This week’s favourite song of all time

 

From www.dinosaurrockguitar.com

 

Great news!  I’ve found a brand new Favourite Song of All Time.  For this week anyway.

 

Actually, I find a brand new Favourite Song of All Time practically every week of my life.  In the past this title of Favourite Song of All Time has been held by everything from Jubilee Street by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds to Duality by Slipknot, from The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash to Bikini Girls with Machine Guns by the Cramps, from Welcome to the Terrordome by Public Enemy to Touch Too Much by AC/DC, from Dayvan Cowboy by Boards of Canada to John Carpenter’s theme for Assault on Precinct 13.  (All right, those last two are ‘tunes’ rather than ‘songs’.)  A very long time ago, when I was very young, I remember the title being held by such epics as Benny Hill’s Ernie (“And he drove the fastest milk-cart in the west”) and David Bowie’s The Laughing Gnome (“Ha-ha-ha, hee-hee-hee, I’m a laughing gnome and you can’t catch me!”)  See?  Poor David Bowie is dead now but I still can’t shut up about The Laughing Gnome.

 

I discovered this week’s Favourite Song of All Time when recently I visited a second-hand CD, vinyl and DVD fair held near where my family live in Scotland.  While I scoured a rack of old rock-and-pop CDs, a sudden and inexplicable impulse compelled me to fork over four pounds for a compilation called The Very Best of Rainbow.

 

Rainbow were formed by guitarist Ritchie Blackmore after he quit the seminal heavy metal band Deep Purple in the mid-1970s.  Actually, lots of people were quitting Deep Purple and starting new groups in those days.  Another was former Purple vocalist David Coverdale, who formed the band Whitesnake.  I became aware of Blackmore and Coverdale’s post-Purple projects when I noticed at school how the heavy metal kids had split into two antagonistic factions, those who had the Rainbow logo stitched onto the backs of their denim jackets and were always slagging off Whitesnake, and those with the Whitesnake logo on their jackets who were always slagging off Rainbow.  It resembled a head-banging version of the rivalry that broke out in the Soviet Union between Stalin and Trotsky after Lenin was incapacitated.

 

There was actually a third musical splinter from Deep Purple – the band Gillan, run by Ian Gillan, who’d been the Purple vocalist prior to Coverdale.  However, the one thing that seemed to unite the Rainbow and Whitesnake factions at my school was the belief that Gillan’s outfit were a pile of old bollocks.

 

Rainbow found fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s when they reached the UK singles top ten with rocked-up power ballads like Since You Been Gone and I Surrender, the former with vocals by Australian Graham Bonnet and the latter sung by Bonnet’s replacement, American Joe Lynn Turner.  These songs gave me the impression that, for a supposed heavy metal band, Rainbow were a bit lame and soppy.  This was an era, after all, when Mötorhead were blowing the roofs off teenage parties and giving parents ear-bleed with Ace of Spades.  However, a listen to The Very Best of Rainbow has reminded me that in the years before Bonnet and Turner, the band had a very different type of vocalist: Ronnie James Dio.

 

From wikipedia.org

 

Dio, at five feet, four inches tall, wasn’t the biggest physical presence in heavy metal.  But he had a big voice – an Italian-American, he was heavily influenced by opera, especially by the 1950s tenor Mario Lanza.  He also had a big vision, for he was into all things medieval and particularly into Lord of the Rings-style medieval fantasy.  No wonder that he was fronting a band called Elf when he hooked up with Blackmore.  And his obsessions inform the highlight of his collaboration with Blackmore: the stomping anthem Stargazer, originally found on the 1976 Rainbow album, Rising.  When I listened to Stargazer the other day, I immediately thought: “Wow!  That’s my favourite song of all time!”

 

Stargazer begins with a madcap cacophony of drums courtesy of Rainbow’s then drummer, the late Cozy Powell.  (By the time of his death in 1998 Powell seemed to have belonged to every heavy metal band that’d ever existed, including Whitesnake, the Michael Schenker Group, Black Sabbath and Yngwie Malmsteen.  For a while he was even in Emerson, Lake and Palmer, who renamed themselves Emerson, Lake and Powell during his tenure.)  Then we get into the song proper: an unstoppably slugging riff and Dio hollering ominously about a wizard who glides ‘lighter than air.’  When the song rises towards the first of many crescendos, so the hairs rise too on the back of your neck as Dio wails: “Oh, I see his fa-a-ace!”

 

So what’s going on?  As the song progresses, it transpires that a powerful wizard – one of the Saruman rather than the Gandalf variety – has enslaved an army of people and set them to work constructing an impossibly-high tower, as in the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel.  But his purpose is not to reach heaven.  When the thing is finished, he intends to jump off the top of it and fly.  I like how Dio gives the tale a proletarian tone by telling it from the point of view of one of the wizard’s slaves.  Thus the chorus goes: “In the heat and the rain / With whips and chains / Just to see him fly / So many die! / We build a tower of stone / With our flesh and bone / Just to see him fly / Don’t know why!”

 

Right on, Ronnie.  Up the workers!

 

Much of the music is splendid, flavoured with a delicious Middle Eastern sound that accords with lyrics like “Hot wind moving fast across the desert.”  Supposedly, Blackmore used an unidentified Turkish instrument during the recording and I assume it makes a big contribution.

 

© Polydor Records

 

Incidentally, if the song sounds heavy even by the standards of 1970s heavy metal, it’s because you’re not just listening to Rainbow.  For the recording, Blackmore managed to recruit the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, so you can hear them clunking around in there too.  Yes, if you’re going to go over the top, you might as well do so in style.

 

Also going over the top, two-thirds of the way through, is the wizard, who climbs the completed tower in preparation for flying.  And guess what happens next?  “No sound as he falls instead of rising / Time standing still, now there’s blood on the sand”.  With the vainglorious wizard reduced to a sticky red smear back on terra firma, the slave-narrator finds himself unexpectedly free.  The song ends with Dio singing, “I’m coming home, coming home, I’m coming home!”

 

The song isn’t perfect.  Around the five-minute stage, Blackmore’s guitar doodlings reach barely-acceptable levels of wankiness.  But overall, those eight minutes and 26 seconds of Stargazer are a great deal of fun.  Its crunching riffage would, for instance, sound brilliant played in a cheesy giant monster movie, during a scene where two Godzilla-type behemoths slug it out in the middle of a city and flatten everything around them.  Actually, Guillermo Del Toro could do worse than buy the rights to Stargazer when he finally gets around to filming Pacific Rim II.

 

Rainbow initially folded in 1984, but returned for four years in the 1990s with Scotsman Doogie White as their fourth vocalist.  And I’ve heard that during the summer of 2016 the band has been playing concerts again, though apart from Blackmore the line-up is a completely new one.

 

Meanwhile, Ronnie James Dio formed his own band, Dio, in 1982.  He also managed, over the years, to be a member of Black Sabbath – his albums with them, Heaven and Hell (1980), Mob Rules (1981) and Dehumanizer (1992), are the only Sabbath ones without Ozzy Osbourne on vocals that are worth listening to.  An endearing and witty character who clearly didn’t take himself too seriously – check out his cameo appearance in the Jack Black comedy Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny (2006) or his interview in the 2005 documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey – he sadly died from stomach cancer in 2010.

 

By the way, it’s said that Dio invented the ‘devil’s horns’ salute that’s ubiquitous at heavy metal concerts today.  He allegedly got the idea for it from a superstitious Italian grandmother who’d raise her index finger and little finger as a way of warding off the evil eye.  If this is true, then heavy metal fans owe a lot not just to Dio, but also to Dio’s granny.

 

From www.geeksofdoom.com

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ble0pQHUb8c

 

The magnificent seven dwarves

 

© The Birmingham Mail

 

Last weekend saw the passing of Kenny Baker, an actor whose face wasn’t famous but whose most prominent film-role certainly was.  The three-foot, eight-inch-tall Baker was the man inside the bodywork of the diminutive Star Wars robot R2D2, part dodgem car and part coffee percolator.  He steered the trundling, beeping droid through six instalments of George Lucas’s lucrative space-fantasy saga.  He would have returned in a seventh, last year’s The Force Awakens, but declining health prevented this.

 

In the movies R2D2 was partnered with the jabbering humanoid robot C-3PO, whom I always thought was a bit of a knob-head.  R2D2, though, was the star.  Indeed, according to R2D2’s Wikipedia entry, George Lucas made a point of having the resourceful little droid save the day on at least one occasion in every film.

 

That said, I think Baker’s finest hour wasn’t as R2D2 but as Fidget, one of the six time-travelling dwarves in Terry Gilliam’s superlative fantasy film, The Time Bandits (1981).  The kindly Fidget gets killed near the end, squashed beneath a falling pillar; but fortunately God, played by Sir Ralph Richardson, pops up in the nick of time to restore him to life.  I’ve heard claims that Gilliam based the dwarves’ characters on the six members of the outfit he’d formerly belonged to, the Monty Python team; and Fidget, the nice-guy dwarf, was modelled on Michael Palin.

 

Kenny Baker’s death got me thinking.  I’ve seen a lot of short actors in my time – especially as they appear in many horror, fantasy and science-fiction movies, three genres I’m a fan of.  So who are my favourite ones?

 

Firstly, I’d pick Skip Martin.  By the time of his death in 1984 Martin had appeared in several British horror movies that, because I watched them at a formative age, are now seared on my memory.  As well as playing big-top dwarves in John Llewellyn Moxley / Werner Jacobs’ Circus of Fear (1966) and Robert Young’s atmospheric Vampire Circus (1972), Skip Martin appeared in Corridors of Blood (1958), The Hellfire Club (1961), Son of Dracula (1974) and the absolutely barking-mad-insane Horror Hospital (1973).

 

© Alta Vista Productions / AIP

 

But he’s at his best in Roger Corman’s majestic 1964 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.  Writers Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell stitch a second Poe story, Hop Frog, into the plot and Martin takes the title role in this.  Well, almost the title role – Beaumont and Campbell rename him ‘Hop Toad’ for some reason.  Hop Toad is one of two little people employed as entertainers by rottenly-evil Prince Prospero (Vincent Price), who’s holed up in his castle and living a life of drink / drugs / sex / party / diabolism-fuelled decadence while a plague, the Red Death, decimates the countryside outside.  One of Prospero’s loathsome guests, Alfredo (Patrick Magee), insults Hop Toad’s dainty, doll-like partner Esmerelda and he vows revenge.

 

This comes when Alfredo decides to don fancy dress at Prospero’s next big social event, the masque.  Hop Toad persuades him to wear a hairy (and inflammable) ape costume.  Then on the night, with the help of some chains and a giant hanging candelabrum, he suspends Alfredo above the revellers on the dance floor, sets his costume alight and burns him to a crisp.  This delights Price’s Prospero, who purrs, “Look…  I believe Hop Toad is playing some sort of a joke on Alfredo!”  Gratifyingly, when the inevitable happens and the Red Death gets into the castle and poops the party, Hop Toad and Esmerelda are among the few who escape.

 

Less prolific in British horror movies, but still memorable, was American actor Michael Dunn.  A man with an intriguing back story – he reputedly had an IQ of 178 and a non-acting CV that included stints as a singer, a journalist, a hotel detective and a monk – he made his name during the 1960s with appearances in countless American TV shows, most famously as Dr Miguelito Loveless, the main villain in The Wild, Wild West (1965-1968).  He was also nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in Edward Albee’s stage adaptation of Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café and for an Oscar for his role as narrator in Ship of Fools (1965).

 

From www.nctc.net

 

Near the end of his life he appeared in another British-made Poe adaptation, Gordon Hessler’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971); and another British horror film of the barking-mad-insane variety, Jack Cardiff’s The Mutations (1973), in which he was a member of a carnival sideshow that’s a front for some horrific gene-splicing experiments carried out by mad scientist Donald Pleasence.  In the year The Mutations was made, Dunn – by then frustrated about the roles he was getting – died of pulmonary heart disease.  His health wasn’t helped by his fondness for Jack Daniel’s, which despite his size he could put away a lot of.

 

When I’m in the right mood, I quite like The Mutations.  But I can see how appearing in a sleazy British horror movie where Donald Pleasence surgically turns people into plant monsters must have convinced Dunn his career was on the skids.

 

One short actor whose career is unlikely to be on the skids anytime soon is British actor Warwick Davis.  After his appearances in three Star Wars films, eight Harry Potter films, plus the Ricky Gervais situation comedy Life’s Too Short (2011-2013), he’s now regarded in Britain as a national treasure.  Incidentally, when he was less famous, Davis played the title character in six instalments of the dopey Leprechaun horror-comedy franchise.  He was in Leprechaun (1992), Leprechaun II (1993), Leprechaun III (1994), Leprechaun IV: In Space (1996), Leprechaun: In the Hood (2000) and Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood (2003).  About the last film, Entertainment Weekly mused, “If a movie could spark a race riot, this is it.”

 

From wikipedia.org

 

I like Warwick Davis a lot.  However, having seen clips of those Leprechaun movies – I’ve never watched any in their entirety because, er, life’s too short – I’d advise him to do a bit of work on his Irish accent.

 

Another modern actor of short stature who seems to be doing well is Canadian actor Jordan Prentice.  Like Kenny Baker and Warwick Davis, Prentice found early employment with George Lucas; but while Baker and Davis were lucky enough to be involved in the box-office-busting Star Wars series, Prentice was involved in a less illustrious item in the Lucas canon.  He was one of the actors operating the title character in the atrocious 1986 sci-fi comedy Howard the Duck.

 

In the noughties Prentice appeared in two of my favourite comic-noir movies.  Michael McDonagh’s In Bruges (2008) sees him playing Jimmy, an obnoxious ketamine-abusing, prostitute-chasing dwarf actor who’s doing some filming in the Belgian city of the title.  Jimmy has to put up with dim-witted interloper Ray (Colin Farrell), who insists on babbling about the existentialist misery of being a dwarf: “People go around calling you a midget when you want to be called a dwarf.  Of course you’re going to blow your head off.”

 

© Film4 Productions / Focus Films

 

The previous year he’d appeared in Allan Moyle’s Weirdsville, an amusing shaggy-dog story set in Ontario and involving druggies, Satanists and, yes, dwarves.  The latter seem to belong to a historical re-enactment society for vertically-challenged people and they’re led by Prentice’s character, Martin.  When late in the film Martin and his buddies turn up to save the day dressed in medieval garb, they provide an obvious visual reference to The Time Bandits.

 

That brings me back to The Time Bandits and my next favourite short actor.  Englishman David Rappaport seemed ubiquitous on UK television when I was a youth.  He appeared alongside the anarchic likes of Spike Milligan, Sylvester McCoy, Rik Mayall and Kenny Everett in various madcap kids’ and adult TV shows that I enjoyed, including Q9 (1980), Jigsaw (1980-1981), The Goodies (1981), Tiswas (1981-1982), The Young Ones (1982-1983) and The Kenny Everett Television Show (1985).  He was also in movies like Cuba (1979) and The Bride (1985).  But his cinematic break came when another anarchic talent, Terry Gilliam, cast him in The Time Bandits as Randall, the dwarves’ cocky but essentially good-hearted leader.  If you believe the Monty Python theory, Gilliam based this character on John Cleese.

 

© HandMade Films / Janus Films

 

Tragically, Rappaport suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1990.  Three years later, another short actor, Frenchman Hervé Villechaize, star of the schmaltzy 1980s American TV show Fantasy Island, took his own life – though Villechaize was driven to this not because of mental anguish but because of chronic pain caused by his physical condition.  (In In Bruges, Colin Farrell’s character alludes to both Rapport and Villechaize during his babblings about dwarves.)

 

I’m not a Fantasy Island fan but I admired Villechaize for his performance as Nick Nack, henchman of the villainous Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) in the 1974 James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun.  The film’s lame but it has one thing going for it – its baddies, Lee and Villechaize.  While Lee invests Scaramanga with his usual imperious wickedness, Villechaize is more sinisterly ambiguous.  He seems affable.  He’s dutiful and obedient.  Because of his size, he’s almost elf-like.  So is he dangerous?  And if so, how dangerous?  Even Bond himself, Roger Moore, can’t make up his mind.  At the film’s end, rather than liquidating Nick Nack, he settles for trapping him inside a suitcase.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Incidentally, I’ve read that the American short actor Peter Dinklage – famous for his performances in the 2003 arthouse hit The Station Agent and the tits-blood-and-dragons TV fantasy show Game of Thrones – is currently trying to make a film about Villechaize called My Dinner with Hervé.  If the project comes to fruition, let’s hope it’s a worthy epitaph for James Bond’s littlest adversary.

 

© HandMade Films / Janus Films

 

The Cricket Club gets bowled out

 

 

As I get older and become more of a creature of habit, one thing I increasingly dislike is change.  So the other evening in Colombo I got a shock.  I finished work and made my way to the Cricket Club, a well-known eating and drinking establishment close to my workplace, to unwind with a beer.  This is something I do regularly.

 

I walked along the street beside the Cricket Club and turned around a corner to where its entrance was… and discovered that its big green gates were fastened shut across the entrance.  Then, peering over the top of its perimeter wall, I saw that the charming old colonial-type bungalow that contains the Cricket Club was in darkness.

 

It was closed.  And a newly hung-up banner told me that the Cricket Club, in this neighbourhood at least, was closed for good.

 

Change had come.  “Eeeek!” I went.

 

I’ll be honest.  The Cricket Club wasn’t my all-time favourite place in Colombo to hang out in and have a meal or drink.  I sometimes found the food a bit stodgy.  It could get uncomfortably busy with crowds of holiday makers who were shuttled there on tour-coaches.  I didn’t think the bar area was particularly cosy or atmospheric, although it was definitely an improvement on the phoney, sanitised faux-old-style-British pubs that you get in the city’s upmarket hotels like the Cinnamon Grand.  And the music played there was very often ghastly.  I’m sorry, Cricket Club, but if I want to chill out with a beer and a bite to eat, the very last thing I want to hear is a loud Hi NRG version of The Final Countdown by Europe.

 

 

And the place’s big gimmick left me cold.  Yes, the Cricket Club was a place dedicated to the sport of cricket.  The walls were covered with cricketing memorabilia – with pictures of players, teams and matches, with bats, balls and stumps, with sweaters, banners and flags.  And the dishes on the menu were named after famous cricket players.  Thus, you could order Imran Khan pumpkin soup, Graham Gooch fish and chips, Mike Gatting garlic prawns, a Viv Richards veggie bake, an Allan Lamb stir-fry, a Dickie Bird burger and inevitably a ‘David Shepherd’ pie.  Now this is great if you’re a fan of cricket.  Unfortunately, I’m somebody who considers cricket to be the most tedious sport ever devised by humankind.  It doesn’t surprise me that only about ten countries on the planet are deluded enough to play it.  (Though admittedly one of those ten, India, does contain 17% of the world’s population.)

 

But the Cricket Club had its positive features too.  For one thing, the waiting staff seemed a welcoming and decent bunch of blokes.  And there was one part of it that I found heavenly – its veranda.

 

Ah, how I loved that veranda!  I’d struggle onto it following a hectic and wearying day’s work and sit at one of its tables, and order a beer, and spend my time under a creaking ceiling fan watching the light outside affect a series of ever-darkening shades as evening gave way to night.  Cats would prowl and crows would hop across the open area in front of the veranda.  And at a certain point a big gecko would appear on the wall next to me and entertain me for hours as he scurried to and fro searching for bugs to pounce on.  After a few evenings I’d christened him – not very originally – ‘Gordon’.

 

Me, a beer and Gordon the Gecko on the Cricket Club veranda.  How could I possibly spend a more blissful evening?

 

Incidentally, that area before the veranda included the Cricket Club’s most photographed feature.  This was a tall white signpost with a curious-looking figure on top, half-cricketer and half-Old Father Time.  It also had eight or so signs pointing off in different directions, towards different famous cricket-grounds in different cricket-playing countries, and it displayed the distances from Colombo to each one.  It was 15,829 km to Queen’s Park Oval in Trinidad, 10,910 km to Basin Reserve in New Zealand and so on.

 

 

With hindsight, I suppose it was no surprise that the Cricket Club, housed in that old bungalow, was living on borrowed time.  The structure was showing its age and maintaining it must have been a drain on resources.  Back in May, when unusually violent rain pounded Sri Lanka, its roof couldn’t cope.  At the time I went there for a meal with my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, and I soon discovered that water was dribbling through the ceiling in the main men’s toilet.  Later, as we were finishing our meal in the place’s lobby area, the lobby-roof started leaking too.  By bad luck, Mrs Blood and Porridge was sitting directly under the leak and huge cold drops of water came smacking down onto the crown of her head.

 

It seems sadly inevitable that rumours are already circulating about the site where the Cricket Club operated – old bungalow and all – being cleared to make way for a new, costly apartment block.  Several of these have sprouted up in the district in recent years.  Indeed, at the other end of the street, an architecturally handsome outlet of the boutique / gift-shop Paradise Road was levelled a short time ago, presumably to allow the construction of yet another apartment block.

 

However, the Cricket Club itself isn’t dead – for the banner above the gates announces that in the near future it will be reopening at a new address on Flower Road.  I’ve heard that its staff are busy transferring everything (including, no doubt, all the cricketing memorabilia) to Flower Road at this very moment.  It’s probably too much to hope for, but it would be nice if they could dismantle the veranda and then reassemble it, brick-by-brick and plank-by-plank, at the new premises.  Oh, and they’d better bring Gordon the Gecko with them.

 

Oh, and guys – while you’re at it, get some f***ing decent music in.  Please!

 

 

TV comic genius 5: Steptoe and Son

 

(c) BBC

 

In the UK in the early 1970s, all young kids – like me – loved the BBC sitcom Steptoe and Son.  We particularly loved the irascible and wily old rag-and-bone man Albert Steptoe, played by Wilfred Brambell, who seemed so grotesque that he could have been created by Roald Dahl.  With his skull-like head, contorted features, mangled dentures, slobbering voice, spiteful cackle, stick-thin limbs, revolting habits and total disregard for personal hygiene, how could kids not have found him fascinating?

 

Those youngsters in the playground unlucky enough to be a bit sallow or thin-faced or to have a propensity for scratching themselves were doomed to live out their schooldays branded with the unglamorous nickname ‘Steptoe’.  And when we weren’t tormenting other kids for looking like Albert Steptoe, we tried our best to impersonate him: backs hunched, eyes leering, noses screwed up, teeth bared, voices gargling, “’Aaa-rold!  ’Aaa-rold!”

 

Harold Steptoe – Albert’s son and reluctant partner in the rag-and-bone trade, played by Harry H. Corbett – seemed a more conventional character to us young ’uns and was therefore less interesting.  But we did impersonations of him too, from the moment that frequently arose in the show when Harold would glare at Albert, his expression suggesting someone who’d just had a rhinoceros fart into his face, and contemptuously intone, “You dir-ty old man!”

 

We loved watching Steptoe and Son, which we managed somehow to do despite it being shown past our official bedtimes – after the Nine O’Clock News if I remember correctly.  We loved the yelling matches between Albert and Harold and the occasional slapstick: Harold pouring a bottle of surgical spirit over Albert’s bare arse in the 1974 episode Upstairs, Downstairs, Upstairs, Downstairs, or Albert trying to take a bath in the kitchen sink in the 1972 movie spin-off, only to have the curtains collapse and his emaciated nakedness revealed to a neighbour-lady outside.  We loved the ramshackle squalor of the Steptoe living room, as junk-filled as their front yard, with its anatomical skeleton, stuffed bear, gramophone, non-working grandfather clock and dusty old boxes containing Albert’s long-lost false teeth.  And we loved the sight-gags about the dung that regularly tumbled out of the Steptoes’ carthorse.

 

(c) BBC

 

For years my favourite Steptoe episode was 1974’s The Seven Steptoerai, which saw Harold and Albert’s livelihood under threat from a protection racket run by loathsome local gangster Frankie Barrow (deliciously played by character actor Henry Woolf).  Improbably, Albert assembles a ‘team’ consisting of his pension-age cronies who take on Barrow’s goons in the Steptoe yard and defeat them in vicious hand-to-hand combat.  The old fellows have somehow become adept at kung-fu fighting through watching lots of Bruce Lee movies at the local fleapit.  In the supporting cast for this episode is the legendary stuntman Vic Armstrong, whom I assume played one of the gangsters.  I love the idea that Harrison Ford’s stunt double in the Indiana Jones movies once had the crap beaten out of him by Old Man Steptoe and his mates.

 

It’s a shock, then, to watch the show on Youtube forty years later and realise how bleak it is.  There’s a tragedy to it that sailed over my head when I was nine years old.  It’s still hilarious at times, but there are also moments when it definitely feels not funny because the depiction of Albert and Harold, and the relationship between them, is so painful.  (The Seven Steptoerai is actually a rare thing in the Steptoe world, a crowd-pleaser.)

 

Tellingly, my better half – who’s American – finds Steptoe and Son difficult to watch.  She admires the writing and acting, but to her the show just seems too depressing to be enjoyable.  It probably didn’t help that the episode with which I tried to introduce her to Steptoe and Son was 1972’s The Desperate Hours.  This has a pair of escaped convicts – a young one played by Leonard Rossiter and an old one played by J.G. Devlin – invade the Steptoe residence and demand food, warmth and shelter.  “First of all,” says Rossiter, “we want some grub.  We’re starving!”  “So are we,” stammers Harold.  It transpires that financially the Steptoes have been going through a bad patch, with the result that their electricity keeps getting cut off, the house is freezing and the only sustenance in the kitchen is some cold lumpy porridge, a rock-hard piece of bread and some ancient cheese.  “You can scrape the green bits off,” says Albert helpfully.

 

Rossiter and Devlin soon realise they were better off in prison – which, predictably, is where they are again at the episode’s end, though not before the Steptoes have cadged off them some cigarettes and some money to stick in the electricity coin-meter.  Meanwhile, it’s clear that Harold and Albert are equally imprisoned, in poverty.

 

(c) BBC

 

The Desperate Hours also highlights a different type of imprisonment – a spiritual type – that’s a strong theme throughout Steptoe and Son.  Harold befriends Rossiter’s convict after hearing how his career in crime was hobbled by his partnership with the elderly Devlin.  It was Devlin whose geriatric incompetence got the pair of them caught in the first place.  And it’s likely that his slowness and frailty will get them caught again following their escape.  The convicts’ relationship, Harold realises, parallels his own relationship with his dad; because Harold has spent years trying to better himself and escape from the lowly life of a rag-and-bone man, only to have every attempt thwarted by the exasperating but crafty and manipulative Albert.

 

It’s more complicated than that, though.  Harold’s aspirations for better things aren’t always noble.  Sometimes they’re fueled by pure snobbery.  In another 1972 episode, Porn Yesterday, Harold finds an antique What the Butler Saw machine during his rounds and is horrified to learn that one of the naked performers cavorting on the naughty film-reel inside is his own father – during hard times in the 1920s, Albert was forced to eke a living acting in vintage porn movies.  One of Harold’s first thoughts is that if this revelation gets out in the local community, it’ll scupper his chances of joining the golf club.

 

And Harold can be callous.  In an earlier episode, 1964’s Home Fit for Heroes, he joins a yacht-crew who intend to voyage around the world for two years and he has no qualms about abandoning Albert to a miserable existence in an old folks’ home.  The plan falls through eventually, but not because Harold suffers a crisis-of-conscience about his father.  It’s because the bright young things crewing the yacht change their mind about having Harold on board.  They decide – irony! – he’s too old to travel with them.

 

Meanwhile, the reason for Albert’s deviousness towards Harold isn’t that he’s a bastard who wants to keep his son in a life of penury.  It’s that he knows, deep down, that if Harold leaves him he’ll die a sad and lonely old man.  In Home Fit for Heroes there’s a scene where Harold bids Albert farewell at the old folks’ home.  Then the camera lingers on Albert, sitting silently and alone on the bed of his bare new room.  And it lingers… and lingers… and lingers.  That’s another disconcerting example of Steptoe and Son ceasing to be funny.

 

(c) BBC

 

Steptoe and Son was the brainchild of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the writing partnership who’d previously penned radio and TV scripts for the celebrated Tony Hancock.  It was born out of an episode called The Offer that Galton and Simpson wrote for the anthology series Comedy Playhouse and, subsequently, it ran for eight seasons: four black-and-white ones broadcast from 1962 to 1965 and four colour ones broadcast from 1970 to 1974, with Galton and Simpson providing all the scripts.  There were also two movie versions, Steptoe and Son in 1972 and Steptoe and Son Ride Again in 1975, but they weren’t up to much (though the second one at least featured the welcome return of the delightfully scummy Frankie Barrow).  Meanwhile, American TV producer Norman Lear borrowed the premise for the African-American sitcom Sanford and Son, which ran from 1972 to 1977 and was set in the Watts district of Los Angeles.  Among the writers contributing scripts to Sanford and Son, incidentally, was the late, lamented Gary Shandling.

 

In recent years, the comic excellence of Steptoe and Son has been overshadowed by speculation about what went on behind the scenes.  It’s been claimed that the relationship between stars Wilfred Brambell and Harry H. Corbett was as antagonistic as the relationship between their characters.  Brambell was a gay man at a time in Britain when being a practising homosexual could land you in prison and, supposedly, his paranoia about this led to him drinking too much and regularly fluffing his lines – much to the anger of Corbett, a serious method-actor who’d once been touted as Britain’s answer to Marlon Brando.  That Corbett’s career as the British Brando never materialised, due to him being typecast as Harold Steptoe, allegedly embittered him further about the show and about Brambell.  In 2008, this unhappy narrative became the basis for a BBC Four play called The Curse of Steptoe, starring Jason Isaacs as Corbett, Phil Davis as Brambell, Burn Gorman as Galton and Rory Kinnear as Simpson.

 

By 2008, both Corbett and Brambell were long dead and couldn’t give their side of the story.  But Galton and Simpson were still around – and are still around – and made no bones about how they thought The Curse of Steptoe’s version of events was rubbish.  The two actors, they argued, had “worked beautifully together.”  My own suspicion is that the stuff about Corbett and Brambell being at each other’s throats was indeed a myth.  Partly it was fuelled by people’s tendency to confuse what they see onscreen with what they assume is the case off it.  And partly it was because Galton and Simpson’s careers were already associated with one tragedy – after breaking with them in 1961, Tony Hancock lost his comedic magic touch, saw his career decline, succumbed to alcoholism and died of an overdose in 1968 – which I suppose made it tempting to cook up another tragedy to associate with them.  Hence, The Curse of Steptoe.

 

Steptoe and Son is for my money the best situation comedy that British telly ever produced.  As I said, Galton and Simpson are still with us – both now a venerable 86 – and in May this year they were awarded a Fellowship by the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, which was long overdue.  Harold and Albert, meanwhile, bowed out with a 1974 Christmas special wherein Harold, for once, manages to rid himself of Albert, temporarily at least – tricking the old codger into going off on holiday so that he can spend some quality time at home with a (hitherto-unmentioned) girlfriend.  And I think that was an appropriate time to bid adios to the duo.

 

I’d really prefer not to know what happened to Albert, Harold and their rag-and-bone business during the cutthroat Thatcherite 1980s.

 

(c) BBC

 

The British Garrison Cemetery in Kandy

 

 

The British Garrison Cemetery in Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second biggest city, provided accommodation for deceased members of the local colonial community for half-a-century.  Occupying a strip near the bottom of a wooded slope a few hundred metres east of Kandy’s famous Temple of the Tooth, it functioned as a burial ground from 1822 to the mid-1870s, after which the only interments allowed were for relatives of people already buried there.

 

Leaflets about the cemetery are available at the entrance.  It’s a good idea to take one as it’ll often give more information about the place’s residents than what’s inscribed on their headstones – if those inscriptions are readable at all.

 

 

The best-known person buried there is probably Sir John D’Oyly, whose remains lie beneath a grooved, cacti-like stone column.  As the leaflet explains, he “represented the British Government at the 1815 Convention whereat the Kingdom of Kandy was annexed to the British Crown.”  The British got their way after D’Oyly acted as an intermediary between them and various Kandyan chiefs who were disillusioned with and plotting against the then king of Kandy, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha – his downfall in 1815 marked the end of 2300 years of Sinhalese monarchy in Sri Lanka.  Officially, he was replaced as monarch by King George III.

 

Sri Vikrama Rajasinha is remembered as a tyrant, though it’s debatable if the Sri Lankans got much improvement with George III, who’d helped lose Britain’s American colonies and who by then was barking mad (possibly because of the blood disease porphyria).

 

 

D’Oyly became fluent in Sinhala and, following the British takeover, remained in Kandy until his death in 1824.  He evidently ‘went native’, with one British acquaintance observing that he lived there in the manner of ‘a Sinhalese hermit’.

 

Some years earlier, while he had governmental responsibilities in the southern district of Matara, D’Oyly had also befriended the Sri Lankan poetess Gajaman Nona.  After the death of Nona’s husband had left her and her family destitute, he granted them a piece of land to live on.  The leaflet notes that the grateful poetess wrote a ‘set of verses’ in his honour.  D’Oyly’s Wikipedia entry is more gossipy: “His earlier association with a woman poet, Gajaman Nona, in Matara led to some speculation.”

 

Elsewhere, it’s morbidly interesting to find out how some of the cemetery’s residents met their ends.  Many succumbed to things that were commonplace during the imperial project, when British people were shipped overseas to climes where they were unprepared for the temperature, weather, flora and fauna.  Thus, we get A. McGill who “died of sunstroke”: James Urquhart who, aged 32, “died of cholera”; and poor Lewis Herbert Kilby, “late of 132 Fenchurch Street, London”, whose headstone baldly states that he “died in Kandy on 8 October 1859 of acute diarrhoea.”   Meanwhile, there’s a certain nobility about the demise of Captain James McGlashan: “Without taking a precaution he walked from Trincomalee, drenched with rain, wading, sitting and even sleeping in saturated clothing: not surprisingly he was seized with violent fever and accepted his end with manly fortitude.”

 

 

Some of the manners of departure are rather bizarre.  David Findlay died when a Kandy building called Mullegodde House “collapsed on him.”  Then there’s John Spottiswood Robertson, whose death was apparently “the seventh and last recorded death of a European in Ceylon killed by wild elephants.”  Meanwhile, William Watson Mackwood’s expiry is, on his tombstone, attributed merely to an ‘accident’.  The cemetery leaflet, however, gives stranger and more gruesome details: “Alighting from his horse, he was transfixed by a stake placed to mark out the ground.”

 

The cemetery’s inhabitants originated in all parts of the British Isles.  It has a tiny Irish quarter, containing the remains of Henry Williams Desterre of Limerick and Joseph O’Brien of King’s Court, County Cavan.  And the Scots are well represented.  George Baxter Wilson of Aberdeenshire died from ‘intermittent fever’, while there’s a moving tribute to James McPherson of Kingussie: “This stone is erected by Highlanders who desire thus to record the piety, integrity and sterling worth of a countryman whose loss they deeply deplore.”

 

 

The British Garrison Cemetery is well maintained.  Indeed, it’s a model of neatness and order compared to the dilapidated and overgrown South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata, about which I blogged some time ago.

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?tag=south-park-street-cemetery

 

While my partner and I were visiting the place, two workmen – an old bloke and a young lad – were toiling there.  The lad demonstrated phenomenal powers of memory by reciting to us the information (barely legible or not-at-all legible on the headstones) about various people in various graves.  No doubt he’d developed this talent as a way of earning tips from visiting tourists and supplementing his meagre salary, which was 400 Sri Lankan rupees (two pounds) a day.  So after he’d escorted us around several graves, we tipped him.  Incidentally, one person who came to the British Garrison Cemetery a while back was Prince Charles, who saw fit to donate 5000 pounds to its upkeep.  I thought that tip was a rather shite one coming from a man who’s reputedly worth 158 million pounds.

 

http://www.therichest.com/celebnetworth/politician/royal/prince-charles-net-worth/

 

The cemetery has a scenic location.  One side, lined by a wire-mesh fence, looks across to the hills on the far shore of Bogambara Lake.  The other side is bounded by a stone wall, built against a cutting in the hillside, with small square holes in it at regular heights and intervals to let rainwater drain from above.  Above the wall is the green of the woods.  While we were there, an occasional white scrap would bob along in the breeze and turn out to be a butterfly; and there were occasional, magical moments when the breeze would shake the surrounding treetops and leaves would fall across the headstones and sarcophagi like green confetti.

 

 

Meanwhile a Buddhist stupa is visible on the slope above the eastern end of the cemetery.  It seems to act as a reminder to the cemetery’s inhabitants about whose country they’re lying in.  (The British were hardly mindful of local religious sensibilities, building Kandy’s St Paul’s Anglican Church right next to the sacred precincts of the Temple of the Tooth.)  They should be grateful that the descendants of their imperial subjects are willing to keep their final resting place in such good condition.

 

 

Lion down

 

For four days in mid-May, Sri Lanka was drubbed by some of the heaviest rain I’ve ever seen.  The downpour led to floods that claimed lives and destroyed property in Colombo, Kandy, Galle, Thabbowa, Chilaw, Kalutara, Kegalle, Matara, Nuwara Eliya and Ratnapura, and to landslides that flattened houses and villages in Hattota, Ilukkwatta, Samsarakanda and Kalupahana Estate.  Fishermen had to be rescued from stormy waters off Negombo and at least one death-by-lightning was reported in Anuradhapura.  Power grids went down, roads got blocked, schools were closed, airplanes were grounded and thousands of people were evacuated from their flood-endangered homes.  A week after the storm’s cessation, the death toll was put at just over a hundred, but with a similar number of people still missing.

 

My work sent me on a trip to northern Sri Lanka, to Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya, during the last two days of the deluge.  By this time the landscape around the road between Jaffna and Kilinochchi resembled a bayou.  Expanses of silvery water stretched away on either side, cut into panels by the crisscrossing lines of grassy dykes that still poked above the water’s surface.  Trees stood marooned in the waterlogged fields.  Occasional farmer’s shacks seemed to sit on the water like floating houseboats.  The electrical poles and pylons running along the swamped roadsides, with their networks of wires and cables, made me think of partly-sunk ships, hulls below the waterline, masts and riggings still above it.

 

The driver assured me that a few days earlier the countryside here had been ‘like a desert’ and in the dried-out fields livestock had even started to die from thirst and heatstroke.  Now vehicles using the road had to scoot around wandering herds of cattle and goats because the floods had forced the animals off their pastures.  I assume one reason why the flooding was so severe was because the previous hot weather had hardened the ground and the rainwater was less able to percolate down through it.

 

 

After the death, destruction and misery that the May storm caused, it seems petty and frivolous to write about the impact it’s had on Sri Lanka’s beer industry.  But the risk of appearing petty and frivolous has never stopped me before.  So here goes.

 

Yes, May’s torrential rainfall has also deprived Sri Lanka of Lion lager, its leading brand of beer.  Founded as the Ceylon Brewery by Sir Samuel Baker in 1849, and renamed the Lion Brewery in the 1990s, the company reportedly has an 82% share of the Sri Lankan beer market.  Its dominance is mainly due to its lager, although Lion also produces a stout and a ‘strong’ pale ale (both of which are an eye-watering 8.8% proof).

 

I drink lager primarily because I live in a hot country and I regularly crave something light and liquid to quench my seemingly never-ending thirst.  But generally I find lager fairly bland and flavourless.  That said, I think Lion lager compares well with its counterparts in southern and eastern Asia – Thailand’s Singha, Myanmar’s Dagon, Laos’ Beerlao, Cambodia’s Angkor, India’s Kingfisher, Singapore’s Tiger and China’s Tsingtao.

 

Anyway, I was drinking in one of my regular Colombo hostelries in late May when the manager, noticing the pitcher of draft Lion on my table, gave me some ominous news.  “They say there’s only a hundred kegs of Lion left in the whole country.”

 

“What?” I demanded.

 

It transpired that the mid-May rain had caused a flood in the Kelani River in Gampaha District, north of Colombo, which in turn caused serious damage at Lion’s factory in Biyagama.  In fact, all production at it had been halted.  I found myself doing some mental calculations.  I’d heard somewhere that a standard half-barrel-sized keg contains about 124 pints.  That meant there were only 12,400 pints of the stuff left.  Which wouldn’t last long among a population of 20.3 million Sri Lankans.

 

Sure enough, by June, Sri Lanka’s reserves of draft Lion had petered out, but it was still available in canned and bottled form.  However, when I recently returned to the country following a three-week holiday in Europe, I discovered that the cans and bottles of Lion had disappeared too.  In the bars they were apologetically serving bottled Carlsberg.  The section of my local off-licence that’d been devoted to Lion had become a wasteland of empty shelves and fridges.  In fact, the only non-spirit / non-wine beverages they still had on sale were some bottles of watery-looking South African cider; and some cans of non-Lion lager such as Baron’s Strong Brew and Bison XXXTRA Strong, which, as their names suggest, are turbo-charged stuff apparently made with problem drinkers in mind.

 

Lion is one of the country’s most ubiquitous and recognisable brands.  It’s displayed proudly in the country’s bars.  Indeed, big wall-murals depicting the handsome, maned King of the Jungle after which the beer is named add a touch of class, of grandeur even, to the otherwise-shabby spit-and-sawdust ‘man’ pubs where until a short time ago you could drink it freely and cheaply.

 

But for now, alas, the regal beast has lost its claws.

 

From michelnugawela.com

 

The Addams Cabinet

 

© BBC 

 

Theresa May has just been crowned Britain’s new Conservative Prime Minister and already she’s carried out the first of her prime ministerial duties, which is to organise a new cabinet.  Mind you, looking at some of the people she’s appointed to senior positions of state, I find it difficult to visualise a sharp-suited team of the UK’s brightest and best, exuding managerial calm and steadying the tiller after the trauma of the referendum vote to leave the European Union and the resignation of David Cameron.

 

Instead, I find myself picturing the characters in an American TV show from the 1960s: the much-loved, if ghoulish and morbid, Addams Family.

 

© Filmways / MGM Television

 

With Ms May at its head, this is a matriarchal cabinet.  And fittingly, the Addams Family were a matriarchal unit too.  So the new Prime Minister makes me think of the black-swathed Morticia Addams (and not, as some have suggested, Cruella De Ville from the 1961 Walt Disney cartoon 101 Dalmatians).

 

As for the tall, grey Philip Hammond, May’s new Chancellor of the Exchequer, I can’t help but think of the Addams household’s hulking and cadaverous butler Lurch.  Actually, I suspect Hammond would like to be compared to something cadaverous; for according to one of his old schoolmates – the TV presenter Richard Madeley – Hammond was “a Goth back then…  Used to arrive in class in a leather trench-coat with the Guardian under his arm.”  No doubt it’s the Guardian bit that Hammond feels embarrassed about now.

 

© Filmways / MGM Television

 

Also in the Addams Cabinet is Andrea Leadsom, who was Theresa May’s main rival in the contest to replace Cameron as Prime Minister and is now Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.  She’s surely the equivalent of Wednesday Addams, Morticia’s pale-faced and twin-braided little daughter.  I say this because The Addams Family’s creator Charles Addams (who’d started drawing cartoons about them in the New Yorker magazine in the late 1930s) named Wednesday after a line in a nursery rhyme, “Wednesday’s child is full of woe”; and in the 1991 movie spin-off she was shown strapping her brother Pugsley into an electric chair in preparation for playing a game called ‘Is there a God?’  That sounds like Andrea Leadsom to me.

 

Meanwhile, Liam Fox, the new Secretary of State for International Trade, seems to be the Uncle Fester of the team.  Maybe that’s because, thanks to Fox’s past improprieties, the names ‘Liam Fox’ and ‘Fester’ seem to go together nicely.

 

And then there’s Boris Johnson, who is – ahem! – Britain’s new Foreign Secretary.  Who else could he be but Cousin Itt?

 

© Filmways / MGM Television

 

But seriously, this is a nightmarish batch of appointments that, with awful appropriateness, rounds off what’s been a nightmarish few weeks for the country.  It’s as if May got drunk on vino the night before her announcement of the new cabinet, tried to decide whether she should piss everyone off by making it as right-wing as possible or as incompetent as possible, and in the end opted to do both.

 

Thus, we get Philip Hammond.  In 2015, when Michael Gove, then Justice Secretary, abandoned a controversial prisons project for the Saudi Arabian government on the grounds that the UK shouldn’t be helping a regime that uses ‘beheadings, stonings, crucifixions and lashings’ as punishments, Hammond berated him for his ‘naivety’.  It takes some doing to make Michael Gove seem humane and reasonable, but Hammond is clearly capable of it.

 

Then again, Hammond seems like a bleeding-heart liberal compared with Andrea Leadsom, who’s now responsible for all things rural and environmental in Britain.  One of Brexit’s more vociferous supporters, she wrote in a 2007 blog post that EU subsidies to farmers should be abolished; while more recently she suggested that the UK’s hill farms be given over to breeding ‘butterflies’.  Well, she must be delighted with the way the EU referendum vote turned out.  Losing those EU subsidies will be tough on small-scale British hill farmers – my Dad was one and, towards the end of his working life, I know how much he valued that cash from Brussels – but hey, if they go out of business, with a few of them committing suicide over the loss of farms their families had owned for generations, that’s just good old capitalism for you.

 

© The Daily Telegraph 

 

But even if under Ms Leadsom’s watch large tracts of the countryside get converted into butterfly-breeding areas or, more likely, into luxury housing developments or acreage for giant factory farms, I’m sure the traditional fox-hunting grounds will be kept green and leafy.  For yes, Ms Leadsom also wants to repeal the ban on fox-hunting on the dubious premise that this will improve ‘animal welfare’.

 

Indeed, there isn’t much about the new Secretary of State for the Environment that seems terribly environmental.  In 2011 she supported government plans (later abandoned) to sell off Britain’s forests; and in 2012 and 2016 she voted against setting targets for the limiting of Britain’s carbon emissions.  And as late as 2015, she was asking ministers at the Department of Energy and Climate Change if climate change actually ‘existed’.  (By the way, this Cameron-era ‘Department of Energy and Climate Change’ has now been replaced by the ‘Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’.  Which is a clue to the priority that the new regime gives to combatting climate change: none, probably.)

 

© The Daily Telegraph 

 

Then there’s Liam Fox.  Back in 2011, Fox had to resign from his job as David Cameron’s Defence Secretary when it became apparent that a businessman and lobbyist called Adam Werrity was accompanying him to Ministry of Defence meetings and on overseas trips.  Werrity had neither security clearance nor any ministerial responsibility.  But he was Fox’s friend; and Fox saw no reason why his old chum shouldn’t be allowed to exploit his position to network with politicians, diplomats, contractors and financiers.  One wonders how many spivs and chancers will be accompanying the newly-rehabilitated Fox on his travels as Secretary of State for International Trade.

 

Regarding Boris Johnson’s elevation to the role of Foreign Secretary…  Well, I feel I have already written far more on this blog about Boris Johnson than the brain-addled baboon actually warrants.  But really?  What was Theresa May thinking?  Did she believe that by making Johnson the voice of Britain on the international stage, foreign governments would find his bumbling, posh-idiot shtick amusing and forgive Britain for all the disruption it’s caused recently?

 

Well, here’s news for her.  Foreigners don’t find Johnson funny.  At best they think he’s a clown and at worst they hate his guts.  Two decades of slurs and gaffes about Africans being ‘piccaninnies with watermelon smiles’, Hilary Clinton resembling a ‘sadistic nurse in a mental hospital’, Barack Obama being a ‘part-Kenyan’ with an ‘ancestral dislike’ of Britain, not to mention the lies he’s peddled about the European Union since the 1990s when he was the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, have seen to that.  Someone’s even compiled a map of the countries that Johnson has, over the years, managed to offend.  Here it is.  I think you’ll agree that the nations with good reason to despise Britain’s new Foreign Secretary cover an alarmingly large proportion of the world’s land mass.

 

From indy100.independent.co.uk 

 

Let’s return to being silly – I think I’ll need to be silly when I contemplate Britain over the next few years, because the alternative is to feel suicidally depressed about it.  When I was a kid, I remember clicking my fingers and singing along to The Addams Family theme song whenever the show came on TV.  How would the Theresa May version of The Addams Family song go?  Probably something like this:

 

Duh-duh-duh-duh…  Duh-duh!

Duh-duh-duh-duh…  Duh-duh!

They’re creepy and they’re spooky,

They can’t get any nooky,

They make me really pukey –

The Tory gov-ern-ment!

 

Carry on cabbie

 

© Jonathan Cape

 

Irvine Welsh’s 2015 novel A Decent Ride continues the story of ‘Juice’ Terry Lawson, who previously appeared in the Welsh oeuvre as a major character in the 2001 book Glue and a supporting one in 2002’s Porno.  (Incidentally, Porno was the sequel to Welsh’s breakthrough novel, 1993’s Trainspotting; and, even as I write this, it’s being filmed by Danny Boyle as Trainspotting 2.)

 

When he made his debut in Glue, Terry – arrogant, fickle, devoid of self-awareness, not terribly bright and driven by a desire to shag everything in a skirt in the Edinburgh area – seemed like the book’s least likeable character.  However, later in the book, after Terry had lost his sex appeal, piled on the pounds and turned into a roly-poly Falstaff-like figure, he’d become surprisingly endearing.  Welsh rounded off Glue with a hundred-page tour-de-force of comic writing with Terry, whilst cleaning windows at Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel, somehow befriending a North American singing superstar (inspired by Celine Dion) who was in town for an Edinburgh Festival gig.  He took her on a pub-crawl down some bars in Leith that were definitely off the recommended list for festival-visitors.  The singer’s manager, believing her to have been kidnapped, set off in pursuit.  The episode concluded with Terry wedged upside down between the banisters at the top of a hotel stairwell, reflecting on how a ‘lesser man’ – i.e. one with a smaller beer-gut – would have slipped between the banisters and dropped down the stairwell to his doom.

 

By the time of Porno, Terry had slimmed down again and was back giving it ‘to the ladies’.  His favourite pastime got a boost when he fell in with Trainspotting’s most entrepreneurial character, Simon ‘Sick Boy’ Williamson, who put him to work starring in homemade porn movies he was shooting in the backroom of a pub.

 

In A Decent Ride Terry is still making porn with Sick Boy, but he earns his main living by driving a taxi around the tram-ravaged streets of Edinburgh – the novel is set in 2011-2012 with the city still blighted by the over-budget, behind-schedule tram-works.  Meanwhile, he remains Edinburgh’s number-one Lothario, although with him now in his late forties you wonder for much longer he can, er, keep it up.  The book begins with him giving a taxi ride to Ronnie Checker, an American billionaire-cum-reality-TV-show-star with a terrible haircut who’s planning a dodgy property deal in the Scottish countryside and who can’t possibly be based on anyone in the real world.  Terry ends up becoming Checker’s sidekick and confidant in Scotland.  Perversely, thanks to his apparent ignorance and lack of self-awareness, he appears more trustworthy than all the suited sycophants Checker has working for him.

 

A Decent Ride‘s plot soon becomes tangled.  While Ronnie Checker enlists Terry’s help in securing three fabled and priceless bottles of Scotch whisky, with the success or failure of his quest depending on a game of golf with a billionaire rival, Terry also gets unwillingly roped into minding a ‘massage parlour’ for a local gangster.  And there’s serious stuff going on in his personal life too.  He learns that his hated father Henry – who walked out on his family while Terry was a youngster – is dying of cancer in hospital.  He meets for the first time his half-brother Jonty, a simple-minded but good-natured soul whom Henry sired with another woman (subsequently abandoned as well).  Most importantly, he’s informed that thanks to a just-diagnosed heart condition he can’t have sex any more.  Terry unsurprisingly takes this last thing badly.  It unhinges him to the point where he starts imagining he’s being berated by his sex-starved penis.

 

Into this, Welsh also weaves various real-life goings-on in Edinburgh during 2011 and 2012 – not only the trams fiasco but the 2012 Cup Final between Hibs and Hearts, and also Hurricane Friedhelm, the storm that struck Scotland in December 2011 and was less elegantly but more memorably known to the locals as ‘Hurricane Bawbag’.  Ronnie Checker, with bad memories of Hurricane Katrina, finds Hurricane Bawbag traumatic.  Cowering in his Edinburgh hotel room during it, he thinks: “That castle, that’s where the high ground is, that’s where I gotta be!  I’ll bet that Salmond guy – Jesus, even the politicians are out of shape here – and all those assholes are up there right now, drinking the best Skatch, gorging themselves on sheep’s intestines, safe and secure from this f**king apocalypse!”

 

I admit I started reading A Decent Ride with low expectations.  Terry is amusing in Glue but he’s one of its several main characters; and I was dubious about him sustaining a book on his own.  Perhaps seeing this as a potential problem, Welsh makes his half-brother Jonty the focus of several chapters, but Jonty’s naïve, simple-minded narrative voice is hard to listen to.  I also felt Welsh was recycling too many ideas from his earlier books.  The joke of Juice Terry meeting Donald Trump is lessened by the fact that we’ve already had the joke of Juice Terry meeting Celine Dion in Glue.  And when Terry’s frustrated penis starts talking to him – doing a Mel Gibson impersonation and shouting “Freedom!” – you recall how Welsh had a tapeworm talking out of the hero’s stomach in 1998’s Filth.

 

© The Guardian

 

And yet…  A hundred pages into A Decent Ride, I realised I was hooked.  I couldn’t stop reading it.  Terry is allowed some character development and I was pleasantly surprised to find him both a smarter character – he puts one over on Ronnie Checker – and a nicer one – he takes Jonty under his wing – than I’d thought.  (Thankfully, Jonty’s ramblings become less annoying as the book continues and I came to appreciate Terry’s sense of protectiveness towards him.)   And even if certain plot elements are derivative, Welsh wrings some genuine laughs out of them.  A Decent Ride is never going to be seen as a work of searing realism in the way that Trainspotting was – there are too many absurdities and coincidences – but, taken in the right spirit, it is very funny.

 

At the same time, readers who enjoyed Welsh’s disregard for restraint, subtlety and good taste in earlier novels like Marabou Stork Nightmares (1995) and Filth will savour the moments of visceral hideousness that occasionally crop up in A Decent Ride.  Incidents involving necrophilia, incest, anal rape and a cremation that goes gruesomely wrong (reminiscent of an episode in Iain Banks’ 1992 novel The Crow Road) prove that the beast still has teeth.

 

One nice thing about Welsh is how the characters from his various books wander in and out of each other’s stories, creating the impression that Edinburgh is one big Irvine-verse of junkies, jakeys, gangsters, football hooligans and misfits having overlapping adventures.  Here, as well as a guest appearance by Sick Boy, we get Clifford Blades – the kindly but luckless stooge to the loathsome Bruce Robertson in Filth – making a welcome return as one of Terry’s fellow cabbies.

 

The obvious danger with A Decent Ride is that by having a hero as shag-happy as Terry the book runs the risk of being sexist or misogynist.  When he claims that “F**k off means naw, naw means mibbe, mibbe means aye n aye means anal.  Guaranteed!” he’s hardly in tune with a modern world where there’s been much debate about what constitutes legitimate consent to sexual intercourse and where “No means no!” has become a call to arms.  To avoid this, in part, Welsh cheats.  He has Terry intervening to protect the girls at the massage parlour against some vile gangsters – a plot contrivance showing that, at heart, despite his sexist bravado, Terry is one of the good guys.

 

But mainly, Welsh opts for the view that sex, between consulting adults, is a good thing; and if, like Terry, they want to get as much of it as they possibly can, well, good luck to them.  By a coincidence, I read A Decent Ride at the same time that I read French author Michel Houellebecq’s 2005 novel Platform, which takes a clinical and ultimately sour and pessimistic attitude towards sex and sexuality.  I have to say that I much preferred the simple, straightforward and happily bacchanalian celebration of sex that you get in A Decent Ride.

 

Indeed, it almost makes you proud to be Scottish.

 

Maqam Echahid – the Martyrs’ Monument in Algiers

 

 

The Maqam Echahid – in English, the Matyrs’ Memorial – stands on top of a hill overlooking the Jardin d’Essai du Hamma botanical park and the Mediterranean Sea in south-central Algiers.  92 metres high and made of concrete, it depicts three giant palm leaves propped against one another to form a tripod while an ‘eternal flame’ burns underneath.  It commemorates Algeria’s War of Independence and those who died in it and was opened in 1982, twenty years after the country became independent.

 

Despite it symbolising a very Algerian event, the monument was the result of an international collaboration.  Working on its design were not only local artists – including the painter Bashir Yelles and calligrapher Abdelhamid Skander – but a Pole, the sculptor Marian Konieczny, while the company responsible for its construction was a Canadian one, Lavalin.

 

 

The most popular way of reaching the monument from the bottom of the hill is to use a little cable car, but as the passengers seemed to be squeezed inside it like sardines, I chose to make my way up the hillside on foot.  It’s climbed by a zigzagging road but the space at the roadside gradually dwindles and disappears so that the cars using it pass too close for comfort to the pedestrians.  Alternatively, you can follow some paths that wind their way up independently of the road, but the ground around the paths is dispiritingly strewn with garbage: plastic bags, papers, cans and many plastic bottles.  Blackened patches of earth and charred rubbish and undergrowth show where people have tried to remove some of it by burning it; but generally it’s depressing that the hill supporting this immensely symbolic monument should be allowed to become such a mess.

 

 

At the top, those delicately-balanced giant palm leaves make an impressive sight.  Statues of soldiers stand guard before each leaf as it swoops up majestically; while high above, a cylindrical capsule with a viewing platform is clasped between the leaves’ top ends.  I couldn’t help thinking that the capsule would make a great location for a James Bond villain’s headquarters.  Meanwhile, the huge smooth floor directly under the three leaves is considered so sacred that you aren’t allowed to walk across it.

 

 

When I visited it, the space behind the monument was a strange mixture of things.  In addition to a military museum, stalls and a play-area where kids were whizzing down inflatable, bouncy, stripy slides and riding on go-karts, mini-jeeps and mini-quadbikes, there was a huge round opening with staircases leading down to a two-level subterranean shopping mall and underground car-park.  Disconcertingly, I scarcely saw a soul down there, many of the mall’s shop-spaces were empty and it contained a cinema that was showing the hoary American horror movie from 2009, The Orphan.  All in all, that mall had a definite J.G. Ballard vibe – it felt as if it’d been depopulated by a weird cataclysm that’d occurred a half-dozen years ago.

 

 

Robin Hardy 1929 – 2016

 

From www.rue-morgue.com

 

The director and writer Robin Hardy, who passed away earlier this week, made only a handful of movies.  And only one of those movies had any influence – but what an influential movie it was.  He was the director of the 1973 horror film The Wicker Man, which regular readers of this blog will know is a big favourite of mine.  It might not be quite the greatest horror movie ever made, but it’s surely the greatest one ever made in the United Kingdom.

 

And for my money, there’s nothing in the history of the British film industry that compares with its final image.  This shows the head of the burning wicker man – within which luckless virgin / policeman Edward Woodward has just been sacrificed by a community of pagans on a remote Scottish island – collapsing before the Atlantic horizon, which is glowing like a furnace while the white disc of the evening sun sinks behind it.

 

The movie / TV fan website Den of Geek marked Hardy’s passing by providing a link to a 2008 article written about the film by one of its supporting stars, the late Polish actress Ingrid Pitt.  In it Pitt amusingly spills some beans about the making of The Wicker Man: including how Edward Woodward’s biggest irritation about being inside the wicker man was not the flames licking up from below, but the sacrificial animals that were sealed inside the thing in the cages above and were peeing down on his head; or how her co-stars Britt Ekland and Diane Cilento spent the shoot moaning about their troubled marriages to their film-star spouses, Peter Sellers and Sean Connery respectively.

 

http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/13755/the-ingrid-pitt-column-the-making-of-the-wicker-man

 

(c) British Lion Films

 

Hardy’s other films were the 1986 Irish movie The Fantasist, which I haven’t seen – few people have seen it – but which certainly sounds interesting; and 2011’s The Wicker Tree, a spiritual if not a direct sequel to The Wicker Man.  As I wrote about The Wicker Tree in this blog two years ago, the sequel isn’t an outright disaster, but it’s slipshod and uneven in tone and is badly let down by the non-performances of its two American leads.  It shows how unique The Wicker Man was in its perfect balance of horror, humour, music and bawdiness – a balance that you probably couldn’t achieve twice.

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=3915

 

Before his death Hardy was trying to raise funds for a second Wicker Man sequel, provisionally entitled Wrath of the Gods.  But although we’ll never see that film now, The Wicker Man’s DNA is evident in a number of other movies made during the past two decades, most notably Julian Richards’ Darklands (1996), David Mackenzie’s The Last Great Wilderness (2002), Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007), David Keating’s Wake Wood (2009) and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011); and no doubt it’ll influence more movies in the future.

 

And back in May this year, Radiohead paid homage to The Wicker Man in the charming but sinister video for their recent song Burn the Witch, which depicted pagan sacrifice in a stop-motion-animated English village inspired by the 1967 children’s TV show Trumpton.  Spookily, the creator of Trumpton, Gordon Murray, died on June 30th, just two days before Hardy did – a coincidence that suggests there exists a deadly Radiohead Video Curse.  (Perhaps for their next release, Thom Yorke and the gang might want to make a video about Tony Blair, filmed in the style of a Michael Bay movie.)

 

(c) XL Recordings