Into spring with Jim Mountfield

 

© The Horror Zine

 

Two weeks ago I reported here that Witch Hazel, a short story I wrote under the pseudonym Jim Mountfield, had just appeared online in the February 2020 edition of The Horror Zine.  That story should be available to read for the remainder of February, here.

 

In addition, Witch Hazel is among the contents of the Spring 2020 print edition of the Horror Zine, which is now on sale.  Edited by the tireless Jeani Rector, the collection features a dozen short stories, poetry and some excellent artwork, and can be downloaded onto Kindle here.  Enjoy!

 

Peebles High School Film Club

 

© Handmaid Films / Python (Monty) Pictures / Orion Pictures

 

The death of Terry Jones last month prompted many tributes – obviously because he was a member of Monty Python, one of the most influential comedy teams of the 20th century, but also because he was a skilled (though underrated) film director.  Indeed, a few of the tributes cited the Jones-directed Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) as being the funniest movie of all time.

 

I don’t know if it’s the funniest, but I’d surely put Life of Brian in my favourite half-dozen comedy movies.  One interesting thing about the film is that it’s practically part of the DNA of modern British cultural identity.  Lines like “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a  very naughty boy!” have become national catchphrases and Eric Idle got to sing the film’s climactic song Always Look on the Bright Side of Life at the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games.  Yet at the time of its release, it was incredibly controversial.

 

Its tale of an amiable, innocuous oaf called Brian (Graham Chapman) born in the Holy Land at the same time as Jesus, and then getting continually mistaken for Jesus as he bumbles through life, put more than a few religious noses out of joint.  In Britain, the film attracted the ire of the usual sanctimonious suspects: Mary Whitehouse, Malcolm Muggeridge, the Nationwide Festival of Light and Glasgow’s Pastor Jack Glass (a Scottish Mini-Me of the Reverend Ian Paisley).  It was banned in various municipalities.  The Welsh town of Aberystwyth was a particular hold-out – it didn’t get publicly shown there until 2009 when, amusingly, the town’s mayor was none other than the former actress Sue Jones-Davies, who’d played Judith Iscariot in the film.

 

And yet, despite it being such a hot potato, I remember being shown Life of Brian at the start of the 1980s, when I would have been about 15, on a big screen in the assembly hall of my school, Peebles High School.  It was shown to an audience of a hundred or more pupils by one of the teachers.  When I think about this now, and recall the censorious and disapproving mood of the time and how much the religious establishment detested the movie, I find this pretty amazing.

 

Life of Brian was shown as part of the programme for that year’s Peebles High School Film Club. The club was run by an English teacher called Dr Mike Kellaway.  I have to say that these days when people my age gather in a pub in Peebles and Mike Kellaway’s name comes up in the conversation, it’s usually greeted with sighs, winces, shaking of heads and rolling of eyes because the guy had some serious failings, which I’ll talk about later.  However, just now, let me relate the story of the Film Club, which I actually believe reflects well on Kellaway, or as he was also known, ‘the Doc’.

 

First, some historical and geographical context.  In the 1970s Peebles was a small country town of several thousand people.  It had its own cinema, the Playhouse, up until 1977.  Then the Playhouse closed down and thereafter, if you wanted to go to see a movie in a cinema, you had to travel to Penicuik (10 miles away), Galashiels (18 miles away) or Edinburgh (21 miles away).

 

Your only other way to see films was to watch them on the era’s three terrestrial TV channels.  Talk of cable and satellite TV still seemed like science fiction to most people, and concepts like the Internet, YouTube, online streaming and so on were incomprehensible.  Miss a film at the cinema and you had to wait four or five years before it might appear on TV and of course you were still limited by what the programmers chose to show on their schedules, already congested with TV series.  Also, there were no such things as DVDs and DVD players, and video cassettes had barely made an appearance – even by 1982, only 10% of homes in the UK owned a video cassette recorder.  So in other words, if you were a film-lover in a Scottish country town without a cinema in the late 1970s and early 1980s you were, basically, screwed.

 

The Film Club was meant to address this problem.  Membership was open to pupils from third year to sixth year.  They paid a membership fee of a few pounds at the start of the academic year and got to see a film – sometimes two on a double bill – most Monday evenings during term-time.  Occasionally, certain films would be for pupils in fifth and sixth year only ‘because of their adult nature’, as the club’s promotional leaflets put it.  So Monday evenings at the school would usually see the assembly hall turned into a cinema auditorium.  A big screen was erected at the front and Mike Kellaway, the Doc, would set up a projector on a table at the back.  Into this projector were fed spools of film that he’d ordered from a catalogue designed for private film clubs like ours.

 

I joined as soon as I could, in 1978, and renewed my membership every year until I finished school in 1982.  One thing that strikes me about the club now was that Kellaway was potentially walking on thin ice because some of the films he showed, like the aforementioned Life of Brian, could be accused of having content unsuitable for schoolkids.  One way that he circumvented this danger was by opening the club’s membership to parents as well.  You could get your folks to come to the school  and watch the films with you.  This was in keeping with the AA film certificate that existed in British cinemas up until 1982, whereby certain films were deemed “suitable for those aged 14 and older… those under that age must be accompanied by an adult.”

 

© British Lion Films / F.A.R. International Films

 

Actually, I don’t remember many Film Club members taking the Doc up on this offer and inviting their folks along.  I certainly didn’t.  Although I recall a guy in my third-year class bringing his mother with him to see one of the first offerings that year, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973).  Sitting next to your mum during the long, explicit sex scene that takes place between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in the middle of that film can’t have been much fun.

 

Thinking about it now, I suspect many of the films shown during those four years were ones close to the Doc’s heart.  He’d have been a young man in the mid-to-late 1960s when a new generation of stars, writers and directors took hold of the reins in Hollywood and elsewhere: Robert Altman, Lindsay Anderson, Michelangelo Antonioni, Warren Beatty, Albert Finney, Mia Farrow, Jane Fonda, David Hemmings, Dustin Hoffman, Norman Jewison, Sidney Lumet, Malcolm McDowell, Roman Polanski, Nicolas Roeg, etc.  It must have been great being a film-fan whose youth coincided with all this.  Everyone in those films was radical and cutting edge on one hand and cool and beautiful on the other, and it was easy to imagine you were those things too.

 

Accordingly, the Film Club’s choices were frequently either socking it to the Man and His traditional conservative values, like If… (1968), Easy Rider (1969), M*A*S*H* (1970), Performance (1970) and Le Cage aux Folles (1978); or simply exuding a glow of youthful, affluent, liberal gorgeousness – usually American, occasionally French or swinging-1960s British – like Blow Up (1966), Un Homme et une Femme (1966), Barefoot in the Park (1967), The Graduate (1967) and Heaven Can Wait (1978).

 

Alas, having worked for many years as a teacher myself, one thing I’ve painfully learned is that to preserve your sanity and faith in humanity, you should not expose your pupils to your favourite things – films, books, music – and expect them to react with the same enthusiasm.  Nothing is more depressing than playing your most cherished late-1960s Rolling Stones album to a class and then discovering that the little thickos think Ed Sheerin is better.  So it was with the Film Club.  Some of those films, which surely meant a lot to the Doc, we just didn’t get.  It didn’t help that we were teenagers.  We saw ourselves both as knowing, blasé hipsters and as tough, hardened cynics reared on the mean streets of, um, Peebles.  If anything struck us as unintentionally funny, silly or lame in those films, we reacted immediately with jeers and laughter.

 

We were particularly unforgiving to any film that seemed old to us.  There were notable exceptions, but I remember us barracking the black-and-white The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954).  Samurai we didn’t like because we knew it’d been the basis for John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), which we thought was much better because (1) it was in colour and (2) it didn’t have subtitles.  Today I find it ironic when I hear middle-aged film buffs complain that modern kids are cine-illiterate and incapable of enjoying the classic movies they enjoyed in their youths, back in the 1980s.  In fact, the gap between 2020 and, say, ET (1982) is three times greater than the gap between 1978 and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which we had such a problem with.

 

© Warner Bros.

 

Another film we were brutal towards was Franco Zeferelli’s 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet.  The moment that Leonard Whiting’s Romeo first came onscreen wearing a pair of medieval tights, some tosser in the audience shouted: “Imagine gettin’ a hard-yin in those!”  Thereafter, the crotch area of every male character’s tights was watched rigorously; and if we thought we spotted a slight curvature, we screamed with laughter.

 

With depressing regularity, when we got out of order, a disgruntled Doc would have to turn off the projector, switch on the lights, come down to the front and give us a bollocking.

 

Significantly, as my classmates and I progressed through four school grades, got older and acquired a little wisdom and maturity, we found our attitudes to the films changing.  We were baffled by the non-linear structure of Roeg’s Don’t Look Now in 1978 (though fortunately it had Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie’s sex scene, and a good, graphic throat-slashing, to hold our interest).  Yet four years later, we were discussing Roeg’s no-more-linear Performance in enthusiastic and hopefully intellectual-sounding tones.  By 1981 I’d even asked the Doc if he could book David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) for next year’s Film Club – to which he replied, deadpan, “I think most people would find that one a bit obscure.”  And as we grew up, we found ourselves getting increasingly annoyed at the braying, cackling third and fourth-years whom we had to share the club with.  “Those stupid wee shites!” we raged on more than one occasion at the end of a viewing.  “They totally ruined that film for us!”

 

Thankfully, there were plenty of films on the club’s programmes that everyone enjoyed.  Comedies did very well. In addition to Life of Brian, we got Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Jabberwocky (1977), the Billy Connolly tour-documentary Big Banana Feet (1976), at least four Woody Allen efforts – Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Play It Again Sam (1972) and Sleeper (1973) – and at least three Mel Brooks ones – Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974) and Silent Movie (1976).  The Doc was evidently worried about how we’d react to the later scenes of Blazing Saddles, when the film becomes increasingly ‘meta’ and characters burst out of its western setting and invade the settings of other movies, and he gave us a talk before it started and explained the anarchic effect Brooks was trying to achieve.  However, we hardly noticed when Blazing Saddles broke the fourth wall because we were still guffawing about the much-earlier scene involving the campfire, the plates of beans, and the cowboys farting like mad.  We were such sophisticates.

 

Also approved of were action / thriller movies, such as The Mechanic (1972) and Death Wish (1974), both of which were directed by Michael Winner – the Doc, though he had good taste in movies generally, seemed to have a blind-spot when it came to le cinéma du Winner.  Curiously, the action movie I remember provoking the biggest and most visceral response during my four years in the club was, of all things, Peter Hyams’ Capricorn One (1978).  The audience almost blew off the assembly hall’s roof cheering that film’s finale, when Eliot Gould and Telly Savalas swooped down in an old crop-duster plane and rescued James Brolin from the bad guys.

 

© Paramount Pictures / Shamley Productions

 

What I feel especially grateful for now was that the Film Club allowed me to see certain films where they ought to be seen, on a big, cinematically proportioned screen, as opposed to on a pokey little television set.  I was four years too young in 1979 to see Ridley Scott’s X-rated Alien when it was released in cinemas, but the Film Club gave me the chance to see it in its full, terrifying immensity a couple of years later.  That big screen also gave much, extra impact to Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) – of which Stephen King once said, “In terms of ideas, the film is an idiotic mishmash.  In terms of image… the film is brilliant” – and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), whose white backgrounds seemed especially suffocating on a large scale.  Best of all, though, was seeing Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey in correspondingly epic dimensions.  I felt I was hurtling alongside Keir Dullea through that stargate at the movie’s climax.

 

And not only did you get to see movies in large form – you got to see them in the presence of a lot of other people too.  This could be a pain when many of those people didn’t appreciate the film, as I’ve said.  When they did appreciate it, though, and the hall was filled with a shared and palpable sense of excitement, the experience was electrifying.  I’ll never forget the terrifying final scenes involving Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin in Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967), which caused everyone in the audience to jump six inches off their seats.  Meanwhile, we shouldn’t have enjoyed Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) because it was old and monochrome and relatively bloodless.  But it managed to scare the bejesus out us while we watched it communally.  In fact, I feel privileged that I got to see Psycho on a big screen, with an audience, at a time when the film’s twist ending hadn’t yet become common knowledge.

 

As I hinted earlier, things didn’t end well for Mike Kellaway at Peebles High School.  Shortly before I finished school, he was discovered to be in a relationship with one of his pupils.  She was above the age of consent, but nonetheless he broke the bond of trust that’s supposed to exist between teachers and pupils and caused much hurt and embarrassment to his family and colleagues.  Astonishing though it seems today, he was allowed in those more lenient times to quietly move away and start a teaching job in another part of Scotland.

 

I really wish I could say that was the end of it.  However, years later, he took his own life after he was suspended at another school over allegations that he was in another relationship with a pupil.  The investigation into these claims was dropped immediately after his death.  And that’s all I know of the matter.

 

Anyway, in Peebles, when my contemporaries and I reminisce about school, Kellaway’s name sometimes crops up and inevitably the conversation turns to the scandal he was embroiled in.  But occasionally we go on to discuss his Film Club and we agree that, whatever pain and mess he caused in his professional and personal life, he showed his pupils some great films, in optimal circumstances; and in some of those students at least, he encouraged a love of cinema.  Look at me now, for example.  I’m obsessed with films and rarely shut up about them.  A good quarter of this blog, if not more, is devoted to the topic.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

Incidentally, here’s a list of all the movies I recall being show at the Film Club between 1978 and 1982.  But I’m sure there are a few gaps in my memory and a few omissions in the list…

 

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Airplane! (David and Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, 1980), Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), Allegro Non Troppo (Bruno Bozetto, 1976), Bananas (Woody Allen, 1971), Barbarella (Roger Vadim, 1968), Barefoot in the Park (Gene Saks, 1967), Big Banana Feet (Murray Grigor, 1976), Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963), The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963), Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974), Blow Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966), Le Cage aux Folles (Edouard Molinaro, 1978), Camelot (Joshua Logan, 1967), Capricorn One (Peter Hyams, 1978), Car Wash (Michael Schultz, 1976), The China Syndrome (James Bridges, 1979), Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974), Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974), Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973), Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), Every Which Way but Loose (James Fargo, 1978), From Russia With Love (Terence Young, 1963), Fun with Dick and Jane (Ted Kotcheff, 1977), The Graduate (Mike Nicholls, 1968), Gumshoe (Stephen Frears, 1971), Heaven can Wait (Warren Beatty, Buck Henry, 1978), Un Homme et une Femme (Claude Lelouch, 1966)…

 

If… (Lindsey Anderson, 1968), Jabberwocky (Terry Gilliam, 1977), The Jokers (Michael Winner, 1967), Kelly’s Heroes (Brian Hutton, 1970), Kes (Ken Loach, 1969), The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955), Lancelot Du Lac (Robert Bresson, 1974), Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970), Lord of the Flies (Peter Brook, 1963), Lord of the Rings (Ralph Bakshi, 1978), Macbeth (Roman Polanski, 1971), M*A*S*H* (Robert Altman, 1970), The Mechanic (Michael Winner, 1972), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, 1975), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979), Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976), Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1980), The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976), The Odd Couple (Gene Saks, 1968), Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, 1970), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (Blake Edwards, 1976), Play It Again Sam (Woody Allen, 1972), Pleasure at Her Majesty’s (Jonathan Miller, Roger Graef, 1976), Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)…

 

The Quiller Memorandum (Michael Anderson, 1966), Rollerball (Norman Jewison, 1975), Romeo and Juliet (Franco Zeferelli, 1968), The Rose (Mark Rydell, 1979), Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954), Silent Movie (Mel Brooks, 1976), Sleeper (Woody Allen, 1973), Snoopy Come Home (Bill Melendez, 1972), Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959), The Spy who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965), Stardust (Michael Apted, 1974), Take the Money and Run (Woody Allen, 1969), Tess (Roman Polanski, 1979), That’ll be the Day (Claude Watham, 1973), The Three Musketeers (Richard Lester, 1973), To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962), The Ultimate Warrior (Robert Clouse, 1975), The Vikings (Richard Fleisher, 1958), Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967), The Wrong Box (Bryan Forbes, 1966), Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974).

 

He was Spartacus

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

And so the dimple-jawed movie legend that was Kirk Douglas has passed away at the very venerable age of 103.  Here’s what I wrote about the great man three years ago in celebration of his 100th birthday.

 

“During the late 1950s, it seemed that cinematically Kirk Douglas could do no wrong.  I’m not old enough to have seen his 1950s movies when they were released in the cinema, of course, but they never seemed to be off the TV when I was a kid in the 1970s.  As Ned the harpooner, he rescued James Mason from that pesky giant squid in Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954).  As Vincent Van Gogh, he sawed off his own ear in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956).  And as Doc Holliday, he overcame his tubercular cough to help out Burt Lancaster in John Sturges’s Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957).

 

“He played a Norseman alongside Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine in Fleischer’s testosterone-charged, hardly-historically-accurate but thoroughly enjoyable The Vikings (1958).  It’s Borgnine, not Douglas, who gets the film’s best line – after listening to treacherous English nobleman Lord Egbert (James Donald) describe the custom back home of dropping prisoners into a pit of ravenously hungry wolves, he exclaims, ‘You see?  The English are civilised!’  But an earlier retort by Douglas to Borgnine is pretty funny too: ‘Oh, stop shouting.  You sound like a moose giving birth to a hedgehog.’  The Vikings, though, isn’t all fun and games.  Watching it as a kid, I was traumatised by the scene where Douglas loses an eye to Curtis’s cantankerous pet falcon.

 

© United Artists

 

“In 1960, of course, he played the leader of Rome’s rebellious slaves in Stanley Kubrick’s epic Spartacus.  The film’s most moving and memorable scene is surely the bane of the British police force on Saturday nights, when it has to deal with damage caused by a drunken stag parties / rugby clubs / gangs of engineering students.  ‘All right.  Will the person among you who broke the window identify himself, please?’  ‘I’m Spartacus!’  ‘I’m Spartacus!’  ‘I’m Spartacus!’  ‘I’m Spartacus!’  Etc.

 

“But it’s in another Kubrick movie from the same era, 1957’s Paths of Glory, that Douglas perhaps enjoys his finest hour.  He plays Colonel Dax, a French officer trying to save three of his men when they’re court martialled for refusing to take part in a suicidal assault on a German position during World War I.  The film’s historical and anti-military themes proved so controversial in France that it was denied a showing there until 1975.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

“After that, Kirk Douglas’s film roles were never quite as good again, although I’m partial to his turn in Anthony Mann’s tale of World War II Norwegian resistance fighters The Heroes of Telemark (1965), a movie that’s ingrained on my memory because during the 1970s the BBC seemed to show it on TV every other week.  And I like him in Burt Kennedy’s The War Wagon (1967), where he spends most of his time getting wound up by John Wayne.  ‘How are we going to take it?  With the Prussian Army?’  ‘With three other fellas.  Five of us.’  ‘Five.  I’m kind of glad I didn’t kill you tonight.  You’re funny as hell.’

 

“Perhaps his last good film was Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978).  Still, he manages to improve the quality of a couple of movies afterwards – just by being in them – even though essentially those movies are puddings.  I’m thinking of Don Taylor’s shonky fantasy The Final Countdown (1980) about a modern US aircraft carrier being catapulted back in time to the week before the attack on Pearl Harbour; and Stanley Donen’s sci-fi effort Saturn 3, in which Douglas and Farah Fawcett are menaced by a killer robot that’s been programmed with Harvey Keitel’s libido.  I bet these days Martin Amis keeps it quiet that he wrote Saturn 3’s script.  Not even Kirk Douglas, though, could redeem Alberto De Martino’s Holocaust 2000 (1977), a British-Italian horror movie about nuclear power plants and the Antichrist that truly has to be seen to be believed.

 

“He’s given great performances in some classic movies that are among the most robustly-entertaining things Hollywood has ever produced.  Congratulations, Kirk, on reaching treble figures.”

 

© Universal International

 

Littler Britain

 

© BBC / From indy100.com

 

Well, that was edifying.

 

On one side, a succession of European Members of the European Parliament trying to be as gracious and magnanimous as possible on January 29th, whilst saying goodbye to the British MEPs who were departing the institution and whose country was departing the European Union generally – even bursting into a rendition of the venerable British (Scottish, actually) song Auld Lang Syne to wish the British farewell.

 

On the other side, Brexiteer-in-chief Nigel Farage telling the European Union that he and his party hate them and bragging that ‘the British are too big to bully’, before he and his acolytes whipped out a bunch of miniature union jacks and waved them at the European politicians across the chamber like a rabble of drunken English holidaymakers on the Costa del Sol trying to annoy the locals by whipping out and wiggling their booze-shrivelled willies.  His acolytes included Claire Fox, the former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party and IRA supporter who turned super-right-wing-British-patriot as soon as she realised what way the financial wind was blowing for political careerists; and former Tory minister Anne Widdecombe, who’s a grotesque combination of Lady Bracknell from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Zelda from Gerry Anderson’s Terrahawks and who’s animated by enough toxic bile to fuel a knab of cane toads.

 

Two evenings later, at 11 PM (midnight Brussels time) on January 31st, Britain officially took its leave of the EU and the gravitas on display from jubilant British leavers was no more refined.  Hordes of ardent Brexiteers shambled into Parliament Square to hear speeches from the finest brains that their movement has to offer, such as Julia Hartley-Brewer and Tim Martin, owner of the world’s most rubbish pub chain™.  They also sang patriotic songs whose words they don’t know except for the bits that go ‘Rule Britannia! Rule Britannia!’ and ‘Land of hope and glory… er…’  And no doubt they emoted to one another about how this was the proudest day of their lives since World War II, back when they’d watched that Great Brit Clint Eastwood machine-gun lots of Germans in Where Eagles Dare (1968) and that equally Great Brit Steve McQueen escape the Nazis by flying his motorbike into Switzerland in The Great Escape (1963) on Christmas-time TV.

 

Meanwhile, hoping to waylay a few of the Brexiteers lurching off to celebrate in Tim Martin’s rubbish pub chain™, other pub owners up and down the land (England, actually) organised their own Brexit parties, where the only good British music was played – for example, music by Kylie Minogue, from Australia-shire, and an up-and-coming outfit I haven’t heard of till now called ‘The Beetles’.

 

From twitter.com

 

To return to Auld Lang Syne, mentioned a few paragraphs earlier – this was a poem written by celebrated Scottish poet Robert Burns and put to the tune of an old folk song.  Elsewhere, in the poem To a Louse, Burns penned some lines that are especially pertinent for the Brexit farrago (or Farage-o): “To see oursel’s as ithers see us / It wad frae mony a blunder free us…”

 

Prior to Brexit, I’m pretty sure – and my sureness is backed up by the fact that I’ve spent a good part of my working life employed in several Asian, African and European countries – that most of the world saw Britain in a reasonably positive light.  It was a middle-ranking power that admittedly dragged an unfortunate colonial history behind it; but in modern times it wasn’t one of the out-and-out bad guys and its reputation was immeasurably bulked up by its soft power: its universities and educational opportunities, its capable diplomats, its wealth of classical and popular culture, the BBC, the English language.  Well, that perception is gone, or at least is on its way out.

 

Britain has managed to reinvent itself in the world’s eyes as a hapless, cantankerous, xenophobic and self-harming misfit that’ll soon end up as handmaid and pet poodle to Donald Trump’s USA in its desperation to win that all-important American trade deal.  (Expect the country’s most cherished institution, the National Health Service, to be chucked under the bus soon.  Trump and American big pharma are eyeing it as hungrily as the vultures used to eye the hero during the bit in old western movies where the villains left him staked out in the desert to die.)

 

Come to think of it, the revellers on Brexit night shouldn’t have sung Rule Britannia or Land of Hope and Glory.  It would have been more appropriate if they’d sung the football chant beloved by supporters of Millwall Football Club, No One Likes Us, We Don’t Care.

 

One modicum of comfort in all this was that in Edinburgh the other day members of the Scottish Parliament voted to defy Brexit and keep the European flag flying above their building.  Well, the Scottish National Party and Scottish Green Party MSPs did – the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat MSPs voted to pull it down.  And what a useless, craphole wee party the Scottish Liberal Democrats are.  For a party whose election slogan two months ago was ‘Bollocks to Brexit!’, they seem to have totally shed their cojones.

 

(Not to be outdone by Edinburgh, citizens of Glasgow showed solidarity with Europe by replacing the traditional traffic cone on the head of the Duke of Wellington statue outside the Gallery of Modern Art on Queen Street with one emblazoned in the blue and stars of the EU flag.)

 

From the BBC / © Mark McGillivray

 

I realise this doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things – real power resides in Westminster, which is dominated by buffoon Boris Johnson and his right-wing anti-Europe Conservative Party – but at least it signals to the couple of hundred thousand EU nationals living in Scotland that their presence is still valued.  Meanwhile, the whole Brexit shitshow just makes me support the cause of an independent Scotland in the EU more than ever.

 

On the road with Jim Mountfield

 

© The Horror Zine

 

Witch Hazel, a short horror story that I wrote under the pseudonym Jim Mountfield, is now available to read in the online February 2020 edition of The Horror Zine.  I understand it will also appear in a forthcoming print edition of The Horror Zine for spring 2020, so I will announce details of that when I know them.

 

Witch Hazel is inspired by a recurrent experience I’ve had in my life – though only recently did it occur to me that I could turn it into a story.  For decades, whenever I was staying at my parent’s farm in Scotland, I would make expeditions into Edinburgh, 21 miles to the north.  This meant taking a bus up the A703 road to the city and then taking another bus back, usually after dark.  As my parents’ farm is actually located three-quarters of a mile along a side-road from the A703, the journey back necessitated me getting off at a country bus-stop and then then walking for 10 or 15 minutes along that side-road – usually through pitch darkness and frequently through the worst that the Scottish climate could chuck at me: rain, wind, hail, snow.  So those night-time trudges form the basis for what happens in Witch Hazel.

 

It also, indirectly, pays homage to a famous verse in Coleridge’s epic 1834 poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.   The verse goes: “Like one, that on a lonesome road / Doth walk in fear and dread / And, having once turned round, walks on / And turns no more his head / Because he knows a frightful fiend / Doth close behind him tread…”

 

The publication of Witch Hazel represents a triple whammy for Jim Mountfield – for three of his / my stories are featured in the current editions of three different webzines, today at least and hopefully for a few days more.  The Christmas story The Lights is still accessible in the December 2019 / January 2020 issue of Aphelion, here.  As I mentioned in my previous post, the story The Path is accessible in this week’s edition of Schlock! Webzine, here.  And for the next month, you can read Witch Hazel in The Horror Zine here.

 

On the path with Jim Mountfield

 

© Schlock! Webzine

 

This week I have – or more precisely, my horror-fiction-writing pseudonym Jim Mountfield has – a new short story published in Issue 30, Volume 15 of Schlock! Webzine.  Entitled The Path, it’s an attempt at a sub-genre of horror that I’m particularly fond of, the cosmic horror one.  (It also uses some experiences I had while trekking around Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Mountains for four days last year, which I’ve written about already on this blog, starting with this entry.)

 

Cosmic horror has been described by Vivian Ralickas in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts as “fear and awe we feel when confronted by phenomena beyond our comprehension, whose scope extends beyond the narrow field of human affairs and boasts of cosmic significance.”  Or to use a more straightforward definition that appeared recently on bookriot.com, “cosmic horror tales draw upon the power of the sublime to make us feel small, inconsequential, and totally helpless against something vast and natural.”  And small, inconsequential and helpless is how the main protagonist of The Path feels later on in the story.

 

The person most closely associated with cosmic horror is the verbose American writer Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft, much of whose fiction fitted into what came to be known as the Cthulhu Mythos.  This was a framework built on the idea that the earth was once ruled by a cabal of vast, terrible and all-powerful alien beings called the Great Old Ones, compared with whom humanity is about as significant as a speck of bacteria.  The Great Old Ones are no longer active but, alas, aren’t dead.  They’re merely resting and in the modern world are capable of being summoned back to hideous and malignant life.  To add to the weirdness of the mythos, Lovecraft bestowed some of the least pronounceable names in literature on his alien creations, such as Nyarlathotep and Shub-Niggurath.

 

The source of the cosmic horror in The Path remains anonymous and I don’t name-check any of Lovecraft’s entities.  Also, I make no attempt to replicate Lovecraft’s uniquely wordy prose – some of the worst writing ever, in my opinion, has been perpetrated by up-and-coming writers trying, and failing, to imitate Lovecraft’s style.  But I’d like to think that the story could fit into the above mythos.

 

In this respect, it’s inspired too by a short story I read as a kid, The Voice of the Beach by Ramsey Campbell, in a long-gone fiction magazine called Fantasy Tales (which, coincidentally, was also the first magazine I ever tried submitting a story to).  The Voice of the Beach taught me that you could write a cosmic-horror story in the vein of Lovecraft without referring to his pantheon of tongue-twisting alien deities – who, to be honest, strike me as sounding a bit corny in 2020 – whilst writing it in your own prose-style.  You can evoke those feelings of smallness, inconsequentiality and helplessness that Lovecraft evoked in his stories, and pay homage to those stories*, but also do your own thing.

 

For the next week, Issue 30, Volume 15 of Schlock! Webzine can be accessed here and The Path itself can be accessed here.

 

*For the record, I should add that while I rate Lovecraft greatly as a writer, I don’t rate him as a human being.  It’s been well-documented that even by the standards of the early 20th century world he lived in, the guy was a racist turd.  In appreciating Lovecraft – as I appreciate the oeuvres of, say, Pablo Picasso, Norman Mailer and Roman Polanski – I’m separating the sublimity of the art from the severe personal failings of the artist.

 

The big Gray man

 

© Canongate

 

Much has been written about Alasdair Gray, the Scottish novelist, poet, playwright, artist, illustrator, academic and polemicist who passed away at the end of 2019.  I doubt if my own reflections on Gray will offer anything new, but he was a huge influence on me and I’m going to write about him anyway.

 

To a youth like me in 1980s Scotland, in love with books and writing, Gray seemed a titanic cultural presence.  Actually, ‘titanic’ is an ironic adjective to use in connection with him as physically he was anything but.  Bearded and often dishevelled, Gray resembled an eccentric scientist from the supporting cast of a 1950s science-fiction B movie and he once memorably described himself as ‘a fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glaswegian pedestrian’.

 

He was also a presence that seemed to suddenly loom up out of nowhere.  The moment when Gray became famous was in 1981 when his first novel Lanark was published.  I remember being in high school that year when my English teacher Ian Jenkins urged me to get hold of a copy and read it.  I still hadn’t read Lanark by 1983 when I started college in Aberdeen, but I remember joining the campus Creative Writing Society and hearing its members enthuse about it.  These included a young Kenny Farquharson (now a columnist with the Scottish edition of the Times) describing to someone the novel’s admirably weird structure, whereby it consisted of four ‘books’ but with Book Three coming first, then Books One and Two and finally Book Four.  And an equally young Ali Smith recalling meeting Gray and speaking fondly of how eccentric he was.

 

In fact, I didn’t read Lanark until the following summer when I’d secured a three-month job as a night-porter in a hotel high up in the Swiss Alps.  In the early hours of the morning, after I’d done my rounds and done my chores and all the guests had gone to bed, I’d sit behind the reception desk and read.  It took me about a week of those nightshifts to get through Lanark.  I lapped up its tale of Duncan Thaw, the young doomed protagonist of what was basically a 1950s Glaswegian version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which constituted Books One and Two; and similarly lapped up its alternating tale of the title character (mysteriously linked to Thaw) in the grimly fabulist city of Unthank, which constituted Books Three and Four.  A quote by sci-fi author Brian Aldiss on the cover neatly described Unthank as ‘a city where reality is about as reliable as a Salvador Dali watch’.

 

© Canongate

 

That same summer I read The Penguin Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka (1983) and the fantastical half of Lanark struck me as very reminiscent of Kafka.  Gray himself acknowledged that Kafka’s The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and Amerika (1927) had inspired him: “The cities in them seemed very like 1950s Glasgow, an old industrial city with a smoke-laden grey sky that often seemed to rest like a lid on the north and south ranges of hills and shut out the stars at night.”

 

The result was an astonishing book that combines gritty autobiographical realism with fanciful magical realism – fanciful and magical in a sombre, Scottish sense, obviously.

 

With hindsight, Lanark was the most important book in Scottish literature since Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy (1932-34).  By an odd coincidence I read A Scots Quair four years later when I was working – again – as a night-porter in a hotel in the Swiss Alps.  So my encounters with the greatest two works of 20th century Scottish literature are indelibly linked in my mind with nightshifts in hotels decorated with Alpine horns and antique ski equipment and surrounded by soaring, jagged mountains.

 

Lanark also appeared at a significant time.  Three years before its publication, the referendum on establishing a Scottish parliament had ended in an undemocratic farce.  Two years before it, Margaret Thatcher had started her reign as British prime minister – a reign during which Scotland would be governed unsympathetically, like a colonial property, a testing ground, an afterthought.  So Lanark was important in that it helped give Scotland a cultural identity at a time when politically it was allowed no identity at all.

 

Whilst telling me about Lanark, Ian Jenkins mentioned ruefully that he didn’t think Gray would ever produce anything as spectacular again.  Not only did it seem a once-in-a-lifetime achievement but it’d taken up half of a lifetime, for Gray had been beavering away at it since the 1950s.  He once mused of the undertaking: “Spending half a lifetime turning your soul into printer’s ink is a queer way to live… but I would have done more harm if I’d been a banker, broker, advertising agent, arms manufacturer or drug dealer.”

 

However, two books he produced afterwards, 1982, Janine (1984) and Poor Things (1992), are excellent works in their own rights even if they didn’t create the buzz that Lanark did.

 

© Canongate

 

Janine takes place inside the head of a lonely middle-aged man while he reflects on a life of emotional, professional and political disappointments, and masturbates, and finally attempts suicide whilst staying in a hotel room in a Scottish country town that’s either Selkirk or my hometown, Peebles.  (Yes, Peebles’ two claims to literary fame are that John Buchan once practised law there and the guy in 1982, Janine might have had a wank there.)  The protagonist’s musings include some elaborate sadomasochistic fantasies, which put many people off – Anthony Burgess, who’d thought highly of Lanark, was less enthusiastic about Janine – but it seems to me a bold meditation on Scotland in general and on the strained, often hopeless relationship between traditional, Presbyterian-conditioned Scottish males and the opposite sex in particular.

 

Poor Things, a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) set in Victorian Glasgow, initially seems very different from Janine but in fact it tackles similar themes.  The narrator, Archibald McCandless, relates how his scientist colleague Godwin Baxter creates a young woman, Bella, out of dead flesh just as Frankenstein did.  McCandless soon falls in love with her.  There follows an engrossing mishmash of sci-fi story, horror story, adventure, romance and comedy, but near the end things are turned on their heads for Bella takes over as storyteller.  She denounces McCandless’s version of events as witless fantasy and portrays herself not as a Frankenstein-type creation but a normal woman, albeit one ahead of her time in her views about feminism and social justice.  Again, the book is a rebuke to the attitudes of men – particularly insecure Scottish ones – towards women, partly possessive, partly madly over-romanticised.

 

Gray’s other post-Lanark novels are entertaining, if less ambitious.  Also, they’re never about what you expect them to be about.  The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985) looks like it’s going to be a comic tale of a Scottish lad-o’-pairts on his way up and then his way down in London – but it turns into a caustic commentary on the loveless nature of Scottish Calvinism.  Something Leather (1990), which is actually a series of connected short stories and again features copious sadomasochism, isn’t so much about kinkiness as about Gray’s disgust at the politicians and officials who oversaw Glasgow being European City of Culture 1990 – something he regarded as a huge missed opportunity.  A History Maker (1994), a science-fiction novel described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘Sir Walter Scott meets Rollerball’, isn’t an absurdist sci-fi romp at all but a pessimistic account of how humanity can never achieve perfect, peaceful harmony with nature.  And Old Men in Love (2007) promises to be a geriatric version of 1982, Janine, but is really an oddity whose ingredients include, among other things, ancient Athens, Fra Lippo Lippi and the Agapemonites.

 

Gray was also a prolific short-story writer.  He produced three collections of them, Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983), Ten Tales Tall and True (1993) and The Ends of out Tethers: 13 Sorry Stories (2003) and had several more stories published in Lean Tales (1985), alongside contributions from James Kelman and Agnes Owens.  I find his short fiction variable in quality, with some items a bit too anecdotal or oblique for my tastes.  But many are excellent and Ten Tales Tall and True is one of my favourite short-story collections ever.

 

The fact that Gray was an artist as well meant he also designed his books’ covers and provided the illustrations inside them.  Indeed, I suspect a few non-readers bought his works for their glorious visual qualities alone, for they enlivened the look of any bookshelf they sat on.  The Gray illustration I like best by the way is probably this one he did for his story The Star in Unlikely Stories, Mostly.

 

© Canongate

 

He also liked to make mischief with the conventions of how books are organised – with their back-cover blurbs and review quotes, prefaces, dedications, footnotes, appendices and so on.  For example, he wasn’t averse to adorning his books with negative reviews (Victoria Glendinning describing Something Leather as ‘a confection of self-indulgent tripe’) or imaginary ones (an organ called Private Nose applauding Poor Things for its ‘gallery of believably grotesque foreigners – Scottish, Russian, American and French.’)

 

As an artist, Gray was good enough to be made Glasgow’s official artist-recorder in the late 1970s and to enjoy a retrospective exhibition, Alasdair Gray: From the Personal to the Universal, at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in 2014-15.  His artwork included a number of murals on the walls of Glasgow and it’s a tragedy that some have been lost over the years.  Among those that survive, perhaps the most famous is at Hillhead Underground Station.  It contains the memorable and salient verse: “Do not let daily to-ing and fro-ing / To earn what we need to keep going / Prevent what you once felt when wee / Hopeful and free.”  Also worth seeing is the mural he painted, Michelangelo-style, on the ceiling of the Òran Mór restaurant, bar and music venue on Glasgow’s Byres Road.  It looks gorgeous in the photos I’ve seen of it, although regrettably when I was there with my brother a few years ago I was already well-refreshed with several pints of beer and forgot to look up.

 

I never got to meet the great man, though I’m pretty sure I saw him one night in the late 1980s in Edinburgh’s Hebrides Bar, talking animatedly to a group of friends and admirers.  Being shy, alas, I couldn’t muster the courage to go over and introduce myself.

 

One Scottish writer in whose company I did end up during the late 1980s, though, was Iain Banks, whom I got to interview for a student publication and who then invited me on an afternoon pub crawl across central Edinburgh.  Banks was delighted when I told him that his recently published novel The Bridge (1986) reminded me a wee bit of Lanark.  “I think Lanark’s the best thing published in Scotland in years!” he gushed.  Come to think of it, maybe it was the favourable comparison to Alasdair Gray that prompted Banks to take me drinking that day.

 

From austinkleon.com  

 

Ghostly goings-on

 

© Wordsworth Editions

 

As usual, I spent the recent festive season engaged in a very traditional, Christmas-y pursuit – the reading of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories.  And as usual, I found those ghost stories in the excellent Wordsworth Editions’ Tales of Mystery and Imagination series, which has published work by still-celebrated writers like E.F. Benson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, M.R. James and Edith Wharton but also by writers like Gertrude Atherton, Amyas Northcote, J.H. Riddell and May Sinclair, who were prolific and / or acclaimed in their day but whose names slipped into obscurity following their deaths.  (Getting republished by Wordsworth Editions might, of course, help to rescue their names from obscurity.)

 

This Christmas I read two more Wordsworth collections, both published in 2006: A Night on the Moor and Other Tales of Dread by R. Murray Gilchrist and Aylmer Vance: Ghost-Seer by Alice and Claude Askew.  Here are my impressions.

 

Firstly, I’ll talk about the collection I enjoyed less.  R. Murray Gilchrist was born in Sheffield but lived for much of his life in Holmesfield, 800 feet up in Derbyshire’s Peak District.  By the time of his death in 1917 at the age of 50, he was responsible for 22 novels and about 100 short stories.  However,  A Night on the Moor and Other Tales of Dread is something of a misnomer because most of the stories featured don’t particularly evoke feelings of ‘dread’.  Rather, they are tales of darkly gothic romance, where the atmosphere – and, alas, the prose – is often stiflingly thick.

 

These are stories where every building is an imposing structure with ‘stacks of twisted chimneys’, ‘great square windows’ and ‘a vision of gables’ and ‘so covered in ivy that from a distance it seems like a cluster of rare trees with ruddy trunks and branches’; where every garden is adorned with statues of satyrs, nymphs, dryads, dragons and the goddess Diana; and where the air is always suffused with the sickly-sweet smells of flowers, such as roses, lilies, honeysuckle, ‘withering snowdrops’ and ‘scarlet poppies, with hearts like fingers’ that effuse ‘a close and sleepy perfume’.  The villain of the story The Manuscript of Francis Shackerley even gives off ‘a rich smell of violets’ and it’s said that ‘his skin by some artificial means had been impregnated lastingly with their odour.’

 

Unfortunately, Gilchrist’s writing is frequently hamstrung by melodrama (“O the midsummer noontide; the trembling air; the golden dusk that clung around the fir trunks!”) and is occasionally clunkingly awful (“My thoughts had withered, my words had grown unpregnant”).  There’s an attempt to emulate the morbid, decadent intensity found in such tales by Edgar Allan Poe as Berenice (1835), Ligeia (1938), The Oval Portrait (1842) and Eleonora (1850), but while Gilchrist’s characters indulge in much pontificating and running hither and thither to no great effect, the impression you get is one of bluster rather than of anything genuinely, dissolutely macabre.  Some of the stories I found a real chore to get through.

 

Still, there are a few items where Gilchrist dials it down a bit and manages to strike a properly creepy note.  The Lover’s Ordeal is the tale of a dare that unexpectedly ends up featuring a vampire.  The Grotto at Ravensdale sees a newly married couple encounter tragedy at the titular (and haunted) cavern.  The Priest’s Pavan is about a harpsichordist forced to play some demonic music at a wedding party.  And A Night on the Moor itself is an atmospheric piece where the main character experiences a time-slip.

 

Also, two additional stories, The Panicle and The Witch in the Peak, are tagged on in an appendix at the end.  Presumably this is because they eschew the aristocratic characters, lavishly gothic settings and rather po-faced tone of the other stories and instead have straightforward and refreshingly humorous narratives where working-class people experience supernatural goings-on in the Peak District.  The 19-century Derbyshire dialect is slightly hard to decipher, but I enjoyed these two stories more than anything else in the collection and would have liked more with their flavour.

 

© Wordsworth Editions

 

Aylmer Vance: Ghost-Seer is more modest in its ambitions and I have to say I found it the more enjoyable read because of that.  It has eight stories, all connected by the recurring character of Aylmer Vance – ‘a curious-looking man, tall and lean in build, with a pale but distinctly interesting face’ – who as the title indicates is sensitive to paranormal activity and acts as a supernatural detective, trying to explain and put an end to hauntings suffered by other people.  The narrator, however, is an acquaintance of Vance’s called Dexter.  Vance tells the first three stories to Dexter, then Dexter becomes an unwilling participant in the fourth one, and then for the remaining four stories he joins forces with Vance and serves as a Dr Watson to his Sherlock Holmes.

 

There’s nothing spectacular here, but there are some imaginative ideas – the fire-raising ghost of a frustrated poet in The Fire Unquenchable, for example, or the malevolent spirit of a pianist using his music to haunt the woman he lusted after when alive in The Indissoluble Bond.  Meanwhile, The Stranger, about a young woman attracted to a mysterious figure she encounters in a local wood, is a nicely pagan affair with a hint of Arthur Machen; and the final story, The Fear, is impressively oppressive and does what it says ‘on the tin’.

 

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy Aylmer Vance as much as I might have done.  This was because a year earlier I’d read a Wordsworth Editions collection called Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder, written by William Hope Hodgson, which was a set of tales about, yes, another supernatural detective called Thomas Carnacki.  The Carnacki stories were good enough to have influenced later writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley and the Vance stories can’t help but seem a little pedestrian in comparison.

 

Aylmer Vance also suffers from a problem that’s inevitable when you have a series of supernatural stories that are mostly self-contained and have different elements (ghosts, poltergeists, vampires, etc.) but also have the thread of a recurring character.  If paranormal activity does happen, it must happen incredibly rarely – otherwise scientists would have observed and recorded it and acknowledged its existence by now.  So how does someone like Vance manage to defy all laws of probability and have eight full-blooded encounters with the supernatural in its different forms?  (William Hope Hodgson at least seemed aware of this credibility problem, for he interspersed his genuinely supernatural Carnacki stories with ones where the hauntings turn out to be hoaxes.)

 

Vance writers Alice and Claude Askew, incidentally, were a husband-and-wife team who supposedly penned over 90 novels during a 14-year period in the early 20th century.  During World War One, they found themselves in Serbia and later in Greece, working at a British field hospital and then for the Serbian Red Cross and also writing war despatches for publications like the Daily Express.  Like R. Murray Gilchrist, they died in 1917 but in a particularly tragic manner.  Both were killed while they were travelling from Italy to Corfu, when their boat was torpedoed by a German submarine.  Claude’s body was never found.  Alice’s body was recovered, however, and her grave is on the Croatian island of Korčula.

 

Favourite westerns of the decade

 

© Zentropa Entertainment 33 / Danish Film Institute / Warner Bros

 

And so an old decade ends and a new decade begins…  Which is weird, as to someone of my vintage it feels like we only said goodbye to the noughties a few months ago.  In fact, it feels like the most recent decade hurtled past so quickly that we didn’t even have time to decide on a proper name for it.  What was it?  The tens?  The teens?  The teenies?

 

Meanwhile, I assume that this new decade will be referred to as the twenties.  The previous twenties, in the early 20th century, were also given an adjective and became known as the ‘roaring twenties’.  Unfortunately, if the same adjective is applied to the new twenties, I suspect they’ll be ‘roaring’ because they’ll witness the roaring of countless apocalyptic, global-warming-induced bush and forest fires.

 

Anyway, this changeover of decades has meant that many of the newspapers and magazines I read have spent the past few weeks publishing ‘best of’ lists – best books, best albums, best films – for 2010-2019.  I’m going to post only one such list on this blog and it concerns a cinematic genre that’s close to my heart: western movies.  (I’ve started reading Larry McMurtry’s 1985 novel Lonesome Dove and I’ve just had lunch courtesy of my local Sri Lankan branch of Taco Bell.  So I’m in a particularly western-ly mood at the moment.)

 

Here, then, are my favourite westerns from the past ten years.

 

© Paramount

 

True Grit (2011)

Not so much a remake of the famous 1969 western True Grit as a fresh adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel on which it was based, Joel and Ethan Cohen’s True Grit was received with muted enthusiasm by critics and isn’t usually credited as one of their better movies.  But I like it for its fidelity to the novel.  Like its source material, it has as its central character and narrator the 14-year-old Maddie Ross, a precocious, forthright and priggish girl who hires rascally Marshall Rooster Cogburn to help her track down the man who murdered her father.  The 1969 version is, of course, dominated by John Wayne’s portrayal of Cogburn.  Here, though, with Maddie (Hailee Steinfield) centre-stage, Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is pushed to the side somewhat and he’s a gruffer and more ambiguous figure.

 

The result is a more sombre, less exuberant film that is usually the case with the Cohen Brothers, for the most part following the events of the novel.  Things go off on a tangent at one point, though, when the Cohens insert some weird stuff about a hanging corpse and an enigmatic rider wearing a bearskin, as if they suddenly decided to make the story a little more Coen-esque so that it’d appeal to their normal audiences.  I particularly appreciate the melancholy ending, in accordance with the book, which has Maddie a quarter-century later as a middle-aged, one-armed spinster travelling to a Wild West show where, she’s heard, an elderly Rooster Cogburn is performing – only to find when she arrives that he died a few days earlier.  It’s symbolic of how, by the start of the 20th century, the West had been tamed and the old, wild one had gone.

 

The Salvation (2014)

At times it feels like western movies have become so engrained on the global consciousness that non-American audiences are now fonder of them than American ones; and non-American filmmakers are more interested in making them than their American counterparts.  That’s certainly how it feels with The Salvation, a Danish western film directed by Kristian Levring and featuring a Danish / French / Swedish / Welsh / Scottish cast with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, playing the villain, as the only key cast-member who’s American.  The story, of a Danish settler avenging himself against the psychos who murdered his wife and child and finding himself up against a gang that controls a town, is no great shakes but the film is well-made and the cast is marvellous.  Besides Morgan, it has the can-do-no-wrong Mads Mikkelsen as its hero, the equally can-do-no-wrong Eva Green as its heroine (or anti-heroine), and also Jonathan Pryce, Mikael Persbrandt, Douglas Henshell and former French footballer Eric Cantona.

 

Actually, the thought of Cantona playing a cowboy makes me want to punch my hand in the air and shout “YES!”

 

© DMC Film / Film4

 

Slow West (2015)

If Danish filmmakers can make a western, then surely so too can British and New Zealander ones.  Filmed in New Zealand and directed by a Scotsman, John Maclean, who was once the DJ, sampler and keyboard-player with the Beta Band, Slow West is an eclectic affair.  It features among other things a trio of Congolese musicians, two husband-and-wife Swedish bandits, a German social anthropologist studying the Native American tribes, a villain masquerading as a clergyman, a haunted forest and some Laurel-and-Hardy-style slapstick comedy involving a washing line.  Wisely, though, Maclean doesn’t let things get too disparate.  The result is a film that’s eccentric and varied in character but nonetheless has a lean and linear narrative.

 

Kodi Smit-McPhee plays an innocent love-struck teenager who pursues the girl of his dreams from the Scottish Highlands, over the Atlantic to America, and finally across the Wild West where, in an echo of True Grit, he hires a mysterious and hard-bitten bounty hunter (Michael Fassbender) to act as his guide and guardian.  Needless to say, things become wilder and more dangerous the further west they go.

 

The Hateful Eight (2015)

The eighth movie (get it?) made by Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight has a rogue’s gallery of characters trapped in a store-cum-refuge called Minnie’s Haberdashery in the middle of nowhere, and in the middle of a blizzard, one night sometime after the American Civil War.  They include gang-leader and human wildcat Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who’s a prisoner of bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell).  Ruth suspects that at least one of his fellow travellers in the haberdashery is a member of Daisy’s gang and is plotting to rescue her and eliminate all the witnesses, i.e. everyone else.  Who is it?

 

As you’d expect from a Tarantino movie, the film is long and long too are the scenes where characters probe, joust and bicker and generally are as verbose as possible.  But I don’t mind that with The Hateful Eight, where the screeds of dialogue, restricted setting and limited number of cast members make you feel at times that you’re watching a stage play rather than a film – a play with some fine performers (Russell, Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth) and a play that’s practically Jacobean in its levels of blood-letting.  Pleasingly, with its snowbound landscapes and paranoid atmosphere where nobody is sure about anyone else’s identity, it also echoes elements of the greatest movie in Russell’s back catalogue, 1982’s John Carpenter-directed The Thing.

 

Tarantino’s previous movie was the 2012 western Django Unchained,  Before the decade was over, he also directed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) which, though set in 1969, contains sequences where we see its main character performing in 1950s and 1960s American TV western shows.  Tarantino obviously loves the genre, so will he treat to us to another fully-fledged western in the 2020s?  Go on, Quentin.  You know you want to.

 

© FilmColony / The Weinstein Company

 

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Bone Tomahawk is writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s bold exercise in combining a traditional, leisurely-paced western (for its first hour, giving us time to get to know and like the characters) with a bloody in-your-face horror movie (for its last half-hour, when we get seriously worried about what’s going to happen to those characters).  It sees a posse of mismatched characters, led by Kurt Russell (again) as a slightly over-the-hill but still hard-assed sheriff and Richard Jenkins as his totally over-the-hill but still eager deputy, ride off into the wilderness in search of some people who’ve been abducted from their frontier town.

 

But when the posse catches up with the kidnappers, who turn out to be a tribe of cave-dwelling, inbred, cannibalistic troglodytes, things take a sudden swerve into the macabre.  Zahler signals this swerve by showing a jaw-dropping act of violent horror that’ll have you pausing your DVD for a few minutes so you can recover.  (Folk who originally saw it in the cinema weren’t so lucky.  A mate of mine confessed he had to get up and walk out at that point.)

 

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

Capably directed by Ti West, a filmmaker better known for his horror movies, In a Valley of Violence has a drifter and ex-soldier (Ethan Hawke) arrive in a frontier town where the sheriff (John Travolta) and his deputies run things more like gangsters than law-enforcers.  The most psychotic deputy (James Ransome) also happens to be Travolta’s son and he soon takes a violent dislike to Hawke.  Like The Salvation, In a Valley of Violence doesn’t offer anything that’s groundbreakingly new – but there are a few fresh twists in its plot.  Travolta’s character, for instance, isn’t an out-and-out villain but more a weak, conflicted character who’s swept along by escalating events; while it’s not the death of a person that compels Hawke to fight back and seek revenge, but the death of his pet dog.  Meanwhile, the supporting cast is enlivened by Karen Gillan as Ransome’s dumb and excitable girlfriend and Burn Gorman as an unsavoury mule-riding priest.

 

© N279 Entertainment / X-Filme / Momentum Pictures

 

Brimstone (2016)

After the Danes, Brits and Kiwis had made Westerns during the decade, it wasn’t altogether a surprise that the Dutch should have a go as well.  What is a surprise is how writer-director Martin Koolhoven makes Dutch western Brimstone both unremittingly grim and operatically over-the-top – it’s probably the least likeable film on this list but deserves respect for its determination to make audiences squirm, cringe and gawp.  Telling the tale of a mute woman (Dakota Fanning) pursued across the West by a demented church minister (Guy Pearce) who slaughters anyone who might offer her happiness and stability and has Terminator-like abilities to keep going no matter what injuries he suffers, Brimstone doesn’t flinch in depicting misogyny that’s bred not just by basic male barbarism but also by Bible-bashing religious hypocrisy.  The film stumbles near the end with Pearce finally getting his come-uppance in a hasty and unconvincing manner.  However, Koolhoven makes amends by sneakily adding a downbeat epilogue that shows, in Brimstone’s brutal milieu, that nobody gets a happy ending for too long.

 

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

This list began with a Cohen Brothers film and with a nice symmetry it ends with one too, the western-anthology movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.  The opening story is also the title one, featuring Tim Blake Nelson as white-clad, singing and relentlessly garrulous gunfighter Buster Scruggs and showing the Cohens as their most inventive and boisterous.  However, the tone varies among the other segments.  All Gold Canyon, for example, about a grizzled old prospector (played by a grizzled old Tom Waits) digging up a remote, unspoilt valley in his belief that gold lies somewhere beneath it, is a more straightforward and conventional adaptation of a Jack London story; while Meal Ticket stars Liam Neeson and Harry Melling in a surreal Wild West reworking of Edogawa Ranpo’s grotesque tale The Caterpillar.  The film concludes with the supernaturally-tinged The Mortal Remains, in which five strangers find themselves on a stagecoach whose destination might just be the destination that ultimately awaits everyone.

 

Actually, The Mortal Remains, and Brimstone and Bone Tomahawk, plus other recent westerns like The Wind (2018) and Sophia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled (2017), suggest that as the Wild West drifts further off into history and away from the modern world, it may become a common setting for stories of the gothic, supernatural and macabre.

 

And that’s my list.  Looking at it now, I have to say thank goodness for Tarantino, the Cohen Brothers and various Europeans and Kiwis.  If it hadn’t been for them, there’d hardly have been any westerns made between 2010 and 2019.

 

© Caliban Media Company / RLJ Entertainment

 

Deathlog 2019: Part 2

 

© BBC

 

Continuing my tribute to folk who inspired me who passed away in 2019…

 

July 2019 was a harsh month as it witnessed the deaths of two of my favourite actors.  The English character actor Freddie Jones, a man who over six decades managed to be a member of David Lynch’s repertory company, a Hammer horror regular, a collaborator with Federico Fellini and Clint Eastwood, a star of bucolic TV soap operas and much more, died on July 9th.  Ten days later saw the passing of the great Dutch star Rutger Hauer, who always managed to have a discomforting, Nietzschean-superman glint in his eyes whether he was appearing in a stone cold classic like Blade Runner (1982) or The Hitcher (1986), or in some hoary old exploitation rubbish, or in his advertisements for Guinness stout.

 

Other notable actors who died in July included, on the 9th, the American performer Rip Torn, whom I’ll always remember as demented coach Patches O’Houlihan in 2004’s Dodgeball, training Vince Vaughan and his team in the titular sport by hurling monkey-wrenches at their crotches; on the 18th, the American actor David Hedison, whose CV included the original The Fly (1958), the TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-68) and the James Bond movies Live and Let Die (1974) and Licence to Kill (1989), in which he became the first-ever actor to play Bond’s CIA buddy Felix Leiter twice; and English actor Jeremy Kemp, who appeared in everything from the early seasons of the seminal BBC TV police series Z Cars (1962-78) to war movies like Operation Crossbow (1965), The Blue Max (1966) and A Bridge Too Far (1977) and to the exuberant Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker comedy Top Secret! (1984).

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

August 5th saw the passing of American novelist Toni Morrison, author of Beloved (1987) and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.  August 16th brought a triple whammy – the deaths of American actor Peter Fonda who, through his work with director Roger Corman and his appearance in Easy Rider (1969) became a 1960s countercultural icon, before he settled down to become a more conventional action-movie hero in the likes of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974) and Race with the Devil (1975); of British-Canadian animator Richard Williams, whose work included Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and the legendary but never-finished epic The Thief and the Cobbler (1993), as well as animated sequences for The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and the Pink Panther movies; and of English actress Anna Quayle, memorably rotten as Baroness Bomburst in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

 

American bass guitarist Larry Taylor, who played with the blues-rock band Canned Heat, died on August 19th; English TV scriptwriter and immensely influential (though unsung) children’s-books author Terrance Dicks died on the 29th; and American TV actress Valerie Harper, Mary Tyler Moore’s co-star in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) and star of its spin-off Rhoda (1974-78), died on the 30th.

 

English playwright Peter Nichols, whose most famous works were probably A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1967) and Privates on Parade (1977) – both of which got capable film versions, Joe Egg directed by Peter Medak in 1972 and Privates directed by Michael Blakemore in 1982 – died on September 7th.  The next day saw the death of English starlet Valerie Van Ost, whose presence enlivened several Carry On movies and who provided Christopher Lee’s aristocratic vampire with his first victim in 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula.  She was also considered as a replacement for Diana Rigg in the stylish TV show The Avengers (1961-69) before Linda Thorsen got the gig.  Rik Ocasek, singer, songwriter and guitarist with new-wave American rock band the Cars, died on September 15th while Larry Wallis, an early member of thunderous heavy metal band Mötorhead, died four days later.

 

© Goodrights / Lionsgate Films

 

Finally, checking out on September 21st was American actor Sid Haig, whose early career involved many collaborations with director Jack Hill in such cherish-able exploitation fare as Spider Baby (1968), Coffey (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) and also more mainstream items like John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), George Lucas’s THX 1138 (1971) and the Bond movie Diamonds are Forever (1971).  Tired of being typecast as a heavy, Haig was ready to give up acting in the 1990s and considered becoming a hypnotherapist.  Cinema’s loss and hypnotherapy’s gain were thwarted by Quentin Tarantino, who lured Haig back to the screen for a role in 1997’s Jackie Brown. Thereafter, Haig kept acting, most notably as the droll, clown-faced Captain Spaulding in the Rob Zombie-directed trilogy of House of 1000 Corpses (2003), The Devil’s Rejects (2005) and 3 From Hell (2019).

 

The first week of October saw two notable departures in the musical world – Kim Shattuck, singer, guitarist and songwriter with American punk band the Muffs, died on the 2nd; and English drummer Ginger Baker, who most famously thumped the skins for the late-1960s power trio Cream but also played with Blind Faith, Fela Kuti, Hawkwind and Public Image Ltd, died four days later.  For a fascinating and at times disturbing profile of Ginger Baker, I’d recommend the 2012 documentary Beware of Mr Baker, which among other things features filmmaker Jay Bulger getting assaulted and having his nose broken by his mega-truculent subject matter.  Between those two deaths, on October 4th, English actor Stephen Moore passed away.  Moore’s voice is surely better known than his face, for he supplied the lugubrious, self-pitying tones of Marvin the Paranoid Android in the 1981 TV adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

 

From pinterest.com

 

Northern Irish poet and novelist Ciaran Carson died on October 6th, while Russian cosmonaut Alexi Leonov, the first human being to carry out a spacewalk, departed this world for good on October 11th.  Leonov was an artist as well as a cosmonaut and he once cheekily pointed out to sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke that a painting he’d done in 1967, showing the sun, earth and moon, bore an uncanny resemblance to an iconic scene in the following year’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Clarke had co-written with Stanley Kubrick.  On the day that Leonov died, so too did American actor Robert Forster.  Like Sid Haig, Forster had been a prolific actor during in the 1970s and 1980s but his career had somewhat entered the doldrums until Quentin Tarantino gave him a role in Jackie Brown.  More recently, Forster appeared in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), meaning he’s yet another member of the Twin Peaks alumni whom we’ve had to say goodbye to in the past few years.  Finally, Scottish journalist Deborah Orr died on October 19th and American film producer Robert Evans, who enjoyed a roll in the late 1960s and early 1970s with such classics as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Godfather (1972) and Chinatown (1974), died on October 26th.

 

Aged a venerable 103, the formidable French resistance fighter Yvette Lundy passed away on November 3rd.  The next day saw the death of Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne who, whether you loved him or hated him – I seem to remember describing him on this blog as a ‘twinkly-eyed shit-stirrer’ – was surely the most influential figure in Irish TV history and, through that, a major influence on the Irish psyche generally since the 1960s.  The frontman with a favourite 1980s folk-rock band of mine, John Mann of the Canadian outfit Spirit of the West, died on November 20th.   Check out Spirit of the West’s Hounds That Wait Outside Your Door for a more damning account of the Maggie Thatcher era than any British folk band managed to offer at the time.  And the American illustrator Gahan Wilson, creator of countless delightfully ghoulish cartoons, died a day later.

 

The brainy Australian (but British-based) polymath Clive James – a broadcaster, critic, novelist, poet and memoirist – died on the 24th.  James’s death wasn’t announced until three days later, which coincided with the death of Jonathan Miller, a brainy English polymath – a medical doctor, humourist, writer, TV presenter and director of film, stage and opera.  The simultaneous news of James’s and Miller’s deaths prompted many British people to quip on social media that the country’s collective IQ level had just dropped by a few dozen points.  And guess what?  Three weeks later, Boris Johnson got re-elected as British prime minister.

 

© United Artists

 

This blog-entry has already mentioned Peter Fonda, Rutger Hauer and Sid Haig.  On November 20th died an American actor who’d performed memorably with all three of them.  Michael J. Pollard appeared with Fonda in the Roger Corman-directed Hell’s Angels epic The Wild Angels (1966), with Hauer in Tony Maylam’s barking-mad monster movie Split Second (1992) and with Haig in the bloody but funny prologue to Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses.   However, Pollard will be most remembered for playing C.W. Moss, the spaced-out gas-stand attendant who ends up joining the gang of the titular bank robbers in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde.  I prefer him, though, in a movie he made two years later, Hannibal Brooks.  In that, Pollard and Oliver Reed play a pair of escaped prisoners of war in Nazi Germany / Austria who intend to do very different things with their freedom – the psychotic Pollard wants to kill as many Germans as possible, while the peace-loving Reed just wants to lead an elephant he’s befriended in the bombed Munich Zoo to safety.  With Pollard looking baby-faced and innocent and Reed being, well, Reed, it’s a surprise their roles weren’t reversed.

 

The final month of 2019 was another bad one for the acting profession.  The American character actors René Auberjonois – who among many notable performances played Father Mulcahy in the original, Robert Altman-directed M*A*S*H* (1970) – and Daniel Aiello died on the 8th and 12th respectively.  The Danish-French actress Anna Karina, frequently considered a ‘muse’ for Jean-Luc Goddard, died on the 14th.  English actor Nicky Henson died on the 15th.  Though the self-deprecating Henson liked to joke that the only information on his tombstone would be that he once appeared in an episode of John Cleese’s sitcom Fawlty Towers (1975-1979), I liked him for his performances in two British folk-horror movies, the gruelling Witchfinder General (1968) and the lovably laughable Psychomania (1971).  Claudia Augur, who played Domino in the 1965 James Bond movie Thunderball and was one of at least three Bond girls to pass away in 2019, died on the 18th.  And Sue Lyon, who played the pubescent moppet Dolores Haze, subject of the pervy lusts of Humbert Humbert (James Mason) and Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), in the 1962 Stanley Kubrick-directed adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, died on the 26th.

 

© Fontana

 

In other fields, Barrie Keeffe, scriptwriter of Britain’s best-ever gangster movie The Long Good Friday (1980), departed on December 10th; Roy Loney, co-founder of Californian garage-rock band the Flamin’ Groovies – the Groovies’ Slow Death is a particularly epic song to shake a leg to – died on the 13th; and American-born Anglo-Scots artist and illustrator Tom Adams died on the 17th.  The covers that Adams created during the 1960s and 1970s for a string of Agatha Christie novels, published in paperback by Fontana, are now considered iconic.  And December 29th saw the demise of Neil Innes, the doyen of British comic singer-songwriters, the deviser with Eric Idle of spoof-Beatles band the Rutles, and the unofficial ‘seventh’ member of the Monty Python team.  “I’ve suffered for my music,” Innes once told an audience.  “Now it’s your turn.”

 

Finally, the beginning and end of December brought sad news for the literary scenes of two countries I’ve had long associations with, Sri Lanka and Scotland.  On December 2nd, Sri Lankan novelist, poet and journalist Carl Muller passed away.  Muller’s engrossing and bawdy novel The Jam Fruit Tree was joint winner of Sri Lanka’s first-ever Gratiaen Literary Prize (founded by Michael Ondaatje) in 1993 and he was the first of his countrymen and countrywomen to have books published overseas.  And December 29th saw the death of Glaswegian author – and artist, playwright, poet, polemicist and academic – Alasdair Gray.  He was an important influence on me and I’ll be writing more about him on this blog soon.

 

From pinterest.com