Burgess gets his Kit off

 

© Vintage

 

I have to admit that when I first opened Anthony Burgess’s 1993 novel A Dead Man in Deptford, a fictionalised account of the life of Elizabethan playwright Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe, I knew next to nothing about its subject.

 

What did I know of Marlowe?  Well, I’d heard of his plays but never read them.  When I studied literature at university, I’d busied myself reading Shakespeare, and a little Ben Jonson, and even The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, who plays a supporting role in Dead Man.  But I didn’t get around to reading any of Marlowe’s plays and my only experience of seeing one was Derek Jarman’s post-modern movie version of Edward II, with gratuitously added Annie Lennox, from 1991.

 

What else?  I knew he’d been killed in a pub brawl – stabbed in the eye – in Deptford in London in 1593.  I knew he was the topic of the only joke I can remember from 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, which comes when a Thames boatman remarks to Joseph Fiennes’ Shakespeare, “I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.”  And I knew John Hurt played him as a 400-year-old vampire in Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 horror movie Only Lovers Left Alive.  Being an immortal bloodsucker evidently isn’t the glamorous, forever-youthful escapade it’s made out to be, because the real Marlowe was 29 when he died while in Only Lovers John Hurt looked all of his then 73 years.

 

© Recorded Picture Company / Pandora Film

 

No, the reason I started reading Dead Man wasn’t because of Marlowe, but because I wanted to see Anthony Burgess, an author famous for his rumbustious verbosity and love of language, tackle the minutiae of life in the Elizabethan era.  As you’d expect, Burgess doesn’t just dip a cautious literary toe into the 16th century milieu.  He strips off – gets his Kit off, so to speak – and dives into it headlong and takes to it like a duck to water.  Or to use a cruder, less flattering but perhaps more accurate simile, like a pig to shit.

 

You can almost hear Burgess smacking his lips with relish as his prose records the hurly-burly in all its glory and grottiness.   The bars, booze and burping (“Kit… drank deep and belched on the yeasty froth…”); the brothels (“…roars and screams and the rapture of dying…”); the food, both hearty (“…a baked pigeon with a forcemeat of saffron and dried rosemary…) and hideous (“Pickled herrings and mouldy bread…” and “…wormy cheese…”); the vagabonds (“…rufflers, abram-men, high-pads, buff-knappers, rattling mumpers, tat-mongers, wiping-drawers, kidlays and moon-cursers…”); the oaths (“By the six ballocks of the Trinity and the cheese of the milk of the Magdalen and the hundred prepuces of circumcised Jesus…”); the gore of the public executions (“…the prick and ballocks exposed then sliced away, the first blood healthily flowing, then the cross-cut along the belly so that the bowels gushed out…”); the gore of the stage (“…pig’s blood gushed from bladders hidden…”); the torture (“…a nail or two had been pincered out before the cracking of bone…”); the lack of dental hygiene (teeth that “showed their rotting waists…”); the fingernails (which “harboured the grease he scratched from his lousiness…”); the disease and plague (“…noxious urine spouting from mouth, nose and ears and all holes else…” and “…buboes… clear in his naked armpits…); the carcasses (“…a dead pied dog that lay with swollen belly ripe to burst…”); the snot (“…the hairs in his skewed nose had trapped scraps of dry mucus…”); the puke (“…in green and yellow coposity…”); the piss (“She sat in a pool of wet…”); and the general squalor (“…the dunghill that festered at the corner of Hog Lane…” and a nearby “…raintub on which flowers of filth were afloat…”).

 

In fact, Dead Man isn’t the first Anthony Burgess book I’ve read that’s set in Elizabethan times, for in 1964 he published a novel about Shakespeare called Nothing Like the Sun.  Will Shakespeare inevitably turns up in the later stages of Dead Man, though the Bard seems pragmatic and restrained compared to the incendiary and multi-layered Kit Marlowe (whose complexity is symbolised by the uncertainty and elasticity of his surname – he introduces himself as “Christopher,” but adds, “The other name is unsure.  Marlin, Merlin, Marley, Morley.  Marlowe will do.”)

 

Indeed, the contrast between the playwrights reminded me slightly of Burgess and his great contemporary, the novelist Graham Greene.  Both hung out in south-eastern France towards the ends of their lives but had little to do with each other.  Apparently, the ebullient, publicity-loving and self-mythologizing Burgess grated on the aloof, reserved and ascetic Greene, who disapproved of Burgess appearing on TV to “talk about his books.”

 

Actually, I enjoyed Dead Man much more than Nothing Like the Sun which, with a lengthy opening section in Stratford-upon-Avon before the action finally moved to London, took its time getting going.  In comparison, Dead Man doesn’t hang around.  After a brief preamble in which the narrator introduces himself as “a small actor and smaller play-butcher who observed him intermittently though indeed knew him in a very palpable sense”, muses philosophically about the impossibility and absurdity of telling the story of a man’s life without being present during every moment of that life, and even alludes to Schrödinger’s cat (“There was a philosopher who spoke of the cat that mews to be let out and then mews to be let in again.  In the interim, does it exist?”), Burgess cuts to the chase.  We glimpse Kit as a student at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, before he crosses paths with poet Thomas Watson, who invites him to London and introduces him to Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham.

 

Walsingham immediately signs Kit into Her Majesty’s secret service and despatches him to the English College at Rheims in France on the pretence that he’s disillusioned with Protestantism and wants to explore the possibility of joining the priesthood.  His real purpose, though, is to spy on a cabal of English Catholics there who may be plotting to replace Queen Elizabeth with her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.  At the same time that he’s recruited by Sir Francis, he encounters Sir Francis’s young relative Thomas Walsingham and immediately becomes smitten with him.

 

From www.roseplayhouse.org.uk

 

The remainder of Dead Man’s 270 pages is a stew of spying and political intrigue – determined to make the most of Kit’s services, the older Walsingham sends him to the Low Countries and then to Scotland, where the skulduggery involves King James VI, regarded by just about everyone as “a drunkard, a sodomite and a coward” – and Elizabethan men, mostly Kit and Thomas Walsingham, indulging in ‘the love that dare not speak its name’.  Oh, and there’s a fair bit of playwriting and versifying too.

 

Adding further kinks to the plot is Sir Walter Raleigh, who draws Kit into his clique of aristocrats, thinkers and hangers-on.  Sir Walter and his gang are dangerous to know because their opinions and musings run the risk of being considered atheistic and heretical which, with Queen Elizabeth I the head of the English church, translates into treason.  The sneaky Raleigh reels Kit in by getting him addicted to tobacco – of which Raleigh, “the keeper of many keys”, is London’s main supplier.  Burgess cleverly attributes feminine qualities to the plant.  The otherwise completely male-orientated Kit describes it as a “delicious nymph” and his smoking habit as “daily ravishing of the nymph”.  His lover Thomas Walsingham later complains, “Your body does not smell as it did.  There is a rankness…” and adds, both jealously and ominously, “Yes, you are one of Raleigh’s tribe.”

 

With grim inevitability, the story leads towards the fatal events of 1593.  Kit, now in serious trouble with the authorities, heads for Deptford on the south bank of the Thames with the intention of boarding a ship and fleeing England.  First, however, he has a rendezvous in a local tavern with some shady associates of the now-dead Sir Francis Walsingham and the now-married Thomas Walsingham, who’s clearly begun to see his relationship with Kit as an embarrassment and encumbrance.

 

With his arrogance, his predilection for boozing and brawling, and his spying activities that contribute to a number of people dying horrible deaths, Kit is no angel.  But Burgess imbues him too with qualities like loyalty, conscience and self-doubt make him relatable and likeable.  Also, Burgess – who’d previously featured gay heroes in books like Earthly Powers (1980) and Honey for the Bears (1963) – treats Kit’s homosexuality with sympathy and avoids making it a source of shame or torment for him even though, by the beliefs of the time, it guarantees him eternal damnation.  Rather, Kit is unapologetic.  He sees his orientation as being nobler than the instinct-driven sexuality of men and women that causes reproduction: “Male and female are grossly conjoined following nature’s words that they breed.  There is an airier or more spiritual mode of conjunction.”  He also rejects heterosexuality on the grounds of his relationship with his sisters and mother: “To bed a woman, which I have never done, has a strong stench of incest.”

 

That said, some might find a lack of subtlety in how Burgess seemingly juxtaposes Kit’s sexuality with the phallic imagery of knives and daggers.  When Dead Man isn’t getting excited about gay love scenes, it’s getting excited about blades.  Taking on a villain called George Orwell (who, Burgess claims in his postscript, was a real-life hoodlum in 16th century London), Kit “slashed Orwell’s daggering wrist, making Orwell howl and seek to drink the blood to stem its flow.”  Tangling with another villain called Cutting Ball, “his sword whistled as it dove to nick Ball’s wrist.”  Elsewhere, “his sword point pierced a fat buttock,” while his friend Thomas Watson gets caught “most bitterly in the brow with dagger”, leaving “a wound like a mouth that spoke blood.”  This imagery reaches its finale in the Deptford tavern when poor Kit receives a lethal eyeful: “The dagger point was too close to his eye for his eye to see it.”  Just to drive the association home, Burgess describes Kit’s first meeting with Thomas Walsingham as being “like the sharp knife of a sort of truth in the disguise of danger.”

 

Any other reservations about the book?  Well, the plot gets somewhat confusing with the number of characters called ‘Thomas’.  In addition to Thomas Kyd, Thomas Watson and Thomas Walsingham, there’s the playwright, poet and pamphleteer Thomas Nasche and the astronomer and mathematician Thomas Harriot.  Though of course the existence of so many Thomases in Marlowe’s life isn’t Burgess’s fault and at one point he has his narrator exclaim, “…“all these Toms, a world of toms like a night roof top…”  And talking of narrators, it feels a bit of a cop-out when on the very last page Burgess abandons his fictional narrator and reveals himself as the true chronicler of events: “Your true author speaks now…  I put off the ill-made disguise and, four hundred years after that death at Deptford, mourn as it all happened yesterday.”

 

But those are only quibbles.  On the whole, I found A Dead Man in Deptford a splendid book, a pleasure to read while Burgess’s exuberant prose captured both the complexities of Christopher Marlowe and the rough and tumble of the world around him, without – as I’ve occasionally found elsewhere with Burgess – becoming hard to follow.  Given that the book was the last thing Burgess had published in his lifetime, before his death the following year at the age of 76, it’s retrospectively cheering to note that the book showed no sign of decline in the great man’s abilities.  He was still at the peak of his earthly powers.

 

© The International Anthony Burgess Foundation

 

Watch out, we’re mad!

 

© Yahoo News

 

Watch Out, We’re Mad! was the title of a 1974 Italian-Spanish slapstick comedy movie starring Bud Spencer and Terence Hill, whose films during the 1970s were the sort of thing kids – kids in the UK, anyway – would graduate to when they grew too old to enjoy the slapstick comedy movies of Norman Wisdom.  Its plot had something to do with bearded, burly Bud and slim, handsome Terence having an escalating battle of wits, and fists, with some property-developing gangsters after the gangsters wrecked the duo’s beloved dune buggy.  No shit.  I saw it as a kid at my local cinema as part of a double bill with the re-released The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958).  When you were ten years old, that was a double bill made in heaven.

 

However, Watch Out, We’re Mad! could also be the title given to the Daily Telegraph during the period leading up to and since Boris Johnson becoming British Prime Minister.  As soon as a Johnson premiership looked likely, the venerable newspaper decided to be that premiership’s number one cheerleader in the British media.  The November 6th edition of the Telegraph, for example, headed its front page with a quotation by Johnson saying of the opposition Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn: “…they point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks.”

 

In my youth, the British tabloids were as idiotic and mean-spirited as they are today.  On the other hand, there seemed to be some constancy and balance at the upmarket end of the nation’s press.  You had three newspapers that were commonly, and for the most part deservedly, referred to as the ‘qualities’: the Guardian, catering for those people whose political sympathies lay on the left; the Times, catering for those who were in the middle; and the Telegraph, catering for those who tended towards the right.

 

Unfortunately, these days, ‘quality’ is the last word you’d apply to the Telegraph.  It has untethered itself from reality and sanity.  It has transformed itself into a printed pantomime of pro-Johnson loopiness.  And since the announcement that Britain will have a general election on December 12th, that loopiness has increased by the power of ten.

 

Before I continue, I should explain that I don’t live in Britain at the moment and my only access to the Telegraph is via its website; and as its articles exist behind a paywall, and as I’m not going to shell out cash to an organ so dementedly devoted to Johnson, and to Brexit, and to all causes championed by right-wingers, I can only gawp at its headlines.  It’s often said that newspaper journalists and columnists aren’t responsible for the sensational headlines topping their work, which are the creations of sub-editors.  But as the names I’m about to mention seem very comfortably ensconced at the modern-day Telegraph, I doubt if the headlines over their articles disturb them greatly and I assume those headlines are fair summations of their opinions.

 

Firstly, there’s the Telegraph’s coverage of Johnson himself, which brown-noses the man with an intensity reminiscent of the state-controlled North Korean media reporting the mightiness and infallibility of Kim Jong Un.  On October 20th, columnist Tim Stanley likened him to a certain bulldog-spirited British wartime leader: “It’s time critics saw Boris for the Churchillian figure he is.”  Ex-Telegraph editor Charles Moore attributed miracles on August 25th:  “Boris has brought a miraculous change to the political weather, as the remainer world falls apart.”  Johnson’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in early October was widely derided for being brief and perfunctory, but the Telegraph’s American columnist Janet Daley heard qualities in it that nobody else did: “Good-humoured Boris just gave the best speech of his career.”  And while stories have circulated about Johnson getting over-familiar with ‘the ladies’, Telegraph hack Alison Pearson dismissed these on October 1st.  Apparently with a direct telepathic link to the minds of the entire British public, she declared: “Normal people don’t give a monkey’s about ‘Gropegate’ – they’re still backing Boris.”

 

To the Telegraph’s current editor Allister Heath, Johnson is practically an Arthurian warrior-king, taking arms against a sea of Corbynites, anyone who still likes Tony Blair, EU remainers and general evildoers: on November 6th, “Wake up, Middle England.  A Corbyn victory would be a genuine catastrophe… This election is a binary battle between Boris and a Labour Party bent on the destruction of our freedom”; on October 30th,  “Boris Johnson’s historic mission is to save Britain from Corbyn and the Blairites”; and on August 28th – insinuating Johnson is Maggie Thatcher with a sex change – “This is Boris Johnson’s Falklands War, and he will do everything to win it.”

 

Johnson and his Conservative Party are generally reckoned to have had a shit start to the election campaign.  Their Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns resigned ‘after being accused of lying over an aide’s sabotaging of a rape trial’.  Tory MP Ross Thomson, Johnson’s most vocal supporter in Scotland, announced he wasn’t running for re-election after allegations of him drunkenly groping people.  And the famously aristocratic, arch-Brexiter Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was condemned for making crass, ignorant remarks about the victims of the Grenfell Fire disaster.  But the Telegraph – surprise! – disagrees.

 

Its parliamentary sketch-writer Michael Deacon insisted on November 7th that the fiasco was actually one big, brilliant Boris plan: “A bumpy start for the Tories?  Actually, it’s a PR masterclass.”  Deacon apparently believes that whatever happens during the campaign has been mapped out in advance and will end in a big win for Johnson, for on October 30th he wrote: “The election campaign hasn’t even begun – but the Tories’ cunning plan is already clear.”  Oh, and let’s not hear any bad words about Jacob Rees-Mogg either.  Back on July 27th, Charles Moore gushed: “Jacob Rees-Mogg makes a fine case for the revival of the archaic.”

 

Boris Johnson might in the eyes of the Telegraph be heroic, noble, wise and infallible, but few adjectives are negative enough to describe his opponents, especially those who also oppose Brexit.  “Remainers have turned parliament into an anti-democratic monstrosity” (Heath on September 25th); “Euphoric Remainer snobbery has become a fanatical religion” (Sherelle Jacobs on October 18th); “Fatuous remain MPs have just become the useful idiots of the Leave cause” (Jacobs on October 24th).  And don’t even mention the unspeakable European Union itself.  “To survive the new global Dark Age, Britain must leave the tyrannical EU” (Jacobs yet again on August 8th); and “Our democracy is being overthrown by the EU’s Hideous Strength” (Daniel Hannan, Conservative MEP and Fox News’ go-to guy when they need a British commentator to assure right-wing Americans about the horribleness of the British National Health Service, on September 14th).

 

It says something about how utterly Loony Tunes the Telegraph has become that the editor of its Scottish version almost sounds reasonable in comparison.  This is Alan Cochrane, a man famous for his fulminations against supporters of Scottish independence.  Aware that in more left-leaning Scotland, any success the Scottish Tories have enjoyed in recent years has been due to them being perceived as ‘moderate’ – as epitomised by their former leader, the supposedly moderate Ruth Davison (who promptly resigned when Johnson became Prime Minister) – Cochrane has written pieces warning how badly the Boris Johnson Show plays north of the border.  These include “It’s not just what Boris Johnson says, it’s the way he says it that alienates Scotland” (October 4th) and “Crass Downing Street jibe at judges unites Scottish politicians” (September 12th).  You nearly feel sorry for Cochrane when you read the unhinged, xenophobic, Scotland-bashing comments his articles attract from English Telegraph readers in the threads below them.

 

Although Cochrane’s work appears regularly on the online Telegraph’s opinion page, he isn’t even mentioned on the page listing its columnists (alongside such veteran eye-swivellers as Julie Burchill and Nosferatu himself, Norman Tebbit).  Which shows how much importance the newspaper attaches to Cochrane, its Scottish edition and Scotland generally.

 

Of course, the Daily Telegraph is fixated with Boris Johnson largely because he’s been involved with the newspaper since the late 1980s – when it hired him as a journalist after he’d been sacked from the Times for fabricating a quote.  (Then-Telegraph editor Max Hastings has since said of Johnson that “he is unfit for national office, because it seems he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification.”)  During the 1990s, as the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, Johnson made his name publishing widely exaggerated pieces on how the beastly EU was imposing spiteful and stupid regulations on plucky little Britain, helping fuel the Euro-scepticism that birthed the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and eventually won the 2016 referendum in favour of Brexit.  Johnson still writes for the Telegraph and its online opinion page gives pride of place to a set of articles with the oxymoronic title The Best of Boris.

 

Mindful of the dynamics between President Donald Trump and Fox News in the USA, the Telegraph clearly hopes to enjoy a similar relationship with Prime Minister Johnson – supporting him with a fervour unlike any other media outlet, whilst enjoying a symbiotic relationship where he uses his name to promote it and it has influence over him and his policies.

 

Yet all cannot be well in Telegraph-World because its owners, billionaire twins David and Frederick Barclay, have just decided to put the newspaper up for sale for 200 million pounds – less than a third of what they paid for it in 2004.  Officially, it’s said that the sale is due to the newspaper’s declining profits.  However, I’d like to think that the Barclay brothers are worried that their Boris-worshipping newspaper has turned into a Frankenstein’s monster and they want to get rid of it before their reputations are damaged by association.  That they’re no longer saying, “Watch out, we’re mad!”, but “Hold on, we’re not that mad.”

 

© Columbia Pictures

 

10 scary pictures for Halloween 2019

 

From craftshub.com

 

Today is October 31stSamhain as it’s known in Ireland and Halloween as it’s known elsewhere.  As is my annual custom, I will celebrate the occasion by putting on this blog ten of the creepiest or most disturbing pieces of artwork that I’ve come across during the past year.

 

To start this year’s round-up, here’s a haunting picture by American artist Aron Wiesenfeld, who seems to specialise in depicting frail, vulnerable-looking figures stuck in the middle of bleak, supernaturally threatening landscapes.  This one evokes the ‘trapped in the woods’ trope that’s been common in modern American horror films from The Evil Dead (1981) to The Blair Witch Project (1999), and to The Cabin in the Woods (2012).  It also gets power from its ambiguity.  We don’t know if there’s something lurking in that dark gap between the trees, but we certainly don’t want the lady to venture in and find out.

 

© Aron Wiesenfeld

 

Next, I’d like to pay tribute to an artist who passed away earlier this year.  David Palladini was well known for his ornate, colourful and imaginative versions of the Tarot cards and Zodiac figures, but the work that I’m most familiar with is this poster he designed for Werner Herzog’s stylish 1979 gothic horror movie Nosferatu the Vampyre, featuring Klaus Kinski in the role of a bald-headed and be-clawed Count Dracula.  The look of the poster is decidedly Art Nouveau, which nicely captures the sense of tragic and doomed romanticism underlying Kinski’s physical grotesqueness.

 

© Werner Herzog Filmproduktion / 20th Century Fox

 

From vampires to werewolves – and I was delighted to discover this image recently because I remember it vividly from my boyhood.  The picture, by prolific British horror / fantasy artist Les Edwards, once adorned the cover of a paperback novelisation of the 1975 British horror movie The Legend of the Werewolf.  I read the novelisation when I was 11 and too young to see the film itself in the cinema.  Three years later, I caught up with the film on TV, and even at the age of 14 I found it pretty unremarkable.  (Though it benefited from having a good cast, including Peter Cushing, Ron Moody and, in the role of the werewolf, Scottish actor David Rintoul.)  The novelisation was actually much better than the film deserved.  Not only was Edwards’ cover art memorable, but it was written by the distinguished British fantasy author Robert Holdstock under the pseudonym Robert Black.

 

© Les Daniels / Sphere Books

 

Here’s an illustration from another book, though one whose contents are rather more acclaimed than the storyline of The Legend of the Werewolf.  It’s from the 1912 Hodder and Stoughton edition of The Bells and Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe.  The illustrator is French-British artist Edmund Dulac, who also applied his talents in less fantastical, more everyday areas, for example, by designing banknotes and postage stamps.  Dulac even created a stamp to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, although by a cruel irony he died just one week before the coronation took place in 1953.

 

© Hodder and Stoughton

 

I find skulls creepy, especially when juxtaposed with the living, so I have included this item by the Japanese artist Takato Yamamoto.  The positioning of the skull and the adjacent face, and the amorphous background that seems to swallow the bodies of the subjects, makes it resemble a dark and grim version of the famously spangly works of Gustav Klimt.  (Klimt actually did once produce a sinister painting featuring a skull.)  What gets me is the black, shaggy material surrounding the skull.  Is it a hairy coat?  A hairy blanket?  Is it fur covering a body and pair of arms?  Are we looking at a skull-faced, black-pelted demon from Japanese folklore?  (Yamamoto comes from Japan’s Akita prefecture, home of the famous Namahage ogres.  So I wonder if this is meant to be a zombie Namahage.)

 

© Takato Yamamoto

 

Also shaggy in places is this demonic creature beautifully drawn in black and white by Hannes Bok who, like the better-known and more prolific Virgil Finlay, illustrated the contents of American pulp-fiction sci-fi, horror and detective magazines in the 1930s and 1940s.  Obsessed with the occult, Bok became increasingly reclusive in later life and died in poverty in 1964.  But he at least had the honour of winning one of the first Hugo Awards (for best cover art) when those now-venerable awards were inaugurated in 1953.

 

From monsterbrains.blogspot.com

 

What next?  I like this detail taken from the bottom right-hand corner of The Last Judgement, painted between 1525 and 1530 by Lucas Cranach the Elder.  Cranach was apparently a mate of Martin Luther, which may explain the baleful relish with which he depicts sinners being stuffed by vile demons into a pit populated by even viler demons.

 

From grecosghosts.com

 

Here’s something I found on a now-defunct website called Tomb of Insomnia.  I have no idea what its title is, or who the artist is, or what it’s meant to represent.  But it looks hideous.

 

From Tomb of Insomnia

 

I started this blog entry with a picture of a female figure eerily contrasted with a dark space and here’s another one, courtesy of the South Korean illustrator Yoonji Lee – although there’s less ambiguity about what’s occupying that dark space.  The piece’s title, With Her Demon, gives some clue as to what we’re looking at.  I haven’t been able to find much information about Yoonji Lee and only discovered this picture on the Twitter account 41 Strange.  She’s not to be confused with wholesome-looking Korean TV actress Lee Yoon-ji, whose name kept cropping up when I tried to Google her.

 

© Yoonji Lee

 

Finally, here’s a picture to connect Halloween with the next big festival on the calendar, which is of course Christmas.  The caption, if you can’t read it, says: “Bring in another!”  It’s the work of the celebrated cartoonist, artist and author Gahan Wilson.  To me, Wilson always seemed like the missing link in the cartoon world between purveyors of classic gothic macabre-ness like Charles Adams and Edward Gorey, and the more modern oddness of Gary (The Far Side) Larson.  Sadly, Wilson is not in good health these days and his stepson recently launched a fundraiser to help pay for his care and medical bills.  Donations can be made here.

 

© Gahan Wilson

 

And that’s my ten for October 31st this year.  Happy Halloween!

 

Rab Foster gets antsy

 

© Blood Moon Rising Magazine

 

In the last few years, nearly all the fiction I’ve had published has belonged to one of two genres: horror and fantasy.  The horror stuff has appeared under a pseudonym I use, Jim Mountfield.  The fantasy stuff has borne another pseudonym, Rab Foster.  (I generally use pseudonyms for my writing because ‘Ian Smith’ is one of the most boring names in the world.  Also, it risks me being confused with the white supremacist prime minister of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, who unilaterally declared independence from the UK in 1965, or with the bloke who used to play Harold Bishop in the never-ending Australian soap opera Neighbours.)

 

Well, my new story The World Builder has just been published in the October 2019 edition of the ezine Blood Moon Rising and it’s something of an anomaly.  It’s a horror story inspired by a visit my partner and I made a while back to the historical / cultural site of Polonnaruwa in north central Sri Lanka, where we observed some big, abandoned anthills that looked worryingly… organic.  Blood Moon Rising is a publication that specialises in horror stories and articles about the horror genre, and I’m especially pleased that my story has become available to read just before Halloween.  However, the pseudonym it’s been attributed to isn’t Jim Mountfield, but Rab Foster.

 

This is because when I started to develop the story, which involves a, shall we say, special type of ant, I quickly realised I couldn’t set it in the ‘real’ world.  It would just seem too far-fetched.  And to my mind, a story that strays beyond the boundaries of believability can never be properly scary.  So it made sense to set the story in an ‘unreal’ world, in a fantasy setting where the rules of what’s plausible and implausible are less rigid, and let its horrors unfold there.  Thus, it became a Rab Foster story instead.

 

Actually, in the middle of putting together the story, which as well as featuring super-powerful ants features an Emperor of Games of Thrones-style viciousness, I realised I could link it to another Rab Foster story I’d had published.  That story was called The Water Garden.  It appeared back in 2010 in a now-defunct publication called Sorcerous Signals and was about an evil Emperor cultivating some deadly gardens in which he can discretely get rid of his political rivals.  Part of the inspiration for The Water Garden had come from the bizarre ‘Garden of Death’ that Ernst Stavro Blofeld installs at his hideaway in Japan in the 1964 James Bond novel You Only Live Twice.

 

So I set The World Builder in another quarter of those gardens, adjacent to the one in The Water Garden, and called this new quarter the ‘Earth Garden’.  That makes 2019’s The World Builder a sequel to 2010’s The Water Garden.

 

In fact, the way is now open for two more sequels – stories set in further quarters named after the remaining elements, the Air Garden and the Fire Garden.  Rest assured that Rab Foster will be working on them shortly, as soon as he can figure out what hideous, horrible things to place in those gardens.

 

For the time being, the October 2019 edition of Blood Moon Rising is available here, and The World Builder itself – the issue’s featured story – can be accessed here.

 

Knuckling down, part 4

 

 

The weather had been less than splendid during my first three days in Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Mountains.  Would my fourth and final day see some improvement?  It did.  The sun made a welcome appearance.  This was fortuitous because this morning was the first time I started trekking in clothes and boots still damp from the day before.  Only three guests had stayed at the campsite the previous night, the staff hadn’t bothered to light a fire and I hadn’t had any way of drying them out.  But dry out they did in the morning sunshine, after I’d trudged uncomfortably in them for a short time.

 

My guide, Asela, kept apologising about the bad weather we’d put up with during this trek.  He maintained that the conditions a month earlier, before the rainy season started, had been brilliant.  Unfortunately, back then, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry was still reeling from the impact of the Easter Sunday bombings and there’d hardly been any visitors to go trekking.

 

First, we went through the nearer of the two tea-plantation villages in the vicinity.  Rather than continue along the path to the second village, however, we took a sudden turning that led into the tea plantation itself.  At one point, we went up behind some sort of plantation-related building with a big, steep-sided roof, which resembled a Victorian warehouse and was presumably another lingering trace of British rule.  Later, crossing a plantation slope, we passed a half-dozen white goats as they roamed amid the shrubbery.  Goats are allowed to wander there, Asela explained, because they don’t care for the taste of the valuable tea-plants.

 

 

Then we traversed a forest.  Asela sometimes takes tourists on birdwatching tours and often during our trek he spotted distant specimens of wildlife that otherwise I’d have walked past without seeing.  He was also extremely knowledgeable when he talked about them.  In the forest’s undergrowth he pointed out a horned (male) ‘barking deer’, named because of the noise it makes when something frightens it.  He also showed me an example of Sri Lanka’s indigenous brown squirrels.  These are very different from the grey palm squirrels that are ubiquitous in the cities and towns and, indeed, in any place inhabited by humans – I’d seen several of them scuttling around the campsites in recent days, but they shun the unpopulated forests.

 

We emerged into an area by a river where attempts had been made to build another accommodation / recreational complex.  Some fancy timber holiday cabins stood up on a bank, while nearby an empty concrete water-slide ran down a slope and ended at the bottom with a worryingly small and shallow-looking concrete pool.  (Surely, I thought, you could bash your head in or break a leg if you went whizzing into that pool too fast?)  From there we walked for a time alongside the river, which was actually down in a small gorge, its course clogged with boulders.

 

As we walked in the direction of Kandy and out of the Knuckles Mountains, our path gradually descended.  This made for a fairly easy trek and it felt like compensation for the previous day, which had contained some stretches that I’d found hardcore.

 

Surrounded by tall, deciduous forest, we saw more wildlife.  At one spot, the path passed between two trees where two varieties of stinging insects lived as neighbours.  One tree had a big hornets’ nest, shaped like a rugby ball, suspended from a branch while the other was home to a sagging, faintly V-shaped wasps’ nest.  We spotted another barking deer, this time a non-horned female.  And Asela identified a bird called a ‘hanging parrot’.  As if to meet our expectations, the hanging parrot promptly hung itself upside-down from its tree-branch so that it could peck at a dangling blossom.  The hanging parrot, incidentally, is the green-winged, orange-headed bird that’s pictured on the Sri Lankan 1000 rupee note.

 

From leftovercurrency.com

 

The path took us past the site of what had been a former coffee – as opposed to tea – plantation.  It also took us to the scene of a recent landslide, where the way was blocked by the mingled wreckage of two trees that’d toppled off the slope above.  One tree lay on top of the other and we had to climb over them.  The upper tree-trunk seesawed alarmingly when I put my weight on it.  Meanwhile, a gorgeous view gradually unfolded ahead.  Our route wound down between spurs of steep, wooded mountainside and the sky was, for the first time in four days, a clear, almost cloudless blue.

 

We stopped for a breather on top of a giant boulder overlooking the ever-descending path.  In the foliage surrounding the boulder, we saw a water buffalo, which Asela said was a ‘wild’ one – I’m not sure if it was deemed ‘wild’ because there are herds of untamed water buffalo roaming loose in the Knuckles Mountains or because it just happened to be untethered.  Meanwhile, as we sat there, two different trekking parties came up the path, in the opposite direction that we were heading, and joined us for a few minutes.  We’d already encountered a party before the giant boulder and would meet another one a short way after it.  The route, apparently, is commonly used for one-day treks.  The trekkers are driven out of Kandy, get dropped off at a place ahead that’d be our eventual destination today, hike up the path, and are picked up again at the site of the holiday cabins and concrete water-slide.

 

 

The final trekking party we met were a five-strong French family and their guide.  All the French people wore anti-leech socks, tightly fastened, encasing their legs up past their knees.  (They reminded me a little of King George IV during his famous visit to Scotland in 1822, wherein the obese monarch wore a kilt, but with grotesque flesh-coloured tights covering his legs under it.)  I was tempted to play devil’s advocate and ask, as Asela had asked three days before, what they would do when the leeches climbed to the top of their socks and then moved onto their thighs.  But, diplomatically, I kept my mouth shut.

 

Then we came to a bridge across a gorge, consisting of three steel girders spanning the chasm and a layer of wooden planks placed across the girders.  Asela warned me to walk only on the parts of the planks that had solid steel underneath them.  This was wise – as I crossed the bridge, I realised how flimsy those planks looked and wondered if they’d have supported my weight by themselves.  After the bridge, the landscape became more domesticated and we walked past rice-paddy terraces and small farming settlements.  For a time, a labyrinth of paths – some earthen, some concreted over – and stone steps took along the backs and down the sides of people’s houses.  We also went down flights of concrete steps next to a terraced slope where some of the terraces hadn’t been planted on and had been left fallow, due to the wretchedness of the recent weather.

 

 

Finally, we arrived at a villa with a pleasantly shady veranda – the sun was quite strong now – where we ate a mid-afternoon lunch.  The villa was also the end-point for my four days of Knuckles Mountains trekking.  Parked nearby was a pick-up, ready to shuttle me back to Kandy.  The driver was none other than Ravi, one of the leading lights in the Sri Lanka Trekking company with whom I’d booked this expedition.

 

When we got back to the hotel in Kandy where I’d spend the next night, I settled my bill with Ravi and made sure Asela was tipped for his excellent work as my guide – as well as being observant and knowledgeable, he’d been a very affable companion during those four days.  “Here’s some hanging parrots,” I said as I passed him the money.

 

 

I realise that in my blog posts about this trip, I’ve written a lot about the inclement rainy-season weather and about how some parts of the treks were tough going.  But overall, I finished those four days feeling invigorated and inspired.  I’d been able to do something that I really enjoy, hiking, that unfortunately I don’t have much opportunity to do nowadays.  I’d also been able to see a part of Sri Lanka, the wild, natural part of it, that I also don’t have much opportunity to see – having got into the habit of going to historical attractions and beaches that are usually swarming with visitors.  So, if you’re in Sri Lanka and you fancy exploring its remote mountains, why not drop Sri Lanka Trekking a line?  They provide an excellent service, and with the Easter Sunday bombings still sending a chill through the local tourism industry, I’m sure they’d be grateful for your custom.

 

And while we’re on the topic of recommendations, I suppose I should give a shout-out to the Dettol company, whose disinfectant I applied to my feet and legs before setting off every morning in an effort to make my flesh unpalatable to the Knuckles Mountains’ leech population.  While other trekkers I met were having a terrible time with the little bastards, I remained unmolested by them.  Dettol may not make everyone’s skin leech-proof, but it certainly seemed to do the trick for mine.

 

© Dettol®

 

Knuckling down, part 3

 

 

My first two days in the Knuckles Mountains had seen much bad weather – unsurprisingly, since my visit coincided with the middle of Sri Lanka’s rainy season.  However, there’d been times during both days when the sun appeared, the air warmed up, the landscape dried out and the views became crystal-clear.  I had no such luck on my third day.  It was wet, windy and (as my photographs will show) misty throughout.

 

Asela, my guide, planned to take me to the top of a local mountain.  We set off at ten o’clock, walking back along the route we’d followed to the campsite the afternoon before.  This meant that after ten minutes we passed through the little tea-plantation village again.  Consisting of a few terraces of one-storey stone buildings, whose rusted corrugated-iron roofs often had loose sheets that were weighted down by boulders, blocks and logs, it looked pretty impoverished and represented a side of Sri Lanka that most foreign tourists, cooped up in plush seaside-resort hotels, never see.

 

But still, it was somebody’s home, and they made the best of it – a fact underlined by the presence of some village kids playing cricket with basic, improvised cricketing equipment in a nearby field.  (By this point it was damp and misty, but not raining.)

 

Asela mentioned that most of the people living here were ‘Hill Tamils’, i.e. descendants of folk whom the British had moved from Tamil Nadu in South India to work in Sri Lanka’s high-altitude tea plantations.  A blue-painted statue of the Hindu elephant-god Ganesha standing at the village’s entrance was evidence of this.

 

A little later, we entered the second – and bigger and richer – tea-plantation village in the area, where we collected packed lunches for the trek ahead.  Then Asela led me on a twisting-and-turning route through the village that a couple of times involved us walking along people’s verandas and right past their front doors and windows.  We left the village behind us and started up a mountainside.  Along the way we passed a herd of goats that, apart from a couple of parakeets, were the only animals we sighted today.

 

The path we followed underwent several permutations.  For a time it was a track of wet sand, pebbles and crystal-y pieces of quartz.  Later we passed through a roughly triangular tunnel of bamboo.  Then there was an awkward-to-walk-on course of mud, rotted leaves, slimy rocks and many twisting, intermeshing tree-roots.  Finally we emerged into an open area that was shrouded with mist and where visibility lasted only a few metres.  The ground was covered in sheets of exposed rock separated by seams of grass, moss and muck.  I felt I’d suddenly strayed onto Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

 

 

As I said, the intention had been to scale one of the local mountains, but now Asela confessed that we were unlikely to see anything from its summit, given today’s weather.  So he proposed a change of plans.  Plan B was to cut off from this route and visit a couple of waterfalls instead.  Apparently, there were four notable waterfalls in the area, which the trekking guides simply called Numbers One, Two, Three and Four.  He reckoned we had time to take in two of them: Number Four first, and then Number One.

 

Getting to Waterfall Number Four involved descending a high, steep riverbank.  We went down a helter-skelter of mud and rocks and under a claustrophobically low canopy of branches, creepers and bamboo.  It was tough going.  For the first time, I felt like I really was in the jungle.  When we got to the river, the waterfall was veiled in mist but just about discernible.  It made a ghostly but still majestic-looking sight.

 

 

We then had to go back up the steep riverbank, which proved even more gruelling than going down it.  Scrabbling upwards, but having to crouch all the time so that my head and backpack wouldn’t get caught in the roof of foliage we were passing under, was murder on my knees and back.

 

We emerged alongside a higher stretch of the same river and walked along it, treading carefully on flat, wet stones next to the gushing water.  They were treacherously slippery, but this part of the trek still felt much pleasanter than the punishing ascent we’d just made.  When we got to Waterfall Number One, it also proved to be mist-shrouded and mysterious-looking, but more detail was visible than at its predecessor.  Short, white, pointed rivulets that resembled shimmering icicles trailed from the cracks, ledges and fissures in the rock behind the waterfall.  Meanwhile, the boulders lying below the fall had been so eroded by the constant cascade of water that they looked like a townscape of steep, sharp roofs.

 

We had lunch sitting on some rocks at the far end of the pool in front of the waterfall.  Two other trekking parties were there tucking into lunch when we arrived.  We’d already encountered another trekking party up on the misty, Hound of the Baskervilles area so, despite the weather, there was evidently heavy traffic on the trekking routes today.

 

The climb up the bank from Waterfall Number One was also tough, involving much scrabbling, clutching at jutting rocks and tree-trunks and hauling ourselves upwards.  But again, it was preferable to the ascent from the previous waterfall, because this time there wasn’t a low canopy crushing down on us.

 

Later, our route from Waterfall Number One linked up with the route we’d taken from the second tea-plantation village, so we ended up going back the same way that we’d come.  When we arrived in the village again, we stopped off at the big white house where we’d had lunch the day before and ordered some tea.  This tea was very necessary in my case – in order to get some of my energy back, I stoked my cup with four or five teaspoons of sugar.

 

Just as we were about to enter the house, the grey clouds parted overhead and a shaft of brilliant sunshine pierced through.  “Aha,” I said to Asela.  “Decent weather at last!”

 

A split-second later, the clouds clamped shut again, the sunshine vanished and it never reappeared during the remainder of the day.

 

 

The campsite tonight seemed much quieter because (a) the adjacent enclosure didn’t mount a repeat of the previous night’s song-dance-and-booze party and whoever was staying there went to bed at a civilised hour; and (b) the five-strong British-Israeli family had departed, leaving just me and two other guests staying there.  (The family had planned to do another day’s trekking but the two little kids, following their ordeal by leeches the previous day, understandably didn’t fancy that.  So their guide got hold of a vehicle and they went off on a ‘safari’ instead.  They’d dealt with the previous day’s misfortunes with admirable cheerfulness and good humour, so they deserved to have everything go well for the rest of their Sri Lankan holiday.)

 

The other remaining guests were a New Zealand couple whose company I really enjoyed.  They’d been ravaged by Sri Lanka’s leech population as well.  The previous day, when they’d arrived in the camp, the man’s arms had been weirdly covered in splotches of grey and orange.  It transpired that he’d suffered a number of leech-bites and, to staunch the bleeding, their guide had tried out a couple of traditional remedies.  First, he’d rubbed fragments of burnt paper into the wounds.  When the paper-ash hadn’t worked, he’d then rubbed in turmeric powder.

 

When I say the camp was ‘quiet’, I mean in terms of human activity.  However, it certainly wasn’t quiet in terms of the weather.   That night the wind generated an epic amount of noise.  Sometimes, it made a hurtling, booming noise, as if there was a huge express train going hell-for-leather through the middle of the campsite.  At other times, it sounded like the rumble and crash of tumultuous sea-waves – so that although I was inside a tent, I felt like I was on board a little ship pitching about on those waves.  Meanwhile, the metal roofs of the campsite’s huts and sheds strained and groaned and clattered so much that there might have been a giant animal scrambling on top of them.

 

It finally occurred to me to roll up two pieces of toilet paper and use them as earplugs.  And with loo-paper inserted in my ears, I got to sleep.

 

 

To be continued…

 

Knuckling down, part 2

 

 

I began my second day in Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Mountains early.  I’d been told that the ‘sky camp’ – where I’d spent my first night in the mountains – was an excellent spot for observing the sunrise.  So I and three other guests staying there (an Englishman and two Australian women who were making a separate, two-day trek) emerged from our tents at about 5.30 AM, a quarter-hour before the sun was supposed to come up.  Already the night had given way to an eerie early-morning twilight.   The mountaintops directly across the valley were still black silhouettes.  However, further along and presumably due east, distant peaks were visible in a haze of grey.  Higher up, the greyness segued into a glimmering strip of pink and then into pale, barely blue sky.

 

We went a little way down the road from the camp to a place where a new hotel was under construction.  This had been recommended to us as the best vantage point and there was even a concrete platform in front of the hotel buildings that seemed to have been designed for this purpose.  Gradually, the eastern sky became brighter, revealing patterns of streaky clouds.  The grey haze underneath lightened to show more mountaintops, covered in a fur of trees, and even the glint of a distant lake.  Then a wan red bead rose into view out of the haze – the sun, not quite appearing from behind the horizon but suddenly materialising over it.  At the same moment, the area of sky above the sun suddenly resembled a pool of fiery lava.  Thus, the day had an inspirational start.

 

When I got up, my boots, shorts and other gear were still damp from the previous day’s wet weather, but they dried out in the early-morning sunshine and I was ready to leave the sky camp at 9.30 AM.  Asela, my trekking guide, and I soon encountered an abandoned tea plantation that’d been installed long ago by the British.  Some tea-plants remained, growing wild.  Later, we came across a ruined stone bungalow that’d been the home of the plantation’s superintendent.

 

At another point in the morning, our path took us to a pool below a slope, fed by a boulder-choked stream.  Here, we met the Englishman and Australian women – who’d left the sky camp a short time before us – and their guide.  They were under attack from leeches.  The pool-area was hoaching with the creatures and the Westerners were busy picking them off each other.  Already, one of the ladies’ woollen socks were polka-dotted with blood.

 

 

To digress a little…  A few years ago, I went walking in the Udawattakele Sanctuary above Kandy, where my ankles became the site of a major leech pile-on.  Their bites bled for hours afterwards.  Not wanting to undergo that again, before leaving Colombo for the Knuckles Mountains, I’d gone to a camping shop on Galle Road and invested in a pair of ‘anti-leech’ socks.  These were big tubes of canvas-like material that you put over your feet and roll up your legs to your knees, fastening them at various points with lengths of cord.  However, before the start of our trek the previous day, Asela had pointed out that the leeches would simply climb up my boots, then climb up the anti-leech socks, and then climb onto my exposed thighs and start feeding.

 

“Wouldn’t the leeches,” I asked hopefully, “be too tired to bite after they’d climbed all that way?”

 

“No,” he said.

 

Instead, Asela advised me to rub Dettol into my feet and legs before we set out each morning.  Leeches aren’t hot on the taste of Dettol, apparently.  And that seemed to do the trick because I wasn’t much bothered by the little bastards during our four days’ trekking.  Incidentally, I continued to wear the anti-leech socks – over my feet and socks, under my boots, and rolled down above my boots – as a way of keeping my feet dry.

 

This Knuckles Mountains expedition was the first time I really noticed leeches in their skinnier, non-blood-swollen form.  Everywhere on the ground, it seemed, they squiggled out from under fallen leaves, like animated slivers of evil; and then probed insatiably upwards, desperate to clamber onto your boots and onto your flesh.

 

 

Anyway, after trudging upwards for a time, we came to a pine forest – presumably also the handiwork of the British.  The forest looked aesthetically pleasing as we approached it but, once we entered, we saw how the forest floor was carpeted with dried brown pine-twigs and almost devoid of life.  The only vegetation was an occasional clump of broad-bladed grass.  By way of contrast, when there was an interruption by indigenous trees among the pines, there was also a great eruption of green foliage underneath them.

 

After leaving the pine forest, we crossed a ridge and came within sight of a valley on the other side.  This was possibly the most spectacular view I’ve seen in Sri Lanka.  Various mountains stood in towering rows, which receded and became blurred, misty and ephemeral.  Everything in the valley beneath them – roads, dwellings, fields – was insignificant and puny-looking.

 

Then we ended up on a path whose surface was a mixture of broken asphalt, stones, pebbles, occasional smooth rocks, sand, grit, puddles and, for one stretch, a shallow stream.  A forest of low indigenous trees grew around the path and a froth of grass, weeds, ferns and creepers crowded against its sides.  So far today the weather had been reasonable but there came a point, while we were making our way around a bend, when the air suddenly turned cold.  Thereafter, the weather alternated between mist, drizzle and relentless, miserable rain.

 

It was on this path that we discovered a centipede that was a good seven or eight inches long.  It had a black body, dozens of pairs of yellow legs and two longer red antennae at the end that served as its head.  It was the strangest specimen of wildlife that we saw today.  The wildlife also included a big green chameleon perched on top of a fencepost, a couple of woodpeckers, more freshwater crabs and several monkeys.

 

The path finally took us to a village inhabited by tea-plantation workers.  Our lunch – though we didn’t eat it until the mid-afternoon – was served up in the biggest and fanciest house in the village, a white, two-storey block with a balcony that was decorated with stone doves and bas-reliefs showing ancient chariots.  The house’s owner ran his own trekking company, apparently, but also supplied other companies’ customers and guides with refreshments and food when they  passed through.  I suppose the meal I received there was standard Sri Lankan fare but, with my appetite whetted by hours of trekking, it seemed absolutely delicious.

 

 

Because the electrical sockets in the sky camp hadn’t been compatible with our chargers, neither Asela nor I had powered up our phones the night before.  We were able to do this in the white house, although it meant hanging around for a while.  In the meantime, rain began to bucket down outside.  I was at the front doorway, gazing out at the downpour, when suddenly a tuk-tuk came barrelling into the front yard.  A diminutive Sri Lankan guy clambered out of the front of the tuk-tuk – not, it transpired, the driver, but another guide.  Then the driver got out too.  They lifted one of the side-flaps that’d been fastened down against the pounding rain and five Westerners struggled out of the back: a father, mother, teenaged daughter and little boy and girl.  So that tuk-tuk had arrived with seven people on board.

 

Everyone was bedraggled, but especially the two young kids.  They were whisked into the house, dried with towels and plied with hot tea.  The family were British-Israelis who’d been visiting a waterfall when it started to rain torrentially.  They’d been stranded there for a time, until their guide managed to phone and summon an emergency tuk-tuk.  They said they were staying tonight in a local campsite, which sounded similar to the one Asela had described to me as our next port-of-call.

 

The rain finally relented and the family and their guide set off on foot for their campsite.  Asela and I departed from the house a quarter-hour later.  We followed a path out of the village that took us alongside a river and then through another tea-plantation village – a smaller and decidedly poorer-looking village than the one we’d recently left.  By now the rain had resumed and was almost as severe as before.  As we tramped past a little shop in the middle of the second village, we glanced through its doorway and saw the British-Israeli family huddled inside, in front of the counter.  They looked utterly bedraggled again.

 

About ten minutes after the second village, we arrived at our campsite.  It was part of a conglomeration of recreational facilities in the middle of the mountains – we’d just walked past some fancy wooden chalets and an enclosure with holiday-huts and a garden.  Our place consisted of a central dining area, under a big V-shaped roof held up by eight wooden columns embedded in a concrete wall about three feet high – above that wall, there was nothing to block out the wind; a nearby cabin where the campsite staff and guides could prepare food; two family-sized tents contained in big, garden-shed-like huts overlooking a greenish pond that was stocked with carp; and, up a slope, a terrace of four concrete-walled, iron-roofed huts containing four tents that was similar to the arrangement in the sky camp.  There was no wi-fi or telephone signal and the only electricity was provided by a generator each evening until about 9.30.

 

Shortly after we arrived there, while I sat in the dining area with a much-needed cup of hot tea, the British-Israeli family came charging in out of the rain.  Their guide ran in with the little girl perched on his shoulders.  Their walk from the white house to here had gone badly.  The little boy and girl had fallen prey to leeches and when Asela and I had seen them in the village shop, their parents had been buying disinfectant and plasters to apply to their bites.  Thank God, I thought, for Dettol.

 

 

Later, one of the campsite staff lit a fire in a big brazier at the end of the dining area, just under the edge of the roof so that it wouldn’t be doused by the still-falling rain.  I placed my sodden boots and hung my sodden clothes near to it and by the next morning they’d dried out – just about.

 

That evening, I suffered the only real annoyance of my four days in the Knuckles Mountains – by annoyance, I mean an avoidable, human one, not an unpreventable fact-of-life like bad weather.  On the other side of the carp pond was the enclosure with the holiday huts that I mentioned earlier.  It was under different ownership from the campsite.  Early in the evening, a group of people, mostly men, started playing music loudly over a sound system – warbly, sometimes dance-y Sri Lankan popular songs, latterly accompanied by drunken live singing.  It was fully audible in the campsite and was going strong when I ate dinner.  It was still going strong at about 10.00, when I decided to call it a night.  And it was still thumping away an hour later when I was lying in my tent.

 

Finally, I checked the time, saw that it was 10.55 and resolved that, if the music continued after 11.00, I would go to that enclosure myself to tell them to shut the f*** up.  At 11.01, yes, it was still playing and so I got up, dressed and left the tent.  I was halfway across the campsite when I encountered a guide – not Asela, but one who’d accompanied a couple of other tourists staying there – and he tried to talk me out of breenging across and making a scene.  “They’re local people,” he explained, “but I am sure they will stop soon.”  I pointed out that I, and the campsite’s other guests, had paid good money to have a peaceful sojourn out in Sri Lanka’s remote countryside.  Spending the night next door to a disco-from-hell was the last thing we wanted.

 

In the middle of our discussion, the music cut out.  This was probably connected with the approach of a minibus on the road, presumably hired to ferry the revellers home.  (The following day was one of Sri Lanka’s monthly, alcohol-free Poya Days, and I wondered if the noise was being made by some arseholes having a blow-out prior to 24 hours of enforced sobriety.)  The music didn’t resume after that and so I returned to my tent – my complaint and a potential scene unmade.

 

The next day, Asela told me that he’d gone across to the enclosure that evening and asked the revellers to turn the music down for the sake of the folk on our campsite.  His request wasn’t well received.  He was abused for being an upstart ‘Kandy boy’ and one drunkard even challenged him to step outside for a fight.  I suddenly felt relieved that I hadn’t breenged across there.  Getting involved in a bare-knuckles brawl in the Knuckles Mountains?  That wouldn’t have impressed my employers.  Nor, indeed, the Sri Lankan police force.

 

 

To be continued…

Knuckling down, part 1

 

 

A while back, I found myself with a spare week on my hands and I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to do some hiking in Sri Lanka – or as they call it in this part of the world, ‘trekking’.  I decided to get out of Colombo for a few days and explore part of the island’s famous Hill Country on foot.  I’d always wanted to do this during the five years I’d lived in Sri Lanka but, somehow, had never got around to it.

 

Having trekked before in Thailand and Laos, I was surprised at how rarely it was offered as something for tourists to do in Sri Lanka.  Most activities advertised here involved making safari-like tours of the country’s wildlife reserves or were sea-based things like surfing, snorkelling and whale-watching.  But I found online half-a-dozen locally based holiday companies who offered trekking among their activities and fired off emails to them specifying what I wanted to do, where, for how long and for how much.  I have to say I got some propositions back that bore no resemblance to what I’d requested.  One company, obviously cutting and pasting information from an international brochure, offered me a four-day trip around central Sri Lanka’s tourist hotspots, staying in top-class hotels, with most of the travelling in between done by train or car and with barely a mention of hiking, all to the tune of 1,300 US dollars.

 

However, one company, Sri Lanka Trekking, suggested a four-day package in the Knuckles Mountains east of Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city, for 70 dollars a day.  This covered transport, accommodation, food and my own private trekking guide.  It was exactly what I’d been looking for and I accepted and headed for Kandy.

 

Unfortunately, my week’s break took place during Sri Lanka’s rainy season, and it was early on a damp and grey Kandy morning that I was picked up outside my hotel by my guide from Sri Lanka Trekking.   He was a young guy called Asela with a tall, lanky build and long hair tucked up in a topknot.  He wore a fair amount of bling and a pair of flip-flops, which didn’t look very hiker-ly, although during the next four days he seemed to have zero problems traversing the often-awkward terrain.

 

 

We spent the next couple of hours in a yellow tuk-tuk with a Bob-Marley-themed interior (and a driver who looked slightly Rastafarian as well) heading eastwards towards the mountains, making a few stops on the way to pick up provisions like packed lunches and bottles of water.  Eventually, Asela and I were dropped off at a grassy track and began walking.  Ahead of us was a 12-mile trek to the spot where we’d camp for the night.  Initially, the weather was wet and blowy, but after a half-hour, things calmed and the sun appeared.  I entertained hopes that the rest of the day would stay pleasant.  Futile hopes, as it turned out.

 

The trek’s first leg took us below the curved, rocky crest of a mountain where, Asela told me, a bushfire had broken out a month earlier.  The cliff-face was now a smoky-grey colour while underneath a belt of trees retained their green treetops but had trunks that resembled burnt matchsticks.  The ground beneath them was a scorched red-brown.  We learned later that the conflagration had been caused by a small fire getting out of hand.  It’d been lit by some people trying to smoke out a colony of bees so that they could take the bees’ honey.

 

 

Asela also told me that this area was currently roamed by three elephants who a while ago had accidentally ‘migrated’ from a nearby, official ‘elephant zone’.  Nobody quite knew where the elephants were and they were said to emerge from the surrounding forest only at night.  He showed me evidence of their presence – a wrecked jackfruit tree, whose fruit elephants are partial to, at the side of the track; and a big, flat, pale patch of old elephant poop on the ground.  In addition, the farmsteads bordering the track had strands of barbed wire slung along their perimeters.  Dangling at intervals from the wire were clusters of empty cans that, if the elephants brushed against them, would clang noisily and hopefully scare the giant trespassers away.  The cans included some that’d contained 8.8% proof Lion Strong Beer, possibly powerful enough to stun an elephant.

 

Near lunchtime, the weather changed again and grey, clammy rain descended.  We made our way down a slope with semi-circular terraces of rice paddies carved onto it.  The tracts of water, seams of mud between them and sprouting green rice-shoots made the hillside look like an old mirror that’d been smashed and then stuck together again – the water like the slivers of glass, the mud like the lines of glue and the rice-shoots like specks of mould on the glass.

 

 

The weather became increasingly cantankerous.  We struggled along muddy tracks and up and down treacherous steps, and even tightrope-walked for a while along one of the concrete ridges lining a deep manmade drain, until we finally found a place to eat lunch.  This was a tiny farmer’s hut that was no more than a wooden-slatted roof held up by a few posts.  The wind blew through it but nonetheless it felt cosy and welcoming after what we’d been exposed to outside.

 

 

Similarly, lunch was just a pack of fried rice and chicken but, after the past few hours’ exertions, it tasted delicious.

 

Afterwards, we emerged onto a stretch of winding concrete-surfaced road.  Asela got talking to a girl of 12 or 13 years who was walking a few yards ahead of us and discovered that she knew a short-cut that would save us having to follow a long, monotonous loop in the road ahead.  She led us up a rough, steep path to the side, which was basically a course of mud and wet, slippery, vaguely step-like rocks.  Armed with an umbrella, the girl pranced in front of us as agilely and daintily as a gazelle.  We reached the top of a hill where she lived with her parents in a square, bunker-like farmhouse and were passing the side of the house, about to descend the slope on the other side, when suddenly the rain and wind swelled and became a furious tempest.  The girl’s father kindly allowed us to shelter under the porch outside his front door for the tempest’s duration.

 

 

Indeed, the father joined us under the porch and spent the next 20 minutes blethering with Asela, while I stared out dumbfoundedly at the storm.  Nearby palm trees seemed almost to bend 90 degrees in the middle.  The ground in front rapidly became a lake – a green garden-lizard started off sheltering below a bush, then had to shin up the bush to avoid being washed away.  A few times the man eyed me bemusedly – by now I looked like I’d just been fished out of a river – no doubt marvelling that foreigners were willing to pay money to be subjected to this.

 

Finally, the storm abated and the girl offered to lead us the rest of the way along the short-cut, which involved traversing more mud and rocks.  Again, she pranced effortlessly ahead with her umbrella.  We reached the concreted road and after that it was simply a matter of going up, up, up – till we arrived at the place where we’d spend the night.  This was an establishment known as ‘the sky-camp’ and consisted of two terraces of concrete huts with green, V-shaped aluminium roofs, along with a communal dining area, a kitchen, a storeroom and a block with toilets and a shower-room.

 

 

Actually, each hut contained a tent – so that you stayed inside a tent that was inside a hut.  The huts were open at one end, positioned away from the direction that the wind usually came from, which was also where the tents’ entrance flaps were located.  (Asela explained that if the tents had stood alone, they’d soon have been blown away.)  The tents’ guy-lines were attached to the huts’ interiors and, with some fiddling and adjusting, could be converted into washing lines for hanging wet clothes.

 

 

Mindful that it was the rainy season, I’d made sure when I’d packed my rucksack that everything inside it was enclosed in plastic bags.  When I got into the tent I’d been allocated, and unpacked, I discovered that one bag had been ‘compromised’ by the wet.  Unfortunately, it was the bag holding my money.  I had about forty notes of 20, 50, 100, 500, 1000 and 5000 rupees in it that were now soaking and almost completely stuck to each other.  My solution was to carefully peel the notes apart; spread half of them across the bedding inside the tent; lie down on top of them, fully clothed; nap for half-an-hour; and let my body heat dry them out.  Then I did the same with the other half of the notes.  It worked, sort of.  My money looked almost as good as new.

 

It’d been a day of extremes – moments when I’d felt extremely wet and tired, but other moments when I’d felt extremely happy.  There were times when I wondered, “Why am I doing this to myself?”: whilst scrambling up steep, endless-seeming tracks that slithered with mud and oozed with rainwater; or straining my venerable joints as I struggled up or jolted down flights of steps that were basically haphazard arrangements of rocks.  And I hated it when the rain got inside my windcheater, and in particular got inside the windcheater’s sleeves – freezing water would pour down from my elbows to wrists whenever I let my arms hang at my sides.

 

But what was good?  Well, after spending so long in the city, it felt great to be out amid nature.  When I look at the notes I wrote in my journal that day, I’m pleasantly reminded of all the animals we sighted: ‘a big snail with a pointed, shiny, red-purple shell’; ‘a golden-headed fowl, off to the side of the path among some bushes’; ‘butterflies swooping majestically about a pool’; ‘a furtive freshwater crab extending its claws from under the edge of a rock’; ‘a green tree-snake’; ‘a water buffalo, tethered halfway up a slope of terraced paddies’; ‘a bright blue kingfisher taking off from a tree’; ‘a couple of strange, black-winged storks’; and ‘a male peacock dragging his glossy plumage across the bottom of a slope’.

 

 

Also, by the time I reached the sky-camp, the weather had cleared and I was allowed a glorious view of the countryside through which and up which I’d just trekked.  The camp was high on a mountainside and overlooked a mostly forested valley, whose far side rose and twisted up to brownish-green peaks.  I felt so elated that my first action was to stand in front of this view and do something that I very, very rarely do, which was take a selfie.

 

However, drenched in sweat and plastered with Knuckles Mountains dirt and muck, I looked ghastly in the selfie, so I’ll spare you the horror and not post it here in this blog-entry.  Enjoy this shot of a nice water buffalo instead.

 

 

To be continued…

 

The essence of Pleasence

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

Today is October 5th, 2019.  Donald Pleasence, one of my all-time favourite actors, was born on this day exactly 100 years ago

 

The distinctive Pleasence, with his domed and usually hairless head, his popping eyes and unsettling stare, and his alternatively smooth and sepulchral voice, was a peerless character actor.  Though he’s mainly remembered for his sinister roles, he could effortlessly inhabit a range of personas – characters who were pathetic, tragic, eccentric, obsequious and, occasionally, virtuous.

 

In celebration of the great man’s 100th birthday, here are 15 of the performances that for me most memorably capture the essence of Pleasence.

 

1984 (1954)

Controversial in its day, with questions raised about it in Parliament, the BBC’s mid-1950s version of George Orwell’s 1984 still has impact.  That’s largely due to its performances, most notably that of Peter Cushing playing Winston Smith.  But Pleasence is good too as Syme, the lexicographer enthusiastically working on Newspeak.  (“I’ve reached the adjectives at last!”)  Despite – or perhaps because of – his zeal for the Party, Syme ends up becoming an ‘unperson’.

 

The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)

John Gilling’s The Flesh and the Fiends is the cinema’s best take on the notorious Edinburgh duo of Burke and Hare, who in the early 19th century started selling cadavers to the dissection rooms of Edinburgh Medical School.  The problem was, Burke and Hare’s cadavers had had some assistance in dying.  Pleasence is loathsome as Hare, with atypically long, lank tresses, a battered stovepipe hat, a smirk and a maniacal gleam that shows he gets a perverse thrill out of murdering people.  As with the real-life Hare, following his arrest, he turns King’s evidence against his partner and gets released, though director Gilling adds an apocryphal scene where he’s blinded by torch-wielding vigilantes the moment he leaves the jail.

 

© Triad Productions

 

Hell is a City (1960)

For someone who made a lot of horror movies, Pleasence had surprisingly little to do with Britain’s Hammer Films, the studio most associated with the horror genre at the time.  Hell is a City is a Hammer movie, but ironically isn’t a horror one but a crime one – and by the standards of British cinema then, is surprisingly gritty.  Pleasence plays Gus Hawkins, a shady but sympathetic bookmaker whose wife gives him the run-around while she attends to the spiritual and physical needs of the film’s villain, a murderous criminal fleeing the law.  In the role of the duplicitous Mrs Hawkins is Billie Whitelaw, whom Pleasence killed in The Flesh and the Fiends, so I suppose there’s justice in that.

 

The Great Escape (1963)

Pleasence’s performance in The Great Escape culminates in one of the saddest scenes in cinema history.  He plays Colin Blythe, a genteel but unfortunate prisoner-of-war in the high-security Stalag Luft III who goes blind just before the inmates stage the mass break-out of the title.  However, Blythe has been befriended by an American pilot called Hendley, played by James Garner, who agrees to take him along when it’s his turn to escape from the camp.  All goes well and Hendley and Blythe manage to steal a German airplane and fly it towards Switzerland and freedom.  They get to within yards of the Swiss border when the plane suffers engine trouble and crashes.  Then, while the bloodied Hendley tries to gather his wits amid the plane wreckage, the sightless and disorientated Blythe stumbles off in the direction of an approaching German patrol.  One of the German soldiers raises his rifle…  I get a tear in my eye even thinking about what happens next.

 

Cul-de-sac (1966)

The Roman Polanski-directed Cul-de-sac has a surprisingly svelte Pleasance playing an artist shacked up with his gorgeous young wife (Francoise Dorleac, who was the sister of Catherine Deneuve and who died in a car accident in 1967) on an island off the English coast, which is actually Lindisfarne off Northumbria.  Their idyll ends one day when two criminals-on-the-run (Lionel Stander and Jack MacGowran) show up.  Things then become positively Beckettian as the villains wait, futilely, for their superiors to appear and rescue them.  Cul-de-sac is overlong, but is a haunting experience thanks to the gorgeous bleakness of its location and its black-and-white photography.  It also contains the bloodcurdling sight of Pleasence, whilst involved in some kinky horseplay with Dorleac, hurtling around in lipstick and a frock.

 

© Compton Films / Tekli British Productions

 

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

Your IQ must be lower than your shoe-size if you haven’t worked out within ten minutes that Pleasence is the foreign-agent saboteur among the crew in this colourful sci-fi epic about a submarine of medical experts being miniaturised and injected into the body of a dying scientist so that they can perform internal surgery on him.  Still it features a delightful scene near the end where Pleasence is devoured by a hungry white blood cell.  (Other great Donald death-scenes: getting mauled to death by a bear that’s obviously a stuntman wrapped up in a shaggy rug in 1960’s Circus of Horrors, and being ingested by a monster that’s half-human and half-Venus flytrap in 1974’s startlingly tacky The Mutations.)

 

You Only Live Twice (1967)

The James Bond film where we get to see Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld for the first time, You Only Live Twice has Pleasence playing him with all the accoutrements that popular culture associates with Blofeld – bald head, white jumpsuit, white cat, pool of piranhas for dropping incompetent minions into.  Mind you, the filmmakers immediately abandoned the template and cast two actors with very different appearances and personas, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray, as Blofeld in the next two Bond movies.  That, of course, didn’t stop Mike Myers from using the original Pleasence / Blofeld blueprint for his Dr Evil character in the later Austen Powers movies (1997-2002).

 

Wake in Fright (1971)

Nick Cave reckons Wake in Fright is the greatest Australian movie ever and I wholeheartedly agree.  It’s the tale of a young, bright and ambitious teacher (Gary Bond) who becomes increasingly desensitised and degenerate the longer he’s stranded in the macho outback town of Bundanyabba.  Pleasence plays Doc Tydon, an educated man who’s already plumbed the depths of ‘the Yabba’ and who becomes Virgil to Bond’s Dante, guiding him through the town’s various levels of hell.  The scene where a drunken Tydon sits on the porch of an outback pub and raves about “Socrates, affectability, progress” being “vanities spawned by fear”, before going berserk and smashing up the place, shows the mighty Donald at his most unhinged.

 

© American International Pictures

 

Deathline (1972)

Gary Sherman’s grisly and ahead-of-its-time horror movie Deathline has Pleasence playing Inspector Calhoun, a working-class copper investigating the disappearances of late-night travellers on the London Underground.  (Clue: it’s something to do with the last-surviving, cannibalistic descendent of a group of workers who were entombed by a cave-in while the Underground was being built in the 19th century.)  Calhoun isn’t really a nice character.  He’s sly, cynical, irascible and, as a boozy scene involving his only friend (Norman Rossington) shows, a nightmare to get out of the pub at closing time.  However, when he finally discovers the cannibal’s hideous subterranean lair, his exclamation – “What a way to live!” – suggests a feeling of empathy, even of kinship with the lonely creature.

 

The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water (1973)

1970s children’s television in Britain featured many short public-information films that used harrowing and graphic images to convince kids that it was not a good idea to play on railway tracks, inside electrical sub-stations, next to farm slurry pits, etc.  Pleasence lent his doomy tones to The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, which warns the little ‘uns to keep away from rivers, canals and ponds and is the most harrowing film of the lot.  He voices the titular spirit, a black, cowled figure who lurks in the misty background while a succession of stupid children – “the unwary, the show-off, the fool” – are lured to watery graves.  So memorably ghoulish is Pleasence’s narration that, 45 years on, I can still recite every word of it.  (“Sensible children!” he spits.  “I have no power over them!”)  And to make it even creepier, when he dematerialises at the end and leaves his cowl floating on some murky water, we hear his voice echoing out of the cowl: “I’ll be back… back… back!”

 

© Amicus Productions / Warner Bros.

 

From Beyond the Grave (1974)

The best of the horror anthology movies produced by Amicus Films, Hammer’s biggest rival during the 1960s and 1970s, this features Pleasence in one story as an old soldier called Underwood, reduced to selling matchsticks and shoelaces on the street.  Underwood is adopted by a mediocre, frustrated man called Lowe (Ian Bannon), who’s trying to win respect for himself by lying about imaginary heroics he performed during the war.  Despite having a wife and child, Lowe gradually becomes enamoured with Underwood’s weird daughter – and we realise that it’s Underwood, not Lowe, who’s doing the manipulating.  In a neat piece of stunt casting, the daughter is played by Pleasence’s real-life daughter, Angela.  Meanwhile, wonderfully, in the role of Lowe’s ten-year-old son is the future comic writer and Labour Party activist John O’Farrell.

 

Telefon (1977)

Pleasence plays a Soviet scientist who, during the darkest days of the Cold War, helped to ‘seed’ the USA with deep-cover Soviet agents.  These brainwashed agents don’t know they’re agents, but when they hear a ‘trigger’, which is a stanza by poet Robert Frost, they become zombie-like, grab some explosives and carry out kamikaze-style attacks on nearby military installations.  Pleasence goes rogue and travels to America, where he tries to start World War III singlehandedly by activating the brainwashed agents.  Thereafter, there are many explosions and much reciting of poetry by Pleasance: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep / But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep…”

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / United Artists

 

Halloween (1978)

In 1978, planning a horror movie called Halloween about a murderous psychopath on the loose on October 31st, director John Carpenter decided he wanted ‘an old British horror guy’ to play Dr Sam Loomis, head of the psychiatric hospital from which the psychopath escapes.  After offering the part of Loomis to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, without success, Carpenter approached Pleasence and the great man bagged his second most-famous role (after Blofeld).  I have mixed feelings about the massively influential Halloween.  It has a hackneyed script, but benefits from Carpenter’s masterly direction, an endearing turn by Jamie Lee Curtis as the resourceful ‘last girl’ and, obviously, Pleasence’s gravitas.  That said, I’m sure when Pleasence signed up for this, he didn’t expect to appear in four of the film’s five, increasingly ropy, direct sequels.

 

Blade on the Feather (1980)

A TV movie written by the brilliant Dennis Potter, Blade on the Feather has Pleasance playing a wealthy and stuck-up novelist who’s discombobulated when a young stranger, played by Tom Conti, arrives one day, ingratiates himself into his household and starts asking awkward questions – questions to do with some long-ago espionage skulduggery, which resulted in the death of Conti’s secret-agent father.  Stylishly directed by Richard Loncraine and excellently acted by Pleasence, Conti and Denholm Elliot, Blade on the Feather was no doubt Potter’s disgruntled response to events of the previous year – when Anthony Blunt had finally been unmasked as the ‘fourth man’ in the Guy Burgess / Donald Maclean / Kim Philby spy scandal that rocked Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.  Despite confessing to treason in 1964, Blunt’s crime was kept secret for the next 15 years and he was allowed to enjoy a respectable and privileged life at the heart of the British establishment, working as curator of the Queen’s art collection.

 

Escape from New York (1981)

Working again with director John Carpenter, Pleasence plays in Escape from New York a future US president who’s trapped in a hellish version of New York after his plane crashes there.  The city has become so anarchically crime-ridden that the authorities have simply sealed it off, left it to its own devices and turned it into a huge, unstaffed prison into which they dump all their felons.  An ultra-violent, dystopian United States with a president called Donald?  Thank heavens that prediction didn’t come true.

 

Anyway, a century on…  Happy birthday, Mr P.

 

© Central Office of Information

 

Nostalgic wallows 1: Bill McLaren

 

From bloodandmud.com

 

We’re now ten days into the Japan-hosted 2019 Rugby World Cup and my mental health feels more kicked around than the ball in the matches.  One of the two teams I support is already in danger of making an early exit from the tournament.  Meanwhile, the other team I support seems to have haplessly manoeuvred itself into a position where it’ll face New Zealand’s steamrollering All-Blacks in the second stage.

 

But aside from the anguish…  The tournament reminds me yet again of how much I miss being able to watch an international rugby match and at the same time listen to the knowledgeable and dulcet tones of Bill McLaren.

 

Although McLaren, who died in 2010 at the age of 86, worked as late as 2002, it was in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s that he was indisputably the voice of British rugby union.  This was an era when sport, if you weren’t at the live event itself, was viewable only on a handful of terrestrial TV channels.  It was common for one channel to have a monopoly on broadcasting one sport and, by extension, for one commentator to have a monopoly on talking about that sport.  Hence, in my youth, it was almost impossible to see horse racing without hearing of the posh but eerily robotic tones of Peter O’Sullivan, or boxing without hearing the excitable Harry Carpenter, or Formula One without hearing the gaffe-prone Murray Walker, or rugby league without hearing the indescribable-sounding Eddie Waring.  McLaren fulfilled this role in the world of rugby union and for me was the best sports commentator of the lot, though I’m undoubtedly biased.  Rugby has always been my favourite team sport.  Plus McLaren came from Hawick in the Scottish Borders, the rugby-daft region where I spent many of my formative years.

 

There were three reasons for McLaren’s greatness.  Firstly, he knew his stuff.  I remember watching a McLaren-commentated game on a pub TV in Aberdeen sometime in the 1980s.  I was in the company of my good friend, the late Finlay McLean, and at one point, Finlay turned around to me and marvelled, “He’s just steeped in the game, isn’t he?”

 

When a try was scored, McLaren didn’t just tell you the name of the player who’d crossed the line.  No, he’d also observe how the player was the great-great-nephew of the man who’d kicked the winning points in the legendary Hawick-Galashiels derby of 1937, or a direct descendent of the tight-head prop with the great Western Province team that’d dominated South Africa’s Currie Cup in the 1890s.  It wouldn’t have surprised you if he’d identified the player’s granny as the stylist responsible for grooming J.P.R. Williams’ sideburns in the 1970s.  He seemed to know everything about rugby.

 

McLaren’s knowledge was encyclopaedic, but this was backed by a conscientious and professional attitude to research.  I read somewhere that when preparing for a game, he’d cover a full sheet of foolscap with notes about each player.  This meant that in the commentator’s box he was constantly shuffling around some 30 sheets of paper.

 

Secondly, although he was a Scotsman and often commentated on games involving the Scottish rugby team, he was never biased.  On the contrary, he always applauded good rugby, no matter who was playing it and even if Scotland was on the receiving end of it.  McLaren’s neutrality was especially admirable when you compared him with the international football commentators on the BBC at the time (and indeed still now), who seemed incapable of narrating an England World Cup match without speculating every second minute about whether ‘we’ could win the World Cup just like ‘we’ won it back in 1966.

 

Thirdly, and most importantly for me, his commentaries were laden with poetry.  McLaren had an amusing, fanciful, frequently wonderful talent with language.  Admittedly, he could be a tad unflattering in the turn of phrase he used to describe the over-sized players on the field.  English prop Colin Smart – famous for getting stomach-pumped after drinking a bottle of aftershave as a post-match lark – consisted of ‘considerable acreage’; English captain and lock Bill Beaumont looked ‘like someone who enjoys his food’; Welsh forwards Scott and Craig Quinnell were ‘two well-nourished individuals’; Scottish flanker Finlay Calder had ‘hands like dinner plates’; and Calder’s gangly fellow-Scot Doddie Weir was ‘the lamppost of the line-out.’  As for the legendary and frankly massive New Zealand flanker Jonah Lomu, running into him was like ‘trying to tackle a snooker table’.

 

© BBC

 

He had a fondness to likening players to animals.  They might behave like ‘a demented ferret’ or ‘a bag of weasels’ or ‘a raging bull with a bad head’ or ‘a whirling tsetse fly’ or ‘a runaway giraffe’ or ‘a slippery salmon’.  The Scottish scrum-half Roy Laidlaw (whose nephew Greig plays in the same position in the current Scottish team) was as elusive as ‘a baggy up a Borders burn’ – a baggy being, to quote the Dictionary of the Scottish Language, ‘a species of large minnow.’  Unsurprisingly for a Borders man, Scotticisms were common in his delivery.  Rugby balls were likened to ‘three pounds of haggis’, the famously square-shouldered Scottish skipper Peter Brown was like ‘a coo kicking over a milk pail’ and an injured player sitting dejectedly at the side of the field whilst sucking on a mint was at least ‘enjoying his sweetie.’

 

When it came to describing the turbulent passions and physical violence often unleashed on the pitch, McLaren was amusingly euphemistic.  Cheating was frequently described as ‘jiggery-pokery’ and punch-ups were dismissed as ‘a bit of argy-bargy’.  I remember how when fists started flying in the middle of one scrum, he commented: “It’s getting a bit unceremonious in that front row.”  And when Scottish centre Jim Renwick – whom McLaren had coached as a schoolboy – missed a kick and was caught by the camera mouthing the F-word, McLaren diplomatically remarked that he was ‘muttering a few naughty Hawick words.’

 

Some of his sayings became catchphrases.  When a player prepared to kick a conversion and half the stadium made disparaging noises in the hope of distracting him and making him fluff it, McLaren would invariably remark: “There’s some ill-mannered whistling.”  And when a conversion-kick made it between the posts despite being taken from a torturous angle, he’d declare: “It’s high enough, it’s long enough and it’s straight enough!”

 

Aware that in the Borders towns local players who’d made it onto the national team were seen as heroes, he’d often serenade the scorer of a Scottish try with the lines, “And they’ll be dancing in the streets of…” or “And they’ll be drinking his health down in…” – Hawick, Galashiels, Kelso, Melrose, Selkirk, wherever – “…tonight!”  As an honorary Borderer, I’d say they were more likely to be drinking his health than dancing in the streets.

 

McLaren’s manner and delivery were immensely relaxed and comforting, but his early life had been no bed of roses.  As a young World War II serviceman, he had to endure the Battle of Monte Cassino, of which one eyewitness said, “The men were so tired that it was a living death.  They had come from such a depth of weariness that I wondered if they would quite be able to make the return to the lives and thoughts they had known.” McLaren himself described Monte Cassino as a ‘vision of hell on earth.’

 

After the war, he was diagnosed as having tuberculosis, which put a prompt end to any hopes he had of becoming a rugby internationalist.  TB was then considered incurable and he wasn’t expected to survive, but he and four fellow sufferers agreed to be guinea pigs for the trials of a new drug, streptomycin.  Thanks to this treatment he recovered, but three of the four other volunteers died.  It was while he was convalescing that he produced his first sports commentaries – describing table-tennis matches over the hospital radio.

 

McLaren was passionately attached to his hometown and famously said, “A day out of Hawick is a day wasted.”  A few years ago I visited Hawick for the first time since the 1980s and was upset to see how much it’d deteriorated.  Its high street was run-down and riddled with derelict properties – thanks to an economy weakened by the closure of local woolen mills, and also thanks no doubt to the opening of branches of Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s and Lidl, which’d sucked the retailing life out of the place.  My first dismayed thought was: “What would Bill McLaren have said about this?”

 

McLaren’s commentaries were emblematic of an earlier, more innocent age, when rugby was still an amateur sport and because of that it was incredibly accessible – especially if you lived in a rugby-centric place like the Borders, where the guys you saw performing heroic deeds for Scotland on TV on Saturday afternoons existed during weekdays as mortals like everyone else.  As a kid living there, I was delighted when the man from the electricity board who came to our house to check on a power outage was none other than Jim Renwick.  Meanwhile, Scottish fullback Peter Dods was a joiner down the road in Galashiels and my old man, a farmer, was on nodding terms with Scottish flanker John Jeffrey, who farmed in Kelso – Jeffrey’s teammates had nicknamed him ‘the Great White Shark’ but to Bill McLaren he was just ‘the big Kelso farmer’.  And let’s not forget local electrician Roy Laidlaw, whom legend has it had to rewire the public toilets in Jedburgh the Monday morning after the 1984 Scotland team he was part of won the Grand Slam in Paris.

 

Yes, Bill McLaren’s voice evokes a simpler time in rugby, before professionalism, sponsorship, corporatism, razzmatazz and a profit-driven need to win at all costs took over.  But homespun though his persona was, I don’t believe there’s been a sports commentator in the years since who’s come close to matching him.

 

© From rugbyrelics.com