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.

Let’s get (more expensively) pished!

 

© TriStar Pictures

 

Anyone who knew me in my youth, or indeed in my middle youth, or even in my later youth, will testify that I was commonly fond of a pint of beer.  Or two.  Or three.  And those were often washed down with a wee whisky chaser.  Or two.  Or three.

 

It was even observed of me once or twice that I was “the worse for drink.”  To this I would retort, “No, I’m very much the better for it.”

 

Anyway, if you’re an acquaintance who knew me back in my hellraising days, brace yourself.  I’m about to make a statement that will shock you.  I actually agree with the new alcohol minimum-pricing law introduced yesterday in Scotland. 

 

The new Scottish legislation means the cost of alcoholic beverages will now be determined by their strength, i.e. every unit of alcohol they contain will automatically add at least 50 pence onto their price-tag.  Thus, a two-litre bottle of super-strong cider (containing more than your medically recommended alcohol intake for an entire week), which was previously available for as little as £2.50, will now cost at least £7.50.

 

The intention is to reduce the physical, social and financial carnage wreaked in Scotland by alcohol abuse.  Statistics include 1,265 alcohol-related deaths in 2016; 36,325 alcohol-related hospital stays in 2016-17; 42% of offenders in violent crimes being under the influence of alcohol in 2016-2017; and alcohol’s cost to the public purse in terms of health and social care, policing, lost working hours, etc, being an estimated £3.6 billion in 2007.

 

Personally, I doubt if upping prices and doing away with bargain-basement booze is likely to stop your average, hardened, russet-faced, Godzilla-breathed, middle-aged jakey seeking his or her daily alcohol fix.  But I suspect it will cause a gradual improvement, in that more young people – a section of the population that’s increasingly strapped for cash these days – will be dissuaded from acquiring holocaustic drinking habits.  Mind you, that seems to be the trend now among young folk in the UK anyway.

 

From playbuzz.com

 

My own reason for supporting minimum pricing isn’t to do with public health.  I just think it might reduce, ever so slightly, the competition that Scotland’s hard-pressed pubs have faced from the supermarkets, whose shelves until yesterday were usually a blizzard of cheap-drink offers.  Now that the gulf between pub prices (which are too high to be affected by the new legislation) and supermarket prices is fractionally less wide, a few people might be encouraged to visit their neighbourhood public houses more often – which might in turn save one or two pubs from going to the wall.

 

In recent years, the UK has experienced a virtual bar-mageddon.  According to figures from CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, an average of 18 British pubs go out of business every week.  The ridiculously low price of alcohol in the supermarkets is one of the causes of this, though there are other factors too, including the smoking ban, stricter alcohol limits for drivers and changing social habits generally.   And let’s not forget the sorry situation in London, where many beautiful old pubs have lately been destroyed by the rapaciousness of wankerish property developers.

 

Meanwhile, pubs that have survived in downtown areas of British cities have often been disfigured by proprietors desperate to lure in the Friday and Saturday night crowds: office workers, students, start-of-the-evening clubbers, hen and stag parties.  This means tearing out alcoves and seating areas (making more room for standing-up punters) and blighting the premises with deafening music, giant TV screens, zinging games machines and karaoke, none of which are conducive to meaningful human conversation and communication.  The result is pubs that aren’t so much social venues as standing-room-only drinking stations.

 

Personally, the main reason why I enjoy alcohol is because I enjoy being in pubs – proper pubs.  I’d much rather take a drink in a lively social environment than take it on my lonesome at home, even if that seems to be the default setting for many drinkers nowadays.  And a good pub has so many things going for it.  Firstly, now that most other venues for community interaction have disappeared from modern Britain, such as the corner shop, the little neighbourhood post office and the old-style gents’ barber, the pub is about the only place left where you can meet your neighbours and catch up on the local news and gossip.

 

There’s also the heritage factor.  In terms of interior décor and, sometimes, external architecture, British pubs can be treasure troves.  I’m thinking of such gorgeous bars as the Café Royal in Edinburgh, the Gatehouse in Norwich and the Crown Posada in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

 

And I love the idea that you can walk into a pub and never know who you’ll end up talking to: folk from all walks of life, strangers with interesting, occasionally fascinating stories to tell.  All human life is potentially there, human life that you have no chance of encountering if you’re sitting on the sofa at home quaffing a £3.19 bottle of Rich and Ripe red wine from Asda (now bumped up to £4.88 in Scotland).

 

For that reason, when I reminisce about the different places I’ve lived, half the time I find myself thinking about pubs associated with those places: the Machar Bar in Aberdeen, the Hebrides Bar in Edinburgh, the Honjin Murakame in the Japanese town of Takikawa, the misleadingly-named Tadessa’s Grocery in the Ethiopian town of Debre Birhan, and so on.  No doubt in years to come, when I think back to the time I spent in Colombo, many of my memories will centre on the dear old Vespa Sports Club on Sea Avenue.  It seems to me that a town without a good pub is a town without a soul.

 

Although many towns have lost a depressingly high number of pubs in the last few years, my hometown of Peebles in the Scottish Borders has got off relatively lightly.  The last time I was back, eight months ago, I counted a total of 18 pubs, hotel bars, club bars and wine bars still on the go there, which for a town of 8,376 people (2011 census) works out at one pub per 465 inhabitants.  Not that this seems to have negatively impacted on the health of the population.  On the contrary, the average Peeblean has a life expectancy slightly higher than that of the average Borderer and a couple of years higher than that of the average Scot.  Maybe it’s all the hurrying from pub to pub, from the Neidpath to the Trust to the Crown to the Central – it helps to burn off the calories.

 

© Desilu Productions / Paramount Television

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 11

 

A few weeks ago, I was wandering along the venerable street-side walkway on York Street in downtown Colombo, savouring its old-worldly atmosphere – old-worldly atmospheres are becoming something of a rarity in ever-changing, ever-modernising Colombo – and snapping pictures of the antiquated shop signs that hang there: Millers Ltd (Groceries, Wines, Tobaccos and Fancy Goods), Cargills Ltd (Dispensing Drugs, Toilet Requisites, Perfumery and Optical Goods) and, um, Kentucky Fried Chicken.

 

 

Then I noticed this shop frontage.  Its window was murky with reflected light.  But did I see a strange figure in there, standing just behind the glass?

 

 

I approached the window and discovered a massive ape-like creature glowering out and, indeed, glowering down at me.  A yeti.  Yes, here was an abominable snowman, not in its normal abode of the Himalayan Mountains but in a shop on York Street in central Colombo.

 

 

Well, obviously, it wasn’t a real yeti but a mock-up of one presumably made of fibreglass.  The thing had been created as an eye-catching advertising gimmick for a product called Yeti Isotonic Energy, a rehydrating sports drink that the Internet tells me has been “developed in collaboration by Austrian and Sri Lankan scientists.”  Bottles of it were on display elsewhere in the shop.

 

Like its North American counterpart Big Foot, the yeti is a cryptid, i.e. an animal whose evidence has not been scientifically proven.  It might exist, and some people claim it exists, but that’s all we can say.  I had an overactive imagination when I was a kid and, predictably, I loved the idea that fantastical beasties such as the yeti and Big Foot might be skulking undetected in the world’s less charted regions.

 

So how disappointed I was when, in 1980, British television aired a show about unexplained phenomena called Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World and I excitedly tuned in one evening to an episode of it devoted to cryptid apes – only to hear its host, the science-fiction writer (and coincidently a long-term resident of Sri Lanka) Arthur C. Clarke, pour cold water over the existence of such creatures.  For instance, Clarke was unmoved by the famous 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film footage allegedly showing Big Foot because he and Stanley Kubrick had shown in their 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey that it was possible to film very realistic-looking ape scenes using human actors in make-up and hairy costumes.  At the end of the episode he opined that if that he had a hundred pounds to bet, he’d forty pounds on the yeti existing, ten pounds on Big Foot existing and “keep the other fifty pounds for myself.”

 

While the yeti and Big Foot are by far the most famous examples, there have been reports of cryptid apes, anthropoids and Neanderthal-like beings all over the world.  These include the Skunk Ape of the Florida Everglades; the Almas of central Asia; the Australian Yowie; the Chinese Yeren; and the Japanese Hibagon, said to live around Mount Hiba near Hiroshima.  Even Scotland has one, the Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui (Am Fear Liath Mòr in Gaelic), a huge, hairy creature that’s supposed to stalk and loom up terrifyingly in the mist behind lone hikers and climbers on Scotland’s second-highest peak, Ben Macdui in the Cairngorm Mountains.  Nice though the idea of ape creatures hiding out in the Cairngorms is, I’m inclined to attribute the sightings of the Big Grey Man to the sun / cloud-generated optical effect known as the Brocken Spectre.  (Yes, I’m now a total, killjoy sceptic about such things.  Blame Arthur C. Clarke.)

 

My curiosity piqued, I did some research to find out if Sri Lanka can claim to have any cryptid apes of its own.  And it can, apparently.  The Nittaewo were said to be a species of bipedal, tailless primates dwelling in the nation’s forests, with talon-like fingers and a strange language that resembled the twittering of birds.  According to the traditions of the Vedda people – who are believed to be Sri Lanka’s oldest human inhabitants – the Vedda fought against and finally destroyed the Nittaewo in the 18th century.  All the same, there have been alleged sightings of the Nittaewo since then, indeed, as late as 1984.

 

Still, if you go down to the Sri Lankan woods today and hear strange rustlings and twittering sounds coming through the undergrowth towards you, you needn’t be too alarmed.  The Nittaewo were said to be three feet tall at most, so if they did exist they would probably have resembled Hobbits – and not their giant-sized Himalayan cousin in the shop window on York Street.

 

 

My favourite gigs

 

From ticketcollector.wordpress.com

 

The other day, something made me sit down and compile a list of all the musical acts I’ve seen play live, along with details and dates for where and when I saw them.  I ended up with a list of 153 bands and performers, kicking off with that hoary old Scottish hard rock / heavy metal group Nazareth, whom I saw in Aberdeen in 1984; and culminating with mask-wearing Sri Lankan death metal band the Genocide Shrines, whom I saw in Colombo at the end of last year.

 

Anyway, as my previous blog-post dealt with an utterly depressing topic, I thought today I would write about something happy and imbued with the glow of nostalgia.  Here are the best musical gigs I’ve ever attended.

 

The Proclaimers – Aberdeen Ritzy, 1987

I didn’t know what to expect when some mates got me along to a concert by Craig and Charlie Reid, better known as Scottish folk-pop duo the Proclaimers.  I liked the Reids – their hit song that year, the politically charged Letter from America, was already becoming Scotland’s great anti-Maggie-Thatcher anthem – but I had no idea what they’d be like live.  Also, they were performing at Aberdeen Ritzy, a place I had an aversion to because I’d once worked there as a member of the floor-staff and it was probably the least enjoyable job I’d ever had.

 

Well, I had no reason to be apprehensive.  The gig felt like a giant, joyous football match where the entire crowd supported the same team and that team was winning 10-0.  I suspect one reason why the Proclaimers went down so well that night was because the Aberdonian audience could relate to their song Throw the R Away, which is about the frustrations caused when standard English-speakers can’t understand your accent.  Which of course is a common hazard if you speak fluent Aberdonian.

 

© Chrysalis

 

The Jesus and Mary Chain, Dinosaur Jr, My Bloody Valentine, Blur – the Rollercoaster Tour, London Brixton Academy, 1992

From Craig and Charlie Reid to two more Scottish siblings called Reid.  These were Jim and William Reid of the feedback-drenched East Kilbride noise-niks the Jesus and Mary Chain.  Their Rollercoaster Tour date at Brixton Academy in 1992 offered not only excellent support from American alternative rockers Dinosaur Jr and dreamy, swirly shoegazers My Bloody Valentine, but also a chance to sample a young, up-and-coming band called Blur (though my reaction when I saw Damon Albarn onstage wasn’t that he was destined to be an icon of the future Britpop movement but that he resembled a musical version of Norman Wisdom).  Meanwhile, the headliners blew me away.  Promoting their recent album Honey’s Dead (1992), which was packed with behemoth tunes like Reverence and Sugar Ray, the Jesus and Mary Chain played their set as dark silhouettes against a huge blood-red backdrop and were simultaneously glorious, imperious, uncompromising and terrifying.

 

The Manic Street Preachers – Sapporo Penny Lane, 1993

Welsh rock band the Manic Street Preachers were promoting their album Gold Against the Soul when they turned up in the Japanese city of Sapporo, at whose Hokkai-Gakuen University I worked at the time as a lecturer.  In Britain they had a reputation for being shit-stirring retro-punks, but in Japan they were seen as a sort of Guns n’ Roses-lite, possibly thanks to their then-predilection for wearing eye-liner and glam-ish clothes.  Accordingly, their gig at Sapporo’s Penny Lane attracted a squad of young Japanese ladies dressed in floppy hats and silk scarves who spent their time squealing ‘Rich-ee!’ at the band’s iconic but troubled guitarist, Richey Edwards (who’d disappear, never to be seen again, two years later).  The gig was great, but Edwards was on edge.  At one point he raged against an illuminated fire-exit sign at the auditorium’s far end that he claimed was distracting him.  In a typical face-saving Japanese compromise, the venue manager didn’t turn the sign off – he just tied a big strip of cardboard over it so that nobody, including Richey, could see it, but it stayed switched on in accordance with fire regulations.

 

I bought the Japanese edition of Gold Against the Soul and I’ve always had a soft spot for it – maybe because its sound had a naively youthful quality that gave way to darker, more austere music on later Manics albums like The Holy Bible (1994) and Everything Must Go (1996).  Years afterwards, I listened to Gold Against the Soul again and discovered the CD case had a second tray that I hadn’t noticed before, containing a second, bonus disc – a live one of them performing in Japan.  I played it and immediately felt a nostalgic sadness, for in the crowd I could hear those Japanese ladies shouting “Rich-ee!” again at poor, doomed Richey Edwards.  It wasn’t so much a CD as a time capsule.

 

© Getty Images / NME

 

The Beastie Boys – Sapporo Jasmac Plaza, 1995

I almost didn’t attend this concert, which also took place while I worked at Sapporo’s Hokkai-Gakuen University.  The show was due to begin at 7.00 PM – concerts in Japan tended to start when the tickets said they would – and the same evening I had to give a late lecture until 7.20 PM.  Plus I calculated that by the time I got from the university campus to the venue, the Jasmac Plaza, the Beastie Boys would already be an hour into their gig.  It didn’t seem worth it.

 

However, a few weeks before the concert, it was announced that work had been completed on a new Sapporo subway line, which had a station called Gakuen-Mae directly below the campus where I was working.  I also discovered that the next station along the new line, Hosui-Suskino, had an exit that was only a block from the Jasmac Plaza.  And a subway train left for Hosui-Susukino from Gakuen-Mae every evening at 7.30.  I figured that if I caught the 7.30 train, and moved very fast, I could be at the concert hall in the Jasmac Plaza ten minutes later – hopefully not yet halfway through the Beastie Boys’ set.  Fate seemed to be urging me to buy a ticket, so I did.

 

That evening, I finished my lecture on the stroke of 7.20, ran like hell for the subway station and charged down what seemed like half-a-dozen escalators, descending deeper and deeper into the earth.  The train was already at the platform and I ran and jumped through its about-to-close carriage doors.  At Hosui-Susukino, I sprang out of the train, ran up more escalators, ran along a city block into the Jasmac Plaza and up several staircases to its fourth floor, where the concert hall was.  Live music blasted out of speakers above me.  I dashed into the hall, gasping for breath, my university lecturer’s suit, shirt and tie soaked in sweat…  And I discovered that the Beastie Boys weren’t onstage at all.  What I was hearing was a support act that hadn’t been mentioned on the bloody ticket.  The Beasties didn’t appear until forty minutes later.

 

After that, this needed to be a superb gig to justify all the hassle and indignity I’d suffered.  Which, thankfully, it was.

 

© Mute / Reprise

 

Nick Cave – Edinburgh Princes Street Gardens, 1999

During the 1999 Edinburgh Festival, goth-rock troubadour Nick Cave – sans his backing band the Bad Seeds – performed in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, which meant he had the craggy Edinburgh Castle rock, crowned by the battlements of the castle itself, as a spectacular backdrop.  But there was a problem.  Taking place in the castle was the Edinburgh Tattoo, that celebration of tartan-swathed, bagpipe-wailing Scottish military kitsch held every August; and the Tattoo organisers were not happy about having to compete against a concert below in the Gardens.  Indeed, a few evenings earlier, the Gardens had hosted the psychedelic / space-rock outfit Spiritualised and their percussive beats had caused the Lone Piper – the bagpiper who appears on the ramparts at the Tattoo’s finale to play the lament Sleep Dearie Sleep – to lose concentration and mess up the tune.  This evening, to placate the Tattoo, Cave wasn’t allowed to start playing until it had finished, meaning the audience turned up at the time specified on the tickets but then had to wait an hour.  (To keep us entertained, some local performance-poets were brought onstage, including the late, lamented Paul Reekie.)

 

One consequence of this was that when Cave finally did come on, the end-of-Tattoo firework display was erupting above the castle.  Talk about a spectacular entrance!  And the ensuing gig was worth the long wait.  The songs, mostly stripped-down versions of stuff from 1997’s The Boatman’s Call and 1996’s Murder Ballads, were wonderfully enhanced by the gothic surroundings – the rock, the castle and finally a gorgeous full moon ascending into the starry Edinburgh sky.

 

The Waterboys – Newcastle, Tyne Theatre and Opera House, 2003

In the mid-1980s, there was a considerable buzz about the Waterboys, who were expected to go stratospheric and join U2 and Simple Minds as one of the big Celtic rock bands of the era.  Instead, under the leadership of Edinburgh man Mike Scott, they decamped to Ireland and became a folk band for a while and rock superstardom never quite arrived.  Actually, I preferred their folky stuff (like 1988’s When Ye Go Away) to their rather bloated rock stuff (like 1985’s The Whole of the Moon).

 

For this 2003 gig in Newcastle, the band did an hour of gentle, melodic music (kicking off with a version of the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses, which Scott decided to play because he’d “had it in his head all day”); there was an interval during which everyone enjoyed a pint or four in the Opera House bar; and then it was back into the auditorium for a second hour of up-tempo rock music.  The relaxed and nothing-more-to-prove Scott clearly wanted to have a good time and wanted to give his Geordie audience a good time too – which he did, in spades.

 

From rescuerooms.com

 

Alabama 3 – Newcastle, University of Northumbria, 2005

This was the best blues / country / techno / electronica / indie / trip-hop / acid-jazz gig I’ve seen, courtesy of the best (and possibly only) band in the world whose music ticks all those boxes, the Alabama 3.  Eccentrically, they’re not from Alabama, but from South London; and there aren’t three of them, but eight or nine.  With so many band-members onstage, producing such a stew of sounds, this gig at the University of Northumbria was inevitably a bit of a shambles – but, God what a glorious shambles.  Particularly epic was their rendition of the track Woke Up This Morning, which at the time served as the opening theme for The Sopranos (1999-2007).

 

Primal Scream – Norwich UEA, 2009

In 2009, I didn’t expect a great deal when the Bobby Gillespie-fronted alternative rock band Primal Scream turned up at the University of East Anglia, where I was in the middle of a full-time MA.  Feeling creaky and long in the tooth by then, too old for the mosh-pit and for jumping around, letting myself go and getting into the swing of things, I assumed my best gig-going days were behind me.  Meanwhile, I’d seen Primal Scream a few times before and found them hit-and-miss.

 

But I ended up really, really enjoying this.  I managed to snag a position right at the front of the stage, giving me a perfect view of Bobby and the boys.  And they were in blistering form.  Primal Scream concerts can feel schizophrenic because their music veers between harsh, experimental electronica (like 2000’s Kill All Hippies) and loose-limbed, traditional Rolling Stones-style rock ‘n’ roll (like 1994’s Jailbird), but tonight, somehow it didn’t matter.  They alternated, doing one hardcore electronica number (accompanied by a brain-frying lightshow), followed by a Stonesy number, then another electronica one, then another Stonesy one, and so on – and it worked brilliantly.

 

From nme.com

 

A threadbare future

 

© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc

 

It’s said that everyone remembered where they were and what they were doing on November 22nd, 1963, when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.  Likewise, I remember where I was and what I was doing on the evening of September 23rd, 1984, when BBC2 broadcast the gut-wrenching apocalyptic drama Threads.

 

I was staying in the youth hostel in Aberdeen, with my second year as an undergraduate at Aberdeen University due to begin in a fortnight’s time.  Having worked abroad for the summer, I was now back in the city trying desperately to arrange accommodation for myself for the year ahead.  I’d spent the past few days trudging around flat-hunting without any luck and, to make matters worse, I’d just been informed that I wouldn’t be eligible for a student grant for the next year either.  So I was feeling pretty low about my residential and financial situation that evening when I wandered into the youth hostel’s lounge and sat down among a crowd of hostellers who were about to watch something on television called Threads, a much-anticipated documentary-drama showing what would happen if a nuclear conflict broke out between America and Russia and the UK was struck by 210 megatons of nuclear weaponry.

 

It’s fair to say that by the time Threads ended 112 minutes later, my mood had not improved any.  Mind you, nobody else in the lounge looked like they were bursting with joie de vivre.  Bill Dick, who was the hostel’s usually easy-going and affable head-warden and who’d been in the audience, couldn’t have looked more down in the dumps if he’d been buried to his neck in garbage.  (I got to know Bill four years later when I spent a summer working at the hostel as a warden and had him as my boss.)

 

A few days ago, something compelled me to view Threads again – possibly the fact that we have a US President currently braying on twitter about his ‘nice and new and smart’ missiles and goading Russia to ‘get ready’.  Though it might also be because a remastered version of Threads has recently been released on Blu-ray.  Here are my thoughts on it having re-watched it 34 years later.  I should warn you that the remainder of this blog-entry will contain spoilers, though you’ve probably gathered already that in Threads absolutely nothing good happens.

 

Threads is directed by Mick Jackson and written by the late Barry Hines, author of the 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave that a year later established Ken Loach as a cinematic force when he filmed it as Kes.  It consists of three sections: an initial 45 minutes showing life during the build-up to the cataclysmic nuclear strike; then another 45 minutes showing the strike and its immediate aftermath; and then a 25-minute epilogue chronicling Britain a year, a decade, finally thirteen years into the future when, with its natural environment, economy and social infrastructure pulverised, the country reverts to the Middle Ages.  That’s the Middle Ages minus the chivalry, balladry and pageantry, but with plenty of fallout, nuclear winters, depleted ozone, ultraviolent radiation, cataracts, skin cancer and genetic damage.

 

The gruelling central section imprinted itself on my 19-year-old memory.  I’ve carried its images around in my head ever since: milk bottles melting on doorsteps in the heat of a nuclear detonation, a charred cyclist (still on his bike) lodged amid the branches of a burning tree, cats igniting, dolls melting, a crazed woman squatting amid the rubble cradling her baby’s burnt corpse, a traffic warden with a bandage-swathed face holding off a starving mob with a rifle, doctors in an overrun hospital sawing away a leg while the un-anaesthetised patient screams through a gag, and several dozen other things involving flames, rubble, cadavers, rats, blood, wounds, excrement, vomit and general mayhem and horror.  In particular, I’ve never forgotten the moment when a mushroom cloud rises terrifyingly above the skyline, causing one poor woman to wet herself in the middle of a street – something that led to the actress Anne Sellors having the briefest and most poignant entry ever on IMDb.

 

© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc

 

But having seen Threads again, I now appreciate the queasy effectiveness of the opening section too.  Here, Hines and Jackson establish the focus of their story, two families in the Yorkshire city of Sheffield.  These are the working-class Kemps and the middle-class Becketts.  The Kemps’ eldest boy Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale) has been courting the Becketts’ daughter Ruth (Karen Meagher) and Ruth has just realised she’s pregnant.  Jimmy and Ruth resolve to get married and start renovating a flat to live in while their families uneasily make each other’s acquaintance.  Interestingly, this reflects the uneasy working relationship between Hines and Jackson themselves.  According to ThreadsWikipedia entry, the working-class Hines saw Jackson as something of a middle-class prat.

 

Meanwhile, ominously, news reports chatter in the background about escalating superpower tensions in the Middle East.  The characters are initially oblivious to what’s brewing.  Early on, we see Jimmy fiddling with his radio, wanting to get away from some boring news bulletin about the crisis and find the latest football results.  Apathy gradually changes to shoulder-shrugging helplessness, something summed up by Jimmy’s workmate Bob (Ashley Barker).  In the pub, he declares that they might as well enjoy themselves while they can, because there’s bugger-all else they can do.  Plus, if things do kick off, he hopes he’ll be ‘pissed out of my mind and straight underneath it.’  Ironically, Bob survives after nearly everyone else has perished and we last see him tucking into the raw and probably irradiated flesh of a dead sheep.

 

By the time the characters try to respond to what’s coming, it’s too late.  The bomb goes off while the hapless Kemps are still assembling a fallout shelter comprised of a couple of doors propped against a living-room wall.  The Becketts, being posher, have a cellar to retreat into.  Not that they fare any better in the long run.

 

For me, it’s this opening section that brings home what Threads is about.  A preliminary narration talks about the economic threads necessary for a society to function: “…everything connects.  Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others.  Our lives are woven together in a fabric.  But the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.”  However, my impression is that the truly important threads – which are obliterated once the missiles hit their targets – are the ones between people, of feeling and compassion, which have been refined by centuries of civilisation and, today, are the essence of what it means to be human.

 

Thus, we see Jimmy (whom we know has been cheating on Ruth and is a bit of a tosser) standing in the aviary in his family’s back garden and doting over the birds kept there.  We see Mr and Mrs Beckett (Henry Moxon and June Broughton) trying to look after an ailing elderly relative discharged from hospital after the NHS is ordered to clear its wards in anticipation of a flood of war casualties.  We see Clive Sutton (Harry Beety), the local government official put in charge of an emergency team that will run things from a bunker underneath Sheffield City Council, attempting to reassure his nervous wife.  But empathy for our fellow creatures rapidly disappears as, in the war’s aftermath, humanity degenerates into a shell-shocked, zombie-like rabble fixated only on its own, scrabbling-in-the-dirt survival.

 

© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc

 

This is made explicit in Threads’ final stages when, years later, we’re introduced to Jane (Victoria O’Keefe), the daughter of Ruth and Jimmy.  When Ruth dies, sick, exhausted, blinded by cataracts and looking decades older than her true age, an impassive Jane reacts by stealing a few items from her mother’s corpse and then clearing off.  The few kids born post-holocaust are a scary bunch, incidentally.  Their language is limited to phrases like “Gizzit!” and “C’mon!” and they generally act like feral mini-Neanderthals.

 

Threads came in the wake of the bleak 1983 American TV movie The Day After, directed by Nicholas Meyer, which depicted the effects of a nuclear strike on Kansas City and caused a considerable stir on both sides of the Atlantic.  But while I like The Day After, I think the altogether more graphic and relentless Threads beats it to a bloody pulp.  For one thing, Meyer’s film is disadvantaged by its cast of familiar actors like Jason Robards and John Lithgow, which means you can’t ever forget you’re watching a dramatic fabrication.  In Threads, the cast is comprised of unknown performers, which adds to its worrisome sense of authenticity.

 

That said, saddoes like myself might recognise David Brierley, who plays Ruth’s father, as the voice of K9 in the 1979-80 series of Doctor Who; and a couple of voices heard from the early blizzard of news reports are familiar, like Ed Bishop, star of the Gerry Anderson sci-fi show UFO (1970), and Lesley Judd from the BBC’s flagship kids’ magazine programme Blue Peter (1958-present).  I’m glad Jackson decided not to go with his original casting idea, which was to use actors from the venerable north-of-England TV soap opera Coronation Street – disturbing though the sight of Jack and Vera Duckworth puking their guts up in a makeshift fallout shelter would have been.

 

From wikipedia.org

 

Threads also contains the sonorous tones of the great voice-over actor Patrick Allen, whom the UK government had hired to narrate its Protect and Survive public information films that would be broadcast if nuclear war looked imminent.  By 1984, the media had got hold of these films and discussed them at length and they’d been much derided for their epic uselessness in the face of actual, atomic Armageddon.  (At one point in Threads we hear Allen crisply and matter-of-factly advising the public on how to deal with corpses: “…move the body to another room in the house.  Label the body with name and address and cover it as tightly as possible in polythene, paper, sheets or blankets.”)  Earlier in 1984, Allen’s Protect and Survive voice-work had been sampled in Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s hit single Two Tribes – for which he sportingly added the lines: “Mine is the last voice you will ever hear.  Do not be alarmed.”

 

The futility of Protect and Survive and officialdom’s attempts to deal with the holocaust generally are embodied in Threads by Sutton and his team, who utterly fail to provide leadership and control once the bombs have gone off.  Trapped in their bunker under the rubble of the flattened council building, with insufficient training, malfunctioning equipment and limited supplies of food, water and air, they succumb to bickering, despondency, hysteria and – finally – asphyxiation.  Predictably, when order is re-established in Sheffield, it’s pretty brutal in nature.

 

Brutal too is the narrative as it moves forward in time, with Telex-type captions flashing up on the screen giving statistics about fallout levels, the nuclear winter, the ozone layer, epidemics and an ever-rising death-toll.  Things conclude with the now-teenaged Jane giving birth after she’s been raped by another of the feral kids.  The baby is stillborn and deformed, and Threads’ last image is a freeze-frame of Jane’s face as she recoils in horror from it.  Early on, Jimmy’s kid brother Michael (Nicholas Lane) had embarrassed his parents by asking, “What’s an abortion?”  Threads ends with the implication that humanity has unwittingly aborted itself.

 

It isn’t perfect.  Thanks to budgetary restrictions, there’s a reliance on stock footage and stills from previous wars and conflicts, which don’t necessarily look like they’re occurring in Sheffield in 1984.   And despite valiant efforts by the make-up department, the actors playing the long-term survivors are a bit too firm and healthy-looking – by then they should have resembled death-camp inmates.  Additionally, the fact that Threads takes place in a pre-Internet, pre-social media world gives it a quaint distance now.  (Imagine the reaction if the equivalent events happened today.  While the first warheads exploded over Britain, Katie Hopkins would be on twitter blaming it all on immigrants.)  Nonetheless, as a harrowing account of what might engulf us if our political leaders are seized by a moment of trigger-happy madness, it’s unbeatable.

 

And in 2018, with the world’s nuclear arsenal largely concentrated in the hands of a couple of narcissistic thugs, Threads seems no less relevant than it did 34 years ago.  That’s a sentence I take no pleasure in writing.

 

© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc

 

The heavy metal temple

 

 

The northern Thai city of Chiang Mai has larger and grander temples than Wat Sri Suphan.  However, this particular one, which is located a little way south of the city centre, down a lane off Wualai Road and in the district containing Chiang Mai’s silversmith trade, is my favourite temple there.  That’s because of its key building, the ubosot (the ordination hall).  Since 2008, the neighbourhood’s silversmiths have worked on the decoration of its exterior and interior, fashioning adornments for them in silver, aluminium and nickel, so that today it stands as a spectacular, gleaming showcase for their talents.

 

 

The building is encased in concave slabs of silvery-tiled roofing and it bristles with serpentine blades (bai raka) and barbed sculptures.  A multiplicity of engravings cover its outside walls.  There are emblematic images for Asian nations like Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand itself, though as a resident of Sri Lanka I was a little perturbed not to find my current country of abode represented there*.

 

 

Also adorning those outside walls are pictures of iconic historical landmarks from around the world like the Great Wall of China, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Roman Colosseum; of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac; and, weirdly and totally unexpectedly, of the Hulk, Spiderman, Captain America, Iron Man and other characters from the Marvel superhero universe.  Actually, this was a pre-taste of the surprises that awaited me when I entered the building.

 

 

As a place of ordination, the inside of the hall is off-limits to women.  So, armed with my better half’s camera, I ventured in and snapped as many pictures as I could for her.  The gorgeous, shining Buddha at the far end of the room gives the interior a feeling of levity and serenity, but if you turn around to the walls and study some of their details, the effect is rather different.  It’s gloriously, at times crazily baroque and over-the-top.

 

 

Among the silvery adornments are a huge, intricately inscribed sword; a creepy-looking garuda (a part-human, part-human creature of Buddhist mythology, much featured in Thai religious architecture); a huge gaping maw rimmed with needle-like fangs and containing a whole crowd of ghouls and demons; and a couple of crowned and bearded Thai mermen.  Indeed, the amount of blades, shields, skulls, devils and monsters on display made me feel that I wasn’t so much inside a temple as inside a silver reproduction of a heavy metal fan’s bedroom.

 

 

Finally, outside again, you’ll see seated under a big shiny parasol a statue of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh, looking resplendent amid copious yellow garlands.  In Thailand, Ganesh is known as Phra Phikanet and among the qualities he’s associated with are creativity and success.  No wonder they have him decorating the insignia for the country’s Department of Fine Arts.

 

From Wikipedia

 

*And talking of Sri Lanka, as today is April 14th, a Happy Sinhalese and Tamil New Year to you all.

 

I write about a writer for Write

 

© Write magazine

 

When I write fiction, I try to follow two rules: not to write about drunkards and not to write about writers.

 

The main reason for these rules is to avoid laziness.  If your main character is a drunkard, he or she can make any decision or perform any action no matter how ridiculous or irrational because, well, they’re drunk.  It becomes a cheap ‘n’ easy ploy for authors to sidestep the necessity for logic and reason in their plots.  It’s also cheap ‘n’ easy to have a writer as your main character, though in a different way.  Writers aren’t beholden to the same working conventions as most other people.  They don’t have to be in a specific location for X number of hours each day, starting at Y o’clock and ending at Z o’clock.  So if you’re crafting a plot, your writer-character is available to do anything, anywhere, at any time of the day.  Which again strikes me as a cop-out.

 

I also don’t like stories about writers (and literary-related people) because it just seems so up its own arse.  I still like to moan about the dire state of contemporary English literature back in the days of my youth by holding up, as an example, the shortlist for 1984’s Man Booker Prize.  That year, the novel that should have won the Booker – J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun – was the only one that didn’t have a writer, or a biographer, or a literary scholar, as its main character.  (For the record, the other novels on the shortlist were Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, Anita Desai’s In Custody, Penelope Lively’s The World According to Mark, David Lodge’s Small World and, the eventual winner, Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.)  I’m sure such writer-fixated novels were fascinating for the 0.001% of humanity who actually worked in, moved around in and fraternised in the literary world – but were a bit smug and elitist for everyone else.

 

The only author I can forgive for having writers as his main characters is Stephen King, basically because I find his work so damned entertaining no matter whom he writes about.  (Well, as the blurb on his books used to intone: WORDS ARE HIS POWER.)  In The Shining (1977), he even got away with having as a main character a man who was both a writer and a drunkard.  Wow!

 

© Warner Bros / The Producer Circle Company / Peregrine Films

 

Anyway, all this is a preamble to saying that Volume 2, Issue 1 of a new Sri Lankan magazine of poetry, fiction and literary articles called Write has just gone on sale and it includes a short story by me called Holmes, Sherlock.  And guess what?  As I’m a complete and utter hypocrite, I have broken my own rules and betrayed my own principles and made it about a character who’s a writer.  Sorry.  I’m not proud of myself.

 

Incidentally, because the subject matter of Holmes, Sherlock is less dark and macabre than what I usually write about, I haven’t published it under a pseudonym like Jim Mountfield.  It’s attributed to my own, real, very boring name.

 

Available for just 400 Sri Lankan rupees, the new issue of Write can be purchased at the Barefoot Bookshop on Galle Road or at the Sooriya Village Restaurant on Skelton Road.  And here’s a link to the magazine’s Facebook page.

 

Joke nation

 

© The Public Library Ltd / From the Daily Record

 

Tomorrow is April 1st, better known in the United Kingdom as April Fool’s Day.  Traditionally it’s a day when British people play jokes on one another – interior decorators send hapless apprentices off to the shops with instructions to buy ‘a tin of black and white paint’ or ‘straight hooks’, the BBC broadcasts a news report about a drought threatening this year’s spaghetti harvest in Italy, and so on.

 

This is because British people love jokes.  But that’s not to say Britain itself is a joke nation.  No, quite the reverse.  With just one year remaining until the UK Brexits from the European Union and takes on the world on its own again, it stands poised to show what a totally serious, formidable, non-ridiculous, non-joke place it is.

 

I know this because Jacob Rees Mogg, that undertaker-like darling of the Brexiting Conservative Party right, wrote an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph on March 18th stating that Tory Prime Minister Theresa May would soon “lay out the facts to the EU: Britain isn’t a joke nation and Brexit will mean Brexit.”  Right on, Jacob.  I mean, look at what’s happened in the UK this past month of March 2018.  How could anyone conclude that Britain is anything other than a deadly serious nation?

 

Jacob himself proved this on March 21st when he was part of a protest at the UK government’s agreement to stay in the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy for an additional 21 months after Brexit officially happens next year.  The protest took the form of him and former UKIP leader Nigel Farage heading out onto the Thames in a trawler and bunging some dead haddock into the water as a symbol of their displeasure.  Well, Jacob would have headed out in the trawler and dumped the haddock, but it transpired that said trawler didn’t have a permit from the London transport authority to moor anywhere and was unable to pick him up from the quay.  So after a quick press conference by the river, Jacob had to leg it back to the Houses of Parliament while the trawler, dead haddock and Nigel Farage were left chugging about the Thames looking for a place to dock.

 

That was unfortunate.  But obviously, nothing resembling a joke.

 

Revelations this month about Jacob Rees Mogg’s Conservative colleague and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson weren’t remotely joke-like either.  Boris had condemned Vladimir Putin and the Russian authorities after the poisoning of Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury on March 4th.  Then it became public knowledge that Lubin Chernukhin, a Russian banker and the wife of Putin’s former deputy finance minister, had once paid the Tory party £160,000 for the honour of playing a game of tennis with Boris, supposed Scourge of the Russkies.

 

Yes, if a lesser politician had been embroiled in an episode like this, it would have looked like a giant, stupid joke.  But since a man of Boris’s stature and dignity was involved, it didn’t.

 

© Sky Sports / From the Daily Mirror

 

March 11th saw Conservative Party participation in another sporting event.  A bruising footballing encounter between bitter rivals Glasgow Celtic and the famously pro-British, famously Union Jack-waving, famously loyal-to-the-throne Glasgow Rangers took place at Rangers’ home ground of Ibrox Stadium.  Acting as one of the linesmen that day was Douglas Ross, the Tory MP for Moray, who’s a football official as well as a politician.  Dougie helped get Celtic’s Jozo Simunovic sent off after he allegedly elbowed Rangers’ Alfredo Morelos.  He was heard screaming “Red card!  Red card!” from the line, even though as a match official he could have communicated in quieter tones with the referee using their mics and earpieces.  Afterwards, many wags remarked on how despite playing at home, and having their opponents reduced to ten men, and having a Tory MP manning the line, Rangers still managed to lose.

 

Note how I said ‘remarked on’ there.  Not ‘joked about’.  Because Britain isn’t a joke nation.

 

What other non-joke things are there to report this month?  Well, there’s the dodgy affair of the British political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, who’ve played controversial roles in the Leave EU referendum campaign and Trump election campaign.  Cambridge Analytica were helped in their work by a data breach involving the personal details of about 50 million people, ‘inappropriately’ taken from Facebook.  Then, on March 19th, Channel 4 aired a secretly-filmed clip of the firm’s CEO Alexander Nix bragging to a potential client that during elections his company could compromise certain politicians by setting them up with prostitutes and filming the results with hidden cameras.

 

Nix saying this whilst being filmed with a hidden camera himself was ironic.  But not funny.  Because Cambridge Analytica is a British company and Britain, as we know, isn’t a joke nation.

 

Obviously, anti-Semitism is no joking matter.  So what should we make of the row about it that engulfed Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in March?  Corbyn, we learned, had once defended a political mural on a London wall that’d been accused of demonising Jews.  Now Corbyn claims that he hadn’t looked at the mural closely enough at the time to realise it was Jew-bashing.  What’s that, Jeremy – a picture of disgusting rich capitalists playing Monopoly on top of the bodies of the bowed naked proletariat, capitalists with prominent noses, spectacles and bushy Fagin-like beards?  Why, sure.  Anyone could have missed suggestions of anti-Semitism in that.

 

© Mike Kemp via Getty Images / From the Guardian 

 

So no jokes please about Jeremy and his apparent myopia here.  He’s leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition in the not-a-joke nation of Britain.

 

Meanwhile, Britain’s newspapers have done nothing joke-like this month either.  Certainly not the Daily Mail, which reacted with apoplectic rage to the news that Britain’s post-Brexit, just-liberated-from-the-European-Union, patriotically-blue passports would be produced by a FrenchDutch company.  “Why,” it demanded of Britain’s ruling class on its front page, “DO you hate our country, its history, culture and the people’s sense of identity?”  And on March 29th, with precisely one year to go until Brexit, the Mail’s right-wing Siamese twin the Daily Express published on its front page a big picture of the White Cliffs of Dover.  Not to imply that one year from now the UK would be careering over a cliff, but to illustrate a stirring quote by Boris Johnson: “Our national journey out of the EU is almost over and a glorious view awaits.”  The photographer who’d originally taken that picture of the cliffs later pointed out on Twitter that the cliffs weren’t as white as they’d appeared in the Express.  Evidently the newspaper had photoshopped extra whiteness over their mossy green cliff-faces: “If anything sums up #Brexit – it’s the Daily Express making my pic of Britain look whiter than it is.”

 

That almost sounds like a joke, you know.  But it can’t be.  Because this is 2018 Britain: most definitely not a joke nation.

 

© From twitter.com

 

Carry on abroad

 

© Penguin Books

 

I have a tiny sliver of a connection with Daphne du Maurier, the popular 20th century English writer responsible for novels like Jamaica Inn (1936) and Rebecca (1938) and short stories like The Birds (1952) and Don’t Look Now (1971).  When I was at college in the 1980s, I knew her great-nephew very slightly.  I was better acquainted with her great-nephew’s flatmate, though, and a few times I visited their apartment.  Its walls were slathered with pictures of George Michael and Andrew Ridgely from Wham, cut out of popular teen magazines of the time like Smash Hits and No 1.  I assume the young du Maurier and his flatmate had stuck up these pictures in an attempt to appear ironic.  Unfortunately, it meant that thereafter when I saw his great-aunt’s name on the cover of a book, I couldn’t help but hear, by way of association, the irritatingly bouncy strains of such 1980s pop-dance numbers as Club Tropicana or Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.

 

Until recently the only thing by Daphne du Maurier I’d read was The Birds, a story that because of its remote Cornish setting feels even more claustrophobic and desperate than the North America-set film version directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963.  However, over the festive season, my partner gave me a copy of du Maurier’s 1971 collection Don’t Look Now and Other Stories as a present.  I’ve just finished reading it.

 

A novella about a grieving English couple who’re taking a break in Venice when they’re approached by two strange women – one of whom claims to be a medium – and told that their dead daughter’s spirit is trying to warn them against danger, Don’t Look Now has been filmed too.  Nicholas Roeg directed a movie version in 1973 and it’s now regarded as a classic, both as a horror film and as an example of Roeg’s work in the 1970s and 1980s, which combined fragmented and elliptical narratives, haunting and recurrent images and scenes of both violent and sexual intensity to unforgettable effect.  Having seen the film several times over the years, I was keen to read the piece of fiction that’d inspired it.

 

My first impression when I started reading Don’t Look Now was that film and story felt like they belonged to different eras.  The couple, John and Laura, seem more modern, liberated and chic in the film, though that may be because they were played by 1970s icons Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.  On the page, John and Laura have an old-fashioned English starchiness and they try to get over their loss with stiff upper lips and a strained Keep Calm and Carry On cheerfulness.  The literary John and Laura are also in Venice as tourists, so they seem less confident and more vulnerable.  Their cinematic equivalents are there for work reasons – John is helping to restore a Venetian church – and thus know their way around better.

 

Then there’s the presentation of the story.  Du Maurier’s novella is a briefer and more economical account of the events I was familiar with from the film.  As it stands, it could easily have been made into a 45-minute TV play.  (The film clocks in at 110 minutes.)  It begins in Venice with John and Laura encountering the medium.  The death of their daughter, by meningitis, is mentioned retrospectively.  And the suggestion that the dead girl’s spirit is urging them to leave the city before something terrible happens feels like a simple device to kick-start the main story – wherein John doesn’t leave Venice, through a series of mishaps, misunderstandings and further supernatural shenanigans; and then, when he tries to intervene in what he believes is the mistreatment of a child, something terrible does happen.

 

© Casey Productions / Eldorado Films / British Lion Films

 

The movie opens with a harrowing sequence showing the death of John and Laura’s daughter – not by meningitis but by drowning in a pond in the English countryside.  Roeg and his scriptwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant create a sense of a cosmic, all-encompassing evil at work.  Even as the girl dies, everything that’s still to happen in Venice seems to be prefigured.  We see John studying pictures of the Venetian church where he’ll be working and discovering a mysterious figure wearing a red coat in one of the slides.  When he spills water onto the figure, its redness spreads across the slide like a bloodstain.  John’s daughter is also wearing a red coat when she drowns and, later, so too is the child-figure John sees scarpering alongside the night-time Venetian waterways.

 

Indeed, in the film, John seems to make a connection between the two characters thanks to the coat – is the red-clad figure by the canals the ghost of his daughter?  But this association doesn’t appear in the original novella.

 

Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now is efficiently gripping.  But I think Nicholas Roeg’s brooding cinematic version, spinning a web of portents, visions and uncanny coincidences in which John’s doom seems pre-ordained from the start, is better – a work of art.  That’s despite the fact that, by changing the girl’s death from meningitis to drowning, the film can be accused of illogicality.  As the website British Horror Films observes pithily: “Couple aim to forget daughter’s drowning by moving to Venice – a city full of water.”

 

Actually, with Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, I preferred a couple of those ‘other stories’ to the title one.  And interestingly, nearly all of them share a similar theme, in that they deal with English people going abroad and coming unstuck as they pass out of their cultural comfort zones.

 

Not After Midnight is about an amateur artist taking a holiday in Crete in order to do some landscape painting.  In a manner reminiscent of the hero of John Fowles’ novel The Magus (1966), he encounters a strange man and becomes embroiled in some equally-strange activities touching upon ancient Greek myths.  However, while Fowles’ novel is an airy and exuberant affair where a Prospero-like figure orchestrates spectacular and elaborate ‘masques’, Not After Midnight is altogether grungier and more low-fi.  The man putting the events in motion is a drunken, debauched brute and, accordingly, the myths invoked concern “Silenos, earth-born satyr, half-horse, half-man, who, unable to distinguish truth from falsehood, reared Dionysus, god of intoxication, as a girl in a Cretan cave, then became his drunken tutor and companion.”  Du Maurier doesn’t say explicitly what bacchanalian depravities her hero finally succumbs to; but as he’s a teacher at a posh English boys’ school, we can guess.

 

From famousauthors.org

 

In A Border Line Case, a young woman who works as a theatre actress tries to honour the dying wish of her father.  She goes in search of her father’s long-lost best friend, to tell him that her father had wanted to “shake the old boy by the hand once more and wish him luck.”  She finds the missing friend in the Republic of Ireland, living as a recluse on an island, mysteriously lording it over a cohort of local men and engaged in activities that are probably illegal and possibly bizarre.  Unlike the hapless protagonists in the other stories, the heroine here is a resourceful type.  She uses her skills as an actress to improvise, hide her identity and talk her way out of tight spots.  However, when at one point she suspects she’s stumbled across a group of closeted homosexuals (“They were all homos…  It was the end.  She couldn’t bear it…”), you feel surprised that a London theatre actress should be so wary and intolerant of gay men.  Still, A Border Line Case is well-paced and balanced nicely between an adventure story and a mystery one.  It builds impressively to a nasty, if slightly predictable ending.

 

The book’s most humorous story is The Way of the Cross, about a group of disparate English tourists making their way to and then around Jerusalem.  The characters and plot seem slightly contrived at times – it’s unlikely that a progressive left-wing lady who’s worried about the plight of the Palestinians should be married to a materialistic right-wing businessman, and a climax where two characters are stricken by unconnected illnesses and a third one suffers a serious accident stretches credibility – but nonetheless it’s an enjoyably satirical account of English folk abroad.

 

The final story, The Breakthrough, is the exception to the rule.  Its engineer hero doesn’t leave England for another country, although he is posted to the desolate flatlands and beaches of East Anglia.  There, an ambitious experiment is underway in a scientific / military laboratory, ostensibly involving computers, but really about capturing a psychic energy that surrounds people when they’re alive and escapes when they die.  The Breakthrough’s blending of the scientific and the supernatural calls to mind the famously frightening TV play The Stone Tape (1973), written by Nigel Kneale.  Bravely, du Maurier opts for a non-sensational ending that prioritises character over action or horror.  Admittedly, some readers might find the ending a bit of a let-down.

 

Overall, I greatly enjoyed reading Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, because of the author’s precise and no-nonsense prose, her ability to pack a lot of incident into her narratives without letting them get too convoluted, and her determination at all times to tell a rattling good yarn.

 

Indeed, on the strength of this, I’m now starting to think of Daphne du Maurier as being in the mould of Stephen King – and not so much in connection with George Michael and Andrew Ridgely.  Yes, better the author of The Running Man than the authors of I’m your Man.

 

© Casey Productions / Eldorado Films / British Lion Films

 

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 vote, 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?

 

© BBC

 

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.