 1980, live album No Sleep ’til Hammersmith in 1981 and Iron Fist in 1982; and these were choc-a-bloc with splendid, ear-battering songs.

 

Songs like the afore-mentioned Ace of Spades, which if you ask me at least two days of the week I’ll identify as my favourite tune of all time.  And the eponymous Motörhead,  which Lemmy had actually written for his previous outfit, the ‘space-rock’ band Hawkwind, and which since then has been covered by everyone from Lawnmower Deth to Primal Scream.  And Bomber, inspired by Len Deighton’s 1970 World War II novel of the same name, which warns, “Because we shoot to kill, you know we will, it’s a bomber, it’s a bomber!”.  And Overkill, which begins with the mission statement, “Only way to feel the noise is when it’s loud and good…”  And that paean to a little-acknowledged but vital group of people in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, We are the Road Crew, which with its sledgehammering rhythm describes the tribulations faced by the average roadie: “Another town I’ve left behind, another drink completely blind, another hotel I can’t find, another backstage pass for you, another tube of superglue, another border to get through…

 

One nice thing about Motörhead during this era was that despite their uncompromising sound and hardcore image – the monstrous, fanged, tusked creature that was their emblem, the jagged Germanic lettering used in their logo, the outfits they wore onstage that made them look like crosses between spaghetti-western villains and Hells Angels – they clearly didn’t take themselves too seriously.  I first heard Ace of Spades, for example, when they featured on the famously anarchic Saturday-morning TV kids’ show Tiswas, an appearance that saw them getting drenched in buckets of water and pelted with custard pies.  In 1981, for a laugh, Lemmy recorded with the allegedly wholesome, granny-friendly Irish singing group the Nolan Sisters, of whom he later said: “We were supposed to be the smelliest, loudest motherf**kers in the building but we more than met our match.  We were in awe.  You couldn’t mess with the Nolan Sisters.”

 

© Valkyrie Records

 

However, a decision in 1982 to record a version of Tammy Wynette’s Stand by your Man (with the late Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics) proved a joke too far for Fast Eddie Clarke, who left the band in protest.  That marked the end of Motörhead’s greatest line-up, although the next three decades, when Lemmy worked with guitarists Brian ‘Robbo’ Robertson, Michael ‘Wurzel’ Burston and Phil ‘Wizzo’ Campbell and drummers Pete Gill and Mikkey Dee, were pretty good too – mainly because the many later albums didn’t tamper with the band’s fast-and-loud formula.  Lemmy surely believed the old adage that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.  Mind you, I think his finest late-career moment wasn’t with Motörhead but with Dave Grohl’s 2004 project Probot, when he and Grohl collaborated for the rousing song Shake Your Blood.

 

In 1997 I had my first opportunity to see Motörhead live.  I was living in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo and the band were booked to play a gig at the local venue Sapporo Factory (which appropriately enough was a former beer brewery).  Alas, the gig clashed with a rather important family event – my sister’s wedding, which necessitated me being back in Scotland – and I missed it.  Afterwards, a mate who’d attended the gig told me how Lemmy asked the crowd if they wanted to hear some ‘new songs’.  When the crowd shouted back “No!”, he retorted, “F**k off, I’m going to play the new songs anyway.”  My mate noted that it didn’t matter because “the new songs sounded exactly the same as the old ones.”

 

Luckily, I got around to seeing the band twice during the noughties, both times while I was living in England: in 2004 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and in 2008 in Norwich.  At the Newcastle gig, Motörhead performed a song by the legendary New York punk band the Ramones in honour of their guitarist Johnny Ramone, who’d recently passed away.  There seemed to be a curse on the Ramones because their founding members were dropping like flies at the time.  Lemmy announced wearily, “We keep saying we’re never going to play another Ramones song again.  But then another one of the bastards goes and dies on us and we have to play another Ramones song, as a tribute.”  Well, we’re now in 2018 and by a sad coincidence not only has the entire classic line-up of the Ramones expired – Joey Ramone in 2001, Dee Dee in 2002, Johnny in 2004 and Tommy in 2014 – but so too has that of Motörhead.

 

Of course, they themselves may be gone, but their music remains.  I’ll finish this post by paraphrasing one of the characters at the end of the 1982 movie Mad Max II – that’s the last we’ll ever see of them, but they live now in our memories.  And on our stereo systems.

 

© Bronze Records

 

My favourite films of 2017

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Better late than never – well, I’ve been off on holiday for the past fortnight – here’s a round-up of the films I saw in 2017 and liked best.  My definition of a 2017 film is simply one that was released in the UK during the year.  I should say I’ve been extremely lazy about watching movies this last year and there are many I haven’t seen – indeed, I have DVDs of The Killing of a Sacred Dear, It Comes at Night, Toni Erdmann and the remake of The Beguiled sitting on my table at this very moment, waiting to be watched.

 

Baby Driver

Edgar Wright’s sleek, shiny riff on seemingly every bank-heist and car-chase movie made in the 1960s and 1970s – Bullit (1968), The Italian Job (1969), The French Connection (1971), Vanishing Point (1971), The Getaway (1972), The Driver (1978), etc. – is a triumph of style over substance.  But what the hell?  I loved it and I think I’m entitled to one guilty pleasure in 2017.

 

And few things are more pleasurable in this tale of a young getaway-car driver (Ansel Elgort) being forced by his boss (Kevin Spacy) to work with ever-more dysfunctional groups of bank robbers than its use of music.  Edgar Wright’s movies always have great soundtracks, but the songs here – everything from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Bellbottoms to Focus’s Hocus Pocus – have never been as seamlessly and exhilaratingly woven into the action.

 

Blade Runner 2049

With Blade Runner 2049 Canadian director Denis Villeneuve achieved the impossible.  He crafted a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece that was as haunting, elegiac, philosophical and visually overwhelming as the original.

 

A Dark Song

Films usually make the practice of magic look easy.  You draw a circle, recite an incantation, perform a sacrifice and – hey presto! – your wish is granted.  The little-seen but fascinating Irish horror movie A Dark Song, directed by newcomer Liam Gavin, takes a different approach, however.  Here, fulfilling your goals with magic requires gruelling effort, endless repetition, numbing attention to detail, painful self-deprivation and much, much time.  A Dark Song has a bereaved mother (Catherine Walker) subjecting herself to months of confinement in a remote house carrying out arcane rituals under the unsympathetic eye of a hired occultist (Steve Oram) in the hope that eventually – eventually – she’ll gain access to a realm of angels and demons where she can communicate with her dead son.  It’s entirely possible, though, that Oram is a charlatan who’s doing this to cheat her out of a lot of money.

 

Inevitably, it’s something of an anti-climax when the angels and demons finally appear – they seem both too generic and too strange.  But the getting-there in A Dark Song is absolutely engrossing.

 

© Syncopy Inc. / Warner Bros

 

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s epic recreation of the evacuation of 340,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940 suffered from unfortunate timing.  It was released a year after the British public, by a small majority, voted to leave the European Union.  Predictably, the film was seized upon by right-wing Brexiters as a timely reminder of what plucky little Britain is capable of when it finds itself in a tight spot – especially when quitting the European mainland is involved – while liberal Remainers lamented about it wallowing in nostalgia.  Well, bollocks to thatDunkirk is just a great film and writer-director Nolan deserves kudos for avoiding the usual war-movie clichés and applying his own special style to it.

 

Dunkirk is refreshingly un-clichéd in its depiction of the ordinary soldiers.  They’re frightened young men, scarcely more than boys, who aren’t being heroic but are simply trying to survive (and who expect to be ‘spat at in the streets’ for failure and cowardice if they do make it back to Britain).  Meanwhile, Nolan indulges his customary fondness for fragmented narratives and cuts between three different storylines that are happening over different time-frames and are Russian-doll-like in their sizes – a week when some soldiers struggle to stay alive on the French beaches, a day when an English yachtsman (a splendidly gallant and focused Mark Rylance) and his teenaged crew cross the channel to do their bit in rescuing the troops, and a few hours when two RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) fight off enemy aircraft trying to decimate the men and boats below.  Gradually and satisfyingly, the storylines converge on Rylance’s little boat.  And also deserving praise is the intense and unsettling music by Hans Zimmer, which cranks up the tension to near-unbearable levels.

 

Free Fire

I said Baby Driver was my one guilty pleasure of 2017.  Well, I lied.  Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire was my other guilty pleasure of the year.  It doesn’t have a story so much as a situation – a 1970s arms deal goes wrong in a warehouse, so that the IRA men doing the purchasing (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley), the intermediaries (Brie Larson, Armie Hammer), the dealer (a marvellously annoying Sharlto Copley) and various associates and henchmen spend most of the film’s 90 minutes pinned down and gradually being shot to shreds in a massive and complicated gun-battle.  Sneakily, this saves Wheatley the bother of having to write a proper script.  But the élan with which he directs the proceedings, the bickering, bitching dialogue (“As gorgeous as ever!” Copley tells Larson.  “Well, you’ve put on a bit of weight.  Did someone impregnate you?”) and the performances by the increasingly bullet-ridden cast make Free Fire a deliriously stylish – if not particularly substantial – experience.

 

© Rook Films / Film 4 Productions

 

Get Out

The classiest horror movie of 2017, Jordan Peele’s Get Out uses as its starting point the uncomfortable experiences of a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) enduring a weekend at the well-to-do countryside home of his white girlfriend’s family.  Her family and friends are soon making him cringe with their efforts to virtue-signal their liberalism and non-racism, enthusing about Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and the general wonderfulness of all things black, whilst simultaneously turning a blind eye to the fact that black servants are bringing them their food and drinks.  This being a horror film, Get Out reaches a point where it stops being a painful, satirical comedy of manners and starts being something altogether more paranoid and scary.  The result is impressively gripping but Get Out is to be applauded too for its humour.  Particularly funny is the hero’s excitable best mate (Lil Rel Howery), who’s the first person to realise something is seriously wrong: “You gotta get the f**k outta there, man!  You in some Eyes Wide Shut situation!  Leave, mother**ker!”

 

The Handmaiden

For The Handmaiden, South Korean director Park Chan-wook audaciously took Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel of intrigue, duplicity, kinkiness and illicit (for the time) love, and transplanted its story from Victorian England to early 20th century Korea.  The resulting work is lusciously colourful and exotic.  It benefits too from spirited performances by actresses Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri as the identity-swapping heiress and maidservant at the centre of the plot.

 

© Moho Film / Yong Film / CJ Entertainment

 

The Love Witch

If Baby Driver was an aural treat, Anne Biller’s fascinating supernatural / feminist fantasy The Love Witch was 2017’s greatest visual treat.  Its story of a young witch (Samantha Robinson), who’s self-confessedly ‘addicted to love’ and will weave any spell and wreak any havoc in order to get it, is set in a kitsch, retro-1970s California where the frocks, hats, lipstick, nail varnish, eye shadow, sportscars, suitcases, wallpapers, upholstery and candles are a gorgeous rainbow of crimsons, light blues, lavenders, pinks and cherry reds.  The film itself is a tad long, but it’s highly enjoyable, with its sweet-but-sinister script containing plenty of satirical barbs about the lengths a spell-weaving gal has to go to find love in a man’s world.

 

Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, like Dunkirk, features a triptych of narratives – though here the narratives are in chronological order, showing the tribulations of the central character as a child (Alex Hibbert), adolescent (Ashton Sanders) and young man (Trevante Rhodes) while he wrestles with bullies, criminality, an errant mother and a growing awareness (and acceptance) of his homosexuality.  Brilliantly written and beautifully, almost poetically, filmed, Moonlight is a rare beast indeed, a Best Picture winner at the Oscars that actually deserved to win Best Picture.

 

© A24 / Plan B Entertainment