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.

Deep in the heart of Texas: Natural Bridge Caverns

 

 

I’ll conclude this series of occasional postings about places I’ve visited in Texas with an account of one that’s literally deep in the heart of the Lone Star State.

 

Natural Bridge Caverns was developed as a tourist attraction after a group of college students discovered some breath-taking underground passages there at the beginning of the 1960s.  Today, up top, it features a visitor’s centre, a souvenir shop (‘the Discovery Village Trading Post’), a confectionery and snack shop (‘Big Daddy’s Sweets, Treats and Brew’), a spot where kids can ‘pan for gems’ and a pair of high platforms between which you can zipline across and above the whole site.  In spite of the commercialisation it’s an attractive place, landscaped with rustic stone walls, lawns, flowers, ferns and plenty of trees and shade; though I would’ve enjoyed it more if they’d turned down the insipid country-and-western music that was pouring out of the PA system, courtesy of a radio show called Prime Country.

 

We had time to go on two tours during our visit and firstly we opted for the longest-established one, the Discovery Tour, which takes you 180 feet below ground and through half-a-mile of what is described as “the largest and most spectacular show cavern in Texas”.  The entrance to this was through a giant sinkhole behind the visitor’s centre, easily accessible because it involved going down a gently-descending tarmacked path at the hole’s side.  We also received a pep-talk beforehand where we were told not to touch the caverns’ rock formations because our skins, like the skins of all mammals, secrete oils that damage the formations and stop them developing in the first place.  Later, inside the caverns, the guide shone his torch onto the roof and showed us some large ‘bald’ patches, totally free of stalactites, that centuries earlier had been home to thousands of roosting (and oil-secreting) bats.

 

One good thing about how the caverns are presented to visitors is the lighting system.  The rigs of bulbs and cables are mostly well-hidden.  The lights shining on the caverns’ paths are concealed behind rocks.  Particularly striking formations on the caverns’ walls are illuminated by unseen spotlights.  Our guide would sometimes switch these on and off by remote control so that behind or ahead of us whole sections of the walls, with their fantastically-shaped tableaux, would dramatically leap in and out of view.

 

 

One small light illuminated a tiny clump of ferns growing on a rock slope far below ground.  Presumably the ferns arrived at this spot thanks to a spore being carried down on the clothes of a human or fur of an animal.  Apart from a few streaks of mould here and there, these were the only plant or fungoid life I saw in the caverns.

 

So – what can I say about the spectacles provided by the caverns’ rock formations?  Well, they were amazing.  To give an idea of the vast and phantasmagorical range of structures there, I’ll refer to the notebook I brought with me and list all the things that different ones reminded me of.  These were: icicles; strings of spaghetti; fangs; molars; needles; turnips; parsnips; carrots; stockings hung up for Santa Claus; candles; Japanese sake bottles; spiralling seashells; dangling entrails; toadstools; cacti; ginseng roots; ice cream cones; rats’ tails; elephants’ trunks; warts; pimples; beehives; broomsticks; Greek columns; church-organ pipes; soda straws; spires; plasticine figures, animals and buildings; giant protoplasm; hanging bats’ wings; stacks of bacon slices; molten toffee; dollops of manure; jellyfish; Portuguese man o’ wars; baleen from a whale’s mouth; Aztec carvings; eroded effigies inside ruined Asian temples; gargoyles; malformed gnomes; foetuses; Gollum from The Lord of the Rings; the face of Cthulhu; hands giving you the middle-finger; hands making a Vulcan salute; totem poles; and, frankly, penises.

 

 

Parts of the caverns looked as huge and grand as the interiors of cathedrals.  Though with the rock formations confronting us on all sides with bizarre, grotesque and sinister shapes, they didn’t particularly look like Christian cathedrals – more like ones erected in honour of H.P. Lovecraft’s Elder Gods.

 

The second tour we went on was the Hidden Passages one, which takes visitors through some caverns that were discovered, opened and developed more recently.  The entrance to this was beneath a gazebo-like building a little way past the Discovery Tour’s sinkhole and again we were given a pep-talk warning us not to touch anything.

 

The Hidden Passages’ caverns were found when a vertical shaft, a couple of feet across, was bored down from the surface and had a camera lowered through it.  The camera took four photographs, being turned 90 degrees between each shot.  One photograph revealed a cave wall.  The other three showed only darkness.  The three dark photographs told the investigators that they’d located a substantial cavern – there were no walls close by on three sides of the camera for the light of its flash to bounce back from.  During the tour, the guide pointed out the bottom end of the shaft, puncturing the cavern roof beside one of its walls.  If the shaft had been drilled a few feet away from that position, it would’ve missed the cavern entirely.

 

Looking up at the shaft-end, I heard a dribble of falling soil and then some dirt-particles and two big beetles dropped out of it and onto the rocks below.  The beetles promptly scuttled away.  Welcome to your new home, guys.

 

 

At the tour’s furthest point were a group of benches where the guide had us sit down.  He then turned off all the cavern-lights so that for a minute we could enjoy – if that’s the word – the sensation of sitting in darkness: absolute darkness, a darkness so dense that couldn’t see your hand an inch, or a centimetre, or a millimetre, in front of your face.  This, explained the guide in a now eerily-disembodied voice, enabled us to experience how life was for the organisms, such as bugs and spiders, which inhabit the caverns at these depths.  They’re wholly blind and, thanks to the absence of light, wholly transparent too.  Their other senses are heightened, however, and indeed, after sitting in that darkness for a moment, it seemed that my own hearing had become sharper.

 

I also have to say that, sitting there, I found myself thinking uncomfortably about a weird short story called The End of a Summer’s Day, by the English writer Ramsey Campbell, which has an insecure woman and her fiancé going on a cave tour and undergoing a similar experience when the guide turns off the lights.  However, when the lights come on again, the woman discovers that, somehow, the man now holding her hand isn’t the man who was holding it before.  Thankfully, when the lights returned in Natural Bridge Caverns’ Hidden Passages Tour, my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, had undergone no such metamorphosis.

 

 

Back on the surface and before we departed, I decided to make a first-ever attempt at ziplining.  This went smoothly until I was a few yards short of the destination platform.  Then, having whizzed across most of the site, I unexpectedly stopped and was left dangling from the line.  The guy on the platform had to throw out a rope and tow me in.  I was grateful this hadn’t happened while I was further away from the platform and beyond reach of the rope.  Stranded out there, I would’ve resembled former London mayor and general Tory buffoon Boris Johnson during his famous ziplining mishap at the 2012 London Olympics.

 

Natural Bridge Caverns impressed me not just because of the sights offered by the subterranean tours, but also because of the care and effort that obviously goes into keeping the cave systems pristine and undamaged by human visitors.  I have a sad suspicion that in other parts of the world where there are similar caves, local entrepreneurs are less bothered about supervising the tourists traipsing in and out of them; and the delicate formations and ecosystems inside the caves suffer as a result.

 

 

Penguin Classics make room for Harry Harrison

 

© Penguin

 

A while back, I wrote on this blog about my favourite works of dystopian fiction, which ranged from such well-known novels of futuristic doom and gloom as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) to lesser-known items like Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972) and Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908).  However, writing that particular post made me realise that there were a lot of famous dystopian novels I hadn’t yet read.  So in the past year I’ve been catching up with them – Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) and, most recently, Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966).  Here, I’d like to say something about that last book.

 

The edition of Make Room! Make Room! I read was a 2009 one published by Penguin Modern Classics.  This feels ironic considering that for most of his career Harry Harrison (who died in 2012) was regarded as a solid, meat-and-two-veg-type science fiction writer.  Not the sort of person you’d expect to find favour among mainstream literary critics or to have work published by a company as synonymous with highbrow literature as Penguin.

 

Harrison’s first creative job was actually as an artist, not as a writer.  Following stints in the Air Corps and military police during World War II, which left him disdainful of military culture – in the introduction to one book he wrote that the armed forces’ “mixture of sadism, unquestioned authority, brutality, racism, intolerance, vulgarity, to name but a few, was the antithesis of everything that I believed in” – he spent much of the late 1940s and 1950s drawing and editing comic-books.  It wasn’t until a bout of illness left him, temporarily, unable to draw that he tried his hand at writing.  In the decades that followed, he established himself as one of science fiction’s most popular authors, thanks largely to swashbuckling and tongue-in-cheek space operas like the Stainless Steel Rat books.  I read some of these in my youth and have always thought their comedic and satirical elements helped pave the way for Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

 

However, space operas and humour were two things unlikely to win favour with literary critics, which meant that Harrison, though popular, was underrated as a writer.  This was a pity.  For one thing, science fiction is a genre whose practitioners include many right-wing dingbats – see Robert Heinlein (whose gung-ho 1959 novel Starship Troopers Harrison took the piss out of with 1965’s Bill the Galactic Hero), Jerry Pournelle, Orson Scott Card and arsehole extraordinaire Theodore Beale.  In comparison, Harrison’s authorial voice was refreshingly liberal and anti-militaristic and it would’ve done the genre’s reputation no harm if he’d been taken more seriously.

 

Anyway, I trust Harrison enjoyed a wry chuckle about Penguin’s decision to label Make Room! Make Room! a ‘modern classic’ three years before his death.

 

From journal.neilgaiman.com

 

Make Room! Make Room! is very different from the Stainless Steel Rat and Harrison’s other outer-space-set fiction.  Its story takes place in New York in 1999, 33 years in the future from when Harrison wrote it.  The New York it depicts is hellish, bursting at its concrete seams with 35 million inhabitants, with gasoline all but gone and supplies of food and water running dangerously low.  The book is Harrison’s warning about the danger of letting the human population grow unchecked and the resultant depletion of earth’s resources.  However, in the opening chapters, the story unfolds against the backdrop of a sweltering heatwave: “After the damp hallway the heat of Twenty-fifth Street hit him in a musty wave, a stifling miasma compounded of decay, dirt and unwashed humanity…  Days of heat had softened the tar so that it gave underfoot, then clutched at the soles of his shoes.”  In 2017, this gives the reader the uncomfortable feeling that what’s really blighting the city is the rising temperatures of man-made climate change.

 

The novel’s hero is a tough but dutiful cop called Andy Rusch who’s tasked with investigating the murder of a gangster called Michael O’Brien.  Cruelly, O’Brien has been living it up in a swanky gated-community apartment with near-unobtainable luxuries such as liquor and red meat, while Rusch is stuck in a partitioned room cohabited by an old man called Sol who spends much of his time pedalling on a wheel-less bicycle that’s wired to an electrical generator (which keeps his ancient TV and fridge running).  Although the city authorities believe that O’Brien was rubbed out by a rival syndicate keen to muscle their way into the city – and keep pressurising Rusch to find the culprits – the murderer is really a hapless young petty criminal called Billy Chung who accidentally killed O’Brien during a bungled robbery.

 

Thus, the book has a double narrative, focusing on both Rusch pursuing the killer and on Chung fleeing and trying to evade capture.  However, the plot has a darker momentum too – downwards.  We see Rusch’s life gradually disintegrate as the polluted, over-populated, under-resourced city around him goes from bad to worse and, despite his best efforts, he fails to hold onto the two people who matter most to him: the feisty but vulnerable Sol and the gorgeous but good-natured Shirl, moll of the late Michael O’Brien, whom Rusch falls in love with during the course of his investigations.

 

It’s a smart move by Harrison to wrap up the apocalyptic content of Make Room! Make Room! in the trimmings of a crime / detective story.  Rather than thrust the horrors of this hellhole New York into our faces, he lets us concentrate, mainly, on the story of Rusch tracking down Chung; while slipping in disturbing details about what’s going on in the background.  There are casual mentions of ‘tugtrucks’ – which we eventually realise are wagons pulled along by teams of sweating, straining human beings, there being no more fuel left for conventional, engine-powered trucks.  Shirl pays a visit to a heavily fortified, heavily guarded hideout that’s not selling drugs, as we initially expect, but selling cuts of meat.  And there are references to Rusch stepping over sleeping or huddling bodies in hallways and stairwells, indicating that hell isn’t quite Jean-Paul Satre’s definition of it as ‘other people’.  No, hell is lots of other people.

 

One thing that’s helped Make Room! Make Room! endure is it being the basis for the fondly remembered 1973 movie Soylent Green, which starred Charlton Heston as its main character, renamed as Thorn.  I remember reading about Soylent Green in a book called Future Tense: the Cinema of Science Fiction (1978) written by the movie critic John Brosnan.  As part of his coverage of the film, Brosnan interviewed Harrison, who had mixed feelings about how his story had been adapted from the page to the screen.

 

He certainly admired the job that the director Richard Fleischer (another underrated talent) had made of Soylent Green, but he begrudged some of the changes wrought by the filmmakers.  For instance, Sol – who in Soylent Green is played by Edward G. Robinson – dies in the book from injuries he sustains after a demonstration he takes part in, in support of family planning, turns into a riot.  In the movie, Sol decides he’s had enough of the increasingly-shitty world and goes to a ‘euthanasia clinic’ to end it all.  Harrison wasn’t impressed by the use of this plot device because, unbeknownst to the filmmakers, euthanasia clinics and suicide machines are something of a cliché in science fiction.  (Recently, I’ve also been reading Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, first published in 1895, and even it refers to a futuristic public facility called a ‘government lethal chamber’.)  However, he conceded that Sol’s death-scene in the film, where calming images of fields, forests, flowers, wildlife, unpolluted oceans and other things that no longer seem to exist are projected around him while he expires, was powerful.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

And Harrison didn’t like the movie’s climax, which ironically has become its most famous moment – wherein Heston discovers that soylent green, the mysterious foodstuff that everyone eats in the future New York, is secretly made out of recycled human corpses. This prompts him to yell, “Soylent green is PEOPLE!”  Harrison had researched Make Room! Make Room! meticulously to make its apocalypse seem as realistic as possible, so he’d have known that the idea of humanity relying on industrialised cannibalism to survive wasn’t feasible.  Human beings don’t fatten up very quickly and they require a lot of feeding and looking after, so as a foodstuff to meet the world’s dietary needs, they’re economically a bad idea.  And as this recent study has shown, they’re not even that rich in calories.

 

In contrast, Make Room! Make Room! ends with Rusch on duty in Times Square on the eve of the Millennium – and while the beleaguered city enters the 21st century, he’s given a bitter reminder that no matter how bad things get for the great mass of humanity, there’ll always be a wealthy minority who carry on living in luxury.

 

No doubt Harrison set Make Room! Make Room! in 1999 because he couldn’t resist having its final scene occur at the dawn of the new Millennium, a moment loaded with significance.  However, that doesn’t make the book any less terrifying in 2017.  After all, we still live in a world whose ever-burgeoning human population is decimating its supplies of soil, water, vegetation and animal life.  Our civilisation is still hopelessly dependent on a fossil fuel whose stocks are frighteningly finite.  Add to that the fact that our most powerful nation is run by an unstable and illiterate moron who thinks he can make the threat of man-made climate change disappear simply by denying its existence.

 

Today more than ever, Make Room! Make Room! is an example of ‘science fiction’ threatening to become ‘science fact’ – in the worst possible way.

 

High on Kandy

 

 

Rising above the historical city of Kandy in central Sri Lanka is a hill that’s home to the Udawattakele Sanctuary.  This was once a reserve established by Sri Lanka’s old colonial rulers, the British.  Nowadays, it’s a couple of square kilometres of forested parkland that allow walkers and nature-lovers to escape the noise and bustle of the city below.  The sanctuary’s two main pathways still hark back to the days of British rule, one being called Lady Horton’s Drive and the other called Lady Gordon’s Road – both ladies were wives of long-ago British governors.

 

To get access to the sanctuary, you need to head up the Kandy-Jaffna Highway on the north side of Kandy Lake and to the west of the Temple of the Tooth complex.  After passing the post office there, you turn left onto Sri Dalada Thapowana Vihara Road and climb that as far as Thapowanaya Temple, where there’s an entrance and a track leading to a murky-looking pond.  By the pond’s edge, the lower of the main pathways, Lady Horton’s Drive, sprouts off to the left.

 

 

On foot, making your way up to the entrance is something of a hike.  But the sense of seclusion, of being removed from the city, which comes when you pass through into the forest makes the effort feel worthwhile.  Mind you, for me, that feeling was short-lived.  As soon as I started up the steep and remote-seeming Lady Horton’s Drive, I was startled to hear the buzz of an engine ahead of me.  Then a Sri Lankan three-wheeler appeared above and came rattling down towards me, swaying precariously from side to side as it navigated the path’s many bumps.  I knew those little vehicles were ubiquitous in Sri Lanka, but I hadn’t expected to see one up here.

 

 

However, after that, I saw no more vehicles and very few other human beings and I spent my time tramping along the sanctuary’s sandy, leaf-strewn pathways in solitude.  Though not in silence.  Occasionally, from the forest around me, I heard crackling and rustling noises that suggested old rotten twigs, pieces of branch and clumps of leaves breaking off and falling slowly and softly through the canopy to the ground.  A less spooky sound – and a reminder that I still wasn’t far from civilisation – was the sporadic crack of a firework from the city below, where people were celebrating the advent of the Buddhist New Year.

 

Also, at times, the cicadas were noisy.  There was one spot, the junction of Lady Horton’s Drive and Lady Gordon’s Road, where their sound was piercingly shrill.  It suggested the screech of an old bus applying its worn-out brakes, but amplified a hundred times.

 

 

Green, dense and still damp from the previous day’s rain, the forest looked gorgeous.  Though it looked slightly sinister too, thanks to a profusion of weird, corkscrewing woody vines.  Frequently, these stretched between the trees on either side of the path and enclosed them in a giant, gnarly truss.

 

There was a brief downpour near the end of my walk.  This didn’t bother me, but I was apprehensive because I’d read in a guidebook that following rain in the sanctuary leeches would emerge in Biblical-plague numbers.  Thus, while I made my way back down to the pond, I stopped to inspect myself every other minute in case leeches had suddenly attached themselves to me.  I didn’t find anything, though, and I began to suspect the guidebook writer had been exaggerating.

 

As soon as I returned to the pond, I experienced a phenomenon that I’ve come to think of as a ‘monkey army’.  First, a couple of adult monkeys skulked along silently but purposely, like advance scouts.  Then a whole clan appeared – more adults, some mothers with monkey-babies, kids, monkey-toddlers.  They seemed to emerge out of nowhere, surreptitiously lowering themselves from branches and easing themselves out of the foliage, and suddenly a whole nomadic, simian tribe was on the move around me.  A minute later, however, they’d all melted back into the landscape and were out of sight again.  I have to say that seeing a monkey army in motion in a Sri Lankan forest is less freaky than having one pass you by on a street in a busy Indian city, which had happened to me in Delhi the previous year.

 

 

Once the monkeys were gone, still near the pond, I bumped into a group of people whom I knew from Colombo and who were having a few days’ break in Kandy too.  While I was talking to one of them, she stopped in mid-sentence, pointed down and said, “I think there’s a big black beetle sitting on your ankle.”  I bent down and discovered that it was actually a leech – a plump one that’d attached itself to the front of my sock, just above the tongue of my shoe.  Worse, a second, equally-big leech was fastened in a similar position to the other sock on my other foot.  Presumably, the vampiric beasties had got onto me while I was distracted by the spectacle of the monkey army.

 

Not heeding the old warning that if you pull off a leech you risk breaking it and leaving its head and feeding apparatus embedded in your flesh, I prised away the pair of them.  And immediately I saw two red patches spread through the fabric of the socks where those leeches had been clinging.  They’d already made contact with my skin and started drinking, and now those drinking-spots were bleeding.

 

The punctures left by the leeches bled for hours afterwards and I ended up taping swabs of cotton wool over them to try to staunch them.  And even two weeks later, I could still see the small, scabbed points where the things had had their hooks in me.

 

Glasgow trades

 

 

The Trades House of Glasgow was created in 1605 during a period of local-government reform and was designed to give leaders of the city’s craftsmen more say in Glasgow’s running.  It incorporated 14 distinct trades or craft-guilds.  These were: bakers; barbers; bonnet-makers and dyers; coopers; cordiners (makers of boots, shoes, jerkins and other leather goods); fleshers; gardeners; hammermen (blacksmiths, goldsmiths, armourers and other metal-workers); maltmen (brewers); masons (builders and stonemasons); skinners and glovers; tailors; weavers; and wrights (carpenters).

 

Today, technology, automation and mechanisation are consigning professions to the dustbin at a frightening rate.  Filing clerks and telephone switchboard operators have probably already gone and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before farm-labourers, check-out cashiers and fast-food chefs go too.  Thus, I find it strange and sad that if you had to pick one of the above 14 trades to recommend as a career to your children, you’d probably opt for the barbers.  The last time I counted, my home-town of about 8000 people contained at least a dozen hairdresser’s or barber’s shops – so I guess that profession is safe for the foreseeable future.  (Of course, being a barber a few centuries ago involved more than being able to trim someone’s hair.  As the red-and-white barber’s pole reminds us, barbers then were also regarded as surgeons and as well as offering the proverbial short-back-and-sides they were available to do ‘bloodletting, cupping, tooth extractions, lancing and even amputations.’)

 

Anyway, the trades had already made their presence felt in Glasgow before 1605, particularly with their support for the city’s most venerable building, Glasgow Cathedral. They helped finance major extensions made to it during the 13th and 14th century.  And according to the Undiscovered Scotland website, it was also the city’s tradesmen who helped to save the cathedral during the Reformation.  In the 1560s they defended it against ‘reforming’ mobs who would have ransacked and wrecked it, which was the sad fate that befell most other medieval-built churches in Scotland at the time.  As a result, Glasgow Cathedral was the only cathedral on the Scottish mainland to survive the Reformation intact.

 

Visit Glasgow Cathedral today and you’ll see how the support of the 14 trades has been rewarded.  Their titles, mottos, symbols, banners and tools are commemorated in stained glass in the south wall of the choir area.  Here are a few pictures I took of the glass-work whilst exploring the building a few months ago and I hope my lack of skill as a photographer doesn’t diminish its gorgeousness.

 

 

Great unappreciated films: U-Turn

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

It’s hard to believe today, but there was a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Oliver Stone seemed to bestride American cinema like King Kong on the top of the Empire State Building.  Like it or not – and many critics and commentators did not, both conservative ones who didn’t approve of his shit-stirring, anti-establishment politics and sophisticated liberal ones who found his approach loud, crude and simplistic – he was everywhere.  He’d clobber you with one big sensationalist movie tackling some unsavoury aspect of America’s present or recent past.  And then, when you managed to withstand that, he’d pop up again and clobber you with another one.

 

US involvement in Central America?  Salvador (1986).  Vietnam?  Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Heaven and Earth (1993).  The swinging sixties?  The Doors (1991).  Kennedy’s assassination?  JFK (1991).  The coarsening of the American news media?  Natural Born Killers (1994).  Watergate?  Nixon (1995).  Wall Street?  Er, Wall Street (1987).  For a while, it was almost like an episode of modern American history hadn’t properly happened until old Oliver had made a movie about it.

 

But times change.  Stone has continued making films into the 21st century, like Alexander (2004), World Trade Centre (2006), W. (2008) and Snowden (2016).  The reviews have been lukewarm, however, and the consensus seems to be that if he hasn’t entirely lost it, he certainly doesn’t have what he had 25 years ago.

 

I find this rather sad because, with a few exceptions, I enjoyed the movies Stone made in his heyday.  They might have been pompous and in-your-face but they were rarely dull.  And I liked the fact that Stone’s movies were both popular and questioning of the status quo, at a time when the Reagan-Bush administrations in Washington DC would doubtless have preferred Hollywood to keep churning out Rocky and Rambo films.

 

And though it was fashionable to deride Stone as a big, earnest movie mogul with no sense of humour, I found many of his films very funny.  During the likes of Salvador and The Doors and even the bloodbath that was Natural Born Killers, there were moments when I laughed out loud.  I couldn’t understand why when it came to Stone many critics didn’t get the joke.

 

For me, though, the Oliver Stone movie that ranks highest on the laugh-o-meter is one of his most neglected and forgotten ones – I suspect the reason why it’s neglected and forgotten is because it’s a very rare beast, a non-political Stone movie.  1997’s U-Turn is a crime thriller / black comedy based on a novel called Stray Dogs by John Ridley, who also wrote the script.  (In 2014, Ridley would win an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave).  It’s about a drifter called Bobby (Sean Penn) fleeing from the mafia, to whom he owes money, whose car breaks down and leaves him stranded in a hick town called Superior in the middle of the Arizona Desert.

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

Whilst waiting impatiently for his car to be fixed so he can get out of town again – his pursuers will be turning up soon and, also, the place and its inhabitants are driving him crazy – Bobby gets caught in a web of intrigue involving crooked local bigshot Jake McKenna (Nick Nolte), Jake’s young, gorgeous and predictably duplicitous wife Grace (Jennifer Lopez) and the sullen and also-crooked town sheriff Virgil Potter (Powers Boothe).  As an interloper, Bobby is soon enlisted to murder one of the parties concerned.  And then that party enlists him to murder someone else…

 

The Nolte-Lopez-Boothe part of the plot gives U-Turn a twisty and poisonous crime noir  vibe – Stone described the scenario as a ‘scorpions-in-a-bucket’ one where every character is a predator who won’t stop stinging until he / she’s satisfied everyone else is dead.  But the film is also Kafka-esque in an amusing way.  Bobby loathes the hot, sweaty backwater he’s become stuck in.  “Is everyone in this town on drugs?” he rants at one point.  Yet through sheer bad luck his every effort to escape from Superior is thwarted and before long you’re wondering if he’ll ever escape from it.  Which is hellish for him but blackly funny for us, the audience.

 

It doesn’t help that Bobby has entrusted his broken-down car to the care of a local mechanic called Darrell, played by Billy Bob Thornton, who’s nearly unrecognisable in hideous fake teeth, taped-together glasses and a patina of engine grime.  His approach to car repair is as delicate as ISIS’s approach to historical conservation and the scenes where Bobby visits Darrell’s garage to find his car dismantled into ever-smaller pieces are comedy gold.  “Darrell,” laments Bobby, “40,000 people die every day.  How come you’re not one of ’em?”

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

Cranking Bobby’s blood-pressure level even higher are the occasional appearances of a blind half-Indian vagrant who pushes a shopping trolley containing a dead dog.  Played by Jon Voight, this blind vagrant has apparently made it his mission to wind Bobby up, uttering statements both gnomic and annoying: for example, “Your lies are old.  But you tell ’em pretty good.”

 

Can things get any worse for Bobby?  Yes, they can.  For he also has to endure the company of a delinquent called Toby N. Tucker, played by Joaquin Phoenix – “People round here call me TNT.  You know why?”  “Because they’re not very imaginative?” “Cause I’m just like dynamite, boy, and when I go off somebody gets hurt!” – and his girlfriend Jenny, played by Claire Danes.  Between them, TNT and Jenny don’t have two braincells to rub together.  Jenny keeps trying in her artless way to flirt with Bobby, who doesn’t want to touch her with a bargepole; and TNT keeps taking umbrage and threatening Bobby with violence.  The scenes with Penn, Phoenix and Danes are even funnier than the scenes with Penn and Thornton.  At one point in a diner, while Patsy Cline sings from the jukebox, Jenny muses: “I just love her.  I wonder how she don’t put out no more new records.”  To which a disgruntled Bobby retorts: “Because she’s dead.”  “Oh, that’s sad.  Don’t that make you sad?”  “I’ve had time to get over it.”

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

Later, there’s a hilarious and cathartic moment when TNT ambushes Bobby and destroys his last chance to get out of town – he snatches away the bus ticket Bobby has just bought with his last remaining money and eats it in front of him.  Bobby finally flips and beats the shit out him.

 

I can’t finish this entry without singing the praises of Jennifer Lopez.  As Grace, the movie’s supercharged femme fatale, she’s steamier than the surrounding Arizona landscapes and she possesses a gaze sizzling enough to fry a full-English breakfast in three minutes.  She was equally splendid in another crime thriller made the following year, the Steven Soderbergh-directed Out of Sight.  In fact, I feel it was a blow for the film world that soon after she reinvented herself as J-Lo and concentrated more on singing.  (To be honest, that was also a blow for the music world.)

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

U-Turn isn’t perfect.  At times, Stone’s frenetic camera-angles, point-of-view shots, editing and use of different film stocks – a hangover of the pyrotechnics he indulged in with Natural Born Killers – can be distracting.  But if you’re curious to see one of 1990s cinema’s big cheeses let his hair down and slum it a bit, if you enjoy cynical, amoral thrillers where each new character is even scummier than the last, if your mouth waters at the prospect of watching character actors like Nick Nolte, Billy Bob Thornton, Powers Boothe, Joaquin Phoenix and Jon Voight chew up the scenery, and if you fancy discovering the greatness of Jennifer Lopez before she devoted herself to a career of causing earache, then U-Turn is for you.

 

And as I say, parts of it are as funny as hell.

 

The Wrightson stuff

 

© Bernie Wrightson / Christopher Enterprises

 

My last entry on this blog was epically long – well, I was epically pissed off when I wrote it – so I will keep this entry brief.  Last month saw the death of the great American illustrator and comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson.  He grew up during the 1950s and as a kid, inevitably, was exposed to the artwork in the pulpy and notoriously gruesome horror titles published at the time by EC Comics: Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear.  In particular, Wrightson was influenced by the eldritch visuals of legendary EC Comics artist Graham Ingels, who rather than sign his own name on his work preferred to leave the nom de plume ‘Ghastly’.

 

You could see the Ingels / EC Comics influence on Wrightson’s most famous comic-book creation – Swamp Thing, drawn by him, written by Len Wein and unveiled in 1971.  The titular thing was once a scientist working in a laboratory in the middle of a swamp, initially called Alex Olsen although later the character was reworked as Alec Holland.  Thanks to human skulduggery, Olsen / Holland sees his lab destroyed and he gets contaminated with mysterious chemicals that cause him to be fused with the plant-life of the surrounding bayou.  The resulting mutant creature resembles a cross between the Incredible Hulk and a piece of broccoli.  Needless to say, as a weird kid who spent his time in the classroom drawing monsters on the covers of his school jotters – the more shambling, squishy and barnacled the better – rather than listening to the teacher, I thought Swamp Thing was the bees’ knees.

 

© DC Comics

© DC Comics

 

As well as working for DC Comics and Warren Publishing, Wrightson was involved in literary and cinematic projects.  In 1976, for example, he produced the Edgar Allan Poe Portfolio, a series of beautiful prints depicting moments in some of Poe’s most famous stories.  The prints capture the atmosphere of Poe’s work whilst giving the characters a comic-book intensity – if they haven’t already exploded into action, you get the impression that they’re simmering with fear or passion and are about to explode.  Wrightson also collaborated with Stephen King.  In 1983 he drew the comic-book adaptation of the King-scripted, George Romero-directed movie Creepshow, which was very obviously influenced by the old EC Comics too.  And he provided illustrations for King’s books Cycle of the Werewolf (1983), the ‘complete and uncut edition’ of The Stand (1990) and Wolves of the Calla (2003).

 

As the co-creator of Swamp Thing, a story informed by the ‘lonely, misunderstood monster’ theme that makes Mary Shelley’s landmark gothic novel Frankenstein (1818) so powerful, it was fitting that Bernie Wrightson should contribute fifty illustrations to a new edition of Frankenstein published in 1983.  These were clearly a labour of love – Wrightson said later that he’d spent seven years drawing them in his unpaid spare time.  Unsurprising, his work on the 1983 Frankenstein is often cited as his finest hour.  You only have to look at this picture of Frankenstein’s laboratory to see how the level of detail is mind-blowing.

 

© Plume (Penguin Books)

 

Goodbye to all that

 

From rankflags.com

 

Brexit is underway.  As far as the UK and the EU are concerned, it’s goodbye and good night.

 

Earlier this week Theresa May sent a letter to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, to notify him “in accordance with Article 50 (2) of the Treaty on European Union of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the European Union.”  The same day, in the Guardian, the political journalist Rafael Behr likened the impossibility of reversing Brexit to the impossibility of restoring an omelette to the eggs it’d been made from.  Gloomily, he added: “Those of us who wished Britain could remain in the EU must understand the cultural magnitude of our defeat…  The shell of Britain’s EU membership is broken.  Let there be no more talk of remain.”

 

I’ve already written on this blog that I regard Brexit as lunacy so I won’t repeat myself now.  I’d prefer to write about something else – something that occurred to me when I read the headlines about Brexit being activated.  I remembered the first time I ever left the British-Irish Isles and entered a non-English-speaking country.  That was thanks to the European Economic Community (EEC), which became later the European Community (EC) and then the European Union (EU) we know today.

 

In the spring of 1982 I was about to finish high school and I’d resolved to take a year out before I went to college.  No one else in my school-year intended to do this.  Those with plans to go to college were doing so a few months later in the early autumn.  And everybody around me, especially my parents, seemed to believe I was mad for postponing entry into college by a year-and-a-third so that I could do absurd things like…  Well, what exactly was I going to do?  I had vague dreams of travelling and seeing something of the world, and of funding this travel by doing short jobs here and there, hopefully abroad.  But as the end of high school neared, my year-out plans remained worryingly nebulous.

 

(Incidentally, in 2017, it seems you’re considered mad if between school and college you don’t take a year out, or a gap year as it’s called in modern parlance.  Indeed, employers expect to see it on graduates’ CVs as an indication of boldness and initiative.  I was just 35 years ahead of my time but didn’t know it.)

 

Eventually, I went and tormented my school’s careers advisor for ideas and she suggested a programme I could try for part of my year out.  The EEC was funding young people in its member countries to visit other EEC countries and conduct short projects about some aspect of life in them.  The hope was that this would give young people a better understanding of their EEC neighbours and thus create better, more empathetic EEC citizens.  All you had to do was complete and send off an application form, which if accepted got you a grant of about £250.  Then you made your own travel and accommodation arrangements, headed for the EEC country of your choice, did your research, wrote a report and submitted it a few months later.

 

I decided to go to France, because apart from the Republic of Ireland it was the closest EEC country to the UK and hence the cheapest one to get to.  Also, I’d studied French for six years at school and shouldn’t have too many communication problems – so I thought.

 

For my French base, I decided to use the town of Soissons, about 100 kilometres northeast of Paris.  This was because my high school in Scotland ran a student-exchange programme with a school in Soissons, some of my teachers kept in touch with the teachers there, and I’d heard that the Soissons school had rooms on its campus that could be temporarily rented out.  So I asked the head of my school’s French Department if he could drop one of his Soissons counterparts a line and arrange something on my behalf.

 

From ccvilleneuve.fr

 

I wondered if anything would actually come of this.  But in May 1982, I received a letter from a Soissons teacher called Monsieur Masson confirming that he’d booked me a room for me for three weeks the following month.

 

And what would my project be about?  I didn’t know what career I wanted to follow, but if people asked me I usually told them I intended to be a journalist – as I read a lot of newspapers and liked writing.  I suppose it was this journalistic predilection that made me propose going to France, doing research into French newspapers and investigating how they covered the big stories that were affecting Britain at the time.  How different would the French perspective on such stories be from the British one?

 

(I have to confess that half-a-year later, after I’d been in France, carried out the research and typed up and sent off the report, I was in Waverley Station in Edinburgh one day when I saw a newsstand with newspapers on sale from other countries.  Among them were most of the French newspapers I’d consulted for my project, like Le Monde and Le Figaro.  I hadn’t known they were sold in places like Waverley Station, where lots of foreigners passed through.  And I realised guiltily that I could have stayed in Scotland and done the exact same project by buying those French newspapers in Edinburgh.  Thankfully, the EEC never cottoned onto this and never demanded their £250 back…  With the Internet, of course, you could do the whole project nowadays without ever leaving your house.)

 

(c) Le Monde

 

I set off for France at the start of June.  I was 16 at the time, unused to travelling, ignorant of foreign cultures and generally utterly naïve.  The experience that followed was so intense that I really only remember certain moments of it where my impressions were either strongly positive or negative.  Here, I’ll describe the bad stuff first and then relate the good stuff.

 

I didn’t enjoy the journey.  I’d booked seats on the night-train from Edinburgh to London – as well as being my first time in continental Europe, this was also my first time on a train and my first time to travel to London – and then on a coach service that ran from Bedford Square in central London to the Gare du Nord in Paris, with the cross-channel part of the trip being made by hovercraft.  Needless to say, this was my first time in a hovercraft too.

 

When I got off the train at six o’clock in the morning at King’s Cross Station in London, I immediately decided that the station (and by extension, London itself) was bloody horrible.  I realise today King’s Cross Station has been done up and is a site of pilgrimage for young foreign tourists who worship the Harry Potter books and want to see Platform 9½ where Harry, Hermione and Ron would board the Hogwarts Express.  But back then the station was shabby, dank and disreputable.  It was populated by vagrants, most of whom were pissed even though it was six a.m. and most of whom, disconcertingly, seemed to be Scottish.

 

My opinion of King’s Cross Station didn’t improve three weeks later when, during the journey home, I traipsed through one of its entrance doors and a pair of skinheads promptly ordered me to shut the door behind me.  Tired and not thinking properly, I assumed they were employed by the station and did as they said.  I turned around and spent a minute trying to get the door to shut, until I realised it was an automatic one and wouldn’t shut until I stepped off its pressure sensor or moved out of the way of its motion sensor.  Then those skinheads guffawed and ran off.

 

The Gare du Nord in Paris, from which I planned to get a train to Soissons, was a lot less grungy.  But it was here that I made a shocking and embarrassing discovery.  I couldn’t speak French.  At least I couldn’t speak real-world French, as opposed to classroom French.  With hindsight, all I had to say to the lady in the ticket booth was “Soissons s’il vous plait.  Aller simple.”  But I tried to word my request as a sentence – “I’d like to buy a…” – and it came out as gibberish.  Then I didn’t understand what the lady asked me in reply.  Finally, after a nightmarish minute of miscommunication whose memory still haunts me to this day, and while a queue of impatient rush-hour travellers lengthened behind me, she managed to identify the name ‘Soissons’ amid my gibberish and gave me the necessary ticket.

 

From histoiredecinema.canalblog.com

 

It was nearly dark when I arrived in Soissons.  By the time I got to the lycée Monsieur Masson had long since gone home and I had to deal with a bemused caretaker.  He found me a room where I could spend the night, although it hadn’t been inhabited for a long time and was full of cardboard boxes, dust and stale-smelling air.  I lay on the bed wondering if this grim place would be my abode for the next three weeks.  (It wouldn’t, of course.  When the administrative staff came in the next morning, they saw to it that I was put in a different room, a clean one that even had a balcony and a view.)

 

Despite it being June, I was wearing a bulky coat – it had loads of pockets, handy for carrying things in.  I recalled that my grandmother had given me a giant bar of Dairy Milk chocolate to eat during the journey.  I hadn’t had dinner that evening but at least in my fusty room I could snack on that.  I stuck my hand into a pocket to retrieve the bar and discovered it’d dissolved, messily, thanks to the intense body heat I’d exuded all day inside that unseasonably heavy coat.  Then on the back of my coat I noticed some big brown smears.  How on earth had the molten chocolate leaked out there?  It wasn’t until I noticed the odour coming off those smears that I realised they were dog-shit.  At some point, I’d accidentally set my rucksack down on some pavement-poo.  Then, when I’d hoisted the rucksack onto my back again, I’d transferred the poo to my coat.

 

But thinking about it now, I see how most of the bad moments related to getting to Soissons.  When I was in Soissons, however, the good moments began to happen.

 

Firstly, it soon dawned on me how kind and helpful people were, even if my communication skills were so woeful that I must have appeared as a gurning, inarticulate man-child.  Particularly hospitable was my contact in the teaching staff, Monsieur Masson, who with his stylish clothes and immaculately trimmed beard reminded me of the French actor Michael Lonsdale when he’d played Hugo Drax in the 1980 Bond movie Moonraker.   As well as checking up on me regularly to ensure I was okay, he and his family invited me to have dinner and stay at their charming Soissons home the night before I returned to Scotland.  Thankfully, there was enough of my £250 left for me to buy him a bottle of Scotch whisky as a thank-you gift.  (To my surprise, he immediately drank a small measure of it out of a glass stuffed with ice cubes.  What, I thought, you can drink whisky with ice cubes?  Nobody I knew in Scotland did this.  They just drank it neat or with tepid tap-water.  And kept drinking it.  Until they fell over.)

 

From seriouseats.com

 

Then there was the pleasure of discovering a place very different from what I was used to.  I’d wander through residential areas with modern blocks of flats that were colourfully painted and had flowers growing out of pots and window-boxes.  Where I came from, blocks of flats were associated with failed 1960s planning, grey concrete, urban deprivation and vandalism.  Most of the shops were no larger than those in my home town but they looked unfeasibly smart and chic.  As part of my arrangement with the lycée, I got breakfast and dinner there every day and I also discovered the French dining experience.  Breakfast wasn’t about stuffing yourself with bales of Weetabix and fried egg and bacon – it was a simple but delicious ritual of dunking pieces of fresh baguette into a bowlful of coffee.  Dinner didn’t come with everything piled haphazardly on one plate but as a series of little courses – hors d’oeuvres, fish, meat and veg, salad, desert.  Bewildering but somehow very civilised.

 

It was also strange seeing cultural items you were familiar with through a French prism.  I spent ages in Soissons’ bookshops, wanting to find out which of my favourite novels had been translated into French and what their French titles were.  I went to the cinema one evening to watch Costa Gavras’s newly-released political thriller Missing, starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek and set in Chile after the Pinochet coup of 1973.  It was dubbed into French, but by this time my French-comprehension powers had improved and I understood about half of it.  What puzzled me was why the French had decided to give Costa Gavras’s glum, serious movie a Woody Woodpecker cartoon as its supporting feature.  Also, they showed the trailer for Mad Max II, with the consequence that even today when I watch that Mel Gibson post-apocalyptic action-classic, I hear a solemn French voice intoning, “Mad MaxDeux!”

 

© PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Universal

© Kennedy Miller Productions / Warner Bros

 

I was unhappy with the report that I finally submitted.  It seemed crude and slipshod and not remotely how I’d envisioned it being.  But its topic was a great one to be focused on during a sojourn in a foreign country.  Studying how the French press depicted Britain was an eye-opener.  As Robert Burns wrote wisely in his poem To a Louse: “To see oursel’s as ithers see us / It wad frae mony a blunder free us…

 

One story I covered in the French newspapers was Pope John-Paul II’s visit to Britain, which happened while I was in France.  It was the first time a reigning pope had ever been on British soil and the visit had sparked protests by such predictable figures as the Reverend Ian Paisley and his Glaswegian Mini-Me, Pastor Jack Glass.  Although John-Paul II was a socially conservative pope and France seemed a very liberal Catholic country, French commentators were surprised and upset that anyone in Britain could object to his presence.  Not very scientifically (or geographically), one writer in Le Figaro explained it thus: “In the north of England, they still believe in ghosts.”

 

(c) Le Figaro

 

However, the biggest British news-item during my three weeks in Soissons was a war.  Britain was fighting Argentina over possession of the Falklands Islands.  Coming from Britain, where the Falklands War had sent most of the newspapers into a bellicose, jingoistic frenzy, the detachment and scepticism on display in the French press were discombobulating.  Many French commentators – even in Le Figaro, which was supposed to be conservative – seemed to echo the famous remark by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges that the conflict  was like “two bald men fighting over a comb.”  Meanwhile, a grotesque cartoon in the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné that depicted a naked Margaret Thatcher making love to a missile and wailing, “C’est bon!  C’est bon!” has been etched on my memory ever since.

 

Thus, it was a project about newspapers that first allowed me to leave Britain and start exploring the rest of Europe.  During the rest of my year out, I would build on that experience.  By the time I got to college in the autumn of 1983, I’d been in Switzerland, Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria, Belgium and Holland too.

 

Ironically, newspapers have now been instrumental in building barriers between Britain and the rest of Europe.  The British newspapers owned by a quintet of right-wing millionaire / billionaire magnates, i.e. Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere, Richard Desmond and the two Barclay Brothers, did much to create the hysterical, xenophobic atmosphere that led to a small majority of the British public voting for Brexit last year.

 

I find it sad to think that the EU, in its old EEC incarnation, gave me my first opportunity to really travel during my teens.  Because of Brexit, opportunities like that will no doubt be reduced for young Britons in the future.  75% of British voters in the 18-to-24 age group voted to stay in the EU but soon they will find it harder to study in Europe, work in Europe and – if visas are reintroduced – even move around in Europe.  The Brexit vote, largely the responsibility of an older and more reactionary electorate, has put a damper on such aspirations.

 

Back in 1982, I didn’t know how lucky I was.

 

Glorious international foodstuffs 2: ramen

 

From imgur.com

 

Japan is a land of many pleasures.  It has cultural pleasures (ukiyo-e, rakugo, ikebana), literary pleasures (Edogawa Ranpo, Osamu Dazai, Haruki Murakami), alcoholic pleasures (sake, shochu, Sapporo Beer) and musical pleasures (Ryuichi Sakamoto, Shonen Knife and, obviously, the Mad Capsule Markets).  However, for pure, visceral, immediate-gratification pleasure, nothing can compare to the bowlful of joy you get when you venture into a certain type of Japanese eatery at lunchtime, after a morning of hard graft and when your stomach is yowling with hunger, and a steaming helping of ramen is set on the counter in front of you.

 

Ramen is hardly an elegant dish.  It’s rough-and-ready and thrown-together but none the worse for that.  In its basic form, it consists of a mess of noodles, a skoosh of broth, a few cuts of pork, a boiled egg, some spring onions and bean sprouts and a nice, green, papery square of nori (seaweed), all chucked into a big bowl.  And strictly speaking, it’s not a Japanese dish either.  The first ramen in Japan probably appeared in Chinese restaurants that served food from Shanghai and Canton in the 19th century.  Indeed, up until the middle of the 20th century, it was referred to as ‘shina soba’, i.e. Chinese soba.   And it didn’t achieve mass-popularity in Japan until the late fifties with the invention of instant noodles.  At that moment, ramen stopped being a special treat and became affordable daily fare for the average working Joe.

 

Despite being a relatively late cultural import to the country, ramen is now synonymous with Japanese cuisine and culture.  By 1985, it’d become iconic enough for a Japanese filmmaker to make a movie about it.  This was Juzo Itami’s comedy-classic Tampopo, which was marketed as a ‘ramen western’ – a joke on spaghetti westerns, although in Japan spaghetti westerns are called ‘macaroni westerns’.  To be honest, Tampopo is more about Japan’s overall relationship with food and its most memorable sequence doesn’t involve ramen all – we see a gangster and his moll have culinary simulated sex by popping a raw egg-white-and-yolk back and forth from, and in and out of, their mouths.  (I remember sticking the video for Tampopo into the VCR in my family’s living room one evening, expecting to watch an innocuous Japanese comedy; and feeling mortified when this scene appeared because my eighty-something Northern Irish granny was sitting knitting in the corner.  But thankfully, the eighty-something Northern Irish granny thought it was hilarious.)

 

©Itami Productions / New Century Producers / Toho

 

Tampopo’s main plotline follows the old western formula wherein a gang of gunslingers ride to the rescue of a besieged town – only here, it’s a gang of ramen-lovers hurrying to the rescue of an ailing ramen-ya.  A ramen-ya is a fixture of Japan’s backstreets, a little restaurant that serves ramen, portions of rice, side-plates of gyoza dumplings, beer, liquor and not much else.  When I lived in Japan, which was for most of the 1990s, it seemed that everyone I knew had a favourite ramen-ya that they’d discovered somewhere in their local neighbourhoods.

 

As for me, I swore by a particular ramen-ya that was in the town of Takikawa, up on the northern island of Hokkaido, where I spent my first two years in Japan working as a classroom assistant.  This ramen-ya was called the Manten and was as typical as you could get: a long narrow chamber with a counter and row of stools on one side and, at its far end, a small tatami room where a few months after my arrival, I recall, a hard-living Glaswegian guy I’d encountered introduced me to the seductive but hazardous pastime of drinking shochu.  (Unlike sake, which is fermented, shochu is a distilled Japanese liquor.)

 

The Manten had a window looking out onto a little compound or back garden where, when it wasn’t under a half-dozen feet of snow – Hokkaido has a climate akin to Siberia’s – I’d see the place’s owner wielding a golf club and practising his swings.  But what anchors the Manten in my memory most of all was its ramen, which I found delicious.

 

The Manten didn’t just acquaint me with ramen.  It acquainted me with the Hokkaido versions of it.  There are various types of ramen, such as shoyu (soy-sauce) and shio (salt) ramen, but up in Hokkaido they like miso ramen.  As its name suggests, its broth is thick and liberally laced with miso and it’s perfect for insulating you against the raw Hokkaido winter.  (The island is also the home of another variation of the dish, the self-explanatory curry ramen.  Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the Japanese archipelago, the island of Kyushu has pioneered a further variation, tonkotsu ramen, which has a distinctively whitish broth.)

 

Probably that’s why nowadays I rage when I find myself in a Japanese restaurant back in Britain, with what purports to be ramen on its menu, and I get served something whose broth is vapidly thin and watery.  No, you useless wimps, the soup in the ramen has got to be thick.  That’s the Hokkaido way.

 

One other good thing about ramen, in Japan anyway, is its price.  I could never get over how cheap the stuff was, considering there was usually enough in one bowl to leave me feeling stoked up with fuel for the next three days.  In fact, a friend who visited Japan in 2015 told me it was still cheap – especially compared with those trendy Japanese-restaurant chains in the UK where you pay twice the cost for a pale imitation.  (Yes, Wagamama, I’m looking at you.)

 

Accordingly, when you enter a ramen-ya at lunchtime, you’ll be greeted by the sight of Japan’s smaller earners – dusty construction workers, say, and lower-hierarchy salarymen – sitting along the counter and tucking into their midday ramen fix.  Often, after I’d eaten a bowlful, I’d feel ready to slouch home, lie down and sleep it off.  But for those guys, of course, an afternoon nap isn’t an option.  In ever-industrious Japan, you return to the building site or the office and spend the afternoon working it off.

 

They say that an army marches on its stomach.  For the blue-collar and lower white-collar army that keeps Japan’s economy (still the third-largest economy in the world) marching, that stomach is surely full of ramen.

 

©Itami Productions / New Century Producers / Toho

 

Technical hitch

 

From tvtropes.org

 

My apologies to anyone who’s tried to access this blog in the past week.  They would have encountered either a blank, basic WordPress template devoid of any of the 500+ entries I’ve put on Blood and Porridge since 2012; or a signing-in page from WordPress demanding user names, passwords, etc.  Thankfully, those good people in the technical support department at my web-hosting provider have managed to solve the problem and, not for the first time, have saved my blogging bacon.

 

Unfortunately, in the process, the most recent entries I’ve put on Blood and Porridge have been lost (and as some time has elapsed and they’re no longer topical, I see no point in reposting them).  However, the issue seems now to be sorted and normal blogging will resume shortly.

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 9: Bambalapitiya Station

 

 

Colombo is being redeveloped at a frenzied rate these days.  Multi-storey hotels and apartment blocks seem to shoot up out of the ground with the suddenness and speed of mushrooms.  So many cranes loom over the downtown area that the horizon there resembles a pincushion.  And a grand, if not grandiose, reclamation project is forcing the sea back from the Fort district, banishing it behind giant dunes of sand and boulders.

 

With all this happening, it’s a surprise when you see the under-developed state of the city’s railway system, the antiquated and fusty railway stations in particular.

 

A typical example is Bambalapitiya Station, not far from where I live.  It’s one of three stations standing on Marine Drive, the city’s main coastal road.  A pair of railway lines run along a strip between the road and the sea’s edge, one carrying southbound trains heading in the direction of Galle, a few hours away down the coast, and the other carrying northbound trains for central Colombo.  Bambalapitya Station is roughly at the midpoint of Marine Drive.  There, the railway lines bulge apart and create between them a narrow, faintly elliptical space which the station building and platforms straggle along.  Past where the platforms stop, the two tapering ends of the space are covered in sand, rocks, rubble, litter, grass and weeds.

 

 

At peak travelling hours, Marine Drive is teeming with vehicles and to get people safely across the road to the station there’s a pedestrian bridge covered with corrugated-iron roofing of various unappealing shades of grey and brown.  The stairs at the end of the bridge descend into the station building itself, long and low and with walls that are a faded amber colour.  Corrugated-iron ‘awnings’ stick out on either side, over the middle parts of the platforms.  Their ends, though, are exposed to all weathers.

 

Plenty of people enter the station without using the bridge.  Its main part is separated from Marine Drive by a low wall and fence, but many folk stream off the road, around the wall and fence and onto the ends of the waste ground.  From there they clamber up onto the platforms; or more hazardously, they clamber up into the end-carriages of the trains, which when they’ve stopped usually protrude past the platforms.  The latter course-of-action can be even more of a struggle at peak hours when the carriage doors are already garlanded with the bodies of clinging, hanging-out passengers.

 

 

There’s a second, bigger wall standing behind the outer railway track, presumably to shield the tracks, trains, platforms, buildings and travellers from the spray and occasionally the waves of the sea just a few yards further away.   The wall is a mishmash of sections, rising to different heights and featuring different textures of brickwork and plasterwork.  It’s also become a canvas for Colombo graffiti-artists who’ve daubed it with hip-hoppy scrawls.

 

 

The most striking, and saddest, feature of Bambalapitiya Station is found behind that sea-wall.  Against its rear side, along the narrow rocky strip between it and where the ground drops to the sea, some poor Sri Lankan people have erected a line of huts and shacks.  Their walls have been patched together with wooden panels and planks and their roofs consist of tarpaulin and corrugated iron weighted down with rocks and discarded railway sleepers.  The boulders outside their doors are strewn with things that’ve no doubt been salvaged and scavenged: plastic chairs, plastic water containers, a bathtub, lengths of piping, shapeless chunks of scrap metal.  The hut at the northern end appears to function as a rudimentary shop / tearoom for there’s a hatchway in its sidewall with a makeshift table and stools arranged in front of it.

 

 

In 2011, the Sri Lankan Sunday Times newspaper published a feature about this ramshackle settlement.  It makes depressing and upsetting reading.  Its description of how the huts regularly get flooded with seawater correspond to what I’ve seen, from a distance, on stormy days when the waves climb the rocks and strike the huts with a violence that makes you fear they’ll be swept away.  At the time, local politicians stood accused of ignoring the plight of Bambalapitya Station’s backdoor residents; and from the look of things, they’ve done little or nothing to help them since then.

 

www.sundaytimes.lk/111023/Plus/plus_01.html

 

Well, there’s one thing that’s apparently changed since that newspaper feature six years ago.  At least some of the huts seem to have power now.  The evidence for this is the couple of poles sticking up above the sea-wall with TV aerials fastened to their tops.

 

 

Just after the final hut at the wall’s southern end, a blue-painted Christian shrine has been set up.  A glass-fronted box on its summit contains figures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.  It makes an atmospheric sight after six o’clock in the evening, while the silvery-gold sun dips towards the sea and a few long skinny clouds along the sky glow so redly that they look like bloody scratch-marks.

 

 

I should say that I’ve never ventured behind the railway’s station’s back wall and stuck my camera in anyone’s face.  I only wish other visitors to Colombo would be respectful too of the privacy of the people there.  On one occasion, I saw a big tour bus parked on Marine Drive beside the station and, on the far side of the railway tracks, some Chinese tourists crowded at the end of the shanty town and snapping pictures of it – treating it as a ‘poverty porn’ stop on their travel itinerary.

 

As for the roadside wall at the front of Bambilapitiya Station – or half-a-wall because part of it has disappeared and, as I’ve said, been replaced by a fence – somebody tried at some time to brighten it by painting a series of murals along it.  However, these last for only a few yards.  Their images – Buddha, stupas, rivers, forests, lotus flowers, demons, deer, elephants, fish, turtles, elephants, birds and butterflies – are pleasingly colourful, simple and child-like.

 

 

A mixture of rickety charm and some truly grim poverty, Bambalapitiya Station feels increasingly out of place in its neighbourhood.  It stands opposite the junction of Marine Drive and Station Road – a minute’s walk up the latter street is the trendy and popular Majestic City shopping centre.  And the opposite side of Marine Drive itself is currently in the throes of redevelopment.  One building, for instance, has been gutted and is being transformed into a new, high-falutin’ Indian restaurant with the amusing name of Planet Bollywood.

 

 

I suspect that before much longer some big, possibly Chinese-led consortium will flatten the old station and others like it and then raise new versions of them, fashioned in concrete, glass and steel.  Perhaps someone is on the case already.

 

Since writing this post I’ve noticed that the station’s front wall and the bottom half of its back wall have recently been given a lick of dark-red paint – the murals at the front have been spared, thankfully.  So clearly somebody in the Sri Lankan railway authorities is of the opinion that the place needs ‘doing up’.