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.

Rockin’ in the Sri world

 

 

After three years of moaning about how rubbish the live-music scene in Colombo seemed to be, about how in the evenings I’d go along to a fancy hotel bar-lounge that was advertising a live ‘rock’ band and find myself sitting amid a gaggle of immaculately-dressed wealthy Sri Lankans and various sweaty, overweight foreign tourists listening to some blokes in their late-middle-age wibbling their way through a jazz-funk rendition of Lionel Richie’s Hello, I finally resolved the other weekend to get off my lazy, wrinkly arse and head out into the city’s meaner streets and track down some proper live music.

 

I found some too in a venue called the Keg Pub.  (The street it was on, T.B. Jaya Mawatha near Lake Beira, wasn’t even that mean, although the joint across the road where I stopped off for some rice and curry looked a bit rough).  The Keg was hosting something called Rock n’ Roll 2017 (ii), an evening of Sri Lankan acoustic performers and rock bands, the latter sporting such names as Island Mafia, The Soul and Paranoid Earthling.  Its Facebook page exhorted me to bring my ‘best buds’, ‘drinking buds’ and ‘chickas’, which when I consulted the online Urban Dictionary I discovered meant a ‘sexy Latin lady friend’.  Unfortunately, the person who trebles as my best buddy, drinking buddy and sexy chicka, i.e. Mrs Blood and Porridge, was unable to come along and I attended alone.

 

The event certainly felt like the real deal when I arrived and paid my money at the door and received a stamp on my arm and a paper bracelet to wear around my wrist – possibly the last time I was stamped and braceleted like that was when I saw Megadeth and Korn in Chicago back in 1995.  Also promising were the sights that assailed me when I walked through the door: semi-darkness, lots of people dressed in black and a sizeable island-bar at which I could slump whilst viewing the stage.   Oh, and the oldest person already there looked about 20 years younger than me, which also boded well for me not having to endure an arthritic jazz-funk workout of Hello.

 

That said, no matter how rock-and-roll the atmosphere, I couldn’t escape the fact that I was still in a Sri Lankan pub.  Because there was a TV screen, on the wall, showing bloody cricket for the entire evening.

 

 

Much of the night’s music consisted of cover versions rather than original material, which I suppose had its upside and its downside.  The upside was that because the performers were playing world-famous songs by world-famous bands, I was at least getting some quality stuff.  The downside was that I’d heard some of those songs a million times already and become sick of them.  Plus, it didn’t grant me much insight into what’s really happening in the rock-music scene in this country at the moment.

 

Still, there might be conclusions to be drawn about the Sri Lankan musical temperament from the fact that nobody blinked when one band went straight from a Nirvana song to Survivor’s Sylvester Stallone-empowering Eye of the Tiger – not something you could do among die-hard Nirvana fans in many Western countries and expect to live.  Or that a duo who’d been treating us to blues versions of AC/DC numbers then treated us to a Bon Jovi one without ruffling any feathers, even though in my book that’s the equivalent of a Robert De Niro retrospective that partners Raging Bull (1980) with Dirty Grandpa (2016).

 

 

Significantly, later bands introduced some reggae music into the evening’s mix.  Even a rendition of the Dylan / Hendrix favourite All Along the Watchtower had a reggae-ish interlude added to it.  Maybe that’s a consequence of living on such a hot, sultry island.  A rock-and-roll gathering can’t be loud and fast and bolshy for too long.  No, the heat soon encourages everyone to chill and go a bit Bob Marley.

 

One thing I have to say.  Paranoid Earthling, whose Wikipedia entry tells me are a ‘grunge, experimental, psychedelic, stoner rock, heavy metal’ band from Kandy, came onstage late in the evening with a welcoming cry of “How ya motherfuckas doin’ tonight?” and proved to be epic.  They played their own stuff and played it with blistering aplomb.  Showing particular panache was their spandex-wrapped vocalist Mirshad Buckman, who has the enviable double-advantage of looking a bit like the late, great Ronnie James Dio and sounding a bit like the equally late, great Bon Scott.  They performed a big beast of a song called Open up the Gates whose guitar sound managed to be both twiddly and thumping.  They gave their closing number Rock n’ Roll is my Anarchy a splendid, punky, foot-tapping tunefulness.   And during a song called Feel My Ritual they admirably kept focused even as a front-of-stage lighting rig toppled over into the audience – mind you, said rig was really only two light-bulbs at the end of a pole.  Best of all, though, was their song Deaf Blind Dumb, which borrowed its stompy bits from Marilyn Manson’s The Beautiful People but which was still a blast played live.

 

 

Very fine people

 

© The Independent

 

Thank you, Grand Wizard Trump, for that enlightening and perceptive press conference you gave on Tuesday in which you set the record straight about the previous weekend’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia.

 

In my wide-eyed, libtard, snowflaky naivete, I’d thought the violence in Charlottesville had been the result of some bad guys: Nazi white-supremacists marching around with swastika-emblazoned flags, swastikas being the symbol of people who sent six million of their fellow human beings to the gas chambers during World War II.  That sounds pretty bad, right?  At Charlottesville, they were challenged by some good guys: counter-protesters who took exception to the Nazis and their genocidal ideology.  That sounds like a good thing to do, right?  The bad guys reacted badly to being challenged by the good guys, to the point where one of them drove a car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 others.  Not only did that seem like a very bad action, but some folk argued that it qualified as terrorism.  However, some other folk disagreed, since the perpetrator wasn’t a Muslim and he only did non-terroristy things like idolize Adolf Hitler.

 

However, now that Führer Trump has explained in fluent and convincing detail what really happened at Charlottesville, I stand corrected.  You see, he knows “a lot about Charlottesville” because, as he pointed out, he has a winery there.  (“I own actually one of the largest wineries in the United States that’s in Charlottesville.”)  So we can take his pronouncements as truth.  I now realize that the Nazis weren’t such a bad lot because there were many “very fine people” among their ranks.  Furthermore, they could “innocently protest” and “very legally protest” because “they had a permit”.  There were a few bad eggs among those Nazis, of course.  But let’s not forget “there’s blame on both sides” because those pesky meddling anti-Nazi demonstrators (“you can call them the left” or “alt-left”) had a contingent “that was also very violent” and “came charging, with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs” and “were very, very violent” and “it was a horrible thing to watch.”  They were “troublemakers and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the clubs.”  Plus they “came charging in without a permit.”

 

Oddly enough, Reichsmarschall Trump’s wise words have not been well received by American politicians of both Democrat and Republican persuasions who’ve spent the past two days tweeting their dismay at him.  But David Duke, boss of the KKK – that’s the Ku Klux Klan, whom I hear are a wee bit racist, but I’m sure many of their members are actually very fine people – did tweet admiringly: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty and courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville and condemn the leftist terrorists.”

 

Now that the scales have finally been removed from my eyes about the Nazis, thanks to Il Duce Trump, and now that I understand how they included many fine people and only did Nazi-type things when they had a permit to do so, I can revisit all the Nazi-related pieces of popular culture that I grew up with and view them in a new light.  For example:

 

© Ealing Studios

 

Let George Do It!  (1940)

German Führer Adolf Hitler has a permit to very innocently and legally give a speech at a Nuremburg Rally attended by thousands of Nazis, who include some very fine people.  Suddenly, however, the notorious alt-left music-hall troublemaker and all-round bad hombre George Formby shins down a rope from a passing balloon and gives a blood-curdling Marxist cry of “I’ll knock your block off!”  Then he charges in with a cheeky grin and with a Wigan accent and with a ukulele in his hand and punches the poor Führer on the chin.  After President Trump apportions blame to both sides, Adolf Hitler tweets: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty and courage to tell the truth about #GeorgeFormby and condemn the leftist Lancashire terrorist.”

 

© Penguin Books

 

Moonraker (1955)

Fanatical Social Justice Warrior / feminazi / ecofascist James Bond of the alt-left terrorist outfit MI6 is directed by his boss M (short for ‘Mao’, presumably) to be very, very violent towards Hugo Drax, who’s a Trumpian multimillionaire, the former head of a German Nazi commando unit and a very fine person.  Nasty Bond comes charging in with his licence to kill and with his shaken-not-stirred-vodka-and-martini and with his twangy Monty Norman theme tune and messes up Drax’s plan, which he has a permit for, signed by himself, to fire a nuclear missile at Londonistan and sort out its Muslim mayor with fire and fury.   It’s a horrible thing to watch.

 

© Associated British Pathé

 

Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

Alt-left troublemakers Johnny ‘Guevara’ Mills, Harry ‘Ho Chi Minh’ Andrews and Sylvia ‘Osamu’ Sims commandeer an ambulance and in a cold-blooded act of terrorism drive it straight into the middle of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, which contains some very fine people.  Luckily, because this is the eastern Sahara, they miss their targets, who are innocently and legally attacking Tobruk, by several miles.  Then the thirsty terrorists head for Alexandria to have a beer and link up with ISIS.  “Worth waiting for!” declares Mills at the end, no doubt referring to the overthrow of capitalism.

 

© United Artists

 

The Great Escape (1963)

It’s 1943 in peaceful, neighbourly Nazi Germany.  A rabble of leftist terrorists, whose codenames include such sinister monikers as Big X, The Forger, The Scrounger, The Tunnel King and Eric Ashley-Pitt, bust out of a high-security detention camp set up by the Nazis, who include some very fine people, and terrorise the surrounding countryside.  One alt-left troublemaker called The Cooler King commandeers a motorbike and in a cold-blooded act of terrorism drives it straight into the middle of an innocent Swiss-border fence.  Finally, the Gestapo round up 50 escapees and machine-gun them all to death, which is okay because they have a permit.  “There’s blame on both sides,” comments President Trump.

 

© BBC

 

Dad’s Army (1973)

A sinister alt-left collective known as the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard come charging in with some M1917 Enfield rifles and with a butcher’s van and with a variety of comic catchphrases and take hostage the crew of a Nazi-Germany U-Boat, who include some very fine people and who have a permit, signed by Adolf Hitler, to innocently and legally torpedo and sink large amounts of British shipping.  The sadistic and arthritic leftist troublemakers goad their victims by singing the blood-curdling Marxist anthem, “Whistle while you work / Hitler is a twerp / He’s half-barmy / So’s his army…”  It’s a horrible thing to hear.

 

*****

 

But seriously – seriously – I can only surmise that the reason why Trump was so keen to give those Nazis / white supremacists / KKK / alt-right goons a friendly nod and wink, as if to say, “Don’t worry, guys, I’m on your side, really,” is because so many of them showed up at Charlottesville armed to the teeth and wearing militia uniforms.  He must be hoping that if the House Committee and the Judiciary ever get around to impeaching him, his swastika-bearing admirers will swarm out onto the streets, start shooting people and mount a coup d’etat to save him.

 

Meanwhile, I’m bemused by how so many British right-wingers have been jumping to Trump’s defence and / or shouting “It’s none of our business what happens in America!” on social media.  These are people with avatars that show Union Jacks and with profiles that express their love for UKIP and Brexit.  You know, the sort of folk who normally never shut up about how plucky little Britain fought off the Nazis during World War II.

 

Oh well.  Here’s a clip of George Formby’s finest 50 seconds.  Go on, George.  Lamp the bastard.

 

Koneswaram Temple at Trincomalee

 

 

Dedicated to the great Hindu deity Shiva, Koneswaram Temple is perched above cliffs at the end of a peninsula at Trincomalee, a popular tourist town on Sri Lanka’s north-eastern coast.  The modern-day temple also marks the site of a notorious incident of plunder, vandalism and murder by 17th-century European imperialists.

 

In 1622, on April 14th – Tamil New Year’s Day – Portuguese soldiers sneaked into the temple grounds while most of its priests were busy with a religious procession outside.  They looted it, slaughtered any priests and temple staff they could find and finally, somehow, managed to topple most of the temple over the cliff-edge and into the sea.  What survived of the original complex was destroyed two years later, with the Portuguese using its stones for the construction of Fort Frederick, a military fort further along the peninsula that now serves as a garrison for a regiment of the Sri Lankan Army.  According to Koneswaram Temple’s Wikipedia entry, its treatment at the hands of the Portuguese is regarded as ‘the biggest loot’ of a temple in Asia.

 

Later, under British rule, Hindu pilgrims were allowed to visit and worship at the place of the old temple, but it wasn’t until the 1950s, after the British had departed and Sri Lanka become independent, that moves were made to restore it.  In fact, not all the old temple’s artefacts had been stolen by the Portuguese.  Some had been spirited away by priests, buried to ensure their safety and forgotten about – and in 1950 the local council accidently dug up statues of Hindu gods and goddesses like Shiva, Parvati and Ganesh whilst excavating a well a half-kilometre away.  Also, in 1956, a trove of items from the fallen temple, including columns with flower carvings and stone elephant-heads, was discovered by scuba divers exploring the seabed off the peninsula.   One of these divers was the filmmaker and photographer Mike Wilson.  Another was the celebrated science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, no less, who would eventually become a long-term resident of Sri Lanka.

 

In the same waters, in 1962, Wilson located and recovered a yet-more important relic from the temple – a Swayambhu Lingam, a round stone obelisk that according to legend hadn’t been fashioned by human hands but had formed naturally on the sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet and later had been transported to Sri Lanka by the fabled demon / god Emperor Ravana.  Wilson claimed that the Lingam provided inspiration for the obelisks in Clarke’s most famous work, the screenplay and tie-in novel he wrote in collaboration with Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  However, Clarke – who’d penned an account of their 1956 discoveries in a non-fiction book called The Reefs of Taprobane (1957) – denied this.

 

In 1963, nearly three-and-a-half centuries after the destruction of the original, a restored Koneswaram Temple was unveiled – not on the same physical scale as its medieval predecessor, but hopefully, thanks to its commanding view of the Indian Ocean and to it having some of the same artefacts on display inside, imbued with a similar spiritual atmosphere.

 

 

As you walk up the incline towards the temple, you’re greeted by a huge blue statue of Shiva hunkered comfortably by the entrance, gesturing with four arms and four door-sized hands.  In the temple-building beyond that, you aren’t allowed to take photographs – a shame since much of its décor is very photographable.  I particularly liked a statue of the afore-mentioned Emperor Kavana, depicting him as a nine-headed deity with multiple arms fanning out behind him – so many arms that he resembles a mutant octopus.  Two of those arms play a sitar-like stringed instrument with a tenth head planted at one end and an additional hand planted at the other.  I did find a picture of the statue on the temple’s Wikipedia entry, so I will sneakily borrow and reproduce that.

 

© Gane Kumaraswamy / From Wikipedia.org

 

The temple is also worth visiting for its geographical position.  Especially picturesque is a nearby knob of grey-brown rock jutting over the ocean waves, a path and flights of steps looped around it.  The path’s seaward edge is lined with blue railings and gold-patterned pillars with dainty lanterns on top.  Along its inner edge, the rock-face contains cavities with more, gaudily-coloured Hindu deities.  Trees grow on the rock above and below the path and steps, their branches reaching down and reaching up, dappling the walkway with sunlight and shade.

 

 

A word of warning, though.  You have to remove your shoes before entering the temple area and bringing a pair of socks to pad around in is essential.  That’s because after the sun rises, the temple’s paving stones warm up and are soon too hot for bare feet to tread on.  The morning that my partner and I visited there, my partner forgot to bring socks with her.  So, as a solution, I went in alone for about 20 minutes and left her standing outside in the shade of a tree.  Then I came out, lent her my socks and took her place under the tree while she went in and explored.

 

My vigil under that tree wasn’t boring.  Other visitors would arrive, sans socks, and I amused myself watching them hop barefoot from baking paving stone to baking paving stone like manic versions of Michael Jackson at the end of the Billie Jean video.

 

 

No news is good news

 

From Twitter / @Fergoodness

 

Well, that was embarrassing.  On August 9th, the Scottish edition of the Times printed a column by journalist Kenny Farquharson headed THROW THE BOOK AT POLITICIANS WHO DON’T READ.  Its first six paragraphs took aim at former Scottish First Minister and former leader of the Scottish National Party Alex Salmond because, supposedly, he wasn’t a reader.  Farquharson based his assertion that Salmond didn’t read books on two things: an acquaintance who’d visited Salmond’s home in Aberdeenshire and hadn’t seen any books lying around and a quote Salmond allegedly gave to a student newspaper about not having read a book for “eight years straight”.

 

Later the same day, after a photo of the library at Salmond’s house (which Farquharson’s first source evidently hadn’t seen) had circulated on twitter and Salmond himself had tweeted that in the student-newspaper interview he’d been misquoted – he’d said ‘write’, not ‘read’ – the column vanished from the Times’s online edition and Farquharson issued an apologetic tweet: “Student paper that interviewed Alex Salmond has now withdrawn the quote, so we’ve removed my column from online.  Apologies to @AlexSalmond.”

 

At least, Farquharson apologised.  Fellow Scottish newspaper hack David Torrance, who’d also peddled the Salmond-doesn’t-read story, reacted to Salmond’s intervention by tweeting: “It’s like being harangued by a mad old man in a pub.  ‘I used to be First Minister you know…’”  Thus, if the mainstream Scottish media smears you and you object, you’re the equivalent of a pished auld haverer in a bar.  That’s journalistic integrity in Scotland 2017.

 

I knew Farquharson slightly from my college days in Aberdeen, when he was a stalwart member of the campus Creative Writing Society (along with now-celebrated novelist Ali Smith), so I’m surprised a literary-minded man like him failed to question and check his sources.  Among other things, Salmond has interviewed both Iain Banks and Ian McEwan at the Edinburgh Book Festival, feats that’d require massive amounts of chutzpah (even by Salmond’s standards) to pull off if you were a non-book-reading philistine.  I suspect Farquharson rushed to conclusions because, like most of the Scottish press, he just doesn’t like Salmond and is happy to believe the worst about him.

 

© The Guardian

© Pauline Keightly Photography / From musicfootnotes.com

 

Now I admit that Alex Salmond, a man not known for his modesty, can be hard to like.  Even sympathetic profiles of him usually contain, at some point, the phrase ‘love him or loathe him’.  But the mainstream Scottish media’s antipathy towards Salmond is symptomatic of wider antipathy.  It also just doesn’t like Salmond’s party, the SNP, and how they’ve run Scotland since they won their first Scottish parliamentary election in 2007.

 

You get the impression that Scotland’s national print media – Scottish editions of the London-based dailies like the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Sun plus supposedly ‘home-grown’ titles like the Scotsman, Herald and Daily Record, though the Herald and Record’s owners, Newsquest and Trinity Mirror, are based in England – never forgave the SNP for disrupting the old status quo in Scotland.  That old status quo had seemingly stretched back through the mists of antiquity to the Stone Age.  Simply put, Labour dominated Scotland (first at council level and then, after its creation in 1999, the Scottish Parliament); while the Conservatives and, occasionally, Labour oversaw Scotland and the rest of Britain from Westminster.

 

As the sainted messengers who conveyed information from that establishment to the great unwashed and who offered interpretation and comment on how the establishment was doing things, Scotland’s journalists had their own comfortable and privileged niche in Scottish society.

 

The relationship between Scotland’s old politicians and journalists was a symbiotic one.  Iain Macwhirter, columnist with the Sunday Herald, one of only two newspapers in Scotland that gives the SNP much support, has recalled how the Sunday Herald’s decision to back the party in 2014 was made in spite of “fears… that stories might dry up if the Sunday Herald was black-balled by Labour – an indication that, though Labour had been out of power for seven years, the tribe still held on to many key positions in public life.”  He also noted that “Scottish journalism is almost as tribal as Scottish politics, and Labour has traditionally called the shots in the Scottish media through its extensive patronage networks.”

 

Many Scottish journalists seem unaware of those wise words by American novelist and filmmaker Stephen Chbosky: “Things change and friends leave.  Life doesn’t stop for anybody.”  They’ve reacted to the SNP’s decade in power with continual aggrieved negativity.  Nothing the SNP government, originally headed by Alex Salmond, now headed by Nicola Sturgeon, does can ever be good.  It can only be bad.  Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, their headlines have regurgitated the message that Scotland is going to the dogs and it’s all the SNP’s fault.

 

What must be awkward for Scotland’s newspapers is the evidence that pops up now and again and suggests that things might not be going so badly after all.  For example, figures in June showing Scotland’s economy grew during the first part of 2017 – at a rate of only 0.8%, admittedly, but four times the equivalent rate for the UK as a whole.  Or Scottish unemployment dropping to its lowest level since the start of the 2008 financial crash.  Or passenger-satisfaction levels with ScotRail reaching 90%, its highest-ever rating (and way better than the 72% satisfaction-level for Southern Rail in England).  Or the Scottish National Health Service exceeding its targets for treating accident and emergency patients.  (Or indeed, evidence that the Scottish NHS is the best-performing one of the four health services in the UK.)

 

The condition of Scottish education remains a concern, with the 2016 Pisa rankings showing Scottish pupils performing considerably less well than English ones (though better than Welsh ones).  However, one thing that commentators have constantly lamented about, the small number of Scottish school-leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds getting into university, seems to have improved.  Recent figures show an increase of 13% in university entrants from poor backgrounds.

 

So hey, it’s not all bad news, is it?  Scotland’s newspapers will surely let a little sunshine filter out of their normally dour front pages and give credit where it’s due, right?

 

Dream on.  The Herald’s front page on August 7th gave a rubbishing of ScotRail: HALF OF TRAINS ARRIVING AT BUSIEST STATIONS ARE LATE.  After it was pointed out that the figures for this story were inaccurate, it vanished from the Herald’s website and an apology appeared the next day admitting, “The most recent figures show that 93.7% of ScotRail trains met the industry standard public performance measure (PPM).”  However, this wasn’t before similar stories had appeared in the Glasgow Evening News, Daily Record, Scottish Daily Mail and Dundee Courier.  Meanwhile, I only have to type ‘Scottish NHS’ into Google and click on ‘news’ underneath to get a long list of headlines suggesting that Scotland’s health system is ‘doomed, all doomed’ (© Private Fraser, Dad’s Army): SCOTTISH NHS AT RISK OF STAFFING SHORTAGES THANKS TO POOR PLANNING (the Daily Telegraph); HOSPITALS AND NHS FACILITIES MAY NEED TO BE ‘AXED’ (the Scotsman); NHS STAFFING SHORTAGES ARE COMPROMISING PATIENT CARE (the Scotsman again); SCOTTISH NURSES SLAM NHS STAFFING CRISIS FOR AFFECTING CARE OF PATIENTS (the Daily Record); etc.

 

Even the jump in students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university has been sourly received.  In January 2017, the Times’s Daniel Sanderson wrote an article decrying the fact that in Scotland FEWER THAN 10% OF STUDENTS COME FROM POOREST BACKGROUNDS.  Well, those new statistics about university entrants should cheer him up, right?  Nope.  This week, the same journalist wrote in the same newspaper an article decrying the fact that in Scotland MORE MIDDLE-CLASS STUDENTS ARE MISSING OUT ON UNIVERSITY PLACES.

 

For the record – as opposed to the Daily Record – I don’t think it matters much politically if 90-95% of Scotland’s mainstream press hate the party in power and monster them at every turn.  I’d rather live in a society like that than in a Putin-esque one where the government controls everything the newspapers say about them.  The fact that, despite the overwhelming hostility, the SNP have won two more Scottish elections since 2007 suggests that not many people believe what the newspapers tell them to believe these days.  (See also how Jeremy Corbyn secured 40% of the vote in the last British election despite the massive abuse he received in the British press.)

 

What does depress me is how this adversity must affect the many people working in the Scottish public sector and / or in services widely used by the Scottish public: hospital workers, teachers, train-staff, etc.  Clearly, they’ve made huge efforts to achieve good results in an era of austerity and financial uncertainty.  (That might sound like a platitude but it isn’t – for months now a close family member of mine has been looked after by the Scottish NHS and received excellent care.)  But when you go the extra mile for your patients, pupils or customers, and still get nothing but negative headlines screaming at you about your profession and your sector from the newspaper stands, it must be demoralising.

 

The Scottish press’s negativity-at-all-costs policy is not a case of, as some people have argued, ‘doing Scotland down’, because the SNP government is not all of Scotland – no more than Teresa May’s lunatic Brexit-obsessed Conservative government is all of England.  But, often, it seems discourteous to an awful lot of ordinary people who are just trying to do their jobs well.

 

From scotbuzz.co.uk 

 

Lucifer over Larne, Lurgan and Lisbellaw

 

© Cork University Press

 

When I was eight years old, I lived in a tiny village near the border between Counties Tyrone and Fermanagh in Northern Ireland.  Thinking back, I suspect that when my neighbours saw me they’d whisper, “Look – there’s the most gullible child in the village.”

 

No doubt they thought I was gullible because I readily believed any old guff people told me, especially in relation to things that, scientifically speaking, didn’t exist – i.e. manifestations of the supernatural.

 

I was a sucker for ghost stories.  For instance, an uncle once told me about the Cooneen Ghost – a tale involving a local family who supposedly were tormented by poltergeist-type knockings on the doors and windows of their house.  Horribly, when they tried to escape the entity by emigrating to North America, it travelled with them.  The phantom knockings continued in their cabin on board the ship and then at their house in the New World.  After hearing that, I lived in dread of similar knockings starting on the doors and windows of our house.  God help us, I thought, we’d never be rid of the thing.

 

From strangedaze.doomby.com

 

I also believed that fairies were real because a girl in my primary-school class had assured me that one day her mother had been in the family’s stick-house (Northern Irish for ‘wood-shed’) when she’d heard crying sounds coming from a block of wood.  Presumably these were made by a fairy whose home was in the tree that’d been chopped down for the timber.

 

I even believed in banshees because an older boy spun me a yarn about how, one night long ago, his father had heard a hideous screeching noise out in the darkness; and soon afterwards, someone well-known to his father had died unexpectedly.

 

So you can imagine my alarm one day when a couple of my primary-school classmates started talking about devil worshippers being active not only in Northern Ireland, but in the town of Enniskillen a few miles along the road from us.  They talked about a family in Enniskillen who were rumoured to draw all the curtains in their house as soon as it got dark and then spend the night performing black-magic rituals.  They described the carcasses of freshly-sacrificed goats that’d been discovered beside the river in Enniskillen with their hearts removed.  Most alarmingly, they related how a child, about our age, had been abducted by devil worshippers and later been found dead and cut into pieces.  I swallowed every word of this.  I took it as gospel truth.

 

Talking of the gospel, I’ll say in my defence that I belonged to a fairly religious community of Northern Irish Protestants.  We were a paradox – on one hand, priding ourselves on being rational and not superstitious, unlike those silly Roman Catholics who believed in saints and visions and rosary beads; but on the other hand believing everything that was said to have happened in the Bible because it was the Word of God.  And since the Bible said the devil existed – he did exist.  Our local clergyman confirmed this.  I remember him telling us sternly during a Sunday sermon that if you believed in the existence of God, you had to believe in the existence of the devil too.

 

So if the devil was real, surely it followed that evil people who worshipped him by slaughtering humans and animals were also real?

 

© Hammer Films

 

In the decades since, I’ve often wondered how my primary-school classmates got hold of those grisly stories about devil worship in early-1970s Northern Ireland.  Well, I’ve finally found the answer.  I recently read Black Magic and Bogeymen, a 2014 book by Richard Jenkins, Professor of Sociology at the University of Sheffield and a one-time undergraduate at Queen’s University in Belfast.  This investigates a “wave of rumours about black magic, Satanism, animal sacrifice and child abduction” that “swept across the north of Ireland in late 1973 and early 1974.”

 

According to Jenkins, “(b)etween 5th August and mid-December 1973, sixty-five items about witchcraft and black magic appeared in the mainstream press north and south of the Irish border: news reports, features, editorials, letters to the editor, church reports, and what appeared to be religious announcements…  Most of the reporting concerned the east of the province: Belfast and counties Antrim, Armagh and Down…  The reports peaked between mid-October and the third week in November, clustering around Hallowe’en.”

 

At their height, these reports seemed to reflect genuine panic in parts of Northern Ireland – adults concerned that their children might be kidnapped and sacrificed, and children generally scared witless.  (I was one of them.)  Predictably, as Jenkins observes, children were also among the worst culprits for spreading the rumours.  They “seem to have actively elaborated or invented stories about bad people doing bad things” and were “likely to have contributed to the meagre ‘tangible evidence’ of supposed witchcraft and black magic practices.”

 

Jenkins explores the many factors likely to have fostered these stories of devil worship, black magic and ‘witchcraft’.  (My apologies to any Wiccans or other practitioners of white or pagan magic reading this, but to 1970s Northern Ireland’s Protestants and Catholics, witchcraft was devil worship and vice-versa, end of.)  He describes the heightened interest in the occult in Western culture at the time, signified by such things as the sensational black-magic novels of Dennis Wheatley and high-profile movies like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973).  He devotes a chapter too to “the supernatural lore that was part of the enchanted world-views that could be encountered in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s” and no doubt made some people believe the rumours more readily – supernatural lore that includes not just the ghosts, fairies and banshees that so worried my eight-year-old self, but also traditions of faith and folk healing and a great enthusiasm for celebrating Hallowe’en.

 

Obviously, something that casts a huge shadow over Jenkins’ subject matter is the Northern Irish Troubles.  In their fourth year when the rumours began, the Troubles had already claimed an appalling toll – 467 people killed in 1972 alone.  Jenkins discusses how “social conflicts may be symbolised and re-worked in supernatural imagery and stories, not least in threats such as witchcraft and fears of spiritual jeopardy”.  The Troubles figured in the rumours in more tangible ways too, for example, through tales of teenagers getting embroiled in the occult after “trying to contact the souls of those killed in the Troubles, using Ouija boards or other methods.”

 

Jenkins attributes considerable blame for the scare to the province’s local newspapers, which generally reported the stories with ‘very modest facts’ that were ‘inflated and misrepresented’, ‘framed with unconnected material’ and ‘ornamented by apparently authoritative, if somewhat imprecise, anonymous information.’  Admittedly, those newspapers were under massive pressure.  A few years earlier their main stories had been about ‘livestock sales’ and ‘the Women’s Institute’ but now they were regularly covering ‘intimidation, murder and mayhem.’  Thus, standards weren’t high among their beleaguered journalists.

 

© Carrickfergus Advertiser

 

Fascinatingly, another possible culprit identified is the British Army, which depending on your political viewpoint was then in the province as protectors or oppressors, peacekeepers or occupiers.  Jenkins provides evidence suggesting the army was happy to stir the pot of black-magic rumours.   It conducted ‘black propaganda’ operations promoting the belief that, yes, diabolical things were going on and religious and / or superstitious Northern Irish parents should keep their offspring off the streets at night.  On those streets, they were actually unlikely to tangle with devil worshippers; but they could tangle with paramilitaries or the security forces.

 

Jenkins prints an interview conducted in 1993 with the legendary Intelligence officer and ‘psychological warfare’ expert Colin Wallace, who claims he and his men went around Northern Irish properties mocking them up with magic circles, esoteric symbols, blood, bones, candles and inverted crosses to make it look like unspeakable rituals had taken place in them.

 

Tragically, one element in the stories was real – the child who, my classmates had told me, had been ‘cut to pieces’.  Jenkins devotes a chapter to the murder of ten-year-old Brian McDermott.  Brian was reported missing from his home in east Belfast at the start of September 1973 and his remains, ‘burned, mutilated and partially dismembered’, were discovered in the River Lagan a week later.  Although the police dismissed the idea that the murder was the result of some occult ritual, Jenkins notes how “a ‘black magic’ interpretation of the murder of Brian McDermott became an established tale of the Northern Irish Troubles.”  Officially the crime remains unsolved, though in 1989 the journalist Martin Dillon claimed that British Army Intelligence suspected the murderer as being John McKeague (himself killed in 1982), one of the conflict’s most notorious and feared loyalist terrorists.

 

Richard Jenkins conducts his investigations with academic thoroughness, analysing certain stories and rumours from different perspectives as he goes through the various actors in the drama – the Troubles, religion, superstitious belief, the media, the army, etc.  His approach is exhaustive and may seem exhausting to the casual reader.  However, I found Black Magic and Bogeymen fascinating – well, I was there at the time – and it’s surely the last word on the subject.

 

Returning to my own experience, I recall being asked in December 1973 if I wanted to go to the Christmas pantomime being held at Enniskillen High School and telling my parents flatly that no, I didn’t, because Enniskillen was full of witches and devil worshippers.  My Dad went ballistic at me for believing such a ‘pack o’ nonsense’ and then demanded to know who’d told me those stories.  I gave him the names of my guilty classmates.  “More fool you,” he raged, “for listenin’ to them slabberin’ eejits!”  And that was that.  I stopped worrying and agreed to go to the pantomime.  That brief, angry burst of rationality from my Dad cured me of my fears.

 

Surprisingly, decades later, I remember my Dad – who originally hailed from Country Cavan in the Irish Republic – having a whiskey with an old Irish friend.  The pair of them started talking about their childhood in the Irish countryside and how, once the sun went down, their family members would tell ghost stories.

 

“I’m not kiddin’!” marvelled my Dad.  “After dark, ye’d be too terrified to step outside the house!”

 

“I think,” said his friend, “that was why they told us them stories.”

 

Which proves I wasn’t the first member of the family to be troubled by tales of ghosts, fairies, banshees, black magic and bogeymen.

 

© Hammer Films

 

Tri-tiquette

 

 

I’d better begin by defining my terms.  Every foreigner I know in Sri Lanka calls these little beetling vehicles ‘tuk-tuks’ after the similar vehicles that are found in Thailand.  But Sri Lankans themselves get a bit sniffy at the term.  Nor do they take kindly to the vehicles being called ‘auto-rickshaws’, as they are in India.  No, the preferred local terms seem to be ‘trishaws’ or plain old ‘three-wheelers’.

 

I’ve read a report that there are nearly a million tuk-tuks plying their trade – which is shuttling passengers and sometimes cargo across short distances – on the roads and streets of Sri Lanka.  This means that in a country with a population of 21 million there’s one tuk-tuk in existence for roughly every score of its citizens.  Mind you, you can believe those statistics when you see swarms of the things on the move at rush hour in downtown Colombo, passing you in weaving, buzzing streaks of red, blue and green.  (Occasionally, you see an ultra-cool black tuk-tuk.  The black one in my immediate neighbourhood is driven by a guy who also sports an awesome mullet.  He’s such a dude.)

 

 

The décor inside Sri Lanka’s tuk-tuks often reminds you of the country’s ethnic and religious diversity.  Mounted on the dashboard might be a figurine of Buddha, indicating that the driver is of the Buddhist persuasion; or a little statue of the cheery elephant-headed god Ganesha, indicating that he’s likely to be a Hindu; or a cross, indicating a Christian; or there might be a verse from the Koran adorning the windscreen, indicating a Muslim.  However, interior tuk-tuk design frequently incorporates non-religious themes too.  For some reason, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are a common motif, with Captain Jack Sparrow’s jolly face emblazoned across many a tuk-tuk’s upholstery.  You get dungeons-and-dragons imagery too, and Bollywood-type stuff, and pictures of Native Americans and Harley Davidsons; and occasionally a weird hallucinogenic mixture of the lot.

 

 

I’ve been on board tuk-tuks that have looked as bare and functional as the inside of a cardboard box.  On the other hand, I’ve been in ones whose interiors, bedecked with frills, tinsel and strings of coloured paper flowers, have resembled that of a 19th century Parisian bordello.  Once, I climbed into one that happened to be decorated with emblems of Newcastle United Football Club.  When I climbed out again at my destination, I mentioned to the driver that I’d lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for three years and I quite liked Newcastle United.  The guy looked stunned.  I suppose that of all the passengers he’d ever ferried around Colombo, I must have been the closest one to an actual, living, breathing Geordie.

 

Here are a few pieces of advice to foreign visitors to Colombo who decide to utilize the city’s immense army of tuk-tuks.

 

One.  Avoid taking tuk-tuks that have been parked opportunistically outside a shop or restaurant or hotel that might qualify as being (even slightly) ‘touristy’.  These are often guys who’ll try to pre-arrange a fare with you, and it’ll be considerably more than what it would be on a meter.  And if they do use a meter, don’t be surprised if the meter suffers from numerical diarrhea, skittering out higher and higher prices.  Instead, flog down a tuk-tuk that’s passing on the street – the driver’s less likely to be a vulture.

 

Two.  Make sure the tuk-tuk has a meter and the driver uses it.  And make sure that the starting price – and the blanket fare for the first 900 metres – on it is 50 rupees.  Yes, I have Sri Lankan friends and colleagues who tell me they can travel around on tuk-tuks for less, but as a relatively well-heeled Westerner I think 50 rupees is fine and fair.  Then, keep your eyes on the meter at the 0.9-of-a-kilometer stage.  For once that distance is reached, the price goes up and keeps going up every subsequent 100 metres.  Each time, the increase should be by four rupees: 54 rupees, then 58, then 62, and so on.  If the meter starts climbing in bigger chunks, you’re being fleeced.  Tell the driver to change the incremental charge to four – a surprising number of them will when they’re challenged about it.  If the driver refuses, just tell him to stop and then get out.  Don’t worry.  This is Colombo.  There’ll be another, hopefully-cheaper tuk-tuk along after a moment.

 

At nighttime, though, the charges are higher: 57.50 rupees as the customary starting charge and correspondingly more-expensive additional charges.  Also, if your tuk-tuk is stationary for a period – as it often is in Colombo’s traffic jams – you’ll notice the meter logging on an extra two-rupee-a-minute ‘waiting fee’.

 

Three.  If you’re taking a tuk-tuk into an area of the city that you don’t know very well, bring along a copy of the Colombo A-Z so that you can monitor where you’re going.  This will alert you to the driver trying to treat you to ‘the scenic route’.  (Or alternatively, they simply may not know where they’re going themselves.  Tuk-tuk drivers get lost with surprising frequency – they’re not like those London black-taxicab drivers who’ve spent years memorizing every nook and cranny of the city as ‘the Knowledge’.)  At the same time, bear in mind that Colombo’s one-way systems can be both torturous and illogical, and if the driver isn’t taking you the shortest, most direct way it may be because of these.

 

Four.  Keep your pockets stocked with plenty of change because many tuk-tuk drivers never seem to have any.

 

The sharks tend to operate in the centre of Colombo, where there are more tourists to rip off.  I usually don’t have issues with tuk-tuks in my neighbourhood, Wellawatta, which is a few kilometres away from the city-centre action.  And when you find yourself in other Sri Lankan cities and towns where meters are much less common – I was in Kandy last week and ended up paying 250 rupees for a journey that would have cost me about 100 in Colombo – you soon start to view the tuk-tuk-driving fraternity in the country’s capital as a fine, upstanding bunch of blokes.

 

 

Finally, I should say that one night I was travelling through Wellawatta in a tuk-tuk when we stopped at a red light and another tuk-tuk drew up beside us in the adjacent lane.  This one was covered in a camouflage pattern and had the words TUK-TUK SAFARI stenciled on its side.  Its driver was dressed like a great white hunter, complete with a pith helmet.  Also, the vehicle was open-roofed and in the back rode two foreign tourist ladies.  They weren’t sitting, but standing, so that their upper halves jutted through the gap in the roof.  They seemed to be surveying the street-life of nocturnal Colombo in the way that participants in a real safari would survey the animal-life of the African savannah.

 

My reaction to this?  I believe that if you pay money to go on a tuk-tuk safari around Colombo, you don’t deserve to live.

 

The man who gave zombies brains

 

From www.denofgeek.com

 

There are few things I enjoy more than a good zombie movie.  Thus, since the death of Pittsburgh filmmaker George A. Romero on June 16th, I’ve been wearing a black armband – because Romero was the zombie auteur extraordinaire.

 

Romero’s 1968 debut was Night of the Living Dead, a movie that’s been stupendously influential in at least three ways.  Firstly, filmed during nights and weekends over a period of seven months for a paltry $114,000 – the famous opening sequence took place in Pittsburgh’s out-of-town Evans City Cemetery for the simple reason that Romero figured he could film there for free, on the quiet, without getting hassled by the police – its success became a lasting inspiration for low-budget filmmakers everywhere.  It showed that with enough ingenuity, determination and talent you could accomplish something out of next-to-nothing.  No doubt when things were getting tough during the shoots of landmark but ultra-cheap horror films like the $300,000-budget Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or the $350,000-budget Evil Dead (1981) or the $60,000-budget Blair Witch Project (1999), their respective directors Tobe Hooper, Sam Raimi and Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez consoled themselves with the thought, “If old George could do it, so can I.”

 

Secondly, Night of the Living Dead wrestled horror movies away from the gothic costume dramas made by the likes of Hammer Films in Britain, Mario Bava in Italy and Roger Corman in the USA, which by the mid-1960s had become their comfort zone.  It dragged the genre into the present day and made it visceral, nihilistic and properly frightening.  The human characters having to cope with the horrible events in Night were ordinary Joes like those sitting watching them in the cinema audience.  This could happen to you, it was telling them.  And as none of those human characters got through the titular night alive, you really didn’t want it to happen to you.

 

© Image Ten / Laurel Group

 

And thirdly, Night introduced the world to zombies as it knows them today.  And it knows zombies very well today.  Popular culture is swarming with them, not only in blockbuster Hollywood movies like World War Z (2013) but in other media like TV shows, computer games, books and comics.  Whereas before Night zombies had been depicted as poor, lost souls brought back to life by cruel, capitalist zombie-masters using the power of voodoo and put to work in flour-mills and tin-mines, as in Universal’s White Zombie (1932) and Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies (1966), after Night they had a new template.  They became apocalyptic.  They rose from the dead in hundreds, then thousands, and then millions, and fed on living humanity – in scenes employing as much blood and gore as the movie-censors would allow.  If they bit you, you got infected, died and became a zombie yourself.  And the only way to stop the shambling, bite-y bastards was to “shoot ’em in the head”.

 

What I love about zombies of the Night of the Living Dead variety is that though they are mindless creatures, the movies themselves don’t have to be mindless.  Brilliantly, those shambling zombies can be a metaphor for all sorts of things – for proletarian workers, consumers, oppressed peoples, whatever – giving filmmakers endless opportunities for social comment.  Thus, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) reflects a modern Britain where anger is an increasingly common social phenomenon and terms like ‘road rage’ and ‘air rage’ have entered the popular vocabulary; its sequel Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later (2007) is an allegory about the post-war occupation of Iraq; and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) satirises a twenty-something slacker generation who can’t tell if someone’s a zombie or just pissed, hungover or zonked out.  And again, Romero set the agenda with Night, which channels the fears of late-1960s America.  The country’s racial tensions are symbolised by the fate of the black hero (Duane Jones), who survives the zombie onslaught only to be mistaken for one himself and shot dead by a supposed rescue-posse of trigger-happy rednecks.  Meanwhile, the rednecks’ zombie-shooting / burning activities are not unlike things going on in Vietnam at the time.

 

© Image Ten / Laurel Group

 

However, Night of the Living Dead wasn’t the first George A. Romero film I saw.  That honour belongs to a movie he made five years later called The Crazies, which turned up on late-night British TV in the 1970s.  The Crazies has similarities to Night but isn’t a zombie movie because it features people turning into murderous lunatics rather than into murderous walking corpses.  The story of the US Army trying, and failing, to contain a virus that gradually infects the population of a small rural town and drives them insane, The Crazies is basically Romero giving the military a kicking.

 

It’s the army who’ve secretly developed the virus as a potential biological weapon; who accidentally let it escape into the town’s water supply; and who prove useless in trying to maintain order – this is a rural American community and there are a lot of guns, and before long it isn’t just the infected townspeople who are violently resisting the gas-masked, biohazard-suited soldiers.  The army also bring in scientists to try to develop a vaccine but give them hopeless facilities – the local school’s science lab – and when one of them accidentally does stumble across a vaccine, more military bungling leads to his death and the smashing of the vital test tubes.  At the film’s end, they even fail to do an immunity test on the hero, who by now is the only uninfected person left in the town.

 

© Cambist Films

 

The Crazies isn’t perfect – its low budget sometimes means there’s a visible gap between what Romero aspires to and what he achieves on screen – but to my 13-year-old mind its blend of anarchy, violence, rebelliousness and, yes, humour was astonishing.  I’ve never forgotten scenes like the one where a soldier bursts into a rural homestead and encounters a sweet old granny doing some knitting, who then stabs him to death with a knitting needle.  A remake appeared in 2010 and, while it has some good moments, it’s ultimately unsatisfying.  This is largely because it focuses on the civilian characters and hardly shows anything of the military ones.  Of course, it’s the soldiers and their half-comical, half-horrifying ineptitude that makes the original so effective and enjoyable.

 

In 1978, Romero returned to bona-fide zombie moviemaking with Dawn of the Dead.  The shopping malls spreading across the American landscape at the time inspired him to revisit Night’s zombie apocalypse and film a more expensive and expansive sequel.  This has four survivors, led by a black SWAT officer (Ken Foree), taking refuge in an abandoned mall and fortifying it against the living dead.  Romero uses the setting to poke fun at both the sterility of consumerism – the foursome’s lives rapidly grow tedious despite their unlimited access to everything in the mall’s stores – and its idiocy, as more survivors show up and the two groups fight for possession of the building, though it contains enough supplies for everybody.  The zombies, meanwhile, become irrelevant.

 

© Laurel Group Inc

 

The shots of zombies shuffling mindlessly through the mall’s aisles and thoroughfares, staring with glazed eyes at the goods on display, is satire of the sledgehammer variety – but hey, it works.  Nearly forty years on, whenever I find myself in a shopping mall, I experience at least one uncomfortable moment where I imagine the shoppers around me not as human beings but as ambling cadavers.  Also, in keeping with its theme of excess, Dawn piles on the bloodletting, courtesy of Romero’s regular special-effects man Tom Savini.  In the opening minutes, Romero and Savini treat us to a close-up of an exploding head and the gore rarely relents after that.

 

Dawn has been remade too, with a Zack Snyder-directed Dawn of the Dead appearing in 2004.  It’s a film I have mixed feelings about.  On the one hand, the first 25 minutes are terrific and I love the credits sequence, which shows a montage of clips of unfolding zombie carnage accompanied by Johnny Cash singing The Man Comes Around (2002).  On the other hand, the film is devoid of satire – the zombies spend nearly all the film not being in the mall, so there are none of those marvellous shopper-zombie juxtapositions – and you get a general impression of things being played safe.  It’s a shame, as Naomi Klein’s anti-globalisation tract No Logo had been published a few years earlier and a big gory horror movie poking fun at brainless brand-hungry consumerism and mindless corporate greed would have been just the ticket.

 

© Laurel Group Inc

 

In 1986, Romero wrapped up his original zombie trilogy with Day of the Dead, which like The Crazies shows his utter contempt for the military – though by now his contempt for humanity generally seems intense too.  Day has the world overrun with zombies and focuses on an elite band of scientists and soldiers holed up in an underground nuclear missile silo, desperately trying to find a solution for the mayhem happening above.  Bitter arguments between the obsessed scientists and the brutish military eventually escalate into all-out warfare – so when the zombies swarm in at the end they seem the least mindless members of the cast.

 

Admittedly, Day has a couple of sympathetic humans, namely a philosophical Jamaican pilot played by Terry Alexander – Romero’s third black zombie-movie hero – and a slightly alcohol-pickled Irish radio operator (Jarlath Conroy), both of whom realise the battle has already been lost.  They just want to escape the silo, abandon the mainland and start afresh on a desert island.  However, the film’s most likeable character is actually a zombie, one nicknamed Bub (Sherman Howard) who’s been captured by the scientists and domesticated – sort of.  He can listen to music, pick up a phone and almost whisper a couple of words.  He has vague memories of his former life, when he was a soldier, because he knows how to salute and hold a gun.  He’s very fond of the scientist who looks after him and when that scientist is murdered by the repellent Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), he’s genuinely upset and you feel genuinely sorry for him.  And a climactic scene where Rhodes is torn apart by Bub’s zombie compadres while Bub looks on and gives him a farewell salute is one of the most satisfying moments in horror-film history.

 

© Laurel Entertainment Inc

 

On a more intimate scale than Dawn, with more talk and less action, Day was regarded as a disappointment by Romero enthusiasts when it was first released.  However, over the years, its reputation has grown.  It’s my favourite Romero movie and one of my favourite horror movies generally.  Meanwhile – surprise! – a remake appeared in 2008.  Unlike the other remakes I’ve mentioned, this one is absolute shite.

 

After Zack Snyder’s version of Dawn of the Dead made a lot of cash in 2004, Romero got the go-ahead – and considerable studio money – to make his first zombie picture in nearly 20 years.  The result was 2005’s Land of the Dead which, although it received some decent reviews, was disdained by many hardcore horror-film fans who saw it as evidence that Romero had sold out and / or lost his touch.  I think that’s unfair as, to me, Land is three-quarters of a good movie.  Its opening sequence is grotesquely superb, showing an abandoned (by humans) suburb whose zombie inhabitants now potter around in the way they did when they were alive.  A zombie commuter lumbers out of his front door with a dusty briefcase, some zombie musicians abortively try to play their old instruments at the local bandstand and a zombie gas-station attendant shuffles dutifully to his pumps whenever something sets off the motion-sensor bell in his hut.

 

I also like the movie’s set-up.  Presumably taking place several years after Night, Dawn and Day, Land has Dennis Hopper as a megalomaniac who’s created a human sanctuary (bounded by a river and an electric fence) in the middle of a decaying city.  There, the rich and powerful humans live in a luxury apartment block called Fiddler’s Green while the less well-off live in Oliver Twist-like conditions in the streets below.  To keep his society going, Hopper regularly sends out a military force into the surrounding wasteland in a huge armoured vehicle called the Dead Reckoning, which is half-tank and half-truck, to scavenge for supplies.  Trouble is, the zombies inhabiting the wasteland are developing rudimentary powers of thought and self-organisation and, miffed at getting splattered by Hopper’s military expeditions, they start to march towards his little enclave.  (Their leader is none other than the petrol pump attendant, played by black actor Eugene Clark.  In a series where the hero has always been black, this suggests Romero has now totally sided with the zombies.)

 

© Atmosphere-Entertainment MM / Romero-Grunwald Productions

 

Parallels with America’s wealth inequalities, its oil-driven foreign adventures and anti-American sentiment in the Middle East during the noughties are no doubt fully intentional.  I’d assumed that the Dennis Hopper character in Land represented George Bush Jr.  However, as the critic Kim Newman pointed out in an obituary for Romero in Sight and Sound magazine, the character is actually a property developer.  So maybe Romero had a premonition of who’d be sitting in the Oval Office in 2017.

 

Land’s main problem is that it’s anti-climactic.  The end scenes where the zombies penetrate the human enclave and then Fiddler’s Green are suitably gory and carnage-ridden.  But you’re waiting for the military force in the Dead Reckoning, led by Simon Baker and Asia Argento, to ride to the rescue and start kicking serious zombie ass.  When Baker, Argento and the gang finally arrive, though, all they do is blow up the electric fence to allow a few survivors to escape.  And, um, that’s it.

 

Still, Land is way better than the two zombie pictures Romero made subsequently.  2007’s Diary of the Dead has an interesting premise – it’s a found-footage movie about a group of young filmmakers who’re working far from home when a zombie apocalypse breaks out; and they decide to record their adventures on film, documentary-style, as they journey across an increasingly chaotic landscape.  What’s particularly interesting is how they intercut their own story with clips that people around the world are simultaneously uploading to the Internet – and this being Romero, those clips often show human beings taking advantage of the mayhem to act appallingly.  However, after a gripping opening section, the middle of the film becomes routine and predictable; and its final stretch is talky and ponderous to an extreme.

 

Survival of the Dead followed in 2009.  Set on an island off America’s northwest coast where a feud between two families escalates while society breaks down around them, it resembles a particularly scrappy episode of The Walking Dead TV show and is a sad final instalment in Romero’s zombie sextet.

 

In between zombies, Romero made other types of movies and a couple are very good indeed.  That said, I’m not a fan of his two collaborations with Stephen King, Creepshow (1982), an anthology film scripted by King in the style of the old EC horror comics, and The Dark Half (1993), an adaptation of one of King’s novels.  (Creepshow has its admirers and features an excellent cast – Adrienne Barbeau, Ted Danson, Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, E.G. Marshall, Leslie Nielsen and Fritz Weaver – but I find it unnecessarily hokey and slightly wasteful of Romero’s talents.)

 

© Libra Films International

 

But Martin (1978) is excellent.  It’s about a modern-day American teenager (John Amplas) who, clearly mentally disturbed, believes himself to be an 84-year-old vampire.  He ends up living in the Pittsburgh suburbs with his great-uncle, an elderly Lithuanian immigrant who, steeped in the lore and superstitions of his old country, is only too happy to take him at his word.  A disorientating mixture of blood-spilling, dreaminess, humour and melancholia, Martin would be worth re-watching in 2017 as a tonic to those wimpy Twilight books and movies that have defined teenaged vampires for the last decade.

 

Also praiseworthy is Romero’s 1981 non-horror movie Knightriders, which has a young Ed Harris in charge of a travelling medieval-style fair where the central attraction is the re-enactment of knightly jousting tournaments.  The gimmick is that there isn’t a horse in sight – the knights doing the jousting are bikers riding (and regularly falling off) motorcycles.  Furthermore, Harris, who sees his fair not as a business but a community, tries to live according to a knightly code of virtue and honour.  This does him few favours as the fair suffers money problems and attracts unwelcome attention from bloodsucking promoters and talent scouts, sensationalist journalists, crooked cops, rival motorcycle gangs and redneck crowds who just want to see motorbikes getting smashed.

 

© Laurel Productions

 

Knightriders is overlong and meandering and has about 15 characters too many, and at times it’s sentimental, melodramatic and hippy-dippy; but it’s also endearingly high-minded and decent-hearted.  It again shows Romero’s disdain for materialism and mindless conformism, though this time in human rather than metaphorical terms.  And Harris’s struggles in Knightriders reflect Romero’s uncomfortable relationship with the wider film industry, an industry that was all-too-happy to ignore him, exploit him, mess him around and rip him off.

 

In closing, I’ll say this to the spirit of George A. Romero.  Sir, you were responsible for a half-dozen films – the original Dead trilogy, The Crazies, Martin and Knightriders – that are extra-special ones for me.  I salute you.

 

© Laurel Entertainment Inc

 

The definite article

 

© Epic

 

I think it’s fair to say that 2017 does not feel like a good time to be alive.  Not only do we have a moron in the White House, a thug in the Kremlin and a zombie shambling around inside Number 10 Downing Street, but a chunk of ice as big as Delaware has collapsed off the side of Antarctica, scientists have announced that we’re now in earth’s sixth era of mass extinction, gonorrhoea has developed resistance to most antibiotics and become almost untreatable, and Jacob Rees-Mogg has procreated.

 

It’s surely a sign of these bleak times that I’ve found myself listening again to the music of post-punk / alternative band The The.

 

In existence since 1979, and graced with the most grammatically awkward name in musical history, The The is basically a one-man-operation by London singer, songwriter and musician Matt Johnson.  Other band-members have come and gone and come back again at different points in the studio and on stage, including former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and former Bowie guitarist Gail Ann Dorsey.  Also, a host of famous names have made one-off contributions to The The’s records – Johnson’s collaborators over the years have included Marc Almond, Neneh Cherry, Lloyd Cole, Jools Holland, Sinead O’Connor and J.G. ‘Foetus’ Thirlwell.

 

The The was especially prominent for a decade from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, releasing a quartet of albums – Soul Mining (1983), Infected (1986), Mind Bomb (1989) and Dusk (1993) – which uniquely captured the zeitgeist of the era.  I heard about the band while I was at college though, to be honest, I resisted listening to it for a long time because the set of students I knew there who were The The fans happened to be a bunch of smug, self-consciously trendy tossers reminiscent of the Rik Mayall character in TV’s The Young Ones (1982-84).  (That, of course, wasn’t Matt Johnson’s fault.)  It wasn’t until the late 1980s that my brother gave me a recording of Infected on a cassette tape and I sat down and experienced The The’s music for the first time.  The result was love at first listen.

 

© Some Bizarre / Epic

 

Johnson’s songs had some wonderfully catchy hooks; and despite the presence of guitars, drums, horns and harmonicas, they came with a precise, shiny, synth-y polish that – unlike a lot of 1980s music – still sounds fresh and invigorating today.  However, Johnson’s lyrics were, for the most part, grim.  He wasn’t afraid to sing about what was going on in the world around him and, in the 1980s, much of what was going on seemed bloody horrible: the Reagan-Thatcher love-in, the coming of the Yuppies, the AIDS epidemic, the Ayatollah, the Iran-Iraq War, Chernobyl, Bhopal, Hillsborough, the Lockerbie Bombing, Tiananmen Square.  I have to say, though, that in terms of horribleness the last year or two have certainly given the 1980s a run for their money and I wonder if that’s why I suddenly find the band very relevant and listenable again.

 

Also, Johnson was willing to put his voice up front – his words didn’t get buried in the mix.  Thus, when I played my The The collection again recently, I immediately found myself singing along to it, so familiar had the lyrics been to me back in the day.  When I heard the simultaneously funky and sinister Sweet Bird of Truth (1986), I started mouthing the lines along with its narrator, a battle-scarred, psychotic war veteran: “Across the beaches and cranes, rivers and trains / All the money I’ve made, bodies I’ve maimed / Time was when I seemed to know / Just like any other little G.I. Joe / Should I cry like a baby, die like a man / While the planet’s little wars start joining hands…”  The words rushed back to me too when I listened again to The Beat(en) Generation (1989), which lambasts the apathy and materialism of 1980s youth, with Johnson accusing them of being “raised on a diet of prejudice and misinformation” and pleading with them to “open your eyes, open your imagination.”  It’s entirely consistent with The The’s style that while Johnson fulminates and despairs vocally, a harmonica breezes happily beside him and threatens to turn into the intro from The Beatles’ Love Me Do (1962).

 

Then there’s Armageddon Days are Here (Again) (1989), which for obvious reasons still sounds potent in 2017: “Islam is rising, the Christians mobilising / The world is on its elbows and knees / It’s forgotten the message and worships the creed.”   Later, he notes sourly, “If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today / He’d be gunned down cold by the C.I.A.”  Or Heartland, (1986), which contains the lines, “This is the land where nothing changes / The land of red buses and blue-blooded babies / This is the place where pensioners are raped / And the hearts are being cut from the Welfare State,” and which ends with the refrain, “This is the 51st state of the U… S… A…”

 

Small wonder that when the music magazine Q reviewed a new The The album in the 1990s, it topped the review with the headline, CHEER UP, IT’S MATT JOHNSON.  Or as Johnson himself confessed in the lyrics of Slow Emotion Replay (1993), “Everybody knows what’s going wrong with the world / But I don’t even know what’s going on in myself.”

 

© Epic

 

Then in 1996, Johnson did something surprising.  He released a The The album called Hanky Panky that consisted entirely of cover versions by the hard-livin’ (and early-dyin’) country-and-western troubadour Hank Williams.  On the face of it, The The and Hank Williams seemed to belong in different musical universes, but the result was surprising enjoyable.  Its highlights were a dark and diseased-sounding version of Honky Tonkin’ (“When you are sad and lonely and have no place to go / Call me up, sweet baby, and bring along some dough…”)  and an exhilarating one of I Saw the Light (“I saw the light, I saw the light / No more darkness, no more night!”).

 

Admittedly, Hanky Panky wasn’t to everyone’s tastes.  I was living in Japan when the album came out and I lent it to a Japanese friend who was not only an aficionado of Hank Williams but also a country-and-western singer and country-and-western DJ.  (I should say he was influenced by Hank’s hazardous lifestyle as much as he was by his music.  Whenever he suffered an alcohol-fuelled mishap, such as incurring burns on his forearms after toppling onto a barbecue at a party, he’d shrug it off with the philosophical observation, “Well, that’s what Hank Williams would have done too.”)  He gave Hanky Panky a couple of spins on his local radio show but confessed to me afterwards that he and his listeners were baffled by it.

 

The The released one more ‘proper’ album, 2000’s Naked Self, which gets unfairly overlooked in retrospectives of the band.  Among its songs, December Sunlight is gorgeous and Boiling Point shows Johnson still able to evoke grim scenarios where everything seems to teeter on the edge of disaster.

 

Thereafter, the band appeared to drop off the radar.   But Johnson remained busy in a slightly different field, working on movie soundtracks (still under the moniker of The The).  In 2012 he provided the music for the award-winning documentary Moonbug, about the astronauts who took part in the Apollo space programme.  He also contributed to two films directed by his brother, Gerard Johnson: 2009’s Tony, a nihilistic low-fi horror movie about a lonely, introverted and bullied man living in a London block of flats who turns out to be a serial killer; and 2014’s Hyena, a crime drama that reworks Abel Ferrara’s legendary The Bad Lieutenant (1992) with corrupt London coppers and Albanian gangsters.  For someone who’d always put an emphasis on words, the non-vocal soundscapes Johnson creates for these films are surprisingly effective.  Sequences like the one at the end of Tony where the title character wanders through the cold, hostile London night, or the one at the start of Hyena where a police team raids a dodgy London club and proves to be as mindlessly violent as the gangsters running the place, are boosted immeasurably by the presence of his music.

 

© Lazarus Limited

 

Soundtrack work aside, though, I’m sure the past 15 years have been frustrating ones for The The fans desperate for Johnson to make another fully-fledged album.  However, the wait seems to be nearly over, for recently a new The The single, We Can’t Stop What’s Coming, was released and the band’s Wikipedia entry states that a new album is currently ‘in progress’.

 

In the meantime, if you feel a yearning for some sublimely catchy and groovy music combined with some of the angriest lyrics in pop and rock music, you could do far worse than listen to The The’s back catalogue.   Matt Johnson’s band really is the definite article.

 

Bad hombres

 

© Pan Macmillan      

 

I greatly admire Cormac McCarthy’s novels Blood Meridian (1985) and The Road (2006).  However, I hadn’t felt any overwhelming urge to read No Country for Old Men (2005) – another of McCarthy’s more famous works – because in 2007 I’d seen its Oscar-winning film adaptation by Joel and Ethan Coen and I’d heard that the film followed the book closely.

 

Thanks to the Coen Brothers, I already knew the characters and plot of No Country for Old Men.  Also, I found the film vaguely dissatisfying.  As I rather pretentiously explained to a friend in 2007, “It’s like a Frankenstein’s monster where Jean-Paul Sartre’s head is stitched onto Clint Eastwood’s body.”  What I meant was that for most of its running time the film is a lean, ruthless and nasty thriller, a gripping piece of modern western noir.  But then near the end, its remorseless storyline just stops.  And after that, there’s a protracted scene where Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Bell character visits an elderly relative and announces his intention to retire because, basically, the world is a terrible place and he can’t handle it any longer.  Thus, the film seems to peter out amid lamentations of angst and existentialism.

 

I’d assumed that, since it was supposedly a faithful adaptation of the book, the book would have a similarly dissatisfying ending.  Which admittedly is a bit unfair towards poor old Cormac McCarthy.

 

A while ago I was back in Scotland and I spotted a second-hand copy of No Country for Old Men, the book, on sale in a local charity shop.  And with that jolt of horror you get occasionally when you’re growing older and you realise how quickly time seems to be passing, it occurred to me that it’d been a whole decade since I’d seen the movie.  I’d also forgotten a lot of what’d happened in it.  This seemed, then, a good opportunity to buy the literary version of No Country for Old Men and acquaint myself with it.

 

Here’s my opinion and, inevitably, there are spoilers ahead both for the book and for the film.

 

My main impression after reading No Country for Old Men was that, yes, for the most part, the Coen Brothers were remarkably faithful to the original when they made their movie.  As the story unfolds – a hunter and Vietnam vet called Llewellyn Moss stumbles across the bloody, corpse-strewn aftermath of a drug-deal-gone-wrong on the remote Texas / Mexico border, lifts a satchel full of money and makes a run for it, only to be pursued by a gang of vengeful drug-dealing gangsters, as well as by a certain Anton Chigurh, a hitman so relentless, merciless and fearsome he makes the Terminator look like Bambi – I found near-identical scenes from the movie returning to my memory after ten years.

 

One difference between the book and the film that I noticed early on was when Moss, having scarpered with the money, nobly but foolishly decides to return to the scene of the massacre because he’d left behind one survivor, a badly-injured gangster who was begging for water.  When he comes back with some water for that survivor, the survivor is surviving no longer; and one of the gangs involved has sent along some new hoodlums to find out what’s happened to their drugs and money.  There follows a nail-biting chase across the desert, climaxing with Moss flinging himself into a river to escape the hoodlums.  In the film, the Coen Brothers ratchet up the suspense yet further by introducing a big attack dog that doesn’t appear in the book.  Even the river doesn’t deter the beast in its pursuit of Moss because it swims as fast as it runs.  Indeed, the dog is a crafty metaphorical foreshadowing of Anton Chigurh, who is soon pursuing Moss too.  If there’s one thing you want following you even less than a big attack dog, it’s him.

 

The book also has more of Sheriff Bell, the ageing lawman trying to find and save Moss whilst also keeping tabs on Carla Jean, Moss’s young wife.  At regular intervals, there are short chapters representing Bell’s stream-of-consciousness while he ruminates on existence and the general state of things.  “My daddy always told me to just do the best you know how and tell the truth…” he says at one point.  “And if you done somethin wrong just stand up and say you done it and say you’re sorry and get on with it.”  This makes him a likeable and sympathetic character, but not too much so.  Later, as we hear more of his musings, we realise some of his views are quite reactionary and probably if he was still around in 2016 – the story is set in the 1980s – he’d have voted for Donald Trump.  These interludes also prepare us for the gloomy philosophical ending, in a way that we weren’t prepared for it whilst watching the film.

 

© Miramax Films / Paramount Vantage

 

For much of the book and film, the plot is an increasingly desperate and vicious cat-and-mouse game between Moss and Chigurh, while various cannon-fodder Mexican gangsters turn up and get blown away.  McCarthy describes it all in his admirably economical and deceptively simple-looking prose, though lovers of punctuation will cringe at his brutal disregard for apostrophes and inverted commas.

 

It helps too that McCarthy seems au fait with the macho, rural and violent world he’s writing about: its gangland machinations, its police procedures, its vehicles, its guns: “The rifle had a Canjar trigger set to nine ounces and he pulled the rifle and the boot towards him with great care and sighted again and jacked the crosshairs slightly up the back of the animal standing most broadly to him…  Even with the heavy barrel and the muzzlebrake the rifle bucked up off the rest.  When he pulled the animals back into the scope he could see them all standing as before.  It took the 150-grain bullet the better part of a second to get there but it took the sound twice that.”  I know little about McCarthy’s background – he’s very reclusive – and I’ve no idea if he’s really the man’s man, the rugged Hemmingway type, that he comes across as here.  But the fact that he does come across like that gives the telling of the story an extra conviction.

 

I felt apprehensive as I approached the novel’s end.  Would the main storyline finish as abruptly and unsatisfyingly as it did in the film – which had Bell arriving at a motel for a rendezvous with Moss, only to discover that Moss has just been killed (offscreen) by some Mexicans?  Leaving only the scene where Bell decides to call it quits, plus one where Chigurh pays a visit to the now-widowed Carla Jean?  (In the film, it’s implied that he executes her.  In the book, it’s spelt out more clearly.)  I assume that by ending it like this the Coen Brothers believed they were making a statement about the fickleness of fate and the randomness of life and death – and by this late moment in the story, Moss had surely used up all of his nine lives.  But having spent the most of two hours rooting for him, I wanted something more than a brief, flippant reference to him dying.  Call me old-fashioned, but I’d have liked a little more closure with the character.

 

In the book, Moss dies with an equal sense of arbitrariness – Bell gets to the motel and finds out that his man has just been assassinated.  However, there’s more.  The Coen Brothers, it transpires, had made a major break with this section of the book because they left out a character, a female teenage runaway.  McCarthy has Moss pick the girl up while she’s hitchhiking and while he’s making the fateful journey to the motel.  To be honest, the girl isn’t much of a character, being a think-she-knows-everything teenage brat.  As someone who was once a thought-I-knew-everything teenage brat myself, I can speak with authority here.  But at least her naivete provides some context for Moss, who by now is feeling as old, jaded and world-weary as Bell.  (Later, at the motel, she offers to sleep with Moss, but wanting to stay faithful to Carla Jean he turns her down.)

 

When Moss finally shows up, yes, the Mexicans have intervened and Moss is dead, as was the case in the film.  However, the book has a deputy tell Bell what happened from the eyewitness reports: “…the Mexican started it.  Says he drug the woman out of her room and the other man (Moss) came out with a gun but when he seen the Mexican had a gun pointed at the woman’s head he laid his own piece down.  And whenever he done that the Mexican shoved the woman away and shot her and then turned and shot him….  Shot em with a goddamned machinegun.  Accordin to this witness the old boy fell down the steps and then he picked up his gun again and shot the Mexican.  Which I dont see how he done it.  He was shot all to pieces.”  So at least Moss dies making an honourable (if futile) self-sacrifice to save the teenager, and he goes down with guns blazing, taking out one last bad guy.  That’s more like the closure I was looking for.

 

I know people who’ve objected to both versions of No Country for Old Men because of another disappearing plotline, the one involving Anton Chigurh – who in the film was memorably played by Javier Bardem.  Both the book and film end with him still on the loose, presumably being unspeakably evil and continuing to kill people.  But I don’t mind that loose thread so much.  I find it appropriate that McCarthy wraps up the story with Bell lamenting about the darkness of the world; while Chigurh still lurks in that darkness as a symbolic bogeyman.

 

© Miramax Films / Paramount Vantage

 

And my overall verdict?  I’d give McCarthy’s novel an impressive 9 out of 10, compared with a less impressive but still decent 7 out of 10 for the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation – a couple of points being deducted on account of its ending.

 

Glorious international foodstuffs 3: kitfo

 

(c) San Diego Reader

 

I’m not particularly carnivorous in my eating habits.  I like chicken and fish but I’m sure I could survive if I was never allowed to eat red meat again, though probably I’d be tormented by an occasional craving for a bacon sandwich.  Thus, when I was first in Ethiopia, and when I was first out in a restaurant with my new Ethiopian colleagues, and when I first had a dishful of the local delicacy known as kitfo placed in front of me, I seriously wondered how much – or how little – of the stuff I’d be able to force down me.

 

Yes, kitfo can be intimidating for people who aren’t big eaters of red meat because it’s a dish consisting almost entirely of minced ox-meat – which, more intimidatingly still, comes uncooked.

 

However, its rawness is offset by the aromatic tastes of the things added to it – a spicy seasoning called mitmita and a ghee-like butter called niter kibe.  In fact, these offset the stark raw tang of the meat deliciously, and the dish is made yet more flavoursome by the ayib, a sort of Ethiopian cottage cheese, and gomen, collard greens, that it’s commonly served with.   And this being Ethiopia, where knives and forks are in short supply, it’s customary to eat kitfo by hand.  You scoop it up with torn-off strips of injera, the local, sour, spongy flatbread.  So you also get the taste of injera vying for attention in your now-crowded palate.

 

Thanks to these flavourings and accoutrements, I had surprisingly little difficulty eating that first helping of kitfo and during the following two years I became quite addicted to it.  And I missed it when I returned home to Scotland where, needless to say, Ethiopian restaurants are pretty thin on the ground.

 

Actually, I suspect that if you ordered kitfo in an Ethiopian restaurant in Europe, what you’d get would be leb-leb, which is kitfo in a lightly-cooked form – the rawness of the original being deemed a little too much for wimpy Western sensibilities.  But I’m sure a true connoisseur of Ethiopian cuisine would demand kitfo in all its visceral, uncooked glory.

 

I thought kitfo was great but I admit to having difficulty with kurt, another raw-meat staple of the Ethiopian food world.  Kurt is chunks of flesh freshly cut from a carcass in a sega-bet, an establishment that’s part restaurant and part butcher’s shop.  And… Well, that’s all you need to know.

 

From youtube.com

 

For me, the big difference between kitfo and kurt was that while the former meat-dish had any fat removed before being minced, the latter was served up with scraps of fat clinging to its outside and seams of fat lurking within it.  And it wasn’t the meat itself that dampened my enthusiasm for kurt, but those interminably-chewy, fatty bits I had to contend with.  (It didn’t help that my colleagues liked to entertain me with grisly tales of folk having tapeworms approximately half-a-mile long, which they’d presumably acquired whilst eating kurt in the sega-bet, extracted from their anuses.)

 

One condiment you get with kurt is a mustardy sauce called senafich and I’d slather the stuff with that to take my mind, or more precisely my taste buds, off its discomforting fat-content.

 

My local sega-bet was also the source of the cheapest tej in the neighbourhood.  Tej is a kind of smoky Ethiopian mead that I was extremely partial to.  So munching my way through half a freshly-slaughtered ox, fat and all, was the necessary evil I had to put up with in order to guzzle large quantities of Ethiopian honey-wine.

 

How did Ethiopians develop a fondness for eating raw meat in various permutations?  I’ve heard claims that at some point in history it grew out of a military necessity.  When Ethiopian fighters were on the move, they didn’t want to give their position away to the enemy and so they got into the habit of eating their meat raw.  This spared them having to light fires to cook on, which would produce tell-tale plumes of smoke.