About admin

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

The milkman delivers

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(c) Faber & Faber

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Milkman, the novel written by Belfast author Anna Burns that won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction late last year, might more accurately be called Milkmen because it has two characters bearing that name.

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One is a 41-year-old married man and a member of a paramilitary organisation.  We don’t learn why he’s nicknamed ‘milkman’, but it’s a moniker that inspires fear.  He starts making unwelcome intrusions into the life of the book’s 18-year-old female narrator.  One day he stops alongside her in his van and offers her a ride while she’s walking on the street – or more accurately, walking and reading, for when she’s out and about she invariably has a book open in her hand.  (It’s normally a book from the 19th century or earlier because, as she makes clear, she’s not a fan of modern times.)  “You’re one of the who’s-it girls, aren’t you?” he says.  “So-and-so was your father, wasn’t he?  Your brothers, thingy, thingy, thingy and thingy, used to play in the hurley team, didn’t they?  Hop in.  I’ll give you a lift.”  Disconcerted by his knowledge of her and her family, the narrator declines the offer. 

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Then he appears and jogs alongside her while she’s taking a typically strenuous run through her city’s ‘parks & reservoirs’ area.  “He slowed the run right down…” she observes, “until we were walking…  He had no interest in running.  All that running along the reservoirs where I had not ever seen him running had never been about running.  All that running, I knew, was about me.”  Spooked, she resolves afterwards to run in the company of a male relative, ‘third brother-in-law’, who’s temperamental (“a mad exerciser, a mad street fighter, a basic all-round mad person”) but dependable, in the hope that his presence will keep the milkman away.

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And then he surprises her after an eventful evening downtown.  She’s just attended an adult French class whose teacher is less interested in teaching the students French than in teaching them that the sky contains more than one colour, blue, by making them properly watch the sunset for the first time: “My poor deprived class… the sky that seems to be out there can be any colour that there is.”  Then, on her way home, she discovers the head of a cat that’s been blown off by a bomb explosion, decides to take it somewhere where she can bury it and wraps it in handkerchiefs.  Standing up with this grisly burden, she discovers the milkman beside her: “Now he was inches from me, and I from him, with only those hankies, and their dark, dead contents, acting as a buffer in between.”

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Though he doesn’t attempt to molest or even touch her, and he doesn’t proposition her, the milkman has clearly taken an uncommon interest in her.  And the narrator, we have realised by now, is somewhat uncommon herself.       

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The milkman’s unwelcome and sinister attention has severe consequences.  The narrator inhabits a community that sees itself as under siege by the state, that doesn’t recognise the state’s army, police, courts or hospitals,  and that allows itself to be administered by the ‘renouncers of the state’, i.e. the paramilitaries of whom the milkman is a member.  The result is an isolated society of neurosis and paranoia, whose members are continually at pains to say and be seen to do the right thing at the right time, and not to say or be seen to do the wrong thing at the wrong time; to know who they’re talking to and who’s listening to them; to sense what other people are thinking and keep their own thoughts to themselves; to keep up appearances, go with the flow, not draw attention to themselves, and so on.  In this pressure cooker of a place, gossip spreads as quickly as bush-fire through tinder-dry Outback, and when the narrator and the milkman are spotted together tongues start wagging madly. 

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The fragile equilibrium that exists between the narrator – already seen as something of an oddball – and her relatives and neighbours is shattered as her supposed affair with the middle-aged, married and murderous milkman provokes disgust, scorn, fear and envy.  Her outraged mother – ‘ma’ – lectures her: “You’ll regret it, daughter, finding yourself ensnared in the underbelly of all that alluring, mind-altering, unruly paramilitary nightlife.  It’s not what it seems.  It’s on the run.  It’s war.  It’s killing people.  It’s being killed…  I’m telling you, it’ll end badly.  You’ll hit the ground with a bump if he doesn’t take you to death first with him.”   

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Ironically, it’s the book’s second milkman, a real one whose job is to deliver milk, who helps turn things around.  Not only is he unafraid to stand up to the renouncers when he thinks they’re in the wrong, but he tries to extend help and comfort to members of the community who need it – often those who’ve lost loved ones in the conflict between the forces and renouncers of the state.  (With the narrator, his good deed is to take the cat’s head off her hands and give it a decent burial himself.)  Ironically, the real milkman’s compassion goes unrecognised and unappreciated by the community as a whole who, in contradiction of his kindly nature, have nicknamed him ‘the man who doesn’t love anybody’.  He does, however, prove to be the catalyst that finally helps repair things between the narrator and her family.  Though not before he’s involved in a case of mistaken identity by the state forces who’re out to assassinate the other milkman.

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(c) The Irish Times

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As you’ll gather from the above synopsis, Milkman is an eccentric book.  However, from the moment that it secured the 2018 Man Booker Prize, ‘difficult’ is the word that people have been levelling at it.  London’s Evening Standard acclaimed it as ‘a fine and remarkably original literary achievement’, but then quietly damned it in the next breath by asking, “…how many who buy it will read all the way through?”  Even Kwame Anthony Appiah, head of 2018’s Man Booker judges, sounded slightly apologetic about giving it the prize: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy so by my standards this is not too hard.”  Well, I can only reply with an un-literary ‘bollocks to that’.  I didn’t find Milkman pretentious or unduly challenging.  Far from it. 

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Eyebrows have been raised by Anna Burns’ Kafka-esque policy of not giving anyone or anything in the book a proper name or label.  But it’s obviously set in Belfast during the 1970s period of the Troubles – Burns grew up in the North Belfast district of Ardoyne – and the various factions prowling around are obviously the IRA, the British Army, the RUC, etc.  Meanwhile, the fact that none of the characters have proper names, and are referred to instead by simple family-appellations, like ma, second brother-in-law and wee sisters, or by capitalised and un-capitalised nicknames, like chef, Somebody McSomebody and Mr and Mrs International, doesn’t impede the reader’s comprehension or enjoyment at all.  (I assume that by not attaching proper names, Burns is satirising the extreme care with which folk in Northern Ireland during the Troubles took in choosing and announcing names – names that sounded too Protestant or too Catholic could get you into trouble in the wrong place and / or among the wrong people.)

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What might also be off-putting to potential readers is the book being, essentially, 350 pages of internal monologue.  External events are filtered heavily through the thought processes of the central character.  But the narrational voice describing the bizarre goings-on, protocols, customs and rituals that the political circumstances have engendered in the neighbourhood is consistently droll and frequently hilarious.  It’s particularly (if blackly) funny when talking about the misfits that the situation has inevitably produced.  Certain folk have lost their marbles or become recklessly anarchic, so that ‘normal’ members of the community call them the ‘beyond-the-pale’ people – like tablets girl, a sad and deranged soul who wanders around slipping poisons into people’s drinks; and nuclear boy, a youth convinced that Armageddon is coming courtesy of a war between the USA and USSR; and the issues women, a septet of ladies who hold regular meetings in a garden shed and who, to the local paramilitaries’ discomfort, have resolved to impose a feminist solution on the conflict. 

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I’ll admit there were occasional patches where the narrational voice got a little too introspective and I had to apply some willpower to get through a few pages.  Not that the main character is dull, but in terms of being interesting, she can’t compete with the details of the weird landscape around her.

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The humour is what I liked most about Milkman.  It’s a novel about the Northern Irish Troubles that manages to be funny, something that can’t be said of other novels about the subject that I’ve read over the years, such as Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal (1983) or Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man (1994).  From the period I spent living there, I’ve always remembered Northern Ireland as a very humorous place, even if the humour was often a defence mechanism against the horrors that were occurring at the same time.  And I also liked Milkman because, despite the ordeal it puts its heroine through, it’s ultimately an optimistic and transcendental work.  As the wildly-philosophical French teacher implores: “Implement a choice…  Come out from those places.  You never know… the moment of the fulcrum, the pivot, the turnaround, the instant when the meaning of it all will appear.”  Perhaps it does appear, fleetingly, at the end.

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The full Sammy

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From beta.parliament.uk

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Generations from now – if, of course, there are generations from now – historians will look back at early-21st-century Britain and wonder how a reasonably powerful and respected country, with a reputation for stability and civility, could become embroiled in a crisis as ridiculous, demeaning and potentially ruinous as Brexit.  Moreover, they will wonder how the British people allowed Brexit, and the attendant prospect of becoming an international laughing stock, xenophobic backwater and  economic disaster zone, to be foisted upon them by a crew of crooks, clowns, chancers and cretins.

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And wow – what a crew!  There’s businessman and political donor Aaron Banks, whose insurance company and the political organisation he helps fund, Leave.EU, have just been fined £120,000 for data protection breaches by the Information Commissioner’s Office.  Leave.EU is also being investigated by the National Crimes Agency over alleged illegal donations.  There’s Nigel Farage, Donald Trump’s court jester and brown-noser in chief across the pond and an enthusiast for Nazi-style anti-immigration posters during the referendum campaign.  There’s Michael Gove, a man whose intellectual reasoning is based on the premise that you mustn’t listen to experts.  There’s Boris Johnson, a human and political catastrophe.  And there’s Jacob Rees Mogg, apparently the result of an experiment in splicing together DNA from a Victorian undertaker, a praying mantis and Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist (1839). 

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And let’s not forget the Democratic Unionist Party – the Northern Irish party consisting largely of dimwits whose political education stopped at the year 1690 and / or bible-thumpers who believe that the reason why there are no dinosaurs around today is because they were too big to get on board Noah’s Ark.   Thanks to a fluke result in the last general election the DUP holds the balance of power in Westminster and is, if anything, even more dementedly in favour of Brexit than the gallery of rogues described above.  As I wrote in a previous blog post, the DUP would “saw off their own legs and strangle their own grandmothers if they thought it’d make them more British”; and the thought of post-Brexit Northern Ireland going down the proverbial swanny is fine with them so long as it’s part of Britain going down the swanny.  (Though the DUP’s obsession with being British doesn’t extend to it wanting Northern Ireland to have British-style laws permitting abortion and same-sex marriage.) 

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Anyway, it was no surprise when last week when Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, finally lost patience with this shower of Brexiting nincompoops and tweeted: “I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan about how to carry it out safely.”

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Tusk’s comment provoked angry reactions from the usual Brexiting suspects, who claimed that Tusk had wished Britain itself in hell.  He hadn’t, of course.  He’d made no insinuation that the British people belonged in hell or that even the 17.4 million Britons who’d voted for Brexit belonged there.  He’d merely insinuated that the likes of Banks, Farage, Gove and co who’d orchestrated the Brexit campaign and got the result they’d wanted without a thought to the consequences deserved to be in a lake of fire, getting red-hot pokers shoved up their arses.  Which is harsh, but understandable.

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From redbubble.com

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Leading the outrage against Donald Tusk’s tweet was the DUP MP and former Mayor of Belfast Sammy Wilson, who called Tusk a ‘devilish, trident-wielding euro maniac’ and said on social media: “Donald Tusk once again shows his contempt for the 17.4 million people who voted to escape the corruption of the EU and seek the paradise of a free and prosperous Kingdom.  This devilish euro maniac is doing his best to keep the United Kingdom bound by the chains of EU bureaucracy and control…  All he will do is stiffen the resolve of those who have exercised their choice to be free of Tusk and his trident wielding cabal.” 

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The vivid religious imagery in Wilson’s comments – devils, tridents – was in keeping with a tradition among DUP politicians whereby the EU is associated with the forces of darkness of Christian theology.  The DUP’s founder, the late Reverend Ian Paisley, liked to identify the multi-state EU, or the European Economic Community as it was back in his day, as the multi-headed beast forecast to rise out of the sea in the Book of Revelation.  Mind you, Paisley’s antipathy to the EEC / EU didn’t stop him from becoming a Member of the European Parliament and drawing a hefty salary from Brussels.

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My first reaction to Wilson’s diatribe was to think it a bit rich of a DUP member to accuse anyone else of corruption.  The party is led by Arlene Foster, responsible for the infamous Renewable Heat Incentive, or ‘cash-for-ash’ scheme, which was introduced in 2012 while she ran Northern Ireland’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.  Officially supposed to encourage people to change from fossil fuel to biomass heating systems, it was in fact a way for DUP-voting farmers to install such heating systems in empty sheds and outhouses and then claim back £1.60 for every £1 they spent, a scam that ended up costing taxpayers in the region of £400 million.  Then there were the accusations of impropriety aimed at former DUP leader and former First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson and his missus Iris, whose multiple incomes have resulted in them being nicknamed ‘the Swish Family Robinson’; and at Ian Paisley Jr, the MP for North Antrim, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.  And there was a £435,000 donation to the DUP from the dodgy anti-Scottish-independence organisation the Constitutional Research Council which, rumours say, may have originated in Saudi Arabia or India.  In 2016, the DUP spent £282,000 of this on a ‘Vote Leave’ advertisement in a newspaper not actually published in Northern Ireland.

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(c) The Belfast Telegraph

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Incidentally, even by the DUP’s standards, Wilson is what you’d euphemistically describe as a ‘colourful’ character.  1994 saw him condoning a recommendation by a Protestant paramilitary organisation that Northern Ireland be subjected to ethnic cleansing to create a wholly Protestant (and wholly Roman Catholic-free) province.  And 1996 saw him embroiled in a different sort of stushie when the Sunday World newspaper published photos of him and his ex-girlfriend romping nakedly during a holiday in France – which was a tad hypocritical of Wilson seeing as he’d opposed allowing nude bathing at municipal swimming pools in Belfast.  The Reverend Ian Paisley, usually known for an uncompromising stance on public morals, was strangely forgiving in this case and said: “What a man does in his private life, whether I agree with it or not, is a matter entirely for himself and, in final accountability, for his maker.”  Meanwhile, the Belfast Telegraph opined that it wouldn’t have published the photos, partly because “they would have been inappropriate for this newspaper (which has traditionally been read by all members of the family, including the young).”  Quite right, Belfast Telegraph – you wouldn’t want youngsters to be traumatised for the rest of their lives by seeing graphic pictures of Sammy Wilson in the buff.

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Thanks to some astounding, mind-melting anti-logic of which the DUP is always capable, Wilson, a denier of man-made climate change, became Environment Minister at the Northern Irish Assembly from 2008 to 2009.  During his tenure, he blocked a government advertising campaign designed to encourage people to cut their energy consumption and reduce C02 emissions.  He also described climate activists as a ‘hysterical pseudo-religion’ and claimed, “The tactic used by the ‘green gang is to label anyone who dares disagree with their view of climate change as some kind of nutcase who denies scientific fact.”  Well, as 97% of actively-publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming in the past century is highly likely because of human activities, I guess we can indeed label Wilson as a nutcase who denies scientific fact. 

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And before Brexit fervour put a new wind in his sails, Wilson found time to denounce the allowing of breast-feeding in the House of Commons, a practice he described as ‘voyeuristic’.  (In Wilson’s world-view, it’s obvious that bare boobs during naked holiday romps = good,but bare boobs for feeding hungry babies = bad.)

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As an atheist, a non-believer in God, heaven and hell, I find Tusk’s comments amusing – even if the context of Brexit in which they were made is depressing and tragic.  I suppose, though, they touched a nerve in Sammy Wilson because as a DUP member he sees himself as a staunch Christian; and he sees hell, a place to which godless sinners (like atheists, EU officials, Roman Catholics, environmentalists, homosexuals, etc.) are destined to go, as a place where he definitely won’t be going.  I have to say, though, that if there was a God powerful enough to create the entire universe, and to create a system of after-lives to which the souls of all the universe’s inhabitants migrate following their physical demises, I would expect Him, or Her, or It, to be a wee bit more intellectual and broader-minded and more empathetic than His / Her / Its worshippers in the DUP. 

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And if you were that awesomely powerful, universe-building supreme being up in heaven, and after Sammy Wilson had expired in the mortal world, would you really want to spend the rest of eternity there listening to him jabbering away about devilish trident-wielding euro maniacs and green pseudo-religions and voyeuristic boobs?  No.  You’d probably politely ask him to pack his bags and take himself to the other place.

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From magnoliabox.com

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Where’s Walter?

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(c) American International Pictures

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January 2019 ended on a sad note with the announcement that prolific and much-loved American character actor Dick Miller had passed away at the age of 90.  Though nearly all of Miller’s film work consisted of supporting roles and cameo appearances and only rarely was he a leading man, his compact and craggy presence was a welcome addition to countless movies – highbrow ones, cult ones and good, old-fashioned, unrepentant exploitation ones.

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A native of the Bronx who’d served in the Navy and attended New York University, Miller arrived in 1950s California intending to make it as a writer.  However, during an encounter with a young aspiring filmmaker (and future human B-movie factory) called Roger Corman, he suddenly became an actor: “…He (Corman) said, ‘Ah, I don’t need writers, I need actors.’  I said, ‘I’m an actor!’  Just blurted it out like that…” 

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Corman began by casting him in Westerns like Apache Woman (1955), The Oklahoma Woman (1956) and Gunslinger (1956), which were made with Corman’s soon-to-be-legendary thrift – in Apache Woman, Miller not only plays an Apache but also the settler who shoots him. He continued employing him when he came to specialise in sci-fi and horror movies, like It Conquered the World (1956), Not of this Earth (1957), The Undead (1957), War of the Satellites (1958) and the unexpectedly influential Little Shop of Horrors (1960), which was done on a tight schedule even by Corman’s standards – he filmed it in two days, supposedly in response to a bet that he couldn’t make a movie in two days.  In Shop, Miller plays a character called Mr Fouch, who has an eccentric predilection for eating flowers.  During filming, Miller did this for real: “I gave them a try and I ate them, and I said, ‘That’s not too bad,’ and then I dug into ’em…  I didn’t stop to think they may have been sprayed or something.”   

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Miller’s biggest role for Corman was in a movie that’s also Corman’s best 1950s work, A Bucket of Blood (1959).  In this, he plays a hapless schmuck called Walter Paisley whose dream of becoming an avant-garde sculptor is thwarted by his total lack of talent – “Be a nose!  Be a nose!” he cries while he tries and fails to fashion a recognisable human visage out of a lump of clay.  Worse, to make ends meet, he has to work as a busboy at the local Beatnik café, which is full of pretentious tossers bragging about what creative geniuses they are.  After accidentally killing his landlady’s cat and then killing an undercover cop who tried to implicate him in some drug-dealing taking place at the café (Paisley memorably cleaves his head with a skillet), he hits on a way of producing perfectly proportioned statues: by committing murder and coating the bodies in clay.  It has to be said that Paisley’s resulting corpse-centred statues look hideous, but that doesn’t stop the Beatniks at the café proclaiming them as works of art.  Evidently, their lack of taste in sculpture matches their lack of taste in poetry, for at the beginning of the movie we hear Beatnik bard Maxwell Brock (Julian Burton) reading out one of his poetic gems, called Life is a Bum:

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Life is an obscure hobo bumming a ride on the omnibus of art…  The artist is, all others are not…  Where are John, Joe, Jake, Jim, Jerk?  Dead, dead, dead!  They were not born before they were born, they were not born…  Where are Leonardo, Rembrandt, Ludwig?  Alive, alive, alive!  They were born…!

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(c) American International Pictures

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In the 1960s, Miller kept appearing in films directed by Corman, like The Premature Burial (1962), X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), The Wild Angels (1966), The St Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) and The Trip (1967).  Corman, however, was increasingly moving into producing and encouraging young, up-and-coming talents to do the directing for him – on low salaries, low budgets and tight schedules, obviously.  (These constraints didn’t stop some of Corman’s protégées becoming big names indeed.)

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A movie symbolic of this transition is 1963’s The Terror, which came about because Corman wanted to make further use of sets and a star (Boris Karloff) he’d just used on a previous movie.  Without much idea of a story, he filmed some scenes with Karloff before the star went away, and then left it to various associates to come up with a script and a film incorporating the Karloff scenes.  The result is a weird hodgepodge that likely contains input from half-a-dozen directors: not only Corman but also Jack Hill, Dennis Jakob, Monte Hellman, Jack Nicholson (who starred in it alongside Karloff) and a young Francis Ford Coppola – ‘what’s-his-name, who makes the wine,’ as Miller referred to him once in an interview.  Late on in the production, when a script had finally evolved, it fell on Miller’s character to spout a load of exposition and enlighten the audience about what the hell was going on: “(Corman) said, “All right, this is what we’re going to do.  In this scene, you’re going to explain everything that happened in the picture…  ‘No, it wasn’t me, it was him, and he did that and they did it, and we did it to each other!’  And I was like, ‘Okay, that explains it.’”

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Thereafter, Miller became the cinematic equivalent of a family heirloom, passed down from Corman to younger generations, i.e. his many protégées.  Miller was particulary busy with Jonathan Kaplan, who directed him in 1972’s Night Call Nurses, 1973’s Student Teachers and The Slams, 1974’s Truck Turner, 1975’s White Line Fever, 1977’s Mr Billion, 1979’s 11th Victim, 1987’s Project X and 1992’s Unlawful Entry, but he also worked with Jonathan Demme (in 1975’s Crazy Mama), Paul Bartel (in 1975’s Death Race 2000 and 1976’s Carquake) and Allan Arkush (in 1979’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, 1981’s Heartbeeps and 1994’s Shake, Rattle and Rock).  In Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Miller appeared alongside fellow New Yorkers and celebrated punk band the Ramones.  Playing a disgusted police chief, he says of them: “They’re ugly…  Ugly, ugly people!”

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Martin Scorsese, whose second full-length feature Boxcar Bertha had been produced by Corman in 1972, cast Miller in New York, New York (1977) and After Hours (1985); while James Cameron, who’d started his career working as a special effects man and art director for Corman, had him appear briefly but memorably in 1984’s The Terminator – he plays the unfortunate gun-shop owner who supplies Arnie with his firepower.  (“The Uzi nine millimetre.”  “You know your weapons, buddy!”)  Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino, whom I suppose could be described as a second-generation Corman protégée – Monte Hellman helped him get his first film Reservoir Dogs to the screen in 1992 – gave Miller a small role in 1994’s Pulp Fiction.  He’s Monster Joe, owner of a dodgy junkyard called Monster Joe’s Truck and Tow where Harvey Keitel’s Mr Wolf character gets rid of the dead bodies he accrues during his work.  “If you ever need it,” he generously tells Wolf, “I’ll dispose of a body part for free.”  Alas, Tarantino decided to remove the scene from Pulp Fiction’s final cut to prevent the film getting too long and cluttered.   But you can see it on Youtube here.

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(c) Amblin Entertainment / Warner Bros

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Miller’s longest and most famous partnership with a graduate from the Roger Corman School of Film-making, though, was with Joe Dante.  When Dante and co-director Allan Arkush cast him in 1976’s Hollywood Boulevard, the pair hit it off so well that Miller appeared in (by my calculations) 13 more of Dante’s movies: Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), the It’s a Good Life segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Gremlins (1984), Explorers (1985), Innerspace (1987), The Burbs (1989), Gremlins II (1990), Matinee (1994), Small Soldiers (1998), Loony Tunes: Back in Action (2003), The Hole (2009) and Burying the Ex (2014). 

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Dante usually put Miller in blue-collar roles: security guard, pizza delivery guy, garbage collector, truck driver, taxi driver and in the case of Murray Futterman, his harassed character in Gremlins and Gremlins II, snowplough driver.  In the first Gremlins movie, Futterman and his wife Sheila (played by Jackie Joseph) are supposedly killed when a couple of the diabolical title creatures drive Futterman’s snowplough into their living room.  Happily, in Gremlins II, it transpires that they weren’t killed, just traumatised.  And there’s a marvellously cathartic scene where a gremlin with wings (which it acquired during some genetic tampering in a laboratory run by Christopher Lee) swoops down and attacks Futterman on a New York street.  This time, rather than cringing, Futterman mans up and sorts the little bastard out.   

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Furthermore, in honour of his starring role in A Bucket of Blood, three of Dante’s movies – Hollywood Boulevard, The Howling and The Twilight Zone: The Movie – had Miller playing a character called Walter Paisley.  Indeed, other filmmakers were quick to continue the in-joke.  Subsequently, Miller played someone called Walter Paisley in Jim Wynorski’s 1986 horror-comedy Chopping Mall (which was produced by Julie Corman, Roger’s missus); someone called Walter in Fred Decker’s 1986 sci-fi horror Night of the Creeps; and someone called Officer Paisley in Allan Arkush’s 1994 rock ‘n’ roll TV movie Shake, Rattle and Rock

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And according to IMDb there is a just completed, not-yet-released horror movie called Hanukkah wherein Dick Miller plays a Jewish character called ‘Rabbi Walter Paisley’.  So though the great man has left us, we’ll at least get one more opportunity to play ‘Where’s Walter?’    

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The quotes by Dick Miller contained in this post come from an entertaining interview he did in 2012 with the AV Club, which can be accessed here.

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(c) The Geffen Company / Warner Bros

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We need to talk about Winston

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From nationalgeographic.com.au

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Apologies for the juvenile title of this (lengthy) blog entry, but I’m writing it in response to some juvenile goings-on.  A few days ago Ross Greer, Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Scottish Greens, tweeted his opinion that Winston Churchill was ‘a white supremacist mass murderer’.  This upset many people, including Piers Morgan, who described Greer as ‘a thick ginger turd’ whilst in the same breath (well, same tweet) inviting Greer to debate the issue with him on Good Morning Britain.  Greer replied by calling Morgan as a ‘honey-glazed gammon’ but agreed to the invitation.  There followed an unedifying confrontation on Good Morning Britain that climaxed with Morgan and Greer trying to talk and shout over each other.  Talking and shouting over people is pretty much Morgan’s modus operandum so I have slightly more sympathy for Greer in this.

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There should be considerably less heated and more nuanced debate about Churchill, about the opinions he held and decisions he made, and about the influence he’s had since his death.  This is especially so as Churchill seems to have become a totemic figure for the half of the British electorate who in June 2016 voted to leave the European Union.  Indeed, in this era of all-pervasive social media, when everybody seems to have a twitter and Facebook account, if not a website and a blog, I sometimes feel there’s been more written about the man since the Brexit vote that was ever written about him before it.

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So what to make of Churchill?  A hero?  A villain?  Or a fence-sitting ‘something in between’?  Well, here are the facts for both the prosecution and the defence.  Those for the prosecution, I have to warn you, are numerous and varied.  Those for the defence are brief – but weighty.

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In his correspondence as a young man attached to the Malakand Field Force, which fought Mohmand rebels in the Swat Valley in Northwest India in 1897, Churchill comes across as racist and bellicose.   He said of the Pashtun tribespeople: “in proportion that these valleys are purged from the pernicious vermin that infest them, so will the happiness of humanity be increased, and the progress of mankind accelerated.”  Admittedly, the tribespeople were brutal towards anyone who antagonised them, but the British more than matched them for cruelty.  In a letter in September 1897, Churchill wrote approvingly that: “After today we begin to burn villages.  Every one.  And all who resist will be killed without quarter.”  Later, in his autobiography, he noted how “every tribesman who was caught was speared or cut down at once.”

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A decade later, when he was British Home Secretary, one of Churchill’s more alarming enthusiasms was for eugenics.  He wrote about his fear that the “unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the Feeble-Minded and Insane classes… constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate” and advocated sterilization as a solution.  Writing in a departmental paper in 1910, he suggested the solution of labour camps alongside that of sterilization: “I propose that 100,000 degenerate Britons should be forcibly sterilised and others put in labour camps to halt the decline of the British race.”

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Incidentally, Churchill’s views on sexual equality were no more enlightened.  Of the women’s suffrage movement, he once commented: “Nothing would induce me to vote for giving women the franchise.  I am not going to be henpecked into a question of such importance.”

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Churchill saw World War I, when he was in charge of the British Admiralty, as an opportunity for glory: “I have it in me to be a successful soldier,” he boasted.  “I can visualise great movements and combinations.”  Unfortunately, the great movement he visualised – sending the fleet up the Dardanelles and grabbing Constantinople and the waterways that linked the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, thus enfeebling the Ottoman Empire, improving access between the Allies and Russia and drawing Greece, Romania and Bulgaria into the war on the Allies’ side – resulted in the bloody, nine-month stalemate of Gallipoli in 1915.  This ended with a death toll of 65,000 Turks, 26,000 Britons, 8,000 French, 7,800 Australians, 2,445 New Zealanders and 1,682 Indians.  Churchill stayed unrepentant about what he’d tried and failed to achieve at Gallipoli: “The Dardanelles might have saved millions of lives.  Don’t imagine I am running away from the Dardanelles.  I glory in it.”  However, the site www.historyextra.com gives the scheme a damning assessment: “…far from being a brilliant, potentially war-winning strategy, it was a piece of folly that was always likely to fail.”

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To give Churchill his due – after the Gallipoli fiasco, he joined the British Army, became a battalion commander and served with the Grenadier Guards and Royal Scots Fusiliers.  According to his Wikipedia entry, this service included 36 ventures into No Man’s Land.  If only every politician who makes a military blunder was forced to pay for it by becoming a soldier in a warzone.  There’d surely be fewer military blunders by politicians.  There’d be a hell of a lot less military adventurism by them too.

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1917, of course, saw the Russian Revolution.  No sooner had the 1918 Armistice been signed than the British establishment had something new to worry about: Bolshevism.  Churchill was dismayingly inclined to blame it on a Jewish conspiracy: “With the notable exception of Lenin, the majority of the leading figures are Jews.  Moreover, the principal inspiration and driving power comes from the Jewish leaders…  Although in all these countries there are many non-Jews every whit as bad as the worst of the Jewish revolutionaries, the part played by the latter in proportion to their numbers in the population is astonishing.” 

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From socialistpartyscotland.org.uk

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In February 1919, the fear that Britain was on the cusp of a workers’ revolution helped Churchill, as Secretary of State for Air and War, and his cabinet colleagues decide to send 10,000 troops into Glasgow to deal with striking workers.  Churchill already had form in this area, because as Home Secretary in 1910 he’d sent in troops to deal with striking miners in Tonypandy in South Wales.  Unsurprisingly, today, Churchill is not quite as widely revered among the Scots and Welsh as he is among his fellow English.  His disdain for the labour movement hadn’t abated by the time of the General Strike in 1926.  While Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was trying to reach agreement with the Trade Unions, he was strongly opposed by Churchill, who was desperate for a no-holds-barred fight with them.

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Elsewhere on these islands, Churchill is not remembered with much affection in Ireland.  In 1920, he oversaw the deployment in Ireland of the Black and Tans, the police force who soon became notorious for their unrestrained brutality and whose memory poisoned Anglo-Irish relations for decades afterwards.  Churchill ignored warnings about the great damage that the Black and Tans were doing.  Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson commented: “I warned him again that those Black and Tans who are committing very indiscriminate reprisals will play the devil in Ireland, but he won’t listen or agree.”  As for the Tans’ habit of killing suspected troublemakers without bothering to arrest them and put them on trial, Wilson said, “Winston saw very little harm in this but it horrifies me.” 

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(Churchill is better thought of among the pro-British Protestant community of Northern Ireland, but this was not always so.  It’s said that in 1912, when he visited Belfast, thousands of Protestant workers from the Harland and Wolff shipyard lined the streets wanting to pelt his car with rivets, on account of his support for Irish Home Rule.  And though Ulster Protestants often express pride about Northern Ireland’s part in the UK’s war effort from 1939 to 1945, while southern Ireland opted to remain neutral, it must rankle that Churchill offered Eamon De Valera a united Ireland if he agreed to bring his country into the war on Britain’s side.)

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Churchill also found time to leave his mark on Iraq: not in a good way.  As convener of a conference in Cairo in 1912 to draw up the boundaries of Britain’s Middle Eastern mandate, he unwisely lumped together three warring factions – Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds – within the borders of the new country.  And when Shiites and Sunnis rebelled against British colonial rule there in 1920, Churchill ordered military oppression and retribution on par with what he’d seen in the Swat Valley 23 years earlier – villages burned, civilians as well as combatants killed – as well as employing some deadly new technology.  He approved the use of chemical weapons against Iraqis, having opined earlier: “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas.  I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes…  It will cause great inconvenience and spread a lively terror.”  Also causing great inconvenience and lively terror was his use of ‘aerial policing’, i.e. getting the RAF to bomb Iraqi villages.  Unsurprisingly, these bombings – still within living memory – didn’t put the Iraqi population at ease when, in the early 2000s, they saw British troops arrive again in their country thanks to the actions of George Bush Jr and Tony Blair.

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Churchill also sent planes and chemical weapons to attack Bolsheviks in northern Russia in 1919.  Again, he was flippantly unrepentant about his use of the latter: “Why is it not fair for a British artilleryman to fire a shell that makes the said native sneeze?  It is really too silly.”

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The biggest stain on Churchill’s record is surely his role in the Bengal Famine of 1943 that claimed three million or more lives.  Let me quote the Indian writer and politician Dr Shashi Tharoor: “Not only did the British pursue its own policy of not helping the victims of this famine which was created by their policies.  Churchill persisted in exporting grain to Europe, not to feed actual ‘Sturdy Tommies’, to use his phrase, but to add to the buffer stocks that were being piled up in the event of a future invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia…  Ships laden with wheat were coming in from Australia, docking in Calcutta and were instructed by Churchill not to disembark their cargo but sail on to Europe.  And when conscience-stricken British officials wrote to the Prime Minister in London pointing out that his policies were causing needless loss of life all he could do was write peevishly in the margin of the report, ‘Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’”

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Another charge against Churchill during World War Two is the way he threw the Greek resistance movement – the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) and the National Liberation Front (EAM) – under the bus in 1944.  Previously, they’d fought alongside the British, against the Nazis.  However, afraid of the Communist Party’s influence within the resistance, and wanting to restore the monarchy and general pre-war status quo in Greece, he chose to abandon the partisans and place British support behind elements who’d collaborated with the Nazis – officers, for instance, in the Security Battalions and SS-affiliated Special Security Branch.  These were soon incorporated into the post-occupation army, security forces and judiciary.   The result was the gunning down of unarmed protestors in Athens on December 3rd, 1944, which marked the beginning of the five-week conflict in the city known as the Dekemvriana; which in turn helped lead to the three-year Greek Civil War, estimated to have cost some 158,000 lives.

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From greekcitytimes.com

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Churchill was voted out of office in 1945 but returned for a second term as Prime Minister from 1951 to 1955.  It was on this watch that he responded to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in a characteristically sledgehammer fashion.  By the uprising’s end, it was calculated that colonial forces had killed 10,000 Africans, roughly four times the number killed by the Mau Mau – indeed, if you were a white settler in Kenya, you stood a better chance of dying in a road accident than at the hands of the rebels.  The techniques employed by British troops for dealing with the Mau Mau included mass arrests, mass trials, mass hangings, torture, whippings, mutilations, the burning of villages, ‘free fire zones’ where any African person could be a target, forced labour and huge detention camps where disease and maltreatment were rife and conditions were scarcely any better than they’d been in German and Japanese camps a decade earlier.  It’s hardly surprising that when Barack Obama, whose Kenyan grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama had been among those arrested and tortured, became US president in 2008, Churchill’s bust did not last long in the Oval Office.

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That’s a damning charge-sheet.  What’s to be said in Churchill’s defence?  Well, it’s a trite observation, but though the man’s opinions and decisions were frequently rotten, they were nowhere near as rotten as those offered by the other side between 1939 and 1945.  No doubt Churchill’s idea of utopia was a British Empire where the sun never set.  There’d be a catastrophic famine here, and a bloodily put-down insurgency there, but he’d regard that as the regrettable but unavoidable price of the White Man having to shoulder his civilising burden (while, quietly on the side, Britain’s coffers continued to be filled with the trade and plunder of its colonies).  Among the Empire’s ‘subjects’, life for many would be humiliating and wretched, and for some pretty hellish.  But compare that with Hitler’s idea of utopia, which…  Which doesn’t bear thinking about, really.

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And he was in possession of good qualities – courage, determination, intellect, a rhetorical flair – that enabled him to galvanise the British population to make a stand against Nazism and prevent all of Western Europe from falling under Hitler’s influence.  (Of course, saying he won the war for Britain is different from saying he won the war full stop, which is what many of his modern-day fans in Britain seem to believe he did.)  As the saying goes, cometh the hour, cometh the man.  That the man happened to be an asshole in most other ways doesn’t denigrate his achievements during the hour itself.  I’d like to think that if I’d been an adult in Britain during World War II, and knew about Churchill what I know about him now, I wouldn’t have let the old git into my house.  But I’d still have been (secretly) relieved that he was running the country at the time.

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Following the Greer-Morgan rumpus, the Times columnist Alex Massie – who, though right-wing and fogeyish, is much more perceptive and decent that the ridiculous, self-important (and Trump brown-nosing) Piers Morgan – penned an article on the subject.  I can sort of agree with its title: CHURCHILL WAS A GREAT BRITON, NOT A GREAT MAN.  I don’t, however, agree with some of Massie’s sentiments.  He claims that Greer wrongly applied the value judgements of the 21st century to a historical figure whose views happened to be typical and acceptable among the British ruling class of his time.  But in fact, there were plenty of people alive when Churchill was alive who detested him too.  However, they tended to be Indians, Kenyans, Greeks, Irish, Iraqis, etc. – people whose opinions rarely get much coverage in British history books. 

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Come to think of it, Britons would have their eyes opened if they got their history from a wider and more international range of sources than they do now.   In these Brexiting times, unfortunately, with World War II the only bit of history that many British people seem to know about, and with British politicians fantasizing about creating a trading ‘Empire 2.0’ after withdrawal from the EU, I don’t think British awareness of history is going to get any wider.  It’s going to get even narrower. 

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And that won’t be good for Britain’s place in the world in the future.

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From historyextra.com

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Wordsworth’s ghosts

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I’ve read a lot of 19th century ghost stories recently.  This is no doubt because Christmas was a month ago and Christmas is the season par excellence for mixing yourself a hot toddy, turning the lights low, hunkering down with a book and reading good, old-fashioned ghost stories. 

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The stories in question have featured in collections published by Wordsworth Editions in its series Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural.  I’ve picked up a number of these at library clearance sales and in second-hand bookshops in Sri Lanka and Thailand over the past year.  The last time I checked, Wordsworth’s Mystery and the Supernatural series consisted of 80 different titles and they’re an admirable balance between works by authors who are well-known, like H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James, Edgar Wallace, Edith Wharton and Henry James, and works by authors who aren’t – or, in some cases, were famous once but have now disappeared off the reading public’s radar.  By acquainting modern readers with writers in the latter category, the series performs an invaluable service.  It was through reading one of its books a few years ago, for instance, that I discovered the excellent but now neglected writer May Sinclair, about whom I wrote here.

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Anyway, I’ve just finished reading Wordsworth collections by Amyas Northcote, Gertrude Atherton and J.H. Riddell.  How do their ghost stories measure up?

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(c) Wordsworth Editions

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Amyas Northcote is the most elusive figure of the three.  His Wikipedia entry merely states that he was the seventh son of the First Earl of Iddesleigh – Benjamin Disraeli’s Chancellor of the Exchequer; he was a businessman in Chicago at one time and a Justice of the Peace in Buckinghamshire at another; and he “wrote ghost stories in the line of those of M.R. James, which were compiled in his only book, In Ghostly Company.”  One likely reason why Company was Northcote’s only book was because it was published in 1921 and he died soon afterwards in 1923, before he had much chance to follow it with further fiction, ghostly or otherwise.

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I have to admit that while I found Northcote’s stories enjoyable, most of them feel a bit run-of-the-mill.  Often, as in the case of Mr Kershaw and Mr Wilcox, The Late Earl of D., The Steps and The Governess’s Story, they involve manifestations of the supernatural linked to murders, untimely deaths and disappearances.  The two most interesting stories are those that stray furthest from the formula.  The Downs deals with a secluded stretch of British countryside that, one night a year, becomes the scene of a haunting on a spectacular scale; while The Late Mrs Fowke strays unexpectedly into the realms of devil worship and reads like a prototype for the occult potboilers that Dennis Wheatley would start writing little more than a decade later.   

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(c) Wordsworth Editions

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Considerably greater in range and ambition are the stories of American author Gertrude Atherton collected in The Bell in the Fog and Other Stories, originally published in 1905.  These are tales that are by turns grisly (The Striding Place), phantasmagorical (The Dead and the Countess) and imbued with a psychological intensity reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe (Death and the Woman).  Some aren’t supernatural at all but are grim character studies.  A Monarch of a Small Survey is about a sad and frumpy lady’s companion who suffers the double misfortune of being cut out of her employer’s will and becoming futilely besotted with a younger man.  The Tragedy of a Snob similarly looks at the gulf between the haves and have nots, chronicling the efforts of a man of limited means to gain access to the world of high society.  And The Greatest Good of the Greatest Number is about a physician who convinces himself that by eliminating the life of one worthless person he can improve the lives of all the decent people who’ve been blighted by her – but finds the execution of the deed harder than he’d expected.  Simply but compellingly set up, The Greatest Good feels like a Roald Dahl story with a stern moral conscience.

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I have to say, though, that my respect for Atherton’s collection was diminished by the inclusion of A Prologue, which is presented as the first part of an unfinished play.  It’s a brooding, gothic piece set on a West Indian island about to be pulverised by a hurricane and is slightly reminiscent of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).  Unfortunately, it’s also racist. It depicts a household’s black slaves cowering and wailing pathetically on the floor while their white owners stomp around, cursing them for their superstitious uselessness and trying to secure the premises without their help.  Yes, I know A Prologue simply reflects the attitudes back then of white people towards slaves and slavery and it should be taken as being ‘of its time’; but it still left a bad taste in my mouth.    

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(c) Wordsworth Editions

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I’d been looking forward to J.H. Riddell’s Night Shivers, a volume that contains 14 short stories and is rounded off with a short novel, The Uninhabited House, which was first published in 1875.  This was because Riddell originated in Northern Ireland, like I did.  She was born in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, in 1832 and lived there until 1855, when she and her mother moved to London.  She remained in England until her death in 1906 and during the intervening years established herself as a prolific author.  Her Wikipedia entry lists some 40 novels and a half-dozen short story collections.

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I’d hoped that Ms Riddell’s ghostly fiction would have a strong Irish flavour and, occasionally, it does – to good effect.  The Last of Squire Ennismore sees a dissolute Irish landowner come to an infernal end for his misdeeds, through the agency of a mysterious stranger with ‘an ambling sort of gait, curious to look at’ who leaves cloven hoof-prints on the sand of the local beach.  Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning features that most Irish of supernatural creatures, the banshee, though in the incongruous (but effective) setting of a Victorian London hospital.  And Conn Kilrea features an Irish family haunted by another spectral, though non-banshee, harbinger of death.  However, most of the stories take place in England and, because I’ve read countless other English ghost stories over the years, their scenarios seem very familiar and they have the same generic feel as Amyas Northcote’s work.  Riddell enjoys presenting her ghosts and supernatural phenomena as puzzles that the living characters have to solve.  Invariably, they turn out to be traces and echoes of nefarious incidents – usually murders – that once upon a time occurred in the ‘real’ world.

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One thing I like about Riddell’s fiction is her depiction of uncommonly (for the era) feisty and unconventional female characters, even if they come across as somewhat grotesque: most notably, Miss Gostock, the hard-working, hard-bargain-driving and hard-drinking landlady in Nut Bush Farm; and the formidable Miss Blake, ‘the child of a Scottish-Ulster mother and a Connaught father’ who ‘had ingeniously contrived to combine in her person the vices of two distinct races, and exclude the virtues of both’, in The Uninhabited House.  Also, I like how she portrays the main character in Walnut-Tree House.  He’s an unpretentious type who comes into possession of a haunted property in London after spending years as a ‘digger’ in the Australian goldfields.  The snobby Londoners he has dealings with disdain him as ‘a rough sort of fellow’ who’s ‘boorish’ and has ‘never mixed with good society’.  But when he encounters the ghost in his house, that of a child, he doesn’t react as characters normally do in these stories and cringe or flee in terror.  Instead, he feels sorry for the poor child’s ghost and resolves to find a way to make it rest in peace.

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The things I do for James Bond

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(c) Eon Productions

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Last month in Colombo, I was looking forward to attending my workplace’s end-of-year party.  Then the invitation for it arrived in my work inbox and my enthusiasm suddenly waned.  The party, the invitation informed me, had a theme.  You had to come in a costume appropriate to the theme and the costume judged to be best would win a prize.  And the theme was: carnival.

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Carnival?

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Now do carnivals connect in any way with me?  No.  Carnivals are the products of Latin American cultures where the climate is always warm and the sun always shines; where the faces always smile and the temperament is always joyous; where the inhabitants know how to dress colourfully and exuberantly; and where one can happily and un-self-consciously dance the night away without imbibing even a smidgeon of wine. 

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I, on the other hand, come from a culture where the weather is always dreich and the sun is always wrapped in smirr and haar; where the faces frequently scowl to the point of resembling well-skelpt arses and the temperament is two parts Knox-ism to three parts Calvinism; where daring to wear a pair of patterned socks can earn you condemnation for being a reckless  attention-seeking exhibitionist; and where, after you’ve sunk about 12 pints of beer, you might countenance getting onto the dance-floor to shake your two left legs for a couple of minutes to something like Dogs of War by the Exploited.  Carnival, I thought in my best Rab C. Nesbitt voice.  Carnival my arse.

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But then, looking around my bedroom, I saw evidence that I did like one type of carnival.  I noticed, for example, the presence of these skull-shaped ceramic salt and pepper shakers on top of my bookshelf.

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Also, there was this ornate skull-shaped candle located on a corner of my desk.

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And there was this painted wooden skeleton hanging on a wall.

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And these two skeletal Mexican senoritas stood grinning on top of my wardrobe.

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All these skeleton-themed items come from the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, known in English as Day of the Dead, which sees folk gather together and celebrate in honour of family members and friends who have passed away.  The reason I have so much Dia de los Muertos memorabilia is because my partner’s family live in San Antonio in Texas, about 150 miles north of the Mexican border, and three years ago we went to visit them in mid-October.  Not only were the local shops then full of merchandising for the upcoming Halloween festivities on October 31st, but they contained an equal amount of stuff for the upcoming Dia de los Muertos festivities on November 2nd.  The latter made excellent souvenirs to bring back from Texas. 

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When I thought about it, it also occurred to me that – as anyone who reads this blog regularly will know – I’m a big James Bond fan.  And didn’t the most recent Bond movie, 2015’s Spectre, begin with a long, tense and stylish chase / action sequence using as a backdrop a Dia de los Muertos parade in Mexico City?  For part of this sequence, Bond, played by Daniel Craig, is attired in a natty-looking outfit of top hat, skull mask and skeleton-patterned white-on-black suit and is accompanied by a glamorous lady in a summer frock and Venetian mask.  Now why couldn’t my partner and I attend our end-of-year work party dressed like that glamorous duo?

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Therefore, Dia de los Muertos was the carnival that provided us with general inspiration, while Daniel Craig and friend became our models.

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I should mention that in reality Mexico City never hosted a Dia de los Muertos parade until after 2015.  The makers of Spectre simply used dramatic licence and invented the occasion.  However, after the film’s release, the Mexico Tourism Board got so many inquiries about the non-existent parade from potential visitors that they decided to initiate one in their capital city to keep everyone happy (and, no doubt, make a bit of cash too).  Proof that life does imitate art.

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Assembling my Daniel Craig / Dia de los Muertos costume proved to be a trickier task than I’d expected.  I knew I was going to have to do much searching in Colombo to locate a top hat, but it was as difficult to find a skull mask.  I traipsed around several fancy-dress and party shops and got the same answer: “Oh, we had lots of skull masks two months ago, at  Halloween, but we don’t have any now!”  Thankfully, we discovered a wonderfully variegated and cluttered little costume store called JoJo’s tucked away in the back streets off Duplication Road where I was able to both rent a top hat and buy a skull mask (and my partner got her Venetian mask too).  The skull mask was actually gunmetal grey and I think it was meant to be the face of a robot skeleton – like the scary, stomping exoskeletons in the Terminator movies – and back at home I had to spray-paint it white.

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But the biggest problem was creating the skeleton-patterned suit.  I bought rolls of double-sided adhesive tape in a stationer’s and I cut the ‘bones’ out of strips of laminated white paper.  When I started to place the bones on the black jacket, the tape did initially make them stick to the fabric – until the moment when I tried to put the jacket on.  At the slightest movement of the fabric, the bones promptly fell off again.  I had to resort to laboriously sewing the bones on with white thread.  (The jacket was an ultra-cheap number I’d originally bought in Primark for twenty pounds, so I wasn’t concerned about disfiguring it.)  This took a lot of time and I only got the jacket finished minutes before the party was scheduled to start.  I hadn’t time to sew the leg bones onto my black trousers, so, reluctantly, I relied on the double-sided adhesive tape to fasten those.

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Incidentally, I managed to incorporate one item from my Dia de los Muertos memorabilia into the costume.  I fashioned a walking stick out of a rod and some kitchen foil and planted the ceramic skull-shaped salt shaker on one end of it as its head.  

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Finally, we were ready and off we headed for the party.  I’d barely got across the venue’s threshold when I began to suffer what are known nowadays as ‘wardrobe malfunctions’.  The adhesive tape continued to be worse than useless and my leg-bones were soon, and repeatedly, dropping off.  In fact, you could track me back and forth through the venue by following the little trail of bones I’d left on the ground behind me.  Trying not to dislodge them, I ended up moving around as slowly and stiffly as possible, and anyone who saw me probably thought I was stricken with severe constipation.

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Still, my Sri Lankan colleagues seemed impressed and kept inviting me to pose for photos with them.  I suspect, though, that they didn’t know about Dia de los Muertos or Spectre and merely thought I’d dressed up as a skeleton with a top hat because I was extremely weird.

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At the end of the evening, when the party organisers were finishing proceedings with a thank-you speech, they announced that the prize for best costume was being awarded to… me.  (Thankfully, the speaker referred to James Bond and Spectre at this point, making it clear to the assembled crowd that there was a method to my skeletal madness.) 

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And the prize was… a Miniso citrus juicer.  It now occupies a proud corner of our kitchen and, because it came as the result of a 007-inspired costume, I think of it as ‘the James Bond juicer’.  Alas, it doesn’t have a secret button on it that you press to make it turn into a speedboat and then into a hovercraft.

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It’s all Scotland’s fault

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(c) BBC

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One of the least edifying sights of the past week has been that of moderate and pro-European Union Conservative MP Anna Soubry attempting to walk to the Houses of Parliament, her workplace, while a pack of far-right, anti-EU protestors wearing yellow high-visibility jackets – a gimmick that with no sense of irony they’ve borrowed from the gilets jaunes protestors in France, a country in the EU – follow her and bray into her face that she’s a ‘Nazi’.  Not only are these tactics bullying, intimidating and generally horrible but, I’ve learned recently, they’re also Scottish. 

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Yes, as many respected politicians, commentators and media outlets have reminded us over the years, only bad things come out of Scotland.  Historically, these bad things have included: Sawney Bean; the failed scheme to colonise Darien in central America; failed Jacobite uprisings; the Highland Clearances; Burke and Hare; Angus McMillan who left Skye for Australia and led the Gippsland massacres of Aborigines in the 1840s; unscrupulous 19th century opium-trading company Jardine Matheson & Co; and Thomas Dickson, whose 1905 novel The Clansman became the basis for the notoriously racist 1915 movie Birth of a Nation and helped revive the Ku Klux Klan.

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And let’s not forget such horrors as: bagpipe music; Andy Stewart records; the Bay City Rollers; the Krankies; teeth-rotting amber-coloured fizzy drinks; deep-fried Mars Bars; deep-fried pizzas; Andy Murray’s hipbone; catastrophic World Cup campaigns; and Mary Anne MacLeod of the Isle of Lewis, who married Fred Trump and gifted the world with little Donald.

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Yet more, terrible things to emerge from Scotland include ghastly and unpopular drinks like whisky and foodstuffs like salmon, which British supermarkets have lately been kind enough to slap Union Jacks on and rebrand as ‘British’ rather than ‘Scottish’ to spare us embarrassment.  Then there’s that hellish commodity North Sea oil, which during the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, we were assured, was totally worthless and would bankrupt an independent Scotland’s economy.  (Mind you, now that the referendum is past, the Daily Telegraph has been enthusing about how North Sea oil will be important part of the economy of post-Brexit Britain.)  And there’s the hideous Scottish renewable energy industry which, the Times informed us recently, is riddled with ‘perverse incentives’ – while, per head of population, it only produces 18 times as much as energy as its English equivalent.

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To this list of Caledonian-spawned infamy we now must add the strategy of making political points by mobbing, yelling at and intimidating opponents while they innocently try to walk to work.  I know this because a few days ago the broadcaster, journalist, author, businessperson, hillwalker and trustee of the Glasgow School of Art Muriel Gray tweeted her abhorrence at a “repugnant new style of personal abuse / pile-ons / harassment and hate-mongering (that) began as far back as the run-up to the referendum in 2014 and was consequently adopted as the norm.”

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Muriel Gray is absolutely right.  Prior to that repugnant, hate-mongering business of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, there was no unpleasantness involved in politics in the United Kingdom, anywhere, at all. 

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From libcom.org

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Admittedly, I spent the 1970s in Northern Ireland and I do have memories of Northern Irish politics then being full of abuse, hatred, bullying, etc.  But as the Scots hadn’t invented that stuff yet, those memories must be false.  I don’t know why I have a particular memory of my elderly grandmother on the day of an election (and shortly after my grandfather had died) phoning up my Dad in tears to tell him that some political activists had coerced her into crossing the box on her ballot paper for a candidate she hadn’t intended to vote for; but somehow, wrongly, I do.

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And all my memories of politics in the 1980s – of Labour Party Deputy Leader Dennis Healey being shouted down by members of Militant Tendency; of the long-lasting, often violent and acrimonious miners’ strike instigated by Maggie Thatcher’s Year Zero economic policies; of Peter Tatchell being slandered by the media and his Liberal Party opponents for being a homosexual when he stood as Labour Party candidate in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election; of the Federation of Conservative Students on my university campus shouting “F**k the Pope!” and “Hang Nelson Mandela!” and making life as unpleasant as possible for gay students – are surely fake memories too.  Because as Muriel Gray has implied, British politics were all sweetness and light before that awful Scottish independence referendum happened.

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What else do I mis-remember about British politics?  The Poll Tax riot in London that helped to do for Maggie Thatcher?  Can’t have happened.  John Major referring to his anti-EU tormentors in the Conservative Party as ‘bastards’?  I’m sure he never said that, really.  Scottish Labour party councillor Susan Dalgety using the 1998 Omagh bombing atrocity to liken the SNP to the IRA?  I’m sure she never said that, either.  The industrial-strength lies generated by Tony Blair and his gang as they led the country into the 2003 invasion of Iraq?  Just my imagination, surely.

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(c) STV / From amazon.com

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Or what about the hot-headed young lady who used to write columns for the Scotland on Sunday in the early 1990s and excoriate establishment right-wingers like Andrew Neil and Sir Nicholas Fairburn, plus obscenely-wealthy landowners who owned huge tracts of the Scottish countryside and kept them for themselves and their equally-rich pals to shoot grouse on, instead of letting hillwalkers roam across them?  She must have been a figment of my imagination too…  Still, it’s just as well Twitter didn’t exist back then.  Otherwise, people like this imaginary columnist would surely have been directing abuse, pile-ons and harassment at poor old Andrew, and Sir Nicholas, and Lord So-and-So of Glen-Whatever, via social media.  (Now I remember this columnist’s name – Muriel Gray.)

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But I’m wrong.  Because all politicians, political activists and political commentators were as good as gold, and as gentle as lambs, and as pure as the driven snow towards each other in those idyllic, far-off days before 2014.

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Seriously, though…  I don’t pretend that there wasn’t the odd bit of nastiness during the 2014 referendum campaign, though I feel the egg that was chucked at Jim Murphy got blown out of all proportion considering that eggs had been thrown previously at Harold Wilson, Michael Heseltine, John Major, Norman Tebbit, John Prescott, George Galloway and others with far less fanfare.  But it was a stroll in the park compared to what happened before – the murder of an MP – and after – the surge in racist incidents across Britain – the 2016 Brexit referendum.

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(c) STV

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Two last points.  If Ms Gray wants to blame someone or something for the uncivility that prevails in British politics at the moment, she’d do well to point a finger at Britain’s mainstream and mostly right-wing media, which has always been quick to coarsen political discourse and has become worse than ever in recent years.  Witness the screeds of anti-immigrant headlines and the general demonization of anybody who isn’t a right-wing, Brexit-supporting Tory in the Daily Mail, Daily Express and so on.  But of course, the mainstream media is a clique to which she belongs and many of her good buddies on Twitter are or have been writers for the same rabble-rousing newspapers.  So that isn’t going to happen.

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Secondly, it seems to me that those Unionists, like Ms Gray, who won the 2014 referendum and ensured that Scotland stuck with the United Kingdom are, not to put too fine a point on it, shitting themselves in 2019.  In the past four years they’ve seen the UK that they exhorted Scottish voters to remain in, because it was supposedly a beacon of enlightenment, tolerance, liberalism, economic health and social order, turn into a basket-case over Brexit.  And they know that if there is another referendum on Scottish independence – which I’m pretty sure there will be, sooner or later – the yes side is going to be in with a much better shout of winning it.  (The 45% of the vote they polled last time was far higher than anyone on the no side had initially expected.) 

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With the prospect of another referendum looming, it’s in their interests to exaggerate and distort the conduct of the previous one; to rewrite history and turn the event into a nightmare that no one in their right mind would want to go through again; and to generally make out that the vote on Scottish independence was the worst thing since…  Well, since the last worst thing that came out of Scotland. 

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Little England

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No, I’m not beginning 2019 with another online diatribe about Brexit Britain.  ‘Little England’ is the nickname – an unfortunate nickname considering the backward-looking parochialism and xenophobia that drove millions of real Little Englanders to vote in 2016 to prise the UK out of the European Union – that Sri Lankans often give to the town of Nuwara Eliya. 

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Located at an altitude of 1870 metres, it’s the highest and, climatically, coolest town in the country.  Nuwara Eliya was founded in 1846 and quickly became a retreat for members of the British colonial establishment eager to escape the heat and humidity of the lower-lying parts of the island.  And with them, they brought British architecture, British pastimes and sports, and British clubs and associations. 

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(I became aware of the coolness of the temperature while I was approaching Nuwara Eliya on a steadily-climbing road.  Looking out of the window of my vehicle, I suddenly saw a very strange and disconcerting sight indeed – Sri Lankan people wearing coats, scarves and woollen hats.)

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Last month, my work brought me to Nuwara Eliya for a couple of days and I had a chance to explore it.  I didn’t do any touristy things like venturing out into the surrounding hill country to, for example, experience the nearby Horton Plains or visit the several famous waterfalls or tour one of the local tea plantations.  This was because at some point in the future my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, and I would like to spend a proper holiday in the district and it made sense to leave the big tourist attractions until then.  Instead, I simply wandered about the town, took some photographs and mooched in a few pubs.  Here are my impressions.

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Firstly, you needn’t expect to find a picture-postcard English village that’s been magically transplanted into the highlands of Sri Lanka.  Nuwara Eliya’s centre contains the usual guddle of modern, garishly-coloured buildings – hastily erected and now looking slightly the worse for wear – that are a feature of most towns in this country.  And even in the less-recently developed parts away from the town centre, there are indications that the era when the British used to hang out here en masse are long gone.  Witness the picturesque Lake Gregory at Nuwara Eliya’s southern end.  Anchored by the lakeside is a long, narrow, double-decker boat that serves as a floating restaurant called the Hua Yuan, obviously aimed at foreign visitors of a different nationality.

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Come to think of it, the only Briton I encountered during my time in Nuwara Eliya was an old English fellow who’d travelled to the country for the recent England-Sri Lanka test series.  The moment the final cricket had been played, and unable to withstand the sweltering climate of lowland Sri Lanka any longer, he’d hopped into a taxi and had the driver make a beeline for here.

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That said, there are plenty of reminders of the presence and patronage of the old colonial regime.  A little way short of the town centre is the imperiously and imperially-titled Victoria Park – which has in an adjoining corner a square-sided, grey-stone pillar that acts as a war memorial.  Like most war memorials in Britain, this one’s World War I plaque is a lot longer than the World War II plaque.  The former commemorates 17 members of ‘the glorious dead’, while the latter sports just three names.

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Across the road from Victoria Park is a genteel golf course with a hotel at its end containing a mock-English pub called – what else? – the 19th Hole.  The Nuwara Eliya Golf Club isn’t the only organisation with a slightly-snooty-sounding name you see on signs here, for the town is also home to the likes of the Hill Club (‘established in 1876’) and the Royal Turf Club.

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And some of the British architecture lingers on.  Nuwara Eliya’s main post office is housed in a red-brick building with multiple layers and levels of roofing and its own little clock tower, which looks like it was moved to Sri Lanka brick by brick and slate by slate from Trumpton.  Meanwhile, the local branch of the Hatton National Bank is contained in a stately-looking structure with arched windows.  Scattered elsewhere are a number of other mansion-like buildings, often with Tudor-style patterning on their facades and their windows crammed with small, square panes.    

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In fact, the days when stereotypically British architecture would spring up in Nuwara Eliya may not yet be over.  For during my wanderings I saw this billboard advertising a new estate – “Make Nuwara Eliya your second home!” – consisting of detached dwelling-houses with mock-Tudor designs.  The scheme is called Little England Cottages, though there’s nothing remotely cottage-like in the scale of the residences involved.

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Deathlog 2018: Part 2

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(c) Smallfilms

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Continuing my tribute to the many people who entertained and inspired me and who passed away in 2018…

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For connoisseurs of a gentle, eccentric and particularly British form of whimsy, July 2018 got off to a sad start when on the first day of the month Peter Firmin died.  A puppeteer, illustrator and engraver, Firmin ran the production company Smallfilms with Oliver Postgate. From the 1950s to 1970s Smallfilms gifted British children’s television with such beguiling programmes as The Saga of Noggin the Nog (1959-65), Ivor the Engine (1959 and 1975-77) and Bagpuss (1974).  Best of all in my opinion was The Clangers (1969-72), the tale of pink-knitted extra-terrestrial rodents who, despite inhabiting a barren asteroid covered with dustbin lids, have established utopia through apparently living on a diet of soup and being nice to each other.

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Also departing in July were…  On the 8th, 1950s and 60s American movie heartthrob Tab Hunter. I liked Hunter best as Todd Tomorrow in John Waters’ scabrous 1981 black comedy Polyester, which was filmed in ‘Odorama’ and enabled you to smell such odours as farts, glue, skunks and old shoes when they occurred in the film…  On the 10th, children’s author Clive King, responsible for the brilliant Stig of the Dump (1963)…  Also on the 10th, fencer and movie fight-choreographer William Hobbs, whose energetic sword-fights were highlights of such films as The Three and Four Musketeers (1973 and 74), Captain KronosVampire Hunter (1974), The Duellists (1977), Flash Gordon (1979), Excalibur (1981) and Ladyhawke (1985)…  And on the 27th, Bernard Hepton, another hardworking character actor who never seemed to be off British TV screens in the 1960s and 1970s.

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August 5th saw the death of Barry Chuckle, one half of slapstick comedy duo the Chuckle Brothers, a staple of British children’s TV entertainment since the 1980s.  In 2007, ‘the Chuckle Brothers’ also became a nickname for the unlikely ruling partnership at Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly, i.e. First Minister Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein.  August 11th and 12th saw the demise of two writers working in very different fields: firstly, the Trinidadian-British literary heavyweight V.S. Naipaul, knighted in 1990 and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001; and secondly the Scottish fantasy and science-fiction author Michael Scott Rohan, who claimed the medieval Scottish scholar, mathematician, astrologer and (in legend) sorcerer Michael Scott as an ancestor.

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(c) British Lion Films

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Jill Janus, singer with American heavy-metal band Huntress, took her own life on August 14th, while American soul legend and civil rights activist Aretha Franklin died two days later.  August 25th saw the passing of British dancer, mime artist, choreographer and actor Lindsay Kemp.  Among many other things, Kemp played the sneaky Alder MacGregor, landlord of the Green Man pub and father of Britt Ekland, in the masterly 1973 folk-horror movie The Wicker Man.  Tony Award-winning and much-filmed American playwright Neil Simon died on August 26th.

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September 2018 was a particularly death-filled month.  The Grim Reaper went into full-scale harvesting mode.  Among the victims were…  Conway Savage (September 2nd), the piano and organ-playing member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds from 1990 onwards…  Carry On movie actress Liz Fraser (September 3rd)…  Frequently moustached and Stetson-wearing Hollywood beefcake Burt Reynolds (September 6th), known for provoking spectacular car chases and winding up redneck law officers in movies like Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and The Cannonball Run (1981), but also a star of John Boorman’s brilliant Deliverance (1972)…  Algerian musical genius Rachid Taha (September 12th)…  Burmese-born British actress Zienia Merton (September 14th), best remembered for playing Sandra Benes in Gerry Anderson’s science-fiction TV series Space: 1999 (1973-76)…  And actor Dudley Sutton (September 15th), popular as Ian McShane’s sidekick Tinker in the light-hearted antiques-themed TV drama Lovejoy (1986-94), although he showed his acting chops in movies as hard-hitting as Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971).

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The carnage continued during the month’s second half…  Multi-instrumentalist Maartin Allcock (September 16th), who played with such folk-rock combos as Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull but also, fascinatingly, with 1980s Goth-rock behemoths the Mission…  British comedy writer, TV presenter and all-round wit Dennis Norden (September 19th)…  Chas Hodges (September 22nd), one half of much-loved, rumbustious Cockney pub-singalong specialists Chas ‘n’ Dave, whose fans included The Libertines’ Pete Docherty…  Actor Al Matthews (September 22nd), whose finest cinematic hour came playing Apone, the rock-solid platoon sergeant in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) – it was literally an hour, for when the aliens get Apone halfway through the film, it scarily signifies that they’ve gained the upper hand…  Star Wars movies producer Gary Kurtz (September 23rd)…  And Marty Balin (September 27th), singer, songwriter and musician with the mighty Jefferson Airplane and its less mighty 1970s incarnation Jefferson Starship.  At least Balin bailed out before Jefferson Starship morphed again, into those 1980s purveyors of musical ghastliness, Starship.

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(c) BBC
(c) Anglo-Amalgamated / Peter Rogers Productions

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Finally, September 2018 saw the deaths of two sublime British actresses.  On September 3rd, Jacqueline Pearce passed away.  As well as being a fetching starlet for Hammer Films in 1966’s Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, she played the devastating Supreme Commander Servalan in the BBC’s science-fiction series Blake’s 7 (1978-81) – Servalan ruled the universe with a combination of sociopathy, ruthlessness, murderousness, high heels, flowing white evening gowns, sequins, pearls, fancy hats and general glam-ness.  Eight days later, the seductively husky-voiced actress Fenella Fielding died.  I feel guilty not going into her long, varied and distinguished stage and screen career in detail and merely focusing on the fact that she appeared in a Carry On movie – but as the gloriously vampish Valeria Watt in 1966’s Carry On Screaming, let’s just say she made a big impression on my adolescent self.

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The first day of October marked the deaths of legendary French crooner Charles Aznavour; the legendary (in British comic-book circles) Spanish artist Carlos Ezquerra; and British children’s TV personality Geoffrey Hayes, who gained unlikely cult status as presenter of the camp, puppet-ridden and oddly sinister show Rainbow (1972-97).  Ray Galton, who with the late Alan Simpson scripted such gems as Steptoe and Son (1962-74) and much of Tony Hancock’s TV and radio output, died on September 5th.  And three American actors with horror-genre connections passed away in October: Scott Wilson, who was lately popular as the kindly Herschel in the TV zombie series The Walking Dead (2011-14) but was also a veteran of such movies as In the Heat of the Night (1967), In Cold Blood (1967), The Grissom Gang (1971) and the William Peter Blatty-directed The Ninth Configuration (1980) and The Exorcist III (1980), died on October 6th; Celeste Yarnell, who played the kooky, dune-buggy-driving title character in Stephanie Rothman’s dreamy The Velvet Vampire (1971), died on October 7th; and James Karen, who played the affably hapless Frank in Return of the Living Dead (1985), died on October 23rd.

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(c) AMC Networks

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November saw the departures of two major movie directors, Bernardo Bertolucci of Last Tango in Paris (1971), The Last Emperor (1987) and The Sheltering Sky (1990) fame on the 26th and the fabulous Nicolas Roeg on the 23rd.  Also bowing out this month were another pair of seasoned British TV character actors: John Bluthal, whose work ranged from the low-brow sitcom Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width (1967-71) to several projects with anarchic comedy genius Spike Milligan, died on November 15th; while George A. Cooper, for many years British television’s go-to man if a grumpy and abrasive Yorkshireman was needed, died one day later. 

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Meanwhile, Hong Kong movie mogul Raymond Chow, who founded Golden Harvest productions and helped turn Bruce Lee into an international star, died on November 2nd; American actress Sondra Locke, partner to and collaborator with Clint Eastwood for a time, died on November 3rd; actor Douglas Rain, who provided the simultaneously emotionless and demented voice of the computer HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), died on November 11th; and Marvel Comics supremo Stan Lee died on November 12th.

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(c) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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On November 16th, we bade adieu to author and screenwriter William Goldman, whose career highlights included Oscar-winning scripts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and All the President’s Men (1976), as well as scripts for Marathon Man (1976), Magic (1978) and the amusing, charming and influential The Princess Bride (1987), based on his novels published in 1975, 1976 and 1973 respectively.  Goldman also penned Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983), an insider’s guide to Hollywood that butchered more than a few sacred cows and whose pronouncements – most notably, “Nobody knows anything” – still hold true today.

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December got off to a melancholy start with the death on the 6th of Pete Shelley, frontman and guitarist with the Buzzcocks and surely a role model for the young Steven Patrick Morrissey.  Scottish poet Tom Leonard died on December 21st  and the following day saw the death of politician Paddy Ashdown, who led the Liberal Democrats for 11 years until 1999 – back in the days when they had some integrity and credibility, things that were destroyed by Nick Clegg in 2010 when he entered the party into a coalition that facilitated a Conservative government, David Cameron and, indirectly, Brexit. 

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Also passing this month were two film directors who deserve to be better known in the English-speaking world: Spaniard Jorge Grau, who died on the 27th and who made the atmospheric, grisly and laudably environmentally-themed zombie movie, 1974’s The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (which, despite its title, was set in the Lake District); and Hong Kong director, producer and scriptwriter Ringo Lam, whose hefty filmography includes City on Fire (1987), a clear influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1993).  The venerable English actress and comic performer June Whitfield, whose career stretched some six decades from working with Noel Coward, Tony Hancock and Arthur Askey to starring in the satirical fashion / PR sitcom Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2012) and David Tennant-era Doctor Who (2009-10), died on December 28th.

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And finally, December 20th saw the demise of the excellent character actor Donald Moffat. As the beleaguered Commander Garry in John Carpenter’s classic science-fiction / horror movie The Thing (1982), he spoke the film’s best lines: “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot.  And if you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of the winter TIED TO THIS F**KING COUCH!”  Moffat also played two US presidents in his career, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1983’s The Right Stuff and the fictional President Bennet in 1994’s Clear and Present Danger.  I have to say he wasn’t the President Donald I wanted to say goodbye to in 2018.

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(c) Universal Pictures

Frankenstein – the 200-year-old Prometheus

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(c) Barnes & Noble

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One thing I intended to do this year was read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – to give it its full title, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.  This was because 2018 marked the 200th anniversary of the novel’s first publication in 1818.  But I almost forgot.  It was only a week ago that I remembered my pledge, hurried out and bought a copy of the book in the ‘classics’ section of a local bookstore and read it in three days.

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Actually, I’ve read Frankenstein before.  During a feverish period when I was 10 or 11 years old and was totally horror-daft and monster-daft, I read Frankenstein, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).  I have to confess that Dracula was the only one I enjoyed.  The other two works went over my head.  With Frankenstein, most of Shelley’s prose was like a fog to my 10 or 11-year-old thought processes and I only remembered a few key incidents from the plot.  So when I tackled Frankenstein again last week, reading the book was like a first-time experience.

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Here, then, are my 2018 impressions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

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It really isn’t like the films.  Well, everyone knew that already.  But the literary version of the monster Victor Frankenstein creates in his laboratory is a million miles removed from most of the versions portrayed on the screen – most famously, Boris Karloff’s lumbering, grunting, inarticulate creature in the first three Frankenstein pictures made by Universal Studios in 1931, 1936 and 1939.  For one thing, Shelley’s creature is relentlessly verbose.  He hardly shuts up when he’s centre-stage.  He rattles on for 50-odd pages at one point. 

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(c) Universal Studios

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He’s also not the hapless, easily-manipulated innocent that Karloff’s monster was.  Whereas the Karloffian creature only killed people in self-defence, or through manipulation by unscrupulous humans (like Bela Lugosi’s Igor in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein), or through tragic misunderstandings (like in the 1931 Frankenstein, when he throws a little girl into a river believing she’ll like float like a flower), Shelley’s creature is focused and calculating.  He’s a bastard, frankly.  He murders Frankenstein’s family and friends one by one, even though they aren’t responsible for his suffering.  His victims include a child – Frankenstein’s six-year-old brother.

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(c) Hammer Films

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Also, it’s interesting how emotional, at times histrionic, Frankenstein is in the book.  Given to alternating fits of passion and despair, feverish action and morose lethargy, he almost resembles the popular images of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, the two romantic poets with whom Mary Shelley was famously shacked up on the shores of Lake Geneva when she wrote the novel.  Again, the literary character is at odds with the best-known portrayal of him in the cinema, i.e. Peter Cushing in the Frankenstein movies made by Hammer Films in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  Cushing’s Frankenstein is a driven man of science, fixated on his goal and prepared to be ruthless and callous in order to achieve it – occasionally tipping over into villainy in the process.  It has to be said that if someone was going to rewrite the laws of science by bringing dead matter back to life, it’d more likely be a Frankenstein in the unflinching Cushing mould than the volatile and tormented Frankenstein described by Shelley. Talking of which…

*Talking of which…

We never find out how Frankenstein manages to bring dead matter back to life.  Frankenstein movies have used many techniques for reanimating the collection of stitched-together corpse-parts that becomes the creature – a bolt of lightning in the 1931 Universal one, solar power in the Jack Smight-directed, Christopher Isherwood-scripted Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) and, hilariously, a shoal of electric eels in Kenneth Branagh’s operatic (i.e. madly over-the-top) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994).  But in the book, Frankenstein simply declares: “I see by your eagerness and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be; listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject.”  And that’s it.

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It’s quite a travelogue.  Events take place in Geneva in Switzerland, Ingolstadt in Bavaria and Chamonix near Mount Blanc in the French Alps.  There’s a lengthy digression involving skulduggery in Paris and a flight across France to Leghorn (Livorno) in Italy, and a boat-trip from Strasbourg to Rotterdam.  Frankenstein goes to England and visits London, Windsor, Oxford, Matlock and the Lake District.  He traverses Scotland, from Edinburgh through Perth to the Orkney Islands and makes an unplanned boat trip to Ireland.  And acting as book-ends to all this are a beginning and ending in the polar wastes north of Archangelsk in Russia, where the story is told in flashback.  So basically, Frankenstein has more locations than four or five James Bond novels put together. 

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Some of it is absurd.  It’s customary to marvel at the fact that Mary Shelley was only 18 when she wrote Frankenstein.  That’s all very well and good, but there are moments where you get the impression that, full of teenaged impulsiveness and impatience, she wants to get from one plot development to the next and isn’t worried about the means of doing so.  This results in some mad lapses in logic and believability.  She wants the creature to become expressive and articulate as soon as possible after being brought to life, so she has him spy on a room where, every day, a foreign woman is receiving rudimentary language lessons; so gradually, the creature becomes literate like the woman does.  But it’s pushing credibility, to say the least, that straight after this the creature finds, reads and understands a copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost

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Credibility takes a pummelling too when Frankenstein agrees to the creature’s demand that he make him a female companion.  He retreats to a distant, tiny Orcadian island to assemble and bring to life a new body, presumably built out of scavenged body-parts like its predecessor.  How Frankenstein gathers these body-parts without being noticed on an island with just five inhabitants is anyone’s guess.  Later, after reneging on his promise and destroying the female body, Frankenstein ends up adrift on a boat that somehow takes him from the Orkneys to the Irish coast in the space of one night.  He arrives in time to be framed for the murder of his friend Henry Clerval, whose body the creature has dumped on the shore nearby.  Since Clerval had been last heard of in Perth, it’s a mystery how the creature found out about Frankenstein’s betrayal in the Orkneys, assassinated Clerval in Perth and then followed Frankenstein from the Orkneys to Ireland with the corpse. 

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Frankenstein is finally cleared and released from incarceration in Ireland when his father, Baron Frankenstein, shows up to collect him.  Previously, it was stated that the old Baron was too infirm to be able to travel from Geneva to Ingolstadt, so how does he withstand the land and sea journey all the way from Geneva to Ireland and back?    

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(c) Oxford World Classics

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But some of it is brilliant too.  The long-awaited scene where, up on the icy, rocky wastes near the summit of Mount Blanc, Frankenstein comes face-to-face with his now articulate and vengeful creation – “’Begone, vile insect!  Or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust!  And, oh!  That I could, with the extinction of your miserable existence, restore those victims whom you have so diabolically murdered!’  ‘I expected this reception,” said the daemon.  “All men hate the wretched…’” – is wonderfully atmospheric.  So too is the appropriately Godforsaken Arctic setting where the book begins and ends. 

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And you can’t better Chapter 5 when Frankenstein applies the vital spark to his creation and the story really gets going: “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils…  It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”  And of course, it gets worse: “Good God!  His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries underneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

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Finally, it’s unfair to compare it with Dracula.  It’s fashionable these days to hold up Frankenstein as a literary milestone – it certainly wasn’t the world’s first horror story, but there’s a good case to be made that it was the first work of science fiction – whilst dismissing Dracula as an unambitious potboiler.  However, the books are like chalk and cheese, even if their title characters are inseparably linked in popular culture now. Designed to entertain, Dracula is a classic thriller as memorable as Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) or H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1887).  Frankenstein is less about thrills and more about man’s relation to the universe and, as such, belongs in a higher-brow bracket of literature. I feel, though, that because it rollercoasters between the sublime and the ridiculous, it’s less successful than Dracula in what it sets out to do. 

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But… when Frankenstein hits the peaks, it’s a work of art.

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From Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

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