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.

The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming…


© The Mirisch Corporation / United Artists


For what they’re worth, here are my thoughts on the attempted murder of Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury on March 4th – a crime which involved the use of the deadly nerve agent Novichok, which the British government blamed on its counterpart in Moscow, and which has dominated the British news for the last fortnight.


Was it carried out on the orders of Vladimir Putin?

I’m inclined to think ‘probably’, but I’m still waiting on the absolute proof that clinches it.  Novichok was developed by the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s and I suppose it’s conceivable that a quantity of it was procured by some private individual with an axe to grind against Skripal, who in Russia in 2006 was convicted of betraying undercover Russian agents to MI6.


And I suppose George Galloway has a point – there’s half-a-dozen words I never expected to write, seeing as I usually consider Galloway to be a festering furuncle of fedora-wearing foolishness – when he argued that, had he wanted to, Putin could easily have had both victims killed earlier; and it was illogical to attempt their murder on British soil now and run the risk of damaging Russia’s reputation just before it hosted the World Cup.


© The Belfast Telegraph


Galloway’s rebuttal makes sense…  But I can still imagine Putin giving orders to take Skripal out in Britain.  After all, he has past form in this sort of thing.  And there are additional reasons that are unflattering for the current UK government.  Putin probably regards modern-day Britain with such disdain that he figures it doesn’t matter if the British point an accusing finger at him.  Estranged from Europe post-Brexit, and with a gibbering half-wit (and Putin admirer) in the White House, Britain 2018 is an international Johnny No Mates.  Who cares what it says or thinks?  Also, vast quantities of Russian money are swilling around London these days in things like real estate and shell companies.  Such money talks, especially in an economy as fragile as Brexit Britain’s.  The beleaguered Theresa May might symbolically expel a few Russian diplomats, but she isn’t going to do anything really drastic, like freeze the London assets of Russian oligarchs.


A portion of that Russian money has even ended up funding May’s own Conservative party – declared donations of £826,100 since July 2016 and some £3,000,000 since 2010.  Laughably, Lubin Chernukhin, Russian banker and wife of Putin’s former deputy finance minister, once paid £160,000 at a Tory funding auction for the privilege of playing a game of tennis with Boris Johnson.  I’ll repeat that.  Somebody paid £160,000 to play tennis with Boris Johnson.  I’d find it more intellectually and aesthetically stimulating to stand a piss-stained old mattress on its end and spend half-a-hour lobbing tennis balls at that.


© Anita Aguilar / From tennis.com


Is Jeremy Corbin a Putin apologist?

No.  Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has described the attempted murder of the Skripals as ‘appalling’, ‘barbaric’ and ‘horrific’ and demanded that the Russian authorities be ‘held to account on the basis of the evidence’.  He’s called out Putin’s Russia for ‘authoritarianism’, ‘abuse of human rights’ and ‘political and economic corruption’ too.  But Corbyn also, reasonably enough, asked for patience until conclusive proof incriminating the Putin regime had been amassed: “To rush way ahead of the evidence being gathered by the police, in a fevered parliamentary atmosphere, serves neither justice nor our national security.”


Obviously, Corbyn’s comments were never going to be fairly reported by Britain’s mostly right-wing mainstream media, who’ve been searching for a way to put the boot into him ever since his party performed better than expected in last year’s general election.  CORBYN IS UNWORTHY TO BE PRIME MINISTER thundered the headline above a March 16th editorial in the increasingly unhinged Daily Telegraph, for instance.  The Telegraph, though, is apparently happy to countenance as prime minister Ms. Chernukhin’s flaxen-haired tennis partner.


That said, I think Corbyn’s suggestion the other day that the Russians be sent a sample of the nerve agent “so that they can say categorically one way or the other” if it’s theirs was a bit glaikit.


Is there a BBC conspiracy to smear Jeremy Corbyn?

For a time, the Skripal affair was almost overshadowed by the row over ‘Hatgate’.  This erupted when the BBC news programme Newsnight took it upon itself to discuss Corbyn’s cautious approach against a studio backdrop that had projected onto it a mocked-up picture of the Labour Party leader standing before the Kremlin and wearing some suspiciously Russian-like headgear.  Enraged left-wingers like columnist Owen Jones accused the BBC of trying to make Corbyn look like a ‘Kremlin stooge’, though the BBC has strenuously denied that this was the case.  So: is this proof that the Beeb is the tool of the right-wing establishment, out to discredit and silence the left?




Well, I think the Newsnight backdrop picture was stupid and irresponsible, but it hardly means the BBC is a cesspit of Breitbart-esque right-wing evil.  What I think has happened in the last few years is that the BBC’s news coverage has become rudderless and susceptible to drifting with certain tides – i.e. the narratives emanating from Britain’s right-wing press.  The newspaper reviews shown on the BBC in the mornings, for instance, lead to the airing of a lot of right-wing gunk because such gunk is on the front pages of the right-wing tabloids.  With the press setting the tone, no wonder its hostility towards Corbyn gets absorbed into the BBC news gestalt.  So the Sun and the Daily Mail call him a Putin-worshipping lickspittle and the BBC unwittingly echoes the accusation.


Which is all a bit crap, considering how the BBC is a public service paid for by citizens whose beliefs cover a political spectrum, left-wing as well as centre and right-wing.  The left end of that spectrum should be getting better value for its money.


How soon will this blow over?

It’ll blow over surprisingly fast, I suspect.  With all that Russian dough in London, I’d be surprised if Theresa May’s government doesn’t try as soon as possible to draw a line and get back to business as usual with Big Bad Vlad and his oligarchs.  Plus, with the British economy likely to be in a perilous state post-Brexit, I’m sure there’ll be pressure on them to let bygones be bygones and start signing some trade deals with Russia.  (After all, look at Britain’s recent eagerness to do business with a regime as oppressive, warmongering, terrorism-exporting and generally hideous as Saudi Arabia.)


And while we’re on the topic…


Is Putin running our elections now?

Well, I’m sure Putin is delighted to see Trump pooping all over the White House like one of the Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels, and Brexit consigning Britain’s reputation, influence and dignity to the bin; and when he can, he’s happy to stick an oar in to help both processes along.  But I think it’s a mistake to blame everything on him.  And it’s also a mistake, by the way, to make too much of the recent revelations about the data-mining / Facebook-pilfering company Cambridge Analytica and its dodgy roles in the Trump election campaign and the Leave EU referendum campaign.


It must be comforting for American and British liberals to have bogeymen like Putin and Cambridge Analytica to blame for their countries’ woes.  But those bogeymen shouldn’t be allowed to obscure an unpalatable truth.  Even without their baleful influence, an awful lot of people would have voted for Trump and Brexit anyway.  Liberals in the US and UK need to come to terms with that unhappy fact – and then figure out what they’re going to do about it.


© Getty Images / From thetrumpet.com


St Paddy power


From http://www.the42.ie © Dan Sheridan / INPHO


Today is March 17th and the day that commemorates Ireland’s national saint, St Patrick.  Among other feats, St Patrick is credited with popularising the shamrock as Ireland’s national symbol by using its three leaves to explain the Holy Trinity, with turning his walking stick into a tree during a visit to Aspatria in England’s Lake District, with punishing the heathen Welsh king Vereticus by changing him into a wolf, and with casting all the snakes out of Ireland.  Though to be honest, old Patrick missed a trick in not casting all the politicians out of it at the same time.


St Patrick’s Day is, of course, enthusiastically celebrated by Irish people and by the Irish diaspora the world over.  This is no more so than in Irish-American strongholds like Boston, where from all accounts they demonstrate their passion for St Patrick and all things Irish by dyeing the rivers green, dyeing the Guinness green, dyeing their hair green and probably injecting green dye into their own eyeballs so that their eyes glow green too.


Personally, I don’t normally take the celebration of St Patrick’s Day to such extremes – though I may make an exception today if the Irish rugby team win their final Six Nations Championship game against England, which kicks off at 2:45 GMT.  Ireland have so far disposed of France, Italy, Wales and Scotland and have already won the championship on points, but if they can beat England today they’ll also win the Grand Slam – an honour they’ve achieved only twice before in rugby history, in 1948 and 2009.  I know I’m tempting fate by writing this, but to win the Grand Slam on St Patrick’s Day, and against England, would be really something.


So Happy St Paddy’s Day – and let’s hope this afternoon Ireland’s rugby players can make this the happiest St Paddy’s Day ever.


In good company


© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon


I read recently that a new academic study has been published about The Company of Wolves, the 1984 movie directed by Neil Jordan, based on fiction by Angela Carter and co-scripted by Jordan and Carter.  The study is the latest in a series of academic film-books called Devil’s Advocates, dedicated to classic horror movies and put into print by Auteur Publishing.  Devil’s Advocates: The Company of Wolves is the work of Northern Irishman James Gracey, who describes himself in his Twitter profile as a ‘library assistant’ and ‘occasional author of books about horror films’.  Its appearance has reminded me that The Company of Wolves is one of my favourite movies of the 1980s – of any genre, not just horror.


No doubt part of my fondness for the film stems from its source material, because I’m a big fan of the late Angela Carter and her sumptuous gothic prose.  (While I was doing an MA in 2008-2009 at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where Carter had once taught creative writing, I was delighted one day when I got chatting with an elderly assistant at the campus bookshop and she reminisced about Carter and how she used to wander around “in a big billowy dress.”)  The Company of Wolves began life as a short story featured in her masterly 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber.  Considering how other stories in the book are adult, gothic reworkings of such fairy tales and myths as Beauty and the Beast (The Courtship of Mr Lyon), Snow White (The Snow Child) and Bluebeard (the title story), it’s no surprise that The Company of Wolves is a version of Little Red Riding Hood with, as its villain, not a big bad wolf but an even bigger and badder werewolf.


© ullstein bild / Getty Images


Carter’s Company of Wolves takes its time getting to its main plotline, though.  It begins by recounting several shorter tales and anecdotes that explore wolf and werewolf lore, and the Red Riding Hood character doesn’t set off into the forest to visit Grandmother’s house until halfway through its ten pages.  Additionally, The Company of Wolves is part of a triptych of werewolf-related stories in The Bloody Chamber – it’s sandwiched between ones called The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice (which as well as being an Angela Carter story is the name of a not-bad alternative rock / indie band).  Not only does Jordan’s movie copy the rambling, episodic and anecdotal structure of the fictional Company of Wolves, but it also borrows elements from its two hairy neighbours.


Translating into celluloid Carter’s ornate prose style – which, for example, has a midwinter forest containing “huddled mounds of birds, succumbed to the lethargy of the season, heaped on the creaking boughs and too forlorn to sing” and “bright frills of the winter fungi on the blotched trunks of the trees” and “a hare as lean as a rasher of bacon streaking across the path where the thin sunlight dapples the russet brakes of last year’s bracken” – was a job to which the Irish director and writer Neil Jordan was well suited.   His CV includes atmospheric and flamboyant supernatural movies like Interview with the Vampire (1994) and Byzantium (2012), plus the dark, twisted tragic-comic drama The Butcher Boy (1997); and many of his supposedly more realistic films like Angel (1982), Mona Lisa (1986) and The Crying Game (1992) are imbued with a strange, phantasmagorical quality too.


With The Company of Wolves, Jordan and his production team – take a bow, cinematographer Bryan Loftus, production designer Anton Furst and art director Stuart Rose – excel themselves in crafting a physical setting for Carter’s stories.  The movie mostly takes place in a pre-industrial village and a surrounding, huge Ruritanian forest.  It’s an environment that’s both quaint with thatched cottages, cobbled streets, mossy churchyards and humped stone bridges and lush with bright-coloured flowers, shaggy trees, trailing vines,  beds of fallen leaves and nests of speckled eggs (which, disconcertingly, hatch and release tiny homunculi).  Yet it’s also a claustrophobic place of misshapen branches, drifting fogs, deep snowbanks and, obviously, wolf-howls that pierce out of the dark recesses of the forest.  In other words, it’s part Romantic poem, part fevered dream and part Hammer horror.


© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon


If anything, the plotting in the film of The Company of Wolves is more disorientating than that in the original story.  The central structure is similar: we get a clutch of little stories about werewolves – here told to teenage heroine Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) by her grandmother (Angela Lansbury) and then, later, told by Rosaleen herself – before the film settles down to its main narrative, which is what happens one day when Rosaleen dons a red woollen shawl, leaves her village and takes a walk through the forest to her grandmother’s secluded cottage.


However, the film places this within a framing device that has Rosaleen as a modern-day girl who dreams about being in a fairy-tale village, in a fairy-tale forest, while she takes an afternoon nap in her bedroom.  (As we descend through Rosaleen’s subconscious to the main part of the dream, we also pass through a creepy transitional zone populated by human-sized versions of the dolls and toys in her bedroom, which calls to mind another Angela Carter work, the 1967 novel The Magic Toyshop.)  At the film’s end, this stories-told-within-a-dream framework collapses, for poor modern-day Rosaleen wakes from her dream to find real wolves crashing through the walls of her room.  None of which matters, of course.  The Company of Wolves isn’t a film to be processed logically.  It’s one to be simply experienced.


It hasn’t much character development, since the characters are archetypes rather than proper human beings, but it’s still well acted by a first-rate cast.  Sarah Patterson does what’s required of her as Rosaleen and German actor, dancer and choreographer Micha Bergese is appropriately lithe, flirtatious and, yes, predatory as the young hunstsman whom Rosaleen encounters on the way to her grandmother’s house.  (His eyebrows meet above his nose, which is a dead giveaway.)  Angela Lansbury makes a wonderfully spry and wily grandmother, so much so that I can forgive her for the subsequent dozen years that she spent clogging up my television screen with her dreary TV series Murder, She Wrote (1984-96).  The film also features the excellent trio of David Warner as Rosaleen’s father in both the dream world and the real one, Graham Crowden as the village’s amiable priest, and Brian Glover as the village’s resident Yorkshireman.  (At one point, Glover pontificates, “If you think wolves are big now, you should have seen them when I were a lad!”)


© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon


In the cast too are Terence Stamp and Jordan’s long-time collaborator Stephen Rea, both of whom appear in the first two stories narrated by Lansbury.  Stamp has a cameo as the Devil, selling a youth a magical balm that, once applied, has lycanthropic consequences.  Rea plays a man who mysteriously disappears on his wedding night and then equally mysteriously reappears seven years later, to discover that his wife has since remarried and sired a brood of children with her new husband.  In the film’s most gruesome sequence, Rea shows his displeasure by becoming a werewolf – a painful process because, to facilitate the transformation, he has to tear his own skin off.


With the young, virginal Rosaleen setting out on a journey and being waylaid by a literally beastly male, but then taking control of the situation and resolving it in her own unexpected fashion, there’s obviously a lot happening beneath the film’s surface.  However, I like the fact that while The Company of Wolves is concerned with themes of female empowerment and sexuality, it isn’t a polemic.  Yes, one of Lansbury’s tales ends with an instance of domestic violence, and one of Rosaleen’s tales deals with a wronged woman getting her revenge on the cad responsible.  But Rosaleen’s parents are depicted as having a loving and sharing relationship.  Despite coming to this film after villainous roles in Time After Time (1979), The Time Bandits (1981) and Tron (1982), Warner plays a gentle soul here; and Rosaleen’s mother (Tusse Silberg) points out to her that “if there’s a beast in man, it meets its match in women too.”  Meanwhile, a village boy (Shane Johnstone) who takes a shine to Rosaleen, while evidently a lustful scamp, seems good-hearted enough and demonstrates concern for her safety.


© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon


This nuance extends to the film’s portrayal of the church.  It’s hardly an institution of oppressive patriarchy.  Rosaleen’s final tale has Graham Crowden’s priest showing kindness to a feral wolf-girl (played by experimental 1980s singer-musician Danielle Dax).  “Are you God’s work or the Devil’s?” he asks her.  “Oh, what do I care whose work you are.  You poor, silent creature…”


You appreciate Jordan and Carter’s achievement with The Company of Wolves when you consider how many filmmakers since then have tried, and failed, to convert children’s fairy stories into darker, more adult and more gothic movies.  I’m thinking of Terry Gilliam’s disappointingly uneven Brothers Grimm (2005) or the blah Kristen Stewart vehicle Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) or crud like Red Riding Hood (2011) and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013).


Probably the best effort has been Matteo Garrone’s Italian / French / British movie Tale of Tales (2015) which, like The Company of Wolves, isn’t afraid to confound expectations and twist and distort logic.  Which, when you think about it, is what the original fairy and folk tales that inspired both films did anyway.


© Nomad Publishing


Cultural Thais



I’ve been in a fair few museums in Asia in my time and I’ve come to expect a standard Asian museum experience.  You see a lot of beautiful and / or fascinating artefacts, but they’re presented in a conservative fashion, i.e. they’re inside glass cases with panels of dense writing nearby giving the necessary exposition.  This is fine for an aged, pre-Internet, pre-smartphone fossil with a glacial attention span like myself, but surely less engaging for younger visitors.  Indeed, visiting school groups usually seem to pass through these museums like quicksilver.


What a pleasure it was, then, to venture into the Museum of Siam on Bangkok’s Sanam Chai Road one morning and discover a place that wasn’t just interesting because of its contents.  It also displayed its wares in an imaginative, colourful, relaxed, broad-minded and – most important of all – fun way.


The museum aims to explore Thai culture, lowbrow as well as high, and what it means to be ‘Thai’.  It isn’t afraid to surprise you and admit sometimes that things that are commonly thought to be Thai aren’t that much so at all.  For example, you’re told that the tuk-tuk, “a Thai symbol recognised internationally, is actually from Italy.  The Piaggio Ape, a three-wheel vehicle, was first produced in 1948.  After that a similar-looking model – the Daihatsu Midget DK – was created in Japan in 1957.  That model was imported to Thailand in 1960, and later, the DK Midget MP4 was imported and sent to Ayutthaya and Trang Provinces.”


It has much about Thai costumes and fashions and features a roomful of mannequins dressed in mythological, historical and modern garb (including, cheekily, a Thai take on Ronald McDonald) as well as a changing room where visitors can try on some local clothes themselves.  And the museum’s very first room sets the ball rolling with a mannequin of Lady Gaga from her controversial 2012 Bangkok concert – the American singer songwriter raised Thai eyebrows, and tempers, by arriving onstage wearing a chada (a classical Thai dance headpiece) with a decidedly saucy outfit.



Meanwhile, a room devoted to Thai “traditions, ceremonies, manners” takes the form of a system of shelves and boxes.  Each box is labelled with a topic – Children’s Day, New Year’s Day, graduation, weddings, smiling, humility – and visitors are encouraged to find out about the topics by removing them from the shelves and rummaging about in their contents.  The New Year box, for example, contains a party hat, gifts, a prayer booklet, a New Year card and something called an ‘Arsenal butter cookie’.  (The boxes do come with little booklets too, to explain things.)  The interactive nature of this display, alas, was lost on a party of Chinese tourists who trekked straight through the room while I was there and seemed to think they’d wandered by mistake into a storeroom.



There’s also a mock-up of a Thai school room and a section dedicated to Thai cuisine, which is equipped with a selection of high-tech plates and a futuristic console – you place different plates on the console and information about different Thai dishes is duly projected up in front of you.  It was here that I learned the truth about such local favourites as Tokyo rolls, American fried rice and ginger chilli paste.  No, the rolls don’t really come from Tokyo, the fried rice isn’t really American and the chilli paste isn’t really made with ginger.


I particularly liked a room dedicated to everyday items that have acquired iconic status in Thai culture.  It contains and explains such things as common-or-garden compact discs (used in Thailand as taillights for elephants, apparently), bumper stickers (used as good-luck charms) and plastic bags (used as receptacles for iced coffee).  It also features those ultra-handy vending tubes used by Thai bus and ferryboat conductors with rolls of tickets at their ends and loose change in their middles.



But my favourite room was a gallery showcasing 108 deities and icons relating to the Thais’ complex belief system.  According to the gallery’s introductory blurb, the country’s culture “is based on a belief in animism, or belief in the spirit world.  Thai belief is fused seamlessly with Buddhism and Brahmanism.  Thai beliefs are a result of this continuation.  Today we still invent new beliefs based on old ones.  Even Japanese anime characters and even some dolls can become sacred items.”


Among the more notable of the 108 exhibits here are Luk Thep or ‘spirit child’, basically a creepy doll that, despite its creepiness, supposedly brings good luck in “business, wealth and work”; a spirit called Luk Krok, the “soul of a stillborn foetus whose mother did not die” and who acts as a guardian spirit to that mother thereafter; and an entity called the ‘widowed ghost’, who “looks for a man to be with her.  To escape her, you must convince her that there’s no suitable man for her in your house.”



Elsewhere, I learned from the museum that Thailand’s floating markets aren’t directly descended from the floating markets of old.  The original ones died out long ago, but “were brought back to promote tourism” and because “modern Thais felt a sense of nostalgia for the lost past.  Retro was the name of the game.”  I also found out about the Thai monarch King Bhumibol, who was a fan of Western jazz and blues music and who “started composing music at the age of 18 years old…  His Majesty had composed many songs in these two genres, which were a novelty at the time.”  Here’s a link to one of the King’s compositions, the nattily-titled Candlelight Blues.


And talking of music, I learned that Thailand has an equivalent of country-and-western music called Luk Thung, though to my ears it sounds a bit jollier than its trucks / beers / guns / jails / death-themed American counterpart.  It almost expired at the end of the 20th century but managed to rejuvenate itself: “In the early 1990s, Luk Thung… faced a major challenge as pop music dominated the market… But the trend reversed and eventually Luk Thung was brought back to life… Luk Thung singers changed the way they dressed, danced and sang, with a troop of exquisitely dressed dancers in every performance.”


I enjoyed my couple of hours at the Museum of Siam much more than I’d expected.  If you visit Thailand and wish to really experience, learn about and understand the country – i.e. beyond what’s contained in a regulation beach-booze-and-bawdiness Thai tourist resort like Pattaya – the museum makes a good first stop on your itinerary.



TV comic genius 7: Saxondale


© BBC / Baby Cow Productions


Actor, comedian, writer and producer Steve Coogan has played the fictional TV and radio presenter Alan Partridge for 27 years now.  He’s essayed the cringe-inducing, incognizant, sociopathic, preening, Daily Mail-loving and utterly hapless Partridge not only on television – in sitcoms, chat-shows, mockumentaries, telethons and awards shows – but also on radio and stage and in YouTube shorts and a movie.  So ubiquitous is Partridge that it’s easy to forget that during his career Coogan has created other comic characters.


These include the drunken, philosophical and student-hating Paul Calf (“Is it a crime to want to live in a world of peace and harmony…?  Is it a crime to hit a student across the back of a head with a snooker ball in a sock?”) and his brassy and gagging-for-it sister Pauline; Portuguese singing sensation Tony Ferrino, winner of the Eurovision Song Contest and “also widely adored across Brazil and Iraq”; and the disquietingly exaggerated version of himself that Coogan played in Michael Winterbottom’s fly-on-the-wall travelogue-cum-sitcom The Trip (2010-16).


Then there’s Tommy Saxondale, eponymous hero of the BBC sitcom Saxondale that ran for two seasons in 2006 and 2007.  This show may not have produced as many belly-laughs as Alan Partridge in his countless permutations, but for my money it’s possibly Coogan’s finest hour.


© BBC / Baby Cow Productions


Tommy Saxondale’s backstory is that in the 1970s he served as a roadie to some top rock bands and engaged in the free-thinking and wild-living that were the spirit of the era: “I was sinking yards of ale with John Bonham,” he reminisces, “and hoovering up furlongs of the Devil’s dandruff with Lucifer Reed, as I used to call him.”  Now in his grizzled, paunchy middle-age, life is less giddy and glamorous.  He runs a small pest-control business in Stevenage, but likes to think he still talks the talk and walks the walk when it comes to turning on, tuning in and dropping out and generally giving the middle finger to The Man.  “Same old, same old, eh?” he sighs at one point.  “The global corporate bully sticking the jackboot into the defenceless ginger-haired boy of humanity.”  Unfortunately, the modern world surrounding Tommy doesn’t quite share his ideals.  And as he ages, he has increasing difficulty living up to those ideals himself.


In other words, Saxondale deals with the tension between youth and experience that’s familiar to everyone who manages to avoid an early death.  For Tommy, though, that tension’s particularly acute.  When the tectonic plates of Tommy’s youth and middle-age grind together, the results can be seismic – particularly since Tommy has a temper.  Each episode begins with him taking part in anger-management sessions run by mild-mannered therapist Alastair (James Bachmann).  Thanks to Tommy, Alastair has his work cut out.  “The notion that anger per se is a bad thing, “Tommy tells him, “I would say, respectfully, is horseshit.   If General MacArthur’s reaction to Pearl Harbour had been to go and find a quiet place and do some deep breathing, you’d be goose-stepping into this meeting today.  And there’d be a great big eagle on the wall.”


© BBC / Baby Cow Productions


Besides Alastair, people in Tommy’s life include his buxom Welsh girlfriend Magz (Ruth Jones), part Goth goddess and part earth-mother, who runs a shop called Smash the System and sells her own self-designed posters, pictures and T-shirts that offer unusual takes on religious, cultural and feminist figures like Joan of Arc (i.e. they’re naked, having sex and / or taking drugs); the youthful Raymond (played with wonderful somnolence by Rasmus Hardiker), Tommy’s lodger and apprentice in the pest-control trade who endures his boss’s endless philosophising and grumbling with a mixture of polite incomprehension and dazed indifference; and Vicky (Morwenna Banks), his contact at the agency that provides his firm with assignments.


The bubbly, airheaded but vicious Vicky – a sort of Spice Girl with rabies – takes huge pleasure in tormenting Tommy.  For instance, chiding him about his unkempt hair, she says: “Tommy-hobbit…  I wasn’t going to say anything, but somebody reckoned they saw you the other week outside Woolies, mumbling and having a tinkle in the bin by the escalators.”


© BBC / Baby Cow Productions


In addition to Tommy, Coogan plays a second, semi-regular character: Keanu Reeves, a zonked-out gay druggie who’s changed his name by deed-poll to that of “the cassock-wearing flying man from The Matrix”.  Tommy usually encounters Keanu when he’s de-lousing some squalid premises and finds him and his mates squatting there.  A conglomeration of childishness, petulance, pathos, facial tics and Mancunian vocal inflections, Keanu is a hilarious character, though an exhausting one.  It’s probably just as well that we only get a few short doses of him during Saxondale’s two series.


The comic injustices inflicted on Tommy are not far removed from those experienced by Alan Partridge.  When Tommy learns that a favourite pub has installed a karaoke machine, he rails against karaoke as “the last refuge of the creatively bereft.  A night when the suits can convince themselves that hooting along to Angels in the wrong key means they don’t have a sucking void where their souls are supposed to be.”  We just know that a few hours later, drunk out of his skull, he’ll be onstage with the karaoke mic, warbling Jeffrey Osborne’s On the Wings of Love – which is what happens.  And it’s entirely predictable that after boring a class of schoolkids with a lecture about life on the road with Pink Floyd, he discovers that the little shits have superglued him to his chair.


The difference between the two characters is that while Partridge has zero self-awareness, Tommy is at least partly conscious of his own ridiculousness.  This self-knowledge allows him to make amends for his failings, show some empathy for his fellow characters and even, occasionally, enjoy a few victories.


I found Saxondale’s first series very agreeable, but I thought the second series was wonderful.  Perhaps it’s because Coogan and series co-writer Neil Maclennan realised that Tommy’s funniest moments in season one were the most confrontational ones, for example, with Vicky; so for season two they brought in some new characters to antagonise him further.


© BBC / Baby Cow Productions


These were Penny (Rosie Cavaliero), a trendy-lefty friend of Magz whose middle-class Guardian-esque virtue signalling gets on Tommy’s wick; and Jonathon (Darren Boyd), an executive at the Carphone Warehouse and Tommy’s neighbour.  Jonathon’s gormless attempts to ingratiate himself (“Hey, Tommy… I was wondering if you saw that Motley Crue documentary on VH1 last night?”) are usually a prelude to his conveying a complaint from the local Residents’ Association about him mis-parking his yellow Mustang.  Jonathon’s wife Bethany (Catherine Kanter) is a member of the association and, in one episode, Tommy confronts them and accuses them of being “small-minded little Englanders who are worried about illegal immigrant stealing your James Blunt CDs.”  Bethany shoots back, “What’s wrong with James Blunt?”


Another second-season episode sees Tommy finally taking on the establishment, the system, The Man.  Inevitably, though, the situation is less dramatic than he believes – he has to defend himself in court after being caught on a platform at Stevenage railway station without a ticket.  (He makes life hard for himself by summoning Keanu Reeves as a witness for the defence.  Keanu reacts to being in the courtroom with a discombobulated, “Why’s everything so woody…?  Why’s everyone speaking like it’s the olden days?”)  When the judge dismisses the case, Tommy gives a triumphant speech to a couple of bemused local journalists: “We have smashed the system.  With this victory, the British rail network’s fare policy lies in tatters…  And we send a message out to all who would seek to oppress the weak and the powerless: you are arseholes and just pack it in, basically.”


© BBC / Baby Cow Productions


One nice thing about Saxondale is its depiction of Tommy and Magz’s relationship.  They might be middle-aged and a little out-of-shape, but they still have a great passion for one another, physical as well as emotional.  “That sex last night was fantastic,” marvels Tommy at one point.  “I went off like Krakatoa.”  However, their amour occasionally leads to embarrassment – for instance, when Tommy forgets to remove Magz’s make-up following a kinky sex game and comes down to eat breakfast in front of a perplexed Raymond; or when Vicky accidentally gets her brightly-coloured claws on a homemade porn video showing Tommy being spanked with a table-tennis paddle.


It’s been over a decade since the final episode of Saxondale was aired and I suppose the chances of it ever returning are nil, seeing as many of the cast have gone on to bigger things.  Ruth Jones has enjoyed great success as the joint writer and star (with James Corden) of Gavin and Stacey (2007-2010), Morwenna Banks is now known internationally as the voice of the mother in Peppa Pig (2004-present) and Rasmus Hardiker has become a prolific voice-actor too.  Plus Steve Coogan seems busier than ever, both with ongoing Alan Partridge projects and as a general actor, writer and producer, most notably with the Oscar-nominated Philomena (2013).  Still, Saxondale should be cherished as evidence that Coogan is fully capable of doing an affectionate, character-driven type of comedy, as well as the more grotesque, heightened type epitomised by Partridge.


In the Guardian, Alexis Pretridis once wrote of Partridge that “one of the reasons audiences find him funny is that they recognise at least a bit of themselves in him.”  By that reckoning, if – like me – you’re on the wrong side of 40, and feel a nostalgic pang for 20th century rock ‘n’ roll, and as a youth had a hankering for what used to be called the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, and feel adrift in a modern world of spam emails, online cat videos, automated phone systems, self-service checkouts, Twitter trolls, chuggers, selfies, Strictly Come Dancing, Simon Cowell and the Kardashian family, you should find Tommy Saxondale hilarious.  Because there’s a lot of him in you.


© BBC / Baby Cow Productions


Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 10



I was whizzing back to my Colombo apartment in a tuk-tuk one evening recently when I happened to look out at the side of the street and see, hovering a foot above the pavement, the outlines of several small children.


“Eek!” I exclaimed.  “Sri Lankan ghost children!”  (My excitability may have been due to the fact that I’d just been in a local hostelry partaking of a couple of bottles of Sri Lanka’s finest beverage, Lion Lager.)


When I traversed the same street the following day, I discovered that the spooky levitating children were still there, but they weren’t actually ghosts.  In reality, they were the foot soldiers of a new traffic safety campaign: life-sized photographic silhouettes, fixed on poles and facing the oncoming traffic, each bearing a sign with a safety slogan written in English or Sinhala.  These slogans ranged from general ones like “Please drive safely” to more specific ones like “Please don’t drive while you’re on the phone” and “Please don’t drink and drive”; and some sounded personal, like “Daddy, please think of me before you drive so fast” and “Aunties and uncles, please follow the traffic signs.”


(Incidentally, in the local variety of English, calling someone an ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’ doesn’t necessarily mean you’re their niece or nephew.  According to my Dictionary of Sri Lankan English by Michael Meyler, ‘auntie’ can be “a term of respect / affection used by a child to a woman or by a young woman to an older woman, even if they are not related.”  The equivalent, with boys and younger and older men, applies to ‘uncle’.)



I’ve written humorously about these spooky traffic-safety kids, but there’s no denying that they’re being used to combat a serious social issue.  Sri Lankan roads are not particularly safe.  A World Health Organisation report in 2015, using data from 2013, put the annual traffic-accident death-toll in Sri Lanka per 100,000 people at 17.4 (compared with 16.6 for India and 2.9 for the UK).  In 2015 it was calculated that one Sri Lankan was dying in a traffic accident every three-and-a-half hours; while the total number of traffic fatalities in 2016 came to 3,117.  Among the reasons given for the carnage are the usual suspects: lack of adequate driver-training, immaturity, speeding, alcohol and tiredness.  (As someone who’s had some scary late-night taxi rides with drivers who’ve looked worryingly sleepy, I can testify to that last one being a problem.)


Among the other figures for 2016, there were 10,754 recorded accidents involving motorcycles, which doesn’t surprise me – motorbikes are ubiquitous here, but drivers of larger vehicles rarely seem to give them much consideration.  It also doesn’t surprise me that 2016 saw 7,061 accidents with tuk-tuks, given the devil-may-care, at times verging on Evel Knievel-esque, driving style favoured by many three-wheeler drivers.


I have to say, though, that for me the biggest villains on Sri Lanka’s streets and roads are the bus drivers, who often behave like they’re at the wheel of an armoured battle-truck in some Mad-Max-style post-apocalypse dystopia.  They seem to believe they have god-like status when they overtake – anything coming in the opposite direction had better get the hell out of the way.  (And when you’re confronted with a 15-ton bus hurtling towards you, you do.)


A few months back, I was having a beer one night in a pub in Jaffna when I got into a conversation with a bloke who was busy quaffing a bottle of arrack.  He spent a long time lamenting about the dangerous driving taking place on the nation’s roads and the number of road accidents resulting from it.  And he had no doubt about what the root of the problem was: “Many young guys drinking alcohol.  Then getting into their cars.”  Finally, he finished his bottle of arrack, paid the bill and lifted from behind the table something I hadn’t noticed before – a motorcycle helmet.  With that, he slouched off into the night.


Spooky traffic-safety kids, you have your work cut out.



My name is Amis, Kingsley Amis


© Vintage Classics


There’s been much talk in recent years about the obsolescence of James Bond.  The thinking goes that as a privileged, white, stuck-up, sexist macho-man rooted in the early decades of the Cold War, Bond has become an embarrassing anachronism in our politically correct, socially aware era today.  Here’s Laurie Penny’s contribution to the debate, for instance, in the New Statesman.


Well, forgive me for being sceptical about this line of thought.  For one thing, with the likes of Donald Trump and Brexit dominating political discourse just now, our times are clearly less enlightened than many would like to think.  Which means there are probably millions of unreconstructed souls out there who don’t give two hoots about political correctness and still clutch old snobby, sexist 007 to their bosoms.  For better or for worse, I don’t think Bond is going to disappear off the popular radar for a while yet.


Also, modern-day Bond-bashers overlook the fact that the Bond franchise – the movies, anyway – has had fun for a long time already with the idea of its hero being outmoded and anachronistic.  In 1983’s Never Say Never Again, Edward Fox’s M tells Sean Connery’s Bond: “It’s no secret that I hold your methods in much less regard than my illustrious predecessor did.”  Thereafter, he lectures Bond on healthy eating and avoiding free radicals: “They’re toxins that destroy the body and the brain, caused by eating too much red meat and white bread.  Too many dry martinis!”  In 1995’s Goldeneye, another M, Judi Dench, takes Pierce Brosnan’s Bond to task for being ‘a sexist, misogynistic dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War…’  And in 2015’s Spectre, Daniel Craig’s Bond is faced with a new, tech-obsessed superior called C (Andrew Scott), who vows to ‘bring British intelligence out of the dark ages, into the light’, where ‘an agent in the field’ can’t ‘last long against all those drones and satellites.’


But however fashionable or unfashionable Bond is these days, nobody can deny that well-regarded authors are still keen to follow in the footsteps of Ian Fleming and have a go at writing new James Bond novels: for example, Sebastian Foulkes (with 2008’s Devil May Care), Jeffery Deaver (with 2011’s Carte Blanche), William Boyd (with 2013’s Solo) and Anthony Horowitz (with 2015’s Trigger Mortis).  And it’s been announced that Horowitz will be unveiling a second Bond novel, Forever and a Day, later this year.


Long before Foulkes, Deaver, Boyd and Horowitz got in on the act, though, another writer attempted to construct a novel around Ian Fleming’s legendary creation.  In 1968, just four years after Fleming’s death, Kingsley Amis wrote a Bond adventure called Colonel Sun and published it under the pseudonym Robert Markham.  By then, of course, Amis was a big noise in British letters thanks to works like 1954’s Lucky Jim and 1960’s Take a Girl Like You.  I should say that my 2015 Vintage Classics edition of Colonel Sun makes no mention of Robert Markham on its front cover and advertises it unapologetically as a Kingsley Amis novel.


© The Times


A few weeks ago, I finally found the time to read Amis’s take on Bond and I thought I’d offer my thoughts on it.  If you haven’t yet read Colonel Sun but intend to, beware – there are spoilers ahead.


Set a little while after the events of Fleming’s Bond swansong, The Man with the Golden Gun (1965) (which Amis is rumoured to have polished up when Fleming died before he could revise it himself), Colonel Sun begins with an audacious attempt by some unidentified villains to kidnap both Bond and M.  They’re only half-successful – M is abducted and whisked out of England, but Bond manages to elude his would-be kidnappers and is then tasked with tracking down his boss.  He soon homes in on an island in the Aegean Sea.  There, M is being held by a Chinese officer, ‘Colonel Sun Liang-tan of the Special Activities Committee, People’s Liberation Army’.


The dastardly Colonel has hatched a dastardly plan.  The Soviet Union is hosting a secret international conference in the area and Sun plans to destroy it and the delegates in a mortar attack, the blame for which will then be pinned on Britain – Sun intends to make it look like one of the last mortars blew up accidentally, before firing, and leave Bond and M’s dead, but still identifiable, bodies in the wreckage.  Thus, China will benefit from the discrediting not only of the USSR for sloppy security, but also of the UK for warmongering.


To rescue M and thwart Sun’s scheme, Bond joins forces with a woman called Ariadne Alexandrou, a Greek communist who’s been working for the Soviets; and a Greek World War II veteran called Niko Litsas who, after fighting Nazis, fought communists during the 1946-49 Greek Civil War.  (Amis discreetly skates over Britain’s sorry role in this episode of Greek history.  In 1944 the British government decided to back the anti-communist faction in Greece against the left-leaning one, even though the former faction contained many former Nazi sympathisers and collaborators and the latter contained many partisans who’d fought for the Allies.)  Despite their ideological differences, the trio bond – ouch! – and are soon prowling the Aegean Sea in a vessel called The Altair whilst figuring a way of taking the fight to Sun and his many henchmen.


Amis’s plot is a generic one and a few things don’t make sense.  For example, why does Sun want to plant the elderly and normally deskbound M at the scene of the crime?  (This is the literary M we’re talking about, not the feistier and more empowered cinematic version played by the likes of Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes.)  Wouldn’t it look more believable if the body of another, physically-able British agent was found there next to Bond’s?  It’s hard to see this as anything more than a perfunctory excuse for the novel’s main gimmick, the kidnapping of M.


© Bantam Books


But Colonel Sun is still good entertainment and it feels more credible as a Bond novel than the other non-Fleming Bonds, like Solo and Trigger Mortis, that I’ve read.  For one thing, unlike the rather bland villains in the Boyd and Horowitz novels, Colonel Sun makes a memorable baddie.


Yes, he belongs to a long tradition of Oriental supervillains found in pulpy colonial adventure fiction – the Fu Manchu books being the most famous, and notorious, examples.  He’s not even the first bad guy in the Bond canon to follow this dubious blueprint, an honour that belongs to the titular character of Fleming’s Dr No (1957).  But Sun is splendidly eccentric.  He’s irritatingly polite and addresses friends and foes alike by their first names.  He also sees himself as an Anglophile: “Sun did not share his colleagues’ often-expressed contempt… for everything British.  He was fond of many aspects of their culture and considered it regrettable in some ways that that culture had such a short time left.”


Then there’s his troubling penchant for torture.  Near the novel’s end and just before he lays into Bond with an array of kitchen utensils (‘knives, skewers, broom-straws’), he explains: “True sadism has nothing whatever to do with sex.  The intimacy I was referring to is moral and spiritual, the union of two souls in a rather mystical way.”  Later still, he surprises us when he confesses to Bond that “I didn’t feel like a god when I was torturing you back there.  I felt sick and guilty and ashamed.”


Admittedly, I could have done without the linguistic quirk that Amis bestows on his villain.  Thanks to his ‘quick ear and passionate desire to learn’ English and a ‘total ignorance of the British dialect pattern’, he’s ended up with a bizarre accent combining the ‘tones of Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, Belfast, Newcastle, Cardiff and several sorts of London…’  As a result, every time that Colonel Sun opens his mouth in the book, I imagine him sounding like Liam Gallagher, Billy Connolly, Ringo Starr, George Best, Jimmy Nail, Charlotte Church and Bob Hoskins fed through a mixing desk.


Colonel Sun also feels like a proper Bond novel because Kingsley Amis’s authorial voice doesn’t sound that different from Ian Fleming’s.  Putting it more crudely, it feels closer to the originals than the modern pastiches do because Amis was as much of a curmudgeonly snob as Fleming was.  By the 1960s, Bond’s rarefied world of Bentleys, dinner jackets and private members’ clubs were on their way out; and Amis bellyaches about it as you’d imagine Fleming would.  When Bond drives through some English farmland, he writes: “Places like this would last longest as memorials of what England had once been.  As if to contradict this idea, there appeared ahead of him a B.E.A. Trident newly taken off from London Airport, full of tourists bearing their fish-and-chip culture to the Spanish resorts, to Portugal’s lovely Algarve province, and now… as far as Morocco.”  Also activating Amis’s Licence to Grump is the prospect of the great unwashed discovering the Greek islands.  Describing a waterfront, he observes: “At the near end were whitewashed cottages with blue or tan shutters and doors, then a grocery, a ship’s supplier, harbour offices, a tavérna with a faded green awning.  No neon, no cars, no souvenir shops.  Not yet.”


© Eon Productions


Still, some aspects of Colonel Sun are surprisingly liberal, considering that Amis was well-known for his cranky right-wing politics.  Ariadne, the book’s heroine, is resourceful and able to look after herself and Bond comes across as less of a sexist boor than one might have expected.  Meanwhile, some of the Soviet characters are depicted sympathetically: for example, Gordienko, Moscow’s man in Athens who believes Bond’s warnings that something fishy is afoot and will have bad consequences for both their countries; and Yermolov, the pragmatic, vodka-loving dignitary who at the end expresses the USSR’s gratitude to Bond for foiling Sun’s plan.  Indeed, Yermolov feels like a prototype for the craggy but avuncular General Gogol, the KGB head played by Walter Gottel who appeared in every Bond movie from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) to The Living Daylights (1987).  In Colonel Sun, Yermolov even offers Bond the Order of the Red Banner; just as Gogol awards Roger Moore (‘Comrade Bond’) the Order of Lenin at the end of 1985’s A View to a Kill.


But before we assume that old Kingsley has gone all hippy-dippy and peace-and-love, we should bear in mind that the Soviets are the good guys here only comparatively – because the bad guys are the Chinese.  The novel even postulates that the West and the Soviet Union are on the brink of working together because of the increasing threat posed by China.  (Richard Nixon’s jaunt to China in 1972 must have knocked that fanciful notion on the head.)  Happily, by the time of the 1997 Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, which has Pierce Brosnan joining forces with Michelle Yeoh to take on evil media mogul Jonathan Pryce (basically playing Rupert Murdoch), the Bond-verse had decided that the Chinese could be good guys too.


Talking of which, while Colonel Sun has never been filmed, it’s interesting to see how a few of its ideas have turned up in the Bond movies.  The kidnapping of M was a key plot element in 1999’s Tomorrow Never Dies, while a villain called Colonel Tan-Sun Moon features in 2002’s Die Another Day.  And if Colonel Sun’s musings during the book’s climactic torture scene sound familiar – “Torture is easy, on a superficial level.  A man can watch himself being disembowelled and derive great horror from the experience, but it’s still going on at a distance…  a man lives inside his head.  That’s where the seed of his soul is…  So James, I’m going to penetrate to where you are.  To the inside of your head….” – it’s because they were used as dialogue in 2015’s Spectre, for the scene where Christoph Waltz violates Daniel Craig’s skull using a torture device that looks like a dentist’s drill attached to a robotic tentacle.


In Spectre, Waltz’s character is revealed as being none other than Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  Having James Bond’s great arch-enemy nick his best lines?  I’m sure Colonel Sun would have been flattered.


© Eon Productions


The Corbynite maneouvre


From knowyourmeme.com


Two steps forward, two steps back.  That’s how I feel about Jeremy Bernard Corbyn, Member of Parliament for Islington North, cyclist, allotment gardener, pescatarian, supporter of Arsenal Football Club, keen photographer of decorative manhole covers, and leader of the UK Labour Party and Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition in Westminster.


Apart from a few occasions in the past when ultra-lefty stupidity has got the better of him and he’s expressed sympathy for some dodgy Irish and Middle Eastern terrorist organisations, I don’t think Corbyn is a bad bloke – certainly not as politicians go.  Indeed, I think most of his views about where British society and the world generally ought to be heading are sane ones.


(Please note that I’m talking about Jeremy Corbyn, not necessarily about all members of the Labour Party.  And I’m certainly not talking about the Scottish branch of the Labour Party whom, as I’ve said before on this blog, I regard mostly as a bunch of diddies whose gigantic sense of entitlement is in inverse proportion to their abilities.)


For instance, I cheered when Corbyn responded to a recent Twitter pronouncement by Donald Trump.  (‘Pronouncements’ hardly seems the best word for Trump’s Twitter output.  ‘Emissions’?  ‘Discharges’?)  Referring to a demonstration calling itself NHS in Crisis: Fix it Now that’d recently taken place in London and drawn thousands of marchers, President Brainless Blabbermouth Baldy-locks tweeted on February 5th that the demo was evidence of a universal, free-on-the-point-of-delivery healthcare system not working and evidence why nothing similar should be attempted in the USA: “The Democrats are pushing for Universal HealthCare while thousands of people are marching in the UK because their U system is going broke and not working…  No thanks!”


(This came after Trump had watched Nigel Farage on his main news source, the loony right-wing Fox News network.  Farage, whom Fox would have you believe is the only British person with an opinion on the planet, had been spouting off about how Britain’s NHS was at ‘breaking point’ and how this was all the fault of beastly immigrants.  Predictably, shit-gibbon Farage sidestepped the fact that 12.5% of NHS staff in England are non-British nationals, i.e. immigrants.)


Of course, the London demonstration was really in support of Britain’s National Health Service and its principles; and was protesting at what the organisers, the People’s Assembly and Health Campaigns Together, saw as Theresa May’s Conservative government’s underfunding of it and insidious moves to push parts of it towards privatisation.  Jeremy Corbyn responded to Trump’s tweet and nailed its dishonesty: “Wrong. People were marching because we love our NHS and hate what the Tories are doing to it. Healthcare is a human right.”


From youtube.com


My attitude towards Corbyn is like that old catchphrase from The X-Files: “I want to believe.”  Yet despite his good points, he’s repeatedly left me feeling annoyed, frustrated and let-down because of his determined obfuscation about another issue, the none-too-trivial one of Britain quitting the European Union.  With Corbyn at its helm, the Labour Party seems happy just to bob along in the Conservatives’ slipstream on this.  Indeed, Corbyn imposed a three-line whip in the House of Commons to make his MPs vote in favour of the activation of Article 50, which triggered the whole sorry process of Brexit.


And can anyone make sense of Corbyn’s position on whether or not Britain should have membership of the EU’s Single Market (like non-EU-members Norway and Switzerland) or Customs Union (like Turkey)?  Corbyn and his Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer have been contradicting each other, and themselves, about this for months.  Their incoherence on the matter has been, well, Trumpian.


It was especially maddening that Corbyn missed an open goal at this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, after some Treasury forecasts about the dire economic impact of Brexit on the UK found their way onto Buzzfeed.  Rather than raising the matter and using it as a rhetorical machete to reduce Theresa May to sashimi, he chose to bang on about policing and law and order instead.


Why has Corbyn has been so vague in his Brexit policies and so toothless about Brexit when confronting the Tories?  Well, first, I suppose Corbyn thinks it makes sense to keep schtum about the topic while the Conservative government is making such a spectacular hash of the Brexit negotiations and while pro and anti-EU factions in the Conservative party are busy eviscerating each other.  (See Anna Soubry’s recent outburst against Jacob Rees Mogg, the new champion of the Brexiting Tory right and a man who looks like the result of a sinister experiment splicing together DNA from Lord Snooty and Dr Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow in Batman).  Why shouldn’t he just sit back and let his opponents get on with destroying themselves?


Second, many pro-EU Labour MPs are in the uncomfortable position of having to represent constituencies in Labour’s English heartlands where a majority of people voted for Brexit.  No wonder a lot of Labour politicians, including Corbyn, prefer to bite their tongues about it.


And third, I’m pretty sure that Corbyn, for all his endorsements of a ‘remain’ vote before the 2016 Brexit referendum, doesn’t really like the EU that much.  In fact, he’s been anti-Europe at various times in the past – he opposed Britain’s membership of the then-EEC in the 1975 European Communities Referendum, opposed the Maastricht Treaty in the 1990s and opposed the Lisbon Treaty in the 2000s.  I doubt if his attitude differs much from that of his old left-wing guru the late Anthony Wedgewood Benn, who once claimed that “Britain’s continuing membership of the (European) Community would mean the end of Britain as a completely self-governing nation.”


© New Statesman


By ducking Brexit, Corbyn no doubt reckons he’s doing the right thing by his own beliefs and doing the wise thing by political expediency.  But I suspect it’s a policy that’s going to end in tears, especially if it entails the Labour Party sitting on their hands until it’s too late.  For one thing, those Treasury forecasts make horrendous reading and Labour areas – ones that, paradoxically, voted most enthusiastically for Brexit – are predicted to take the worst economic hits.  The UK generally is expected to see a 2% decline in economic growth under the very best-case scenario, which would be remaining in the Single Market, and an 8% decline under the worst-case one, which would be quitting the EU with no deal at all.  However, the figures range between a 3% decline and an eyewatering 16% one in what’s predicted to be the worst-affected area, England’s North-East.


Anyone who’s read Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine (2007) must be wondering if an economically-traumatised post-Brexit Britain is being lined up for a strong dose of disaster capitalism; whereby its resources, assets and public services get flogged off in a fire-sale to piratical corporations, oligarchs and free-marketeers by a government desperately trying to pay the bills.  The NHS would surely be top of the auction-list.  At Prime Minister’s Questions this week, it took Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats – remember them? – to raise the scary prospect of American firms taking over chunks of the NHS if Britain has to wheedle a post-Brexit trade deal out of the Trump administration.  Typically, May refused to give any guarantees.  This possibility, combined with potential losses among the NHS’s non-British workforce, suggests that the venerable institution is heading for a horror-story ending.


For old Jeremy, these Corbynite manoeuvres around – and avoiding – Brexit might make sense.  But I fear they may well spell disaster for his beloved NHS and for the country as a whole.





It grieves me to say I didn’t particularly enjoy my visit to Bangkok’s 255-year-old Grand Palace complex until the last half-hour of it.  And my lack of enjoyment was solely due to the hordes of sightseers packed into the place.  The complex has an overall area of 218,000 square metres, but that didn’t prevent the courtyards and thoroughfares from being so crowded that there wasn’t room in them to swing the proverbial cat.


(I haven’t been so put-off by the crowds at a major tourist attraction since the day several years ago when I went to the Vatican.  The nadir of that visit was when I entered the Sistine Chapel.  I was barely able to pause for a moment and look up and admire Michelangelo’s angels and demons because of all the bodies around me and the fact that the guards kept herding everyone along, across the floor and out through the exit.  Dan Brown, that was all your fault.)


One reason why the Grand Palace was choc-a-bloc was because of the preponderance of tour parties.  They oozed through the rest of the sightseers with squawking, flag-bearing tour-guides at their heads or simply sat along the tops of the low walls looking exhausted.  Also, the statues and building-facades were clogged with huge numbers of people taking selfies.  Incidentally, has anyone made a horror movie yet wherein a serial killer starts murdering tourists by shoving their selfie-sticks down their throats?  If so, I’d pay money to watch it.


I found it bewildering that so many people were posing for photos in front of images of Buddha.  As a resident of Sri Lanka, I’m used to Sri Lankans getting upset about people doing this at their country’s Buddhist temples and shrines, which they find very disrespectful.  (However, taking a picture of the image itself, without some halfwit grinning and making peace-signs in front of it, is okay.)  I guess in Thailand there are just so many dumb, narcissistic tourists using these sacred images as backgrounds for their selfies that the Thais are unable to enforce any rules against it.  (I found it odd too that many of the tourists snapping pictures of themselves in front of Buddha seemed to come from a country I’d always regarded as a Buddhist one.)


But I suppose I should have been thankful for small mercies, because the truly thick tourists who came to the Grand Palace weren’t allowed inside.  I’m talking about the ones who ignored all the advice to enter the place ‘respectfully dressed’ and then were surprised when the palace security staff saw them, raised their hands and said, “No way.”  Needless to say, these were all Westerners.  I’m thinking of one guy who was refused entry because he appeared in skimpy shorts, below which his legs were slathered in swirling, Celtic-y tattoos.  Or a woman who turned up in a pair of jeans so full of holes that they might have been worn by Warren Beatty at the conclusion of Bonnie and Clyde (1967).


Anyway, enough of the grumbling.  (I realise I’m hardly in a position to complain about the volume of tourists at the Grand Palace when I went as a tourist myself.)  There were some things I really liked about the place, for example…



I liked Phra Mondop, a library-building containing items of Buddhist scripture.  It had soaring, enamelled and gold-leafed pillars and a conical roof that was byzantine in its amount of detail.  It was also notable for the golden naga-like creatures slithering down the tops of the curving stair-walls outside it.  Each creature ended in a hydra-esque cluster of necks that supported five human faces.



I liked the dozen hulking statues of what I believe are known locally as yakshasThese are ogres with blue skins, snarling faces, goggling eyes, bat ears, snub noses and boar tusks, and clad in tiered, lampshade-like helmets and intricately-patterned armour.  The complex had many gorgeous statues, in fact: including one of Cheewok Komaraphat, who was doctor to Buddha and the founder of Thai herbal medicine; and ones of some gruff-faced Chinese men with tendrilled beards, which were imported from China in the early days of Thailand’s current Chakri Dynasty; and ones of some camp-looking lions.



And I liked the mural paintings depicting the Ramakien, Thailand’s national epic.  Many of these showed a battle between demon-king Tosakanth and the human king Rama – who enlisted an army of monkey-warriors (led by the ubiquitous monkey-deity Hanuman) to fight against the demons after Tosankanth kidnapped his queen.  Amid the murals’ imagery was what looked like the kirtimukha, a vast Hindu / Buddhist monster customarily depicted as a giant face in the process of swallowing everyone and everything.  Meanwhile, lines of armoured monkeys could be seen standing, with arms and legs outstretched, around the lowest levels of the tiered stupas that flank the Prasat Phra Dhepbidorn (Royal Pavilion).



Although I mentioned earlier that during peak visitor-hours in the Grand Palace you couldn’t swing a cat, there were actually a few real cats slinking about the premises, admirably unfazed by the mayhem of the tourist crowds around them.  Here’s a picture of my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, about to photograph one of them.



By the late afternoon, closing time had come and gone and the palace staff had succeeded in steering most of the crowds out through the exits.  We were among the very last stragglers.  An unexpected and eerie – but pleasant – quietness descended over the complex.  The only things preventing it from being wholly silent were a rustling breeze, the tinkling of small, swinging bells, and the chanting of monks from the main building, the Chapel of the Emerald Buddha.  And, finally, I felt glad we’d made the effort to come here.



Lucifer no longer over Lancashire




According to the Book of Job, Chapter 1, Verse 21, “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.”  That maxim has been demonstrated this month.  January 15th saw a star-studded concert held at Dublin’s National Concert Hall to celebrate the fact that Irish singer, songwriter and musician Shane MacGowan had celebrated his 60th birthday despite a lifetime of heavy-duty boozing and wild living that would cut most people down before they got anywhere near 60.  And yet, just nine days later, another musical star famous for his boozing and wild living was cut down – with a spooky symmetry, aged 60 years old too.  I’m talking about the Salford-born, Prestwich-bred Mark E. Smith, for four decades the driving force behind the great post-punk / alternative rock group the Fall.


(If you’re to believe MacGowan’s 2001 memoir A Drink with Shane MacGowan, he and Smith did not see eye to eye.  Though supposedly Smith once remarked, during a discussion about ecstasy: “It was horrible, it makes you fall in love with everyone.  I couldn’t keep me hands off Shane MacGowan.”)


To be honest, Smith’s death on January 24th shouldn’t have been surprising.  His hazardous lifestyle had lately taken its toll on his appearance, to the point where he looked like a wizened cross between William S. Burroughs and Dobby the House Elf from Harry Potter.   And it wasn’t unusual for newspaper interviews with him to take place during punishing drinking sessions in various Manchester pubs.  But no matter what state he was in, Smith kept recording and performing so that today, according to Wikipedia, there are 31 Fall studio albums, 40 compilation albums, 32 live albums and five ‘part studio, part live albums’, and this remorseless, cussed work-ethic gave the impression that the curmudgeonly old devil was going to last forever.


When he wasn’t making music, he was famously busy hiring and firing bandmembers.  In 2011 the journalist Robert Chalmers put the number of musicians who’d collaborated with Smith in the Fall at 66.  Saying he was a hard taskmaster is possibly as much of an understatement as saying Vlad the Impaler was a bit harsh on his prisoners.  Among the multitude who’d been expelled from the band over the years was bassist, guitarist and keyboard player (and future DJ) Marc Riley, who got his marching orders in part because Smith had seen him dancing to Deep Purple in an Australian nightclub.  (“Get in the hotel and stay there till I tell you.  You don’t need to be dancing to Smoke on the Water.”)  Then again, even Riley was lucky compared to a sound engineer who, legend has it, was fired by Smith for ordering a salad.  (“The salad was the last straw.”)  Inevitably, this tribe of ex-Fall bandmembers became the subject of a book, Dave Simpson’s The Fallen in 2008.  By the time The Fallen appeared in paperback the following year, it’d acquired an additional front-cover blurb saying, “Now with added ex-members!”


© Step-Forward Records


But Smith’s reputation for brutal band-management shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow the music, much of which was great – see such songs as Industrial Estate (1978), The Container Drivers (1980), Hip Priest (1982), Who Makes the Nazis? (1982), Eat Y’Self Fitter (1983), Spoilt Victorian Child (1985), Cruiser’s Creek (1985), Lucifer over Lancashire (1985), Carry Bag Man (1988), Hit the North (1988), Edinburgh Man (1991) and Hey Luciani (1993).  Admittedly, my favourite Fall stuff comes from the first half of their 40-year career, but I find all their music fascinating – even at its most clunking, abrasive and repetitious, even when it verges on the unlistenable, it exerts a hypnotic effect thanks to Smith’s snarling stream-of-consciousness lyrics, which sound like James Joyce on crystal meth.  Only in a Fall song would you hear such demented poetry as “Got 18 months for espionage / Too much brandy for breakfast” or “The Siberian mushroom Santa / Was in fact Rasputin’s brother” or “He had a parka on and a black cardboard bishop’s hat / With a green fuzz skull and crossbones / He’d just got back from the backward kids’ party.”


Incidentally, if you’re intrigued by Smith’s wordplay, you should check out an Internet site called the Fall Quote Generator, which throws random Fall lyrics at you when you click on a button.  It recommends that you “use it like the I Ching, remembering to ask a question first.”  (When I asked it how Donald Trump got elected, I received the answer: “Out drift dog pet dogs street bullshit / Dog shit baby bit ass-lick dog mirror.”  So that explains it.)


It seemed appropriate that the Fall became the favourite band of Britain’s greatest-ever DJ John Peel, who got them to record no fewer than 24 sessions for his radio show.  Indeed, the words, “And now, in session, the mighty Fall” – intoned in Peel’s lugubrious Liverpudlian burr – were the closest thing he had to a catchphrase.


I first saw the Fall perform in 1985 in Aberdeen, where they were supported by the Membranes.  (Wow, whatever happened to the Membranes?  Well, actually…)  The band were impressively focused and intense – helped, I suspect, by the presence of Smith’s then-wife and guitarist Brix Smith, the woman credited with inspiring a certain tunefulness in the Fall, helping them crack the Top Forty a couple of times and generally sprucing Smith up a bit during the mid-to-late 1980s.


From thefall.org / © Michael Pollard


I saw them again in 1999 in Edinburgh, with their support band none other than former Britpop-darlings Elastica.  They seemed rather ragged this time, though Fall fans I chatted to in the crowd were simply delighted that the band had managed to deliver a coherent set.  This was a year after a notorious gig in upstate New York when a mid-performance row between Smith and the other bandmembers turned nasty, resulting in violence both onstage and off it and Smith getting arrested.


I didn’t see the Fall again after that but, one evening in 2004 while I was working in Dublin, I was drinking in Cassidy’s Bar on Camden Street when an acquaintance remarked, “Look over there – it’s your man Mark E. Smith from that band the Fall.”  And sure enough, there he was, enjoying a pint.  I entertained the thought of going over and saying hello but – probably wisely – decided not to.  By a sad coincidence, the very next morning, the Irish newspapers were reporting that the Fall’s great champion, John Peel, had died of a heart attack whilst on holiday in Peru.


Music aside, there were two reasons why I liked Mark E. Smith.  One was his considerable sardonic wit.  Interviews with him, no matter how shambolic the setting and dishevelled the interviewee, usually produced a couple of nuggets that had me laughing out loud.  This was never more so than when Smith directed his guns – or tongue – at his contemporaries and rivals in the music world.  Among those getting it in the neck from Smith over the years were Badly Drawn Boy (“fat git”), Kate Bush (“Who decided it was time to start liking her again?”), Echo and the Bunnymen (“old crocks”), Garbage (“like watching paint dry”), Bob Geldof (“a dickhead”), Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore (“should have his rock licence revoked”), Mumford and Sons (“We were playing a festival in Dublin…  There was this other group, like, warming up… and they were terrible.  I said, ‘Shut them c*nts up!’  And they were still warming up, so I threw a bottle at them…  I just thought they were a load of retarded Irish folk singers”), Pavement (“They haven’t got an original thought in their heads”), Ed Sheeran (like “a duff singer songwriter from the 70s you find in charity shops”) and Suede (“Never heard of them,” said Smith cruelly, just after finishing a tour where Suede were the support band).


© Kamera Records


I also liked Smith because he was a lover of books – after all, he named the Fall after the 1956 Albert Camus novel La Chute – and I often got the impression during interviews that he’d be happier discussing literature than music.  He admired Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Philip K. Dick and especially the Welsh occult writer Arthur Machen.  “M.R. James is good,” he once told the Independent newspaper, “but Machen’s f**king brilliant!”


Then there was his love for the legendary American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, which culminated in him doing a reading of Lovecraft’s short story The Colour out of Space for the BBC’s ‘interactive culture magazine’ Collective.  This was an unsettling experience wherein Smith’s thick Mancunian accent and the Massachusetts accents of Lovecraft’s characters battled for supremacy.  (The result was a mangled draw.)  Also, the bits during the reading where Smith paused and stuck out and wiggled his tongue were as frightening as any of the eldritch horrors in the story.


Anyway, there you have it.  40 years, 31 albums, 66+ bandmembers, one Fall… and one incomparable Mark E. Smith.


© Sanctuary Records