About admin

Ian Smith was born in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, but at the age of 11 he moved with his family to the town of Peebles in the Borders region of Scotland. His family still lives there now. Since then, he has spent time in England, Switzerland, Japan, Ethiopia, India, Libya and a part of the Korean peninsula that isn’t visited very much. At the moment, he is in Tunisia in northern Africa, working as an academic manager. He writes, pseudonymously, short horror, fantasy and Scottish fiction. He has also published non-fiction on topics ranging from linguistic relativity to amateur-league Scottish football teams, to vampires. This blog will no doubt be as unstructured as everything else about him.

Clipping Pinochet’s wings

 

© Debasers Filums

 

I’d like to say a few nice things about Nae Pasaran, a 2018 documentary written and directed by Felipe Bustos Sierra that recounts how some workers in the Scottish town of East Kilbride in 1974 made a gesture of defiance towards fascist Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.  It was a gesture that ultimately had more consequences than they’d imagined.

 

The workers – Bob Fulton, Stuart Barrie, Robert Somerville and John Keenan – were employed by Rolls Royce and tasked with servicing and repairing engines from Hawker Hunter airplanes.  Their East Kilbride plant was the only place in the world where such work could be done.  One day they noticed that some engines they’d been assigned belonged to the Chilean Air Force and made sure, via their trade union, that the none of the workforce touched them.  Instead, the engines ended up rusting in crates in the plant’s back yard.

 

This was because the previous year had seen the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile overthrown by the military, who then set up a dictatorship under Pinochet and during the next 17 years, according to official figures from the Chilean government in 2011, engineered the murders and disappearances of 3,095 people and the torture and political imprisonment of 36,948 more – although other estimates are much higher.  The Chilean Air Force got the coup going by bombing La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, on September 11th, 1973.

 

The first part of the documentary – which I was lucky enough to see the other day as part of the Jaffna Film Festival in northern Sri Lanka – is amiable enough, with the now retired Fulton, Barrie, Somerville and Keenan meeting up with Sierra in a Scottish pub (“Don’t start with they war stories,” someone tells the venerable Fulton, a veteran of World War II, “we gottae be hame before eight o’clock!”) and recalling events in East Kilbride back in 1974.

 

But later Sierra travels to Santiago and speaks to people who were on the sharp end of the 1973 coup and, with stories of executions, torture and seemingly boundless cruelty, Nae Pasaran delivers a stark reminder of what the Scottish workers were protesting against.  A senior civil servant whom troops dragged out of the just-bombed La Moneda, for example, remembers how he and fifty others were made to lie in a line on the street.  A tank would have then driven over the top of them if there hadn’t been so many civilians on the street yelling at the troops to stop.

 

One prisoner, later exiled to Britain, claims to have been told by an official that the reason he hadn’t been executed was because the British government had offered to get the Hawker Hunter engines back to the Chilean Air Force – his life and the lives of six others constituted the Chilean side of the bargain.  Nobly, Sierra doesn’t accept this as gospel truth, even though it would have provided the documentary with a stirring feel-good moment.  He qualifies it by also quoting representatives of Amnesty International and the UK government at the time, who are unsure or dismissive of such a deal being made.  But the possibility remains that the actions in East Kilbride did save seven lives.

 

More tangibly, being deprived of those engines took its toll on the Chilean Air Force, as is admitted by its former commander Fernando Rojas Vender.  Although the engines were eventually, and very mysteriously, spirited away from the factory in 1978, and although it was rumoured that future repairs and servicing were carried out in Israel and India, the planes and their engines clearly suffered from the lack of Scottish expertise and there were multiple groundings and crashes.

 

While obviously a considerable tosser, Vender was at least game enough to let himself be interviewed by Sierra.  He dismisses Fulton, the original instigator of the engine boycott, as being like a radical ‘Islamist’.  In his view, Fulton – who’s a Christian as well as a World War II combatant – couldn’t possibly have acted of his own accord, but had been brainwashed by leftist agitators.

 

The film’s finale, where Fulton, Barrie and Keenan are brought south to a grand, plush building in London in 2015 – a world away from the Scottish boozer we saw them in at the beginning – and in front of an admiring audience are awarded the Order of Bernardo O’Higgins, the highest order that Chile’s government can bestow on foreigners, is both touching and uplifting.

 

© Debasers Filums

 

Incidentally, the men make one or two comments about how their actions, facilitated by a powerful trade union, probably wouldn’t have happened today.  Nae Pasaran doesn’t mention it, but there’s a brutal irony in how the person who later on did most to emasculate the unions in Britain, Margaret Thatcher, was also a great admirer of and buddy to the fascist Pinochet.  Thatcher’s actions against the unions, admittedly, had a lot of public support at the time – support fuelled by the disastrous, strike-ridden Winter of Discontent in 1978-79, when the British trade union movement and the then Labour government didn’t so much shoot themselves in the foot as blow both their feet away with a sawn-off shotgun.

 

Still, I wish that British working-class people who voted for Brexit in 2016 on the grounds that they were ‘better off’ in the 1970s before Britain joined the European Union, or the European Economic Community as it was then, would realise that the real reason why they were better off was because they had things like a functioning welfare state and proper trade unions to support and defend them.

 

From globalresearch.ca

 

On Target with Terrance

 

From youtube.com

 

If you were to draw up a list of great children’s authors of the 20th century, you’d no doubt end up with names such as Roald Dahl, Alan Garner, Tove Jansson, Clive King, C.S. Lewis, Astrid Lindgren, A.A. Milne, Philip Pullman and Rosemary Sutcliffe.  But you probably wouldn’t think of including Terrance Dicks, who passed away late last month at the age of 84.

 

Dicks made his name on television as a scriptwriter and script editor.  He was involved in TV shows like The Avengers (1961-69), Moonbase 3 (1973), Space 1999 (1975-77) and ITV’s dreadful but (almost) never-ending soap opera Crossroads (1964-88) and also a raft of TV adaptations of classic literary works that the BBC broadcast on Sunday evenings and included Great Expectations (1981), Beau Geste (1982), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1982), Oliver Twist (1985), David Copperfield (1986-87) and Vanity Fair (1987).  But his most famous TV work was with the BBC’s long-running science fiction / fantasy show Doctor Who, which kicked off in 1963 and is still with us today – though it had a 16-year hiatus between 1989 and 2005 – and is now a massive franchise on par with Star Wars and Star Trek.  Yet I suspect it was as a writer of books, not TV shows, that Dicks left his greatest legacy.  He had a huge but unsung influence on the reading habits of British kids during the 1970s and 1980s.

 

Dicks served as script editor on Doctor Who from 1970 to 1974, when the title character was played by Jon Pertwee as a gloriously imperious, pompous, vintage car-driving, cape-and-bowtie-wearing, karate-chopping man of action, and also contributed the occasional script to the show during the tenures of Pertwee’s immediate predecessor (Patrick Troughton) and successors (Tom Baker and Peter Davison).  However, it’s for his role as novelist-in-chief for Target Books’ Doctor Who series that perhaps Dicks is most important.

 

© Target Books

 

The Target series turned most of the Doctor Who TV adventures from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s into neat, collectible paperbacks, with attractive and colourful covers that were often courtesy of fantasy-artist Chris Achilleos.  Now if you were a Doctor Who fan back then, as I was, there were no such things as whole-season box sets, Internet streaming or BBC iplayers, or indeed, DVDs or even video cassette tapes, to allow you to catch up with missed episodes: ones you’d missed recently because you’d been doing something else at the time – the show was broadcast early on Saturday evenings, which always made it a bugger to catch up with – or ones you’d missed because they’d been broadcast before you were born.

 

Also, the BBC was decidedly uninterested in repeating past episodes of Doctor Who. In fact, the corporation had wiped many of the early episodes featuring the first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, assuming that the tapes served no financial or cultural function and only took up unnecessary space in their archives.  Considering how the BBC has made millions since then selling the show and its memorabilia to worldwide audiences, they must be really kicking themselves about that act of brainless destruction now.

 

So, in those days, if you were a ten-year-old wanting to experience past adventures with past Doctors, your only option was to buy the Target novelisations, the majority of which were penned by Dicks in his simple, no-nonsense, fast-moving prose.  Admittedly, I think their quality tailed off a bit in later years as demand for them increased, and the backlog of un-novelised adventures grew greater, forcing Dicks to churn them out at a faster rate, but the some of the ones he wrote in the 1970s were great and, even without the TV show behind them, would have stood up as excellent children’s books in their own right: for example, The Auton Invasion (1974), The Abominable Snowmen (1974), The Terror of the Autons (1975), The Three Doctors (1975), The Genesis of the Daleks (1976) and The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977).

 

© Target Books

 

The only problem with Dicks’ books was that they made the stories seem much more spectacular on the page than how they’d appeared on the screen.  Actually, one of Dicks’ paragraphs, coupled with a child’s imagination, could make them seem very spectacular indeed.  What in the books were teeming utopian cities, vast gladiatorial arenas and huge bustling spaceports were on television poky little BBC studio-sets – bare, blank, shaky, obviously low-budget.  Meanwhile, immense alien deserts, wastelands and battlefields were invariably a big quarry outside London where the show seemed to do 80% of its outdoor filming.  So years later, when you finally got to see those old TV episodes that you’d previously only known through reading the novelisations, they were inevitably an anti-climax.

 

At ten years old, and as a budding writer, I decided to follow Dicks’ example and write my own Target Books Doctor Who novelisation.  I made up my own TV adventure in my head and then wrote it as a book, by hand, in a hundred-page jotter.  I even added my own black-and-white illustrations every dozen pages or so.  The cover (again drawn by me) showed a giant, gauntleted fist grabbing hold of planet Earth.  The book was called Bloodlust of the Sontarans.  (The Sontarans were war-like, potato-headed aliens who at that point had appeared on the show a couple of times to menace Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker’s Doctors.  When it was relaunched in 2005, the Sontarans were reintroduced during the Doctor-ship of David Tenant and one of them, played by Dan Starkey, even became a semi-regular character while Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi occupied the lead role.)

 

Two years later, I decided to produce my second Doctor Who novelisation, and for this one I became positively hi-tech.  My parents had given me a typewriter for Christmas, so with that I banged out about 130 paperback-sized pages and then taped them together.  There were no illustrations in this volume, but I drew a vivid, hopefully Chris Achilleos-style cover showing Tom Baker getting his head fried by a futuristic brain-washing machine.  This I titled Destruction of the Daleks and, yes, it featured the show’s number-one villains, the demented, eye-stalked, kitchen-plunger-waving, pepperpot-shaped space-Nazis, the Daleks.  The premise of my novel was that the Daleks had started to be killed off by a newly evolved virus and were going to extreme lengths to locate a cure for it.  I was rather peeved when, several years later, the BBC seemed to nick my idea and used it as the basis for an official Doctor Who TV adventure, Resurrection of the Daleks, which starred Peter Davison as the fifth Doctor.  I should have sued.

 

© Target Books

 

As I said, I’m positive Dicks’ books got a lot of kids (who otherwise would have been glued to their TV sets all the time) reading, even if it was the TV connection that got them to open the books in the first place.  And as I’ve suggested in the previous two paragraphs, he was also a big influence on kids who wanted to become writers themselves.  Decades later I still write stuff, and get the occasional thing published, and when I use certain words I’m reminded of Dicks, who originally showed me how to use those words in certain ways.  For example, ‘croak’ used instead of ‘said’, as opposed to just describing the sound that frogs make – that came from Dicks using it in reference to the Daleks.  (Predictably, the word that the Daleks were croaking was “Exterminate!”)  Or ‘wheezing’, to describe a peculiar type of sound, not just people with a bad cold – that adjective Dicks commonly used to evoke the noise made by the Doctor’s space / time-ship, the Tardis, when it was materialising or dematerialising.

 

I ended up with an impressive, colourful row of Target / Doctor Who novels on my bookshelves.  I assumed it was just me who was geeky enough to possess such a collection, but then one day in the late 1980s I happened to be in the Edinburgh flat of one Dougie Watt, whom I knew fairly well back then and who is now an established novelist and historian, and I noticed a similar row of Target books on his bookshelves too.  However, as Doctor Who was definitely not considered cool at that point in time, and labelling yourself a Doctor Who fan was about as damaging to your street credibility as announcing that you took a shower once a month or your all-time favourite musical act was Rick Astley, I tactfully pretended I hadn’t noticed them and avoided Who-shaming my friend.

 

With its relaunch in the 21st century, Doctor Who – suddenly cool again – has had many writers of books, comics, television and films falling over themselves to write either TV-show episodes or spin-off novels for it: for instance, Dan Abnett, David Bishop, Eoin Colfer, Jenny Colgan, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Paul Cornell, Neil Cross, Richard Curtis, Neil Gaiman, Mark Gatiss, A.L. Kennedy, Jamie Mathieson, Patrick Ness, Kim Newman, Simon Nye, Robert Shearman and Toby Whitehouse.  In addition, the three ‘showrunners’ who have helmed Nu-Who so far, Russell T. Davies, Stephen Moffat and, currently, Chris Chibnall, all made their names as writers originally.  So it’s a writers’ show through and through.  And I suspect a good number of these people were influenced, at least in part, in finding their calling as writers by reading Terrance Dicks’ books back in their childhoods.

 

Meanwhile, Chris Chibnall, if you’re reading this and fancy commissioning a script for the next season of Doctor Who with the title Bloodlust of the Sontarans, give me a call.

 

© Target Books

 

The dark mastery of Stephen Volk

 

© PS Publishing

 

Constructing a work of art around a real and well-known person who existed within living memory is a hazardous business.  You’re immediately open to criticism from those who disagree with your portrayal of that person or, indeed, who think it wrong to attempt a portrayal in the first place.  To give a recent example, I’ve seen both an author and an academic slam Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood on social media because, supposedly, (1) it depicts Bruce Lee unflatteringly, and (2) it depicts Charles Manson, who shouldn’t be depicted at all.  Neither author nor academic had actually seen the film so that they could make proper, evidence-based judgements about it.  But in true Mary Whitehouse fashion (i.e. acting on hearsay) they were happy to denounce it anyway.

 

Come to think of it, it isn’t just hazardous writing books or plays or making films about real people within living memory.  There’s plenty of folk in Scotland who’ll happily bend your ear about how William Shakespeare got it all wrong about Macbeth.

 

Someone who lately plunged into these dangerous waters is novelist and scriptwriter Stephen Volk, whose credits include the screenplay of the ground-breaking supernatural TV movie / pretend documentary-investigation Ghostwatch (1992), which according to IMDb “earned the dubious honour of being the first TV programme to be cited in the British Medical Journal as having caused Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in children.”  Volk’s 2018 collection The Dark Masters Trilogy contains three novellas and features no less than four real-life figures who, in the 20th century, loomed large in the cultures of film, fiction and the esoteric.

 

The first novella, Whitstable, concerns the English horror-movie star Peter Cushing.  Although he passed away a quarter-century ago, and despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that his trademark gentlemanliness, good manners and charm seem utterly extinct in the bad-tempered, Brexit-coarsened Britain of 2019, Cushing still commands much affection among film-buffs of a certain age.  Indeed, he made the headlines in 2016 when the makers of the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One controversially used CGI technology to resurrect his Grand Moff Tarkin character from 1977’s original Star Wars movie.  (Objectors claimed it was disrespectful to Cushing’s memory and set worrying precedents, but I have to say I was just delighted to see the old boy back on the screen, even if it wasn’t really him being him.)

 

© Hammer Films / Warner Bros

 

The second novella in The Dark Masters Trilogy is called Leytonstone and describes a (mostly) imaginary episode from the London childhood of that great director of suspense movies, Alfred Hitchcock.  Incidentally, I recently read a 1967 interview with Orson Welles (conducted by Kenneth Tynan), where the stout bearded one said confidently of Hitchcock: “I honestly don’t believe that Hitchcock is a director whose pictures will be of any interest a hundred years from now.”  Well, Orson, we’re now in 2019 and people seem as fascinated by ‘Hitch’ as ever.  So you have 48 years left for your prediction to be proven right.

 

The final novella, Netherwood, offers an unlikely team-up.  It has the occultist Aleister Crowley, the notorious self-styled ‘Great Beast’ and ‘Wickedest Man in the World’ whose antics in the early 20th century terrified clean-living, God-fearing people who believed everything they read in the British popular press, joining forces with Dennis Wheatley, the one-time bestselling author of adventure and thriller novels, most notably black-magic potboilers such as 1934’s The Devil Rides Out, whose villain was supposedly inspired by Crowley.

 

All three are splendid, but the Cushing one is my favourite.  It’s set in 1971 during the darkest period of the actor’s life.  His beloved wife of 28 years, Helen, has just died of emphysema.  Devastated, he shuts himself away from the world in his home in Whitstable, the Kent seaside town of the title.  One day, however, he forces himself out for a walk along the beach and encounters a boy who’s daft about horror films but still slightly too young to distinguish fantasy from reality.  Having seen the 1958 Hammer version of Dracula, where Cushing plays the learned vampire-slayer Van Helsing, the boy assumes Cushing is Van Helsing and asks him for help.  He believes his mother’s boyfriend is a vampire because the boyfriend enters his bedroom at night and does things to him that leave him feeling physically and spiritually drained. “Afterwards, I feel bad,” he explains, “like I’m dead inside.”  Horrified by what he’s discovered, Cushing has to set his own emotional turmoil aside and figure out how to help the boy.

 

A story that pits someone like Cushing, a monster-hunter in the comfortable world of old gothic horror films, against a genuine monster who sexually abuses children could have been a disaster if it hadn’t been done properly.  But Volk achieves the appropriate tone, writes with delicacy and pulls the trick off.  Particularly good is the finale, where Cushing confronts the mother’s boyfriend in Whitstable’s cinema during a matinee showing of one of his recent horror epics, 1970’s The Vampire Lovers.  What’s happening on the screen contrasts ironically and memorably with what’s happening in the stalls.

 

Clearly, Volk has been meticulous in his research and doesn’t put a foot wrong in his portrayal of Cushing – his habits, idiosyncrasies and speech patterns, his deeply-felt Christianity and his love for his wife, whose death cast a shadow he never escaped from afterwards.  And there are enough knowledgeable references to his movies to keep fans happy.  Also spot-on are Volk’s descriptions of Whitstable and his evocation of the sights and sounds of a typical south-east England seaside town – pleasant (waves, seagulls, boats and the ramshackle, antiquated charm of the seafront) and unpleasant (small-town gossip, nosiness and parochialism, tourist tat and the often-neglected neighbourhoods set back from the areas frequented by holidaymakers).

 

From tvtropes.org    

 

Leytonstone begins with an incident from Alfred Hitchcock’s boyhood that the director himself mentioned in later life.  One day his father sent him to the local police station with a note instructing the policemen to lock him in a cell.  The policemen obliged, much to the lad’s horror and bewilderment since he didn’t know what he’d done wrong.  It transpired that his father merely  wanted to show him what happened ‘to naughty boys’.  As I remember the story, Hitchcock’s incarceration lasted only a few minutes.  In Leytonstone, however, it goes on for a whole night.

 

I’d assumed that the police-cell ordeal would form the bulk of Leytonstone, so I was surprised when it finished early on in the story.  Volk is more interested in what happens afterwards and spins a tale whereby the now screwed-up little Alfred does something horrible to a schoolgirl he’s become obsessed with (a blonde, obviously).  In turn, the consequences of his misdeed rebound on his doting mother and involve the scheming policeman who’d originally locked him up.

 

Leytonstone skilfully manipulates the readers’ emotions.  We feel sorry for the hapless, juvenile Hitchcock when he’s the victim of his father’s perverse ideas about instilling discipline.  Later, he becomes a little monster who deserves our contempt, but we still find ourselves rooting for him when his schoolmasters and the police start to close in on him.  This manipulation, of course, was characteristic of Hitchcock himself as a filmmaker.  Witness, for example, 1973’s Frenzy, where we start off believing that Jon Finch is an unpleasant loner and possibly a serial killer while Barry Foster is a likeable chirpy Cockney chappie who loves his mum; but then have to radically rearrange our sympathies when we discover that Finch is really the hero and Foster is the villain.

 

Lastly, Netherwood is set in post-World War II England and has the ailing Aleister Crowley enlisting Dennis Wheatley’s help to fight what he claims is a monstrously evil scheme involving the sacrifice of a child and the coming of a new demagogue on par with Hitler.  The pair invoke occult forces in an effort to thwart this and there’s an ambiguous conclusion that leaves Wheatley wondering just what’s happened.  Has the infamously slippery Crowley pulled a massive joke on him?  The story is engrossing and the interplay between the two men is delightful.  In lesser hands, Wheatley could have become a figure of fun, reacting priggishly to Crowley’s constant, gleeful provocations, but Volk makes him surprisingly sympathetic.  He’s tortured by feelings of class inferiority – he thinks he’s married ‘above himself’ – and by guilt that, middle-aged, he couldn’t physically fight for his country during the war.  (But I’ll say more about Wheatley’s sympathetic-ness in a minute.)  Crowley is engaging too.  Scoundrel though he is, he seems to be trying to do the right thing here.

 

From  en.wikipedia.org  

 

Quibbles?  Well, I felt the epilogue to Leytonstone, where we see the elderly Hitchcock looking back on a life of fame and fortune, was a tad unnecessary – the story made all the points it needed to make while Hitchcock was still a child.  And I suspect some readers will find the conclusion of Netherwood slightly disappointing after all the build-up.  I suppose Volk had to pull his punches.  If what Wheatley went through in the story had had more tangible results, I imagine he’d have written books very different from the ones he did write during the next three decades till his death in 1977.

 

Meanwhile, those familiar with Wheatley may raise an eyebrow at how Volk generally avoids referring to the man’s unpleasantly right-wing politics – which in 1947, with Clement Attlee’s Labour government busy setting up a cradle-to-grave welfare state, he’d have been spouting at every opportunity.  Indeed, according to his Wikipedia entry, he penned at this time a ‘letter to posterity’ wherein he denounced the government’s reforms as something ‘bound to undermine the vigour of the race’ and advocated the ‘ambushing and killing of unjust tyrannous officials.’  His reactionary views increasingly surfaced in his occult works, where the forces of Satan were found to be in league with things that Wheatley disapproved of, like trade unions, feminists, pop music and – least forgivably, in 1973’s Gateway to Hell – the black civil rights movement.

 

To be fair to Volk, today Wheatley is the least well-remembered of his ‘Dark Masters’.  He and his books seemed to disappear off the public’s radar the moment he died (something that’s cleverly foreshadowed at one point in Netherwood) and his persona is the least well-known.  Presumably Volk had to work on his character to make it sympathetic and interesting enough to draw the readers through the story, which meant smoothing off some rough edges.

 

Because of its focus, The Dark Masters Trilogy is somewhat restricted in its appeal.  You probably need to be my age or older to fully appreciate it.  I remember my boyhood as being an era when BBC1 showed Hitchcock seasons on Friday nights and BBC2 showed horror-movie double bills (often featuring Cushing) on Saturday nights; when buying Wheatley’s black-magic epics was something you did furtively because their 1970s covers, courtesy of Arrow Books, were illustrated with pictures of topless, big-breasted ladies dancing around flames; and when the bookshops where you bought your Wheatleys were crammed too with sensationalist books about the occult, esoteric and supernatural, cashing in on a fad for such subjects that’d been created in part by Crowley (who by 1967 had garnered enough street credibility to appear on the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album).  I doubt if Volk’s heroes and anti-heroes figure much in the memories of people younger than me.

 

But if you’re in the target demographic and remember the above things fondly… Then you’ll love this book.

 

© Allan Warren / Creative Commons

 

Ruthless

 

From headtopics.com

 

And now, goes a popular song, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain…  A lot of things in British politics have faced the final curtain recently.  For example, the premiership of Theresa May, and the credibility of the Change UK Party – finished as a political force by a dismal showing in the European elections even though, cruelly, the curtain had only come up on it a few months earlier.

 

Thanks to the arrival of Boris Johnson as prime minister, the final curtain is falling on any last shreds of respect that Britain might have commanded on the international stage – a humbling new role awaits the country as pageboy to Donald Trump.  And this week’s plot by Johnson, involving the Queen, to prorogue Parliament and thwart opposition to a no-deal Brexit has shown that it’s curtains for any pretence that Britain is a functioning democracy.  And it increasingly looks like curtains for any hope that Britain might depart the European Union in a fashion that stops its economy from imploding.

 

North of the border, the curtain has fallen too on the tenure of the hapless David Mundell as Secretary of State for Scotland – Johnson ousted him in favour of a posh tweedy hunting-and-shooting non-entity called Alister Jack, who has both shares in and financial support from Jardine Matheson Holdings Limited, the notorious imperialist opium dealers of the 19th century.  Jack probably believes that the best economic future for Scottish people is to work on zero-hour contracts as grouse beaters for visiting aristocrats and oligarchs.

 

And now, it’s just emerged, the curtain has come down on Ruth Davidson as leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.  Scottish politics has become Ruth-less.

 

Predictably, Davidson’s resignation, which she confirmed yesterday, caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Scotland’s right-wing mainstream media.  For instance, Chris Deerin, latterly of the Telegraph, Scotland on Sunday and Daily Mail and now a contributor to the New Statesman, gushed on Twitter about “the energy, charisma and campaigning pizzazz of Ruth…  She is also one of the most determined and gritty people I know.”  Pushing the needle even further up the scale on the vomit-o-meter was Daily Mail and Spectator columnist Stephen Daisley, who wrote, “Adversity has never been far from her path but she has met it with tenacity and good humour…  Personal grit has been in Davidson’s blood from the start but she has been hardened by struggle…” and called her “a 5’5” firecracker’ and ‘Boudicca in a power suit’.  You can almost hear Elton John singing Candle in the Wind in the background.

 

Oh guys, puhlease…  If any adjective describes Ruth Davidson as a politician, it’s not ‘energetic’ or charismatic’ or ‘determined’ or ‘gritty’.  It’s ‘overrated’.

 

Davidson was the great white hope for members of Scotland’s old political, media and civic establishments, where you used to make your name and money promoting the interests of the Conservative Party or Labour Party in a comfortable status quo – i.e. Scotland voted Labour and was ruled by mostly Conservative governments in London and nobody said ‘boo’ about anything – and where your Scottishness, in the form of kilts, malt whisky, golf, Hogmanay, Munro-bagging and so, was something you played up occasionally to make yourself seem slightly exotic.  She seemed the political leader most likely to return Scotland to the sanity of the good old days.  Those days were before 2007 when the Scottish National Party seized power in Edinburgh, turned political assumptions on their heads and made the prospect of Scottish independence the key issue of the day.

 

The hopes attached to Davidson meant she had a ridiculously easy ride in Scotland’s mainstream media – and by extension in the British media, where perceptions of her as that rare beast, a nice Tory, meant she turned up as a guest in Have I Got News for You and The Great British Bake-Off and on the sofa for cosy chats with Andrew Marr.  Instead of pestering her about her party’s brutal austerity policies, Scottish journalists were happy publishing the results of photo opportunities where she’d don Highland dress and attempt to play the bagpipes, or sit on top of a buffalo, or pose on top of a tank, and were happy chuckling, “Good old Ruth!  What a laugh!”  Though the photo op where she rode down some steps in a mobility vehicle backfired when it emerged that, thanks to her party’s social security policies in Westminster, over 50,000 people with mobility issues had lost their right to such vehicles in the past four years.

 

From twitter.com

 

Indeed, Davidson was so accustomed to fawning press coverage that she struggled when a reporter did ask difficult questions.  Witness how she took a huff and stormed off when Channel 4’s Ciaran Jenkins tackled her about the Conservative Party’s alliance with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party – Davidson has been in a same-sex relationship for years while the DUP is notoriously homophobic.

 

Still, her supporters would argue, look at her record as leader of the Scottish Tories!  Didn’t she achieve the impossible?  Didn’t she de-toxify her party in Scotland at a time when the reason why the talentless David Mundell got the job of Secretary of State for Scotland was because he was the only Member of Parliament (out of 59 seats) that the Conservative Party had in Scotland?

 

Well, in the 2016 election for the Scottish Parliament, the Tories did increase their share of the vote to by 8.1% to 22%, making them the second-biggest party in that parliament – though thanks to the vagaries of the Scottish electoral system, they finished seven seats ahead of Labour, who actually got 0.6% more of the vote than they did.  Needless to say, Davidson’s fans in the Scottish mainstream media made such a hullaballoo about it that you’d have thought the Tories, not Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP, had won the election.  (THE UNION STRIKES BACK was the headline that accompanied Alex Massie’s piece about it in the Spectator, with a picture of Davidson’s head photo-shopped onto Princess Leia’s body.  Though the folk who did the striking back in the celebrated 1980 sci-fi fantasy movie were the Empire, who were space-Nazis led by Darth Vader – probably not the analogy Massie was looking for.)

 

In the British general election of 2017, Scotland’s army of right-wing columnists, commentators and journalists seemed to collectively come in their tweed breeks when the Scottish Tories increased their number of MPs from one to 13 – helped no doubt by Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale urging voters in certain constituencies to vote Tory and stick it to the SNP.  Again, such was the puffery that you’d have thought Davidson was now First Minister of Scotland, not Nicola Sturgeon.  There was much blather about how Davidson’s cohort of 13 MPs were going to exert a moderating and pro-Scottish influence over Theresa May’s minority government.  It came as no surprise when they didn’t.  Indeed, by 2019, most of them were ignoring the wishes of their pro-EU constituencies and voting in parliament to keep open the option of a disastrous no-deal Brexit.

 

One thing that Davidson was good at was conveying a simple message – all her other policies being either nebulous or negotiable – which was, “Vote for me, say no to Scottish independence and say yes to the British Union!”  This appeal to British nationalism helped her party win the support of the hard-line Protestant, Glasgow Rangers-supporting faction of the Scottish population that had strong sympathies with the pro-British Protestant community in Northern Ireland.  It also reeled in supporters of the extremist likes of UKIP and Britain First.  (Webzine Bella Caledonia has an interesting article called 30 Toxic Tories, listing the most racist bampots who ended up in the Scottish Conservative fold under Davidson’s watch.)

 

© Channel 4

 

No doubt the Northern Irish angle was why in 2018 she and her buddy David Mundell threatened they “would resign if Northern Ireland faces new controls that separate it from the rest of the UK” in some new Brexit deal.  By November 2018 Theresa May had indeed proposed a Brexit deal that might involve separate arrangements for Northern Ireland, but – surprise! – Davidson and Mundell decided not to resign after all.

 

This brings us to the subject of Davidson’s principles, which have been flexible to say the least.  Prior to the 2016 vote Britain’s membership of the EU, she won praise for taking part in a public debate where she defended the EU and railed against the Brexiting likes of Boris Johnson, Gisela Stuart and Andrea Leadsom.  “The other side have said throughout this debate that they don’t like experts,” she argued, “but when it comes to keeping this country safe and secure I want to listen to the experts.  So when the head of GCHQ says we are safer in the EU I listen.  When five former NATO chiefs say we are safer in the EU I listen.  When the head of Interpol, who is a Brit, says we are safer in the EU I listen.  When the head of MI5 and MI6 says we are safer in the EU I listen.”

 

But Davidson’s enthusiasm for continued EU membership didn’t survive when the vote went the other way and her new political boss in Westminster, Theresa May, committed herself to Brexit.  (Symbolic of Davidson’s about-turn on the issue were the Conservative Party leaflets distributed during campaigning for the recent Scottish parliamentary by-election in the Shetlands.  They bore a picture of her grinning features above a claim that the Tory candidate was the person to vote for ‘if you want to LEAVE the EU’.)  For a while she made noises about the UK staying in the  EU’s single market, which she said was something Scotland should have “the largest amount of access to.”  But those noises changed too when Theresa May declared that Britain “cannot possibly” remain in the single market because it would mean “not leaving the EU at all.”  On cue, Davidson suddenly poo-pooed the idea because it wouldn’t “allow for independent trade deals to be struck with third countries” and would mean accepting “freedom of movement”.

 

Davidson’s career, in fact, has been a series of instances where she expressed liberal sentiments because they were popular at the time but then fell silent when the wind – and the opinions of her political masters – changed direction.  In 2015, when a certain orange-skinned gobshite looked like he had zero chance of getting anywhere near the White House, she quoted Henry IV Part One and tweeted that Donald Trump was a ‘clay-brained, guts, knotted-pated, whoreson, obscene greasy tallow-patch’.  Inevitably, when Trump became US president and Theresa May jetted over to Washington DC to kiss his arse and beg for a post-Brexit trade deal, she made no further references to Trump’s obsceneness, greasiness, etc.

 

However, the arrival of Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party was too much even for someone of Davidson’s elasticity.  Even she would have problems defending Johnson going full-steam-ahead for a disastrous no-deal Brexit on October 31st – especially as her Scottish parliamentary constituency is in Edinburgh, the most pro-EU city in the UK.  Johnson’s sacking of her good chum Mundell probably didn’t help.  Although rather than seize the moment yesterday and castigate Johnson for all the damage he’s caused, she claimed her reasons for stepping down were family-related ones.

 

So what will Ruth Davidson do now?  Perhaps Boris Johnson will show some magnanimity and give her a seat in the House of Lords, where she can rub ermine-draped shoulders with such former titans of Scottish politics as Baron George Foulkes of Cumnock and Baron Michael Forsyth of Drumlean.  Aye, hanging out with her intellectual equals in an institution of insufferable privilege and entitlement – that’s the best place for her.

 

From caltonjock.com

 

Joys of a million toys

 

 

A while back, my partner and I went to the Thai city of Ayutthaya with the purpose of seeing its World Heritage-status assortment of historic temples, monasteries and palaces.  However, on the day we were due to journey back to Bangkok, we found ourselves with a free morning to fill.  And as our hotel was located only a few minutes away from something called ‘the Million Toy Museum’, we decided to investigate.

 

When we entered the Million Toy Museum, we thought: Wow!  The laws of physics dictated that the place couldn’t possibly do what it said on the tin – there couldn’t be a million toys inside it.  But the building certainly contained a lot of them.  If not a million, then thousands and thousands, surely.

 

 

The presence of a life-sized model of Captain America by the entrance indicated that the museum wasn’t going to be restricted to locally themed exhibits.  Indeed, the collection was diverse and international, with perhaps a slight majority of the toys on show coming from American and Japanese culture.  And while every nook and cranny in the building seemed to have been commandeered as display space, most toys had been put inside large glass cases that lined the walls and aisles on its two floors or had been arranged on top of those cases.

 

Often, they were grouped according to themes: superhero action figures, model monsters from Japanese kaiju movies, toy Disney characters, tin robots, clockwork vehicles, clockwork aircraft, Meccano constructions, dolls of every size, shape, ethnicity and vintage.  Some of the cases were so crowded I almost felt sorry for their occupants.  A case packed with Japanese kokeshi dolls had the look of a brutally run prison camp.  A case of white Miffy toys resembled a scene from a nightmarishly intensive farm that specialised in breeding rabbits.

 

 

Actually, the Million Toy Museum didn’t just limit itself to toys.  It also displayed… well, everything.  I got the impression that the proprietors were happy to put on show anything that was donated to them so long as it was venerable, compact and interesting.  Hence, we also saw Chinese teapots, Buddha figurines, fancy pieces of glasswork, old alarm clocks, antique vases and ornate bottles and jars, plus one-off oddities like a bust of Napoleon and a framed photo-portrait of a very young-looking Queen Elizabeth II.

 

The fact that so many toys and other flotsam and jetsam had  to be displayed in close proximity meant there were some surreal juxtapositions.  Such as…  A life-sized Astro-boy stretching himself next to a vintage Coca Cola vending machine…

 

 

Or a doll of Little My from the Moomins scowling from the end of what looked like a replica model of the Titanic, while several Pippi Longstocking mugs were lined up in front…

 

 

Or Charlie Brown perched atop an elderly grandfather clock…

 

 

Or a gold-coloured statue of Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god, reposing in a prime spot in the lobby, while a life-sized model of Jar-Jar Binks from Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace could be seen skulking furtively in the background – which to be honest was the best place for Jar-Jar Binks.

 

 

My favourite sights in the museum, though, were the charmingly antiquated science-fictional toys of yesteryear: block-shaped tin robots with round eyes, grilled mouths, knobs, switches and fuel gauges; and slightly dented-looking tin space rockets and flying saucers (that’d obviously been thrown around a few times by their original juvenile owners).  I was surprised at how many models I saw of Robby the Robot from the 1956 sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet – but then again, old Robby  had been the cinema’s most famous robot until the advent of Star Wars (1977) and C3PO and R2D2.

 

 

All in all, the Million Toy Museum presented a glorious collection of bric-a-brac.  It may not have been the grandest place we visited during this trip to Thailand, but it was surely the most delightful one.

 

Oh, and elsewhere on the premises was a café building that was festooned inside with old Coca Cola signs and had a life-sized representation of Spiderman suspended upside-down above its entrance door.  So the Million Toy Museum experience began with Captain America and ended with Spiderman.   Stan Lee would have approved.

 

 

Great British crime movies of the 1970s

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer

 

If you’d lived in the United Kingdom in the 1970s but your only contact with the outside world had been through the medium of television, you may well have believed you were surrounded by a dystopian society.  One where every bank and security van was in constant danger of being attacked by beefy men with sawn-off shotguns and stockings pulled down over their heads.  One where every street was the potential scene of a violent punch-up and every road was the potential scene of a destructive car chase.  One where the only bulwark against the tide of lawlessness and anarchy was a police-force composed entirely of hard-boozing, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed thugs who wore kipper ties with their shirt-collar buttons undone.  Really, you’d have been too afraid to leave your house.

 

This is because 1970s British television was awash with crime and cop shows – often violent and often populated by revolting low-life criminals and heroes who weren’t much better in their morality: for example, Special Branch (1969-74), Villains (1972), New Scotland Yard (1972-74), The Sweeney (1975-78), Gangsters (1975-78), The XYY Man (1976-77), Target (1977-78), Out (1978), Hazell (1978-79) and Strangers (1978-82).

 

Needless to say, these shows had a big impact on impressible kids like me.  My school playground at breaktimes reverberated with the sound of me and my mates acting out things we’d seen on TV the night before, shouting, “You’re nicked, sunshine!” and “You grassed me off, you slag!” and “No bastard copper’s gonna take me alive!” and “We’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner!”  My parents were happy to let me watch such programmes – as long as I wasn’t watching that horror rubbish, which had been scientifically proven to be bad for you.

 

Admittedly, 1970s American television was riddled with cop shows too, and British TV producers were probably just working on the supposition that what worked for American audiences would work for British ones.  But the Yank shows just didn’t seem to compare with their Limey counterparts in terms of bad attitude and grubby, sweaty, bad-breathed and greasy-haired authenticity.

 

I suspect a prime reason for this was because the 1970s saw the British film industry die on its arse and British directors, writers and actors who might have expected to ply their trade on the big screen found themselves plying it on the small screen instead.  This helped inject some uncompromising cinematic rawness into the domestic telly crime genre.  Meanwhile, alas, the cinematic counterpart of that genre seemed non-existent.

 

Well, it was almost non-existent.  A few crime movies got made in 1970s Britain too and, though they’re as rare as hen’s teeth, these exert a fascination for me today.  Only two of them ever achieved a degree of fame and the rest are virtually forgotten – but I find all of them cherish-able.  Here are my favourites.

 

© MGM EMI

 

Get Carter (1970)

This is one 1970s British crime film that everyone knows, although I don’t recall it getting much attention until the mid-1990s, when thanks to Britpop, Damien Hirst, etc., the ‘cool Britannia’ scene took off and Get Carter’s star Michael Caine suddenly became a retro-style icon.  Ironically, Caine’s nattily dressed Jack Carter and Roy Budd’s edgy jazz score aside, there isn’t much in Get Carter that feels stylish.  The drab, monochrome terraced streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne – if the film’s premise is that Michael Caine has returned to his hometown to sort out trouble, whatever happened to Caine’s Geordie accent? – the shabby pubs, the seedy racecourses, the shit clothes and haircuts, the Neanderthal attitudes…  It’s bloody depressing, actually.  If 1970s Britain really had been like this, I can almost understand why when Maggie Thatcher came to power, she bulldozered the place and cleared the way for the 1980s.

 

One thing about Get Carter that’s often overlooked is the performance of the late, great Ian Hendry as the film’s scuzzball villain, Eric Paice.  “Do you know,” Carter tells him at Newcastle Racecourse in High Gosforth Park, “I’d almost forgotten what your eyes look like.  They’re still the same.  Piss-holes in the snow.”  Hendry was originally meant to play the virile Carter, but by 1970 heavy drinking had taken its toll and instead he was given the supporting role of the memorably weasley Paice.  Hendry resented losing the lead role to Caine and things didn’t go well the night before the filming of the racecourse scene when director Mike Hodges and his cast attempted to give it a read-through – Hendry, supposedly, was three-sheets-to-the-wind.  Despite Hendry’s drunken provocations, Caine is said to have kept his professional cool, although he may have enjoyed the irony of the film’s climax, which sees Carter force-feed Paice a bottle of whisky before clubbing him to death with a shotgun.

 

Villain (1971)

Inspired by the real-life exploits of 1960s London crime-lords Reggie and Ronnie Kray, Villain has Richard Burton, no less, in the role of a gay, mother-fixated and paranoidly violent gang-boss who, against the counsel of wiser heads, gets himself involved in a raid on a factory’s wages van that ultimately causes his downfall.  Meanwhile, trying to stay in one piece through all of this is Ian McShane, playing a smooth but unimportant pimp who has the unenviable job of being both the object of Burton’s affections and the victim of his sadistic rages.

 

© MGM EMI

 

Villain has a wonderful supporting cast – T.P. McKenna and Joss Ackland as fellow gang-bosses, Del Henney and Tony Selby as henchmen, and Nigel Davenport and Colin Welland as the coppers doggedly trying to bring Burton to justice.  (Interestingly, McKenna, Henney and Welland all turned up in the cast of Sam Peckinpah’s troubling Straw Dogs, made the following year.)  The film suffers from having too many sub-plots, though the one where McShane helps Burton escape the law by getting a sleazy Member of Parliament who’s been using his pimping services to testify for him is memorably believable and nauseating.  Played by Donald Sinden, you never hear which political party the MP belongs to.  But you can guess.

 

Sitting Target (1972)

Ian McShane had to suffer some dysfunctional relationships in early 1970s British crime movies.  No sooner had he finished being Richard Burton’s lover / punchbag in Villain than he had to cope with being best friend to a psychotic Oliver Reed in Sitting Target, directed by the underrated Douglas Hickox.  With McShane in tow, Reed escapes from prison early in the film, determined to catch up with his wife Jill St John and give her what’s coming to her.  Reed doesn’t want revenge on St John, as you might expect, for her terrible performance as Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever (1971).  No, it’s because he’s discovered she’s betrayed him for another man.  The film’s big twist, when we find out who that other man is, isn’t altogether a surprise.

 

Sitting Target has many pleasures, including Edward Woodward playing a policeman assigned to protect St John against the marauding Ollie.  But nothing quite matches the thrilling early sequence where our two anti-heroes, plus a third convict played by the wonderful (and recently departed) character actor Freddie Jones, bust out of prison in desperate, skin-of-the-teeth fashion.

 

© American International Pictures

 

Hennessy (1975)

I wasn’t going to include Don Sharpe’s Hennessy on this list because it’s about terrorism rather than crime.  Indeed, its story of a former IRA explosive expert (Rod Steiger) who decides to destroy the British government and the Queen by blowing up the state opening of parliament, after his wife and child are killed by the British Army, makes it the first movie to tackle the issue of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  However, as the final film on the list is choc-a-bloc with IRA men, and as Richard Johnson gives a lovely performance as the weary, dishevelled, cynical copper – is there any other type in British crime movies? – trying to thwart Steiger’s plan, I thought I’d give it a mention.

 

The film is admittedly patchy but it has a top-notch cast that also includes Lee Remick, Trevor Howard, Eric Porter, Patrick Stewart (bald as a coot even then) and a super-young Patsy Kensit playing Steiger’s ill-fated daughter.  The climactic scenes set in the House of Commons, involving the Queen, landed the filmmakers in hot water because they used real footage that Buckingham Palace had approved without knowing it was going to end up in a film.  Also, the film’s subject, an incredibly touchy one at the time, meant that Hennessy scarcely saw the light of day in British cinemas.

 

Brannigan (1975)

Okay, Brannigan – also directed by Douglas Hickox – is the joker in this pack.  It features John Wayne as a tough American cop who arrives in a London of bowler hats, brollies and historic landmarks that exists only in the imagination of Hollywood scriptwriters, and who then causes mayhem as he behaves like a Wild West sheriff dealing with an unruly frontier town.  This involves such memorable sequences as Wayne doing an Evel Knievel-style car stunt where he hops across Tower Bridge while it parts to let  a ship pass below.  And Wayne triggering a cowboy-style brawl in a pub near Leadenhall Market.  And Wayne roughing up a minor villain played by the cinema’s greatest Yorkshireman, Brian Glover.  (“Now would you like to try for England’s free dental care or answer my question?”)  If you’re in the wrong mood, Brannigan is the worst film ever made.  If you’re in the right mood, it’s the best one.

 

© United Artists

 

The Squeeze (1977)

Barely had John Wayne swaggered through the London underworld than another Hollywood star did the same in Michael Apted’s The Squeeze – Stacy Keach, playing a London private eye with an industrial-strength drink problem. During occasional moments of sobriety, Keach investigates the kidnapping of his ex-wife (Carol White, who played the title role in Ken Loach’s ground-breaking 1966 drama Cathy Come Home).  She’s remarried a posh security officer (Edward Fox) tasked with overseeing the delivery of large sums of money.  Keach finds himself tangling with a kidnap gang who intend to enlist Fox’s unwilling help in mounting an armed robbery.

 

The Squeeze suffers from being overlong, with too much time spent wallowing in Keach’s booze-soaked misery. But this is outweighed by its good points.  I like its depiction of late 1970s multicultural London and its sympathetic portrayal of Keach’s Jamaican neighbours.  Also, Stephen Boyd (who died soon after the film’s completion aged just 45) and David Hemmings give good turns as the villains.  Allowed to use his native Northern Irish accent in a movie for a change, Boyd disturbingly plays a well-heeled crime-lord who dotes over his own family whilst having zero empathy for the family he’s threatening to destroy with his kidnapping scheme.  Meanwhile, Hemmings is a delight as a pragmatic career criminal who doesn’t share his boss’s sunny optimism about things and gets increasingly disgruntled as Keach closes in.

 

© Warner Bros. Pictures

 

And connoisseurs of 1970s British popular culture will be fascinated to see anarchic comedian Freddie Starr in the cast too.  Starr is endearing as Keach’s best mate, a reformed petty criminal trying to make a living as a taxi driver. Indeed, such is Starr’s loyalty to Keach that he saves his neck three times towards and during the film’s climax, most memorably by running the villains off the road in his taxi.  Starr, who died in May this year, was from all accounts an unreconstructed arsehole in real life.  So remember him this way.

 

Sweeney II (1978)

The greatest of all 1970s British cop shows, The Sweeney got two movie spin-offs, Sweeney! In 1977 and Sweeney II a year later.  I don’t think Sweeney!, which attempted to involve Flying Squad heroes Jack Regan (John Thaw) and George Carter (Dennis Waterman) in an espionage plot, is much cop, but Sweeney II captures the spirit of the TV series.  With Regan and Carter on the trail of a gang who spend most of their time living it up in Malta as wealthy British ex-pats but who return to Britain from time to time to stage vicious bank robberies, the films marries bloody, sawn-off-shotgun-powered violence with some scabrous humour.  As one of Regan’s sidekicks, Derek O’Connor gets the funniest lines: “It’s a combination of nerves and smoking too much,” he says when explaining his libido.  “I get a hard-on like a milk bottle.”

 

© Euston Films / EMI

 

Sweeney II is good, loutish fun, then, but it manages to be topical too.  London’s real Metropolitan Police force was investigated for corruption in the late 1970s and the film reflects this with the character of Regan’s commanding officer, played by the excellent Denholm Elliott, who’s facing a long stretch in prison on account of being “so bent it’s been impossible to hang his pictures straight on the office wall for the past twelve months.”

 

The Long Good Friday (1980)

Although it was released at the start of the 1980s, John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday was made in 1979, so I’m classifying it as a 1970s film.  And it definitely feels like it’s drawing the curtain on a particular era with its tale of an old school London gangster (Bob Hoskins) convinced he’s about to make a mint in the brave new world of Thatcherite London, where everything is up for sale to the corporations and developers – until one day when he suddenly finds himself tangling with a ruthless foe, the IRA, that shows him to be hopelessly out of his depth.

 

The final scene sees Hoskins become a prisoner in his own, hijacked car and get driven to his doom – an IRA man played by a youthful Pierce Brosnan snakes up from behind the front passenger seat to hold him at gunpoint.  Although Hoskins doesn’t speak, the succession of emotions that flit across his face as it dawns on him that he had it all, but now he’s blown it all, make this the most powerful moment in British crime-movie history.

 

© Black Lion Films / Handmade Films / Paramount British Pictures

 

The Rock

 

 

In a recent blogpost I namechecked the Rock, aka wrestler-turned-movie-star Dwayne Johnson.  Well, here’s a post about an altogether bigger, mightier and more spectacular rock.  I’m talking about Sigiriya Rock, an imposing lump of solidified volcanic magma that rises 200 metres above the plains of north-central Sri Lanka.

 

As a natural feature Sigiriya Rock would be impressive enough.  However, what’s made it one of the greatest tourist attractions on the island are the remarkable man-made embellishments added to it in the 5th century AD.  This was when King Kashyapa I turned the rock into both an impregnable fortress and a luxurious palace, putting on top of it structures and gardens that were supposedly inspired by the fabled city of Alaka, opulent home of Kubera, god of wealth in Hindu mythology.  Kashyapa had a decade-and-a-half to enjoy the security and comfort of this rock-top residence.  He reigned from 473 to 495 AD and it took the first seven years of his kingship to build it.

 

Meanwhile, Kashyapa’s family background had been dysfunctional, to say the least.  He slew his own father, King Dhatusena of Anuradhapura, and declared war on his brother, the future King Moggallana, who fled to India.  Later, Moggallana launched an invasion of Sri Lanka, although his forces never got to test the effectiveness of Kashyapa’s stronghold at Sigiriya.  Instead, Kashyapa chose to venture down from the rock and take on his brother in battle on the plains.  This decision ended badly for Kashyapa, who was defeated and ended up killing himself rather than be captured.  His brother and usurper restored Anuradhapura as the capital and for some eight or nine centuries thereafter Sigiriya was home to a Buddhist monastery complex.

 

As a science fiction nerd, I’d known of Sigiriya Rock for a long time before moving to Sri Lanka because it’d been an inspiration for the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel The Fountains of Paradise (1979) by Arthur C. Clarke, himself a long-term resident of Sri Lanka.  The novel is about the construction in the 22nd century of a ‘space elevator’, leaving the earth from a terminal on the island of Taprobane – which is a lightly-disguised version of Sri Lanka, though for practical reasons it’s repositioned so that it sits on the equator – and connecting with a space station some 22,300 miles up in orbit.  The novel is peppered with flashbacks to the reign of the visionary but demented King Kalidasa, who’s building an extraordinary palace atop a huge rock called Yakkagala.  Kalidasa and Yakkagala are obviously fictional counterparts of Kashyapa and Sigiriya and they provide an ironic parallel with the epic story of the space elevator’s creation many centuries later.

 

© Victor Gollancz

 

Anyway, recently, my better half and I realised we’d been living in Sri Lanka for four-and-a-half years and still hadn’t visited Sigiriya Rock, so it was surely time we did.  At the suggestion of the owner of the hotel we were staying in, at the nearby town of Habarana, we set out in a tuk-tuk at the crack of dawn – good advice, as it turned out.  En route, we passed through the local wildlife sanctuary, which is famous for its elephants, although the only evidence of them we saw was a mess of pulverised vegetation strewn across the road that, our driver assured us, had been caused by their passing; and later on the same road, some hefty deposits of elephant dung.

 

Finally, we were dropped off at the edge of the Sigiriya complex.  We walked a little and entered a building housing the ticket counters and a museum, where already queues were forming even though it was barely seven o’clock.  Tickets purchased, we crossed an area of gardens at the bottom of the rock.  Our plan was to ascend the rock before it became congested with tourists and then explore the gardens after we’d come down.

 

Rising above belts of trees at the gardens’ far end, the rock was a huge, long slab, slightly crenelated and fissured, its dark-grey surface streaked and grooved with vertical lines of brown.  The sun scoured over the centre-point of its flat summit, which meant that in our early-morning photographs a large part of the upper rock was obscured by a circular haze of light.  Meanwhile, its massive shadow divided the gardens into two parts, a sunlit area of radiant green outside the shadow and a dull, twilit area inside it.

 

We climbed the first steps, our surroundings pleasantly wooded and grassy as they sloped upwards to meet the side of Sigiriya Rock proper: a landscape of stone walls, iron railings, terraces, trees, boulders and occasional monkeys.  At one point, the steps threaded through a queasily small triangle of space between two huge, propped-together rocks.  We also saw the first sign warning us about the presence of stinging insects.  In Sinhala, Tamil and English, the sign intoned: BE SILENT – WASPS.

 

 

Then we encountered the rock itself and the steps gave way to a horizontal, wooden walkway that veered to the left.  The walkway ended at more steps ascending to a small enclosed kiosk where you handed over part of your ticket to see the most famous feature on the rock’s side (as opposed to on its summit).  These are the Sigiriya Rock frescoes, paintings of female figures that once were supposed to number some 500 and covered its western face, making it a gigantic gallery.  But just a handful of them survive, in fragmented form.  We climbed a narrow, mesh-enclosed staircase that spirals up the rockface like a turning drill-bit and emerged into the surviving section of gallery, where I counted 17 figures.  Painted onto the sand-coloured canvas of the rock, they fade in and out of view like ghosts flitting in and out of the ether.  But the parts of them that remain visible, golden-skinned and clad in colourful costumes and jewellery, are still iconic.

 

You aren’t allowed to take photographs on the gallery, so instead here’s a modern and rather saucy Sigiriya Rock fresco-themed painting from the wall of our hotel room.

 

 

After descending from the gallery and returning to the main walkway, we passed an area of rock known as ‘the Mirror Wall’ because of its smoothness and shininess.  According to Wikipedia, it’s thus named because back in the day it was “so highly polished that the king could see himself while he walked alongside it.”  It hardly has that quality now but, humped over the walkway, its surface veined, gleaming and strangely soft-looking, this part of the rock seems almost organic.

 

Around a corner and past more walkways, stairs, railings and scaffolding, we emerged onto a plateau halfway up the rock’s northern side called the Lion’s Paws Terrace.  Located here is the bottom of the final series of steps and stairs leading to the summit.  This is flanked by a pair of giant, talon-ed, three-fingered paws – hence the plateau’s name – protruding out of a mound of ancient brown brickwork.  These might once have been attached to a sphinx-like statue with a lion’s shoulders and head but now just the oddly disembodied paws remain.

 

The terrace contained many visitors taking a breather before tackling the final part of the ascent – or in a few cases staying put, because they’d decided that the final ascent was beyond them and this was as high as they were going.  There was another sign about stinging insects, this one saying: WASP ATTACK AREA – BE SILENT.  However, it was offset by a gentler sign giving information about the local bee population: “Bambaras or the Giant Honeybees migrate here; build a social nest on the rock or in a nearby trees (sic), and perform their valuable pollination service when plants in flower require there (sic) service.”

 

We went up the stairs between the Lion’s Paws.  After we’d passed the top of the ruined brickwork, we had to transfer to a series of rickety-looking metal staircases, veering off in one direction for a minute, then veering off in another, and then in another.  In fact, the staircases resembled a crazily positioned fire escape on a very high building.

 

At one point, a lady announced to the other members of her party in front of us, “No, I can’t do this’ and turned and headed down again.  However, what we found daunting about this final part of the ascent wasn’t so much the height, which admittedly was dizzying, but our own tiredness.  By then we’d already traversed a lot of steps and stairs.

 

 

And after all that…  The summit of the rock looked surprisingly civilised when we finally arrived.  It was a patchwork of tracts of grass and tracts of sandy-coloured paving stones, the patches delineated by low remnants of stone walls; terraces whose sides were contained within braces of smoothed, eroded brown bricks; yet more staircases navigating the various levels that’d been carved into the summit; smallish trees; and in one place what looked like an ancient, square swimming pool, now full of brownish water, although I assume it was actually a reservoir that’d given the palace its water supply.  When we descended towards the pool, we saw a couple of dogs mooching there, prompting the inevitable thought: reservoir dogs!

 

In fact, the maze of terraces, flights of steps, walls and flag-stoned pathways made me think of a structure in an M.C. Escher picture, though a less surreal and baffling one.

 

Predictably, the views were beautiful.  It was like being at the centre of a vast bowl – distant mountains forming the bowl’s sides, an expanse of treetops and occasional lakes and rivers forming the bowl’s verdant and glinting base.  Standing on the eastern side of the rock, you got to look across a gorgeous silvery-blue lake that was rimmed and flecked with green, although it was impossible to tell from this distance if the green was caused by lilies, reeds, algae or waterweed.

 

 

Some edges of the summit looked over a sheer drop.  These were screened off by not-terribly-sturdy-looking metal railings.  Not the kindest of employers, King Kashyapa was said to have positioned sentries right on the brink of these precipices, reasoning that their fear of falling asleep and toppling to their dooms would give them the impetus to stay awake, alert and watchful.

 

When we ventured down again, we had to struggle through increasing numbers of visitors who were now trying to make their way upwards.  A few of these visitors deserves fates similar to what Kashyapa’s sleepier sentries would have suffered.  One vain and stupid woman caused a serious traffic jam at the bottom steps between the Lion’s Paws because she insisted on posing at length while a friend took pictures of her.  Further down, another ignorant woman caused a blockage while she attempted to photograph herself in the middle of a narrow section of steps with a camera-phone and an unfeasibly long selfie-stick.

 

And when we arrived down in the gardens again, many people were advancing up the central paths towards the rock-steps.  Some of the female tourists belonged to Chinese tour parties, were clad in Laura Ashley-style floral-patterned dresses and floppy sunhats, and looked like they’d dressed for a shopping expedition rather than an ascent up a huge brute of a volcanic rock.

 

So we were glad we’d heeded our hotel manager’s advice.  Certainly, go to Sigiriya Rock because it’s a brilliant experience.  But go early.

 

 

Time and tide wait for no man and no replicant

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

July 2019 has been a cursed month for my favourite actors.  On this blog I occasionally post instalments in a series with the self-explanatory title Cinematic Heroes and in the past few weeks two people whom I’ve featured in the series have gone to meet their maker.  On July 9th veteran English actor Freddie Jones (Cinematic Heroes 12) passed away.  And it was recently announced that on July 19th the great Dutch actor Rutger Hauer (Cinematic Heroes 6) died after a short illness.

 

Shit.  I’m almost afraid to write any more Cinematic Heroes posts about living actors, in case I jinx them and they die too.  Maybe I should just stick to writing about actors who are already dead.

 

Freddie Jones was a marvellously eccentric and sonorous actor who seemed to exist on several different planes of cinematic reality at once.  He was simultaneously a regular in David Lynch movies (1980’s The Elephant Man, 1984’s Dune, 1989’s Wild at Heart); a star of Hammer horror films (1969’s Frankenstein must be Destroyed, 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula); a fixture of kids’ teatime TV programmes in the 1970s (1976-78’s The Ghosts of Motley Hall, 1976’s Children of the Stones); and a familiar face in dumb Hollywood blockbusters with one-word titles in the 1980s (1982’s Firefox, 1983’s Krull, 1984’s Firestarter).

 

He also showed up in a trio of great but overlooked British movies that are close to my heart: Basil Deardon’s The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970), in which he’s a hoot as the wonky Scottish psychiatrist giving advice to a troubled Roger Moore; Douglas Hickox’s Sitting Target (1972), in which he, Oliver Reed and Ian McShane are three convicts staging a memorably nail-biting prison breakout; and Richard Lester’s Juggernaut (1974), in which he’s a retired bomb disposal expert suspected by Anthony Hopkins of planting six explosive devices on board a luxury liner.  (Figuring out if the mad bomber really is Freddie Jones is not the most difficult conundrum in cinematic history.)

 

He was also, latterly, a soap opera star, which meant when news came of his passing, social media was gummed up with soap-opera fans lamenting that the lovely old guy who’d played Sandy Thomas in Emmerdale from 2005 to 2018 was no more – which did scant justice to Jones’s tremendous acting CV.  Still, I like the fact that he was in Emmerdale because it kept him on our screens until last year, by which time he was in his nineties.

 

We can also draw comfort from the fact that Freddie Jones’s son Toby, who’s every bit as versatile and quirky as his old man, is nowadays ubiquitous in films and television.  This means that the Jones character-acting DNA should continue to entertain us well into the 21st century.  Indeed, my dream movie would be a remake of Juggernaut with Toby Jones in it, along with Jared Harris and Rory Kinnear, whose dads Richard and Roy starred alongside Freddie in the original.

 

© Brooksfilms / Paramount Pictures

 

Freddie Jones was 91 when he died, so his passing wasn’t a huge surprise.  However, Rutger Hauer’s death definitely was a surprise.  He was 75 and so had passed the allotted three-score-and-ten.  But as he’d specialised in playing Nietzschean supermen, such as in Blade Runner (1982) and The Hitcher (1986), it was easy to assume he wouldn’t die.

 

Mind you, at 75, Hauer’s lifespan was almost 19 times longer than that of Roy Batty, the artificially-created humanoid ‘replicant’ he played in Blade Runner, who was programmed to expire after four years.  And by a spooky coincidence, Hauer has died in 2019 – the year in which the events of Blade Runner, including Batty’s death, took place.

 

Conventional wisdom has it that Hauer reached iconic status in Hollywood in the early-to-mid-1980s with Blade Runner and The Hitcher but thereafter suffered a decline as he made increasing numbers of straight-to-video exploitation movies.  But even if you buy into this theory, you can’t deny that Hauer appeared in a large number of truly enjoyable films.  Although some of the later ones are in the so-bad-they’re-good category and / or are mainly enjoyable because he’s in them.

 

On one side of the quality divide, there’s Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka (1983), Richard Donner’s elegiac and criminally underrated Ladyhawke (1985) and Paul Verhoeven’s delicious medieval gore-and-tits epic Flesh + Blood (1985).  He also turned up in Sam Peckinpah’s final movie The Osterman Weekend (1983) which, while a mishmash of themes and styles, is still a blast because it features Peckinpah’s much-loved scenes of slo-mo carnage, and Rutger Hauer, and John Hurt, and Dennis Hopper.

 

Among the later entries in Hauer’s filmography, I defy anyone to say a seriously bad word against Philip Noyce’s Blind Fury (1989), which has Hauer as a blind Vietnam veteran who’s still capable of slicing flying apples in half with his samurai sword.  Or Lewis Teague’s Wedlock (1991), which has Hauer escaping from a futuristic prison with an explosive collar around his neck and grappling with the splendidly villainous Joan Chen and Stephen Tobolowsky (who as the prison governor gets to utter the movie’s best line: “You nonconformists are all alike!”).

 

Or Tony Maylam’s barking-mad Split Second (1992), which has Hauer investigating a serial-killing alien predator in a globally warmed London alongside Alun Armstrong, Pete Postlethwaite, Ian Dury, Michael J. Pollard and – ahem – Kim Cattrall.  Or Ernest Dickerson’s Surviving the Game (1994), which has Hauer as a late-era capitalism scumbag who organises adventure holidays in the mountains for rich bastards who get to hunt homeless people, and which has another sublime cast including Ice-T, Charles Dutton, F. Murray Abraham and Gary Busey.

 

And let’s not forget Jason Eisner’s fascinatingly terrible / brilliant Hobo with a Shotgun (2011).  Here, Hauer is a kindly but tough old vagrant who arrives in a city wanting to buy a second-hand lawnmower and start a grass-cutting business, but ends up, amid welters of extreme violence, taking on the family of murderous psychotic gangsters who run and terrorise the place.  Well, if you get between Rutger Hauer and his dreams of a lawnmower, you deserve to die.

 

One other reason I have for loving Hauer is that in the early 1990s he was the face of the advertising campaign for my favourite alcoholic brew, Guinness.   (Dressed in black, and sporting a shock of fair hair, Hauer did subliminally resemble a pint of Guinness.)  Unfortunately, Guinness is well-nigh impossible to obtain in Sri Lanka, where I live now, so I can’t down a glass of the black stuff to the great man’s memory.  But as soon as I arrive in a Guinness-friendly country, my first pint will have Rutger Hauer’s name on it.

 

© Guinness

 

Du Maurier, du merrier

 

© Penguin

 

One nice thing that’s happened to me in the past year or so has been my discovery of how good a writer Daphne du Maurier was.  I’d long been aware of her novels like Jamaica Inn (1936) and Rebecca (1938) and short stories like The Birds (1952) and Don’t Look Now (1971), but before 2018 The Birds had been the only thing by her that I’d read.

 

Then, two Christmases ago, my partner gave me a collection of her short fiction that had Don’t Look Now as its title story and I really enjoyed it.  Admittedly, I didn’t think the fictional Don’t Look Now was quite as good as the famous film that it inspired in 1973 – by a sad coincidence, the film’s director, the brilliant Nicolas Roeg, died soon after I finished the story – but I thought some of the other things in the collection, like A Border Line Case and The Way of the Cross, were crackers.  Now I’ve just completed another book of her short stories called The Blue Lenses and Other Stories, which was originally published in 1959 as The Breaking Point.  I’m happy to report that the tales in it are every bit as satisfying.

 

Much of the Don’t Look Now collection had a common theme, that of English people travelling abroad and having problems – by turns humorous, serious and horrible – as they leave their comfort zones and encounter the new and the strange.  This theme reappears in a couple of stories in The Blue LensesGanymede even uses the basic scenario of Don’t Look Now itself, i.e. an English visitor coming unstuck in Venice.  However, the tale isn’t a macabre one but a painful comedy of errors.  An older gay Englishman lusts after a teenage Venetian waiter and gets his comeuppance from the lad’s shady relatives, who happily lead him on whilst milking him of his money.  Ganymede has a few uncomfortable moments where you wonder if it’s being anti-gay or, alternatively, anti-Italian.  But du Maurier – herself believed to have had a lesbian relationship with Gertrude Lawrence – gets away with it, balancing our sympathy for the pathetically naïve Englishman with our satisfaction at him getting his just deserts from the Italians.  (For all his pitifulness, he is still a predator.)

 

The Chamois has an English couple travelling to some far-flung Greek mountains because the man, obsessed with hunting the goat-antelopes of the title, has been tipped off about the sighting of a notable and shootable specimen there.  To get to the peaks that are its territory, they entrust themselves to the care of a goatherd-cum-mountain-guide with a primordial appearance.  The woman, narrating the story, describes him as “wrapped in his hooded burnous, leaning upon his crook…” with “the strangest eyes…  Golden brown in colour…”  There follows a series of psychological revelations about the couple – the man hunts to make up for inadequacies in his psyche and the woman, shall we say, is simultaneously turned off and turned on by his hobby.  And a weird, almost mythical narrative unfolds wherein they find it harder and harder to distinguish between the beast they’re seeking and the man-beast who’s escorting them.

 

Similar weirdness occurs in the stories The Pool and The Lordly Ones – the former about a pubescent girl staying at her grandparents’ country house and experiencing strange dreams involving a pond in the woods beyond the garden, the latter about a misunderstood mute child who runs off with some unidentified ‘beings’ who come in the night while he and his family are holidaying on a remote moor.  Both contain dashes of W.B Yeats-style mysticism and Arthur Machen-style folk horror and are among the best stories in the book, even if in The Lordly Ones I saw the ending coming a mile away.

 

From famousauthors.org

 

The remaining stories are admirably varied.  The Menace is a comedy with a slight science-fictional element, about a movie star called Barry Jeans who sets hearts aflutter by communicating as few words and expressing as little emotion as possible onscreen.  Offscreen he’s not much more vocal or expressive and listlessly leaves all decisions to his bossy wife and his sizeable entourage of hangers-on.  Then some new technology ushers in ‘the feelies’, which promise to be as game-changing for the film industry as the arrival of ‘the talkies’.  In the feelies, film stars are wired to a machine that transmits their sexual energy – what Austen Powers would call their ‘mojo’ – to the audiences watching them in the cinemas.  Barry’s entourage are horrified when preliminary tests suggest that the inscrutable star’s mojo is almost non-existent and so they embark on a drastic campaign to pep that mojo up.  The Menace sees du Maurier taking the mickey out of Hollywood and I suspect it might have been inspired by some less-than-edifying experiences with the place – for example, she was sued for breach of copyright after Rebecca was made into a film in 1939.

 

The Alibi is the collection’s most twisted tale, about a well-to-do and respectable man who one day seemingly flips: “He was aware of a sense of power within.  He was in control.  He was the master-hand that set the puppets jiggling.”  He walks away from the routines, conventions and obligations of his upper-middle-class existence, invents a new identity for himself and secretly rents a room in a seedy part of London.  Initially, he plans to commit murder – but his Nietzschean madness subsides somewhat and instead he starts living a parallel life as an aspiring artist, using the room as his studio.  But his project gets knocked for six when the story reaches an unexpected and nasty conclusion.

 

Different again is The Archduchess, an exercise in magical realism.  It describes the final days of a ruling dynasty in a Ruritanian microstate called Ronda, somewhere in southern Europe, which has discovered the secret of immortality.  It’s difficult to know where du Maurier’s sympathies lie here.  Is she writing in favour of the dynasty and, by extension, of aristocracies and the status quo everywhere?  Or is she satirising it?  One thing I will say – her account of a devious revolutionary named Markoi, who edits Ronda’s main newspaper and uses it to seed the minds of the population with doubts, suspicions and eventual paranoia, so as to engineer the downfall of the ruling order, strikes a chord today.  Markoi seems all too familiar in a modern world of fake news, where Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News helped propel Donald Trump into the American presidency and, in Britain, the Barclay Brothers’ Daily Telegraph has just achieved a similar feat with Boris Johnson.

 

Finally there’s the title story, The Blue Lenses, which I found rather terrifying.  Its set-up is a familiar one, about a woman in a hospital recovering from an eye operation who discovers that things suddenly aren’t as they’re supposed to be.  But unlike the hero in John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (1951), who removes the bandages from his eyes and finds that the world really has gone to hell, the nightmare experienced by the heroine of The Blue Lenses is ambiguous.  The surreal, if not grotesque things that she sees have a subjective quality and you wonder about her sanity.  What makes the story more effective is her decision to pretend to the hospital staff around her that nothing is amiss, while she tries to figure out what’s happening.  Her desperate efforts to stay composed heighten the horror of the situation.

 

As a collection, The Blue Lenses and Other Stories ticks off the checklist of things I want to find in a book of short fiction: clear, lucid prose; plenty of incident; a variety of tones and genres; and an obvious commitment at all times to telling an entertaining yarn.  It’s another package of du Maurier marvelousness.

 

From the moon to the loon

 

From pixabay.com

© BBC

 

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the historic day when humanity, in the form of Neil Armstrong, set foot on another world.  For yes, although in astronomical terms the moon is a small, insignificant and boring piece of rock skulking in the earth’s immediate neighbourhood, it’s still not of this world and so qualifies as another world.

 

To be honest, considering everything that’s happened since, I don’t particularly want to write about it.  This resulting blogpost will be at best be a nostalgic wallow and at worst an exercise in despair.  But anyway.  Here goes.

 

Even I am slightly too young to remember seeing Armstrong plant his spacesuit-encased foot on the lunar turf on July 20th, 1969.  But I do recall live TV pictures of a subsequent Apollo mission to the moon in the early 1970s.  Admittedly, I wasn’t altogether sure what I was watching.  At the time my family and I were huddled around a small black-and-white television set in Northern Ireland, which picked up a single channel, BBC1.  (Well, it showed a second channel, Raidio Teilifis Eireann from the Republic of Ireland, if my Dad poked a screwdriver into a hole at the side of the set and did some hazardous, electrocution-risking fiddling with it.)  All I could discern on the screen were some fuzzy pale blobs floating against a blurry dark-grey background.  However, my parents assured me that these were men walking about on the moon, high above us, at that very moment, so I took their word for it.

 

One thing I remember from the Apollo coverage was that the BBC used Richard Strauss’s fanfare Also Sprach Zarathustra as the theme music for their broadcasts.  This had already featured memorably on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the greatest science fiction film ever made, and I assume the BBC used the same recording, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic and conducted by Herbert von Karajan, that appeared on the film.  It was disconcerting when I saw 2001 later, as a teenager, and heard Also Sprach Zarathustra again.  Instead of making me look ahead to the future, to 2001, it stirred associations with the past, with the early 1970s and that grainy old moon-landing footage.

 

It must have been in 1973 that my imagination took a leap almost as giant as the ‘leap for mankind’ that Armstrong spoke of when he descended from the lunar landing module.  This was caused by the arrival of two sets of newly-published encyclopaedias that my parents had seen advertised somewhere and ordered.  They consisted of a 15-volume set with lemony-coloured covers called the Childcraft books that, accordingly, were for children; and a 24-volume set called the World Book series that were for adults and came in sombre, mossy-green covers.  Together, all 39 encyclopaedias just about fitted along the biggest horizontal surface on the sideboard in our living room.  They made an imposing sight because until then I hadn’t suspected that there were enough books in the world to fill the top of our sideboard.

 

I immediately set about reading these encyclopaedias, both the juvenile and adult ones, and my horizons were swiftly widened.  Not all the consequences of this were positive, however.  My parents had neglected to read the small print in the advertisement.  If they had, they would have discovered that the encyclopaedias had been printed in America, by Americans, for Americans, and their contents were duly biased towards America.  As a result, I wasted a lot of time searching in the fields of our farm for evidence that woodchucks, porcupines, prairie dogs and Gila monsters had been foraging there.  Also, some unusual words started to appear in my vocabulary – diaper, candy store, soda fountain, rest room – which at school created much hilarity for my classmates and much misery for me.

 

From ebth.com

 

One feature of these encyclopaedias that rubbed off on me was that, because they were American and because they’d been published just after the moon landings, they were dripping with optimism.  This was a scientific as well as an American optimism.  Yes, there was a time not so long ago when America took science seriously and saw it as one of the key tools for converting the rest of the world to the glories of the American way.  At the age of eight or nine, I lapped all this up.  Unfortunately, with hindsight, I realise that some of the assertions in the encyclopaedias were over-optimistic to say the least.

 

For example, the encyclopaedias predicted that, having reached the moon, it would only be a short time – the 1980s, at the latest – before human beings were tramping around the surface of Mars too.  The ‘S’ volume of the World Book encyclopaedias had a lengthy entry about ‘space travel’ and on one page I found a multi-pictured diagram showing how astronauts were going to get to Mars.  Admittedly, the Mars spaceship in that diagram, as well as having a long, sleek fuselage and a beak-like nose, had wings, which seemed suspicious because by then I knew that in outer space there wasn’t any air and wings were thus superfluous.  (I suspect the artist behind those pictures had been unconsciously influenced by a non-space vehicle that was making a stir at the time, Concorde.)  Elsewhere, there were pictures of what a moonbase – only a few decades away in the future, I was told – would look like, although it was an unprepossessing cylindrical structure that resembled a giant tin-can left as litter in a lunar crater.

 

(Incidentally, it was surely no coincidence that the equally lengthy entry on ‘motion pictures’ in the ‘M’ volume was headed by a handsome colour photograph from Kubrick’s 2001.)

 

Anyway, I assumed this was what my life would be like by the time I’d reached my thirties.  I’d be living on a moonbase, watching Concorde-like spaceships streak past on their way to Mars.

 

Needless to say, as the 1970s wore on, I began to get uneasy about the fact that very little futuristic stuff was happening anymore.  As far as manned spaceflight was concerned, there was just the Skylab project and the space shuttle.  Skylab came to an ignominious end when the by-then empty space station crashed back to earth on July 11th, 1979.  By this time my family had moved to near the town of Peebles in southern Scotland, and on that date I was attending a scout camp outside the neighbouring town of Hawick.  I remember feeling slightly worried that Skylab might fall on top of the field we were camping in and take out the entire 1st Tweeddale Scout Troop.  As for the space shuttle, it received a lot of publicity and hype when it first took off, but it didn’t venture beyond earth’s orbit and, frankly, seemed a bit shit to me.

 

And what had happened to that you-can-do-anything-if-you-put-your-mind-to-it American optimism?  It seemed to fizzle out as the 1970s became one long litany of American trauma: the Vietnam War, the 1973 oil crisis, Watergate, the Iran hostage saga.  I suppose as far as those encyclopaedias were concerned, the writing had already been on the wall because their coverage of modern American history ended with the presidency of Richard Nixon, shortly before Nixon fell spectacularly from grace.  (Though anyone familiar with Nixon’s character would point out that, in the grace stakes, he never had far to fall.)

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

Still, even Nixon seems a model of intellect and restraint (if not integrity) compared with the specimen we have inhabiting the White House on July 20th, 2019.  Trump’s entire being seems to loudly and violently rebuke that clear-minded scientific positivism that embodied America in 1969, at least as those encyclopaedias portrayed it.  Science?  What’s that?  Trump has tried to slash funding for science and remove it from policy areas in crucial need of it, like the environment and public health.  He’s tried to stop NASA doing research into climate change and tried to censor US Geological Survey press releases so that they don’t mention it.  More generally, he’s made a point of proudly proclaiming his ignorance at every twist and turn of his presidency.  The oaf doesn’t even read books.  Give him a set of encyclopaedias and ten years later he wouldn’t have got past ‘A for aardvark’.

 

Of course this doesn’t matter one whit – indeed, it boosts his popularity – among his core support, who themselves are a ragtag army of anti-science ignoramuses: climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, crackpot conspiracy theorists and religious fruitcakes who maintain that the universe was created in six days 6000 years ago.

 

It’s particularly depressing at the moment to see Trump slandering non-white female politicians – knowing fine well this will energise his racist support base in the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections – when it’s documented how black female mathematicians helped keep NASA’s show on the road in the 1960s.  Today, some of Trump’s supporters would probably want to ‘send them back’ to Africa.

 

Yet it’s too easy to scapegoat Trump for all the world’s ills.  Humanity generally hasn’t distinguished itself during the fifty years since NASA and the Apollo astronauts gave our species its finest hour.  Our collective greed, laziness, materialism and indifference are taking a devastating toll on the earth’s environment and resources and unless we pay heed to the warnings of the majority of climate and environmental scientists – if, indeed, it’s not already too late – I don’t see much of a future, or any sort of future, for us.  Maybe, just as Ernest Hemingway spent the late 1920s knocking out classics of 20th century American literature like The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), but three decades later had become a sad, unpleasant, paranoid pisshead who ended up blowing off his head with a shotgun, humanity has already peaked, is now in decline and is heading for a graceless and suicidal end.

 

Fifty years ago, the tune that defined humanity seemed to be Also Sprach Zarathustra.  Today, I’m more inclined to think our theme tune is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ People Ain’t No Good.

 

From pixabay.com