Enger-lund

 

From fifa.com

 

It’s World Cup time and England have been playing unexpectedly well.  They’re in the final four with a semi-final game scheduled for seven o’clock BST tonight against Croatia.

 

Less unexpected is the debate that flares up north of the border whenever England qualify for a World Cup, irrespective of whether Scotland have also qualified or, as has been the case these last 20 years, they haven’t qualified.  The question of this debate is: Should Scottish people support England during their World Cup games?

 

As usual, opinion pieces have clogged the pages of newspapers and current affairs magazines, penned by Scottish journalists adding their tuppence-worth to the subject.  Since the first kick of the ball in the first World Cup game of 2018, we’ve had Lesley Riddoch in the National, Chris Deerin in the New Statesman, Kevin McKenna in the Herald, Stephen Daisley in the Spectator and many more.

 

Daisley, for instance, stated his belief that Scots are obliged to support England in the competition: “If Scotland were heading into a World Cup semi-final – come now, it’s not nice to laugh – you can just picture the response south of the border.  England fans would throw their support behind the plucky 11…  Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn would discover long-lost great grannies who once had a fish supper in Portobello.  The Sun would give away novelty kilts bearing the legend ‘It’s coming hame’; the Mirror would reprint the lyrics of Flower of Scotland for its readers to sing along.”  Funnily enough, I was in the UK two years ago when Wales reached the semi-finals of the European Championship and I don’t recall Therezza, Jezza, the Sun and the Mirror being so enthusiastic about the Welsh.

 

© Bob Thomas / Getty Images

 

Back in the days of my youth, there was certainly a strong Scottish penchant for not supporting England at football and, indeed, for supporting any team playing against England.  When England took on Argentina in the 1986 World Cup, everyone I knew in Scotland hooted with laughter when Maradona showed the poor old English the door aided by his dodgy ‘hand of God’ goal.  This was despite the fact that, as part of the UK, Scotland had been at war with Argentina only four years earlier, as of course had England.

 

During the 1990 World Cup, the atmosphere was electric in my regular pub in Aberdeen when England played Cameroon.  This was helped no end by the entry of a group of Cameroonian students, come to watch the game on TV.  While the game was going Cameroon’s way, the students enlivened the pub by performing some traditional Cameroonian dancing, which the locals – rather atypically for Aberdonians, a people not given to over-exuberance – heartily joined in with.  And when England stole the game 3-2 in extra time, the dancing stopped and both Scottish and Cameroonian faces were long and downcast.  Later, when England went out in the semi-finals courtesy of Germany, someone in Glasgow celebrated by painting a local statue of St George in the German team colours.

 

Footballing-wise, it was easy to be ‘anyone-but-England’ in Scotland at the time.  Sometimes it felt like a political protest.  The UK was governed in an autocratic and centralised fashion by a Conservative government led by that most English-seeming of figures, Margaret Thatcher.  A majority of Scots were anti-Thatcherite, but their objections seemed to matter not a jot with those in power in London whose economic policies were dismantling Scotland’s traditional heavy industries and wrecking its traditional working-class communities.

 

Also, much of England’s travelling support seemed to consist of hooligans and / or racists.  In a recent, excellent piece about English football and English identity in the New Statesman, Jason Cowley recalls how a memorable 2-0 England win over Brazil in 1984 was, in the eyes of certain fans, a 1-0 England victory.  To them, one of the goals didn’t count because it’d been scored by a black player, John Barnes.  So who’d want to back a team supported by that unlovable bunch?

 

From www.soccer-ireland.com

 

Conversely, now that Scotland has its own devolved parliament and has at least a measure of responsibility for its own affairs, and now that the new generation of English fans have a better reputation than their predecessors, the anyone-but-England mentality seems much less pronounced in Scotland.  But I don’t see why, as Daisley thinks, Scots should be compelled to support England.  Sure, they can support them if they want to.  But it shouldn’t be shocking if they don’t want to, for a couple of reasons.

 

Firstly, plenty of Scottish football fans still see England as their great rival on the footballing stage – not, admittedly, that they’ve had an opportunity to compete against England in any major tournaments during the 21st century because the Scotland side has been too gash to qualify for them.  And it’s a basic law of sporting physics that rivals, especially near-neighbours, do not support each other.  Rather, they’ll happily support their rivals’ opponents.  When Newcastle United took on Manchester United in the 1999 FA Cup Final, I’d bet that very few Sunderland fans, ten miles down the way, were backing them.  And I doubt if many, or indeed any, Celtic supporters were cheering on their old Glasgow rivals Rangers when the latter were up against FC Zenit St Petersburg in the 2008 UEFA Cup final.

 

This rule extends to national football teams.  I’ve had Dutch people tell me that they don’t want Germany to win, and Ethiopians have said the same about Egypt.  And to other sports – I remember a long-ago rugby world cup where an Australian friend told me how disgruntled he was at hearing certain New Zealanders, whom he knew and considered good mates, cheering on any team that played Australia.  I also remember a Canadian friend asking me one time in a puzzled tone about the anyone-but-England mentality among Scottish football fans.  “So when the USA play Finland at ice hockey,” I asked her, “who do you Canadians support?”  “Finland of course!” she said immediately.

 

Secondly – and this isn’t the fault of the England players or supporters – the amount of hype that accompanies England’s entry into every footballing competition, generated by English-based pundits, TV stations and newspapers, puts you off them.  It’s immense and overwhelming and rapidly becomes maddening if you live in parts of the United Kingdom that aren’t England but are still saturated by England’s media.  These days, in fact, most of the xenophobia isn’t to be found among the fans, bad boys though they were in the past, but among the tabloids.  Witness the amount of gloating that went on when Germany were knocked out in an uncharacteristically early stage of this World Cup: SCHADENFREUDE declared the front-page headline in the Sun, which then provided a short definition (“Pleasure derived from another person’s dissatisfaction”) presumably because it considered its readers too dense to know what the word meant.

 

© Daily Express / From the BBC

 

No doubt the frenzied jingoistic coverage of this year’s World Cup has been ramped up in England’s right-wing, Brexit-crazed newspapers in the hope that it’ll help to bury news of the ultra-shambles, mega-shambles, hyper-shambles and total absolute omni-shambles that Theresa May’s government is currently making of the Brexit negotiations.  They probably hope too that if England win the World Cup, it’ll take people’s minds off the 1930s / Great Depression-style economic misery that’ll inevitably follow a hard Brexit.

 

Personally, I don’t see any reason why I should support England as it just isn’t my national football team – for me, that title is shared jointly by Scotland and Northern Ireland.  And for the reasons mentioned above, I’ve borne the anyone-but-England attitude in the past.  But I bear no ill-feeling against this current England side and I’m happy to see them do well.

 

Partly it’s because the current England squad seem like a decent bunch of blokes, certainly in comparison with some of the bloated egos and elephantine senses of entitlement that’ve populated past squads.  (The nadir was surely the England World Cup squad of 2006, who rolled up in Germany with their Sex and the City-style wives and girlfriends.  This led to the gruesome spectacle of Victoria Beckham, Cheryl Cole, Coleen Rooney and co. descending regularly on the boutiques of Baden-Baden, with the paparazzi in tow, and blowing more money in a single shopping trip than most England fans earned in a year.)

 

I also like English manager Gareth Southgate, who has executed his World Cup duties with intelligence, humility and compassion.  I even had a lump in my throat when, after England got past Colombia in their quarter-final win game, Southgate saw a Colombian player who’d missed an all-important penalty crying and went over and gave him a hug.

 

And he knows how to wear a waistcoat.  These things are important.

 

© CNN

 

So I can support this version of England – that is, if I embargo all English newspapers beforehand and have the TV volume turned down so that my brain isn’t turned to mush by any drivelling, hubristic English-TV-studio commentary.  But I’m still not sure I want them to win the World Cup.  I shudder to imagine the English media’s reaction.  They’d be braying and crowing about it for years.  Come to think of it, they still haven’t shut up about winning the bloody thing in 1966.

 

Then again, if that happens and the “We won! We won!” hysteria gets so unbearable, Scotland could be independent by Christmas.

 

Remember the Ally-mo

 

© BBC

 

One unsettling feature of growing older is that when an anniversary arrives and you think back to the original event, you feel shocked when you realise how much time separates now and then.  The other day, the 2018 World Cup competition began in Russia and it’s just occurred to me that the 1978 World Cup in Argentina took place 40 whole years and ten whole world cups ago.  It’s almost traumatic to realise how much time has elapsed.

 

However, if you’re old enough to remember the 1978 Argentinian World Cup and you were in Scotland at the time, you’ll testify that the event itself was traumatic.

 

For those of you who’re unacquainted with the topic – what happened in 1978 was that of the four national football teams in the UK, Scotland was the only one to qualify for Argentina.  And the country had a team that, on paper, looked like it might achieve something.  It boasted players from some of the mightiest football clubs in Britain: for example, from Manchester United (Martin Buchan, Gordon McQueen, Lou Macari, Joe Jordan), Liverpool (Graham Souness, the legendary Kenny Dalglish), Glasgow Rangers (Derek Johnstone, Tom Forsyth, Sandy Jardine), Nottingham Forest (Kenny Burns, John Robertson, Archie Gemmill) and, er, Partick Thistle (Alan Rough).  And in charge of these remarkable players was a manager called Ally MacLeod, who was remarkable in his own way.  Though not necessarily in the right way.

 

Emboldened by wins in 1977 over the European champions Czechoslovakia and over the Auld Enemy, England – the game concluded with the Scotland fans swarming onto the pitch at Wembley and digging up clods of the turf and breaking the goalposts into wee pieces to bring back to Scotland as souvenirs, much to the horror of the English commentators – Ally began to talk up his team’s chances in Argentina.  When early in 1978 Scotland failed to win the Home International championship involving England, Wales and Northern Ireland, he shrugged it off with the tantalising comment that the championship’s title “could be dwarfed by the World Cup.”  Such statements, and Ally’s general air of swagger and optimism – “My name is Ally MacLeod,” he announced when he became Scotland manager, “and I am a born winner!” – acted like catnip to both football fans and the hacks working on the sports pages of Scotland’s newspapers.

 

From the Independent / © Getty Images

 

As the World Cup approached, a heady sense of expectation began to infect the Scottish population.  Folk started to believe that the Argentinian World Cup would be a jamboree of Scottish footballing genius, culminating in Ally and the gang lifting the trophy.  No wonder a carpet company cannily signed Ally to do a commercial where he sat on one of their rugs whilst dressed as a gaucho – 1970s Britain’s idea of what everybody in Argentina looked like.  This led to a priceless incident where, just before he departed for Argentina, Ally was accosted by an exuberant fan who declared, “Ally, see the day after your commercial?  My ma bought one o they carpets!”

 

Ally was indeed a great salesman.  He could truly market the brand.  Unfortunately, that was not quite the same as delivering the goods.

 

Even my favourite rock band, the Australian (but mostly Scottish-born) AC/DC, got in on act and wore Scotland football strips during a 1978 gig at Glasgow Apollo Theatre.  Also getting in on the act was the Scottish comedian Andy Cameron, who recorded a song called Ally’s Tartan Army that soon rode high in the charts.  It contained such catchy, if posthumously cringeworthy, lines as: “And we’re fairly shake them up / When we win the World Cup / Cos Scotland is the greatest football team!

 

From pinterest.co.uk

 

Being in Scotland in the spring of 1978 and watching this happen was disconcerting for me.  The year before, my family had moved from Northern Ireland and taken up residency in a farm near the Scottish town of Peebles.  Since then, I’d assumed that the Scots were a stoical, down-to-earth lot, not given to flights of fancy.  But then, all-of-a-sudden, they’d succumbed to this madness about Ally MacLeod, winning the World Cup and having the greatest football team in the universe – what was going on?  I found it particularly noticeable the day before Scotland played Northern Ireland in the Home Internationals.  When I walked into a meeting of the local Scouts that evening, all the other (Scottish) scouts had an insane glint in their eyes and were gleefully predicting how Scotland was going to slaughter, dismember and stomp on the grave of poor, lowly Northern Ireland the next day.  (As it turned out, all Scotland could manage with Northern Ireland was a 1-1 draw, much to my satisfaction.)

 

Still, over time, the madness seemed to seep into even my non-ethnically Scottish soul.  Hey, I thought, it would be cool to live in the country that’d won the World Cup, wouldn’t it?

 

After a delirious send-off at Hampden Stadium where 30,000 Scotland fans whooped and roared as if their team had just come back from Argentina clutching the World Cup trophy, Ally’s Tartan Army flew out and got ready for their first game of the competition’s first round, which was against Peru.  The evening that the game was on TV, I missed the beginning of it for my dad had sent me out to move some cows from one field to another.  I was in the middle of moving those cows when I heard a huge rumbling roar – like how I’d imagine the approach of a tsunami to be.  It took me a few seconds to realise I was hearing cheering coming from the town, a half-mile away beyond the last of my parents’ fields.  It was the sound of 5000-odd people in Peebles celebrating Joe Jordan knocking in a first goal for Scotland in the game’s 14th minute.  Gosh, I thought, it’s startedScotland really are going to win the World Cup!

 

So I completed my task, hurried back to the house and hunkered down in front of the television next to my younger brother, who’d really caught the Scotland World Cup bug and was sitting excitedly with a tartan scarf wrapped around him.  Scarcely had I arrived there when, just before half-time, Peru equalised.  Then in the second half Peru scored two more, so that by the game’s end Scotland had been beaten 3-1.  In a pathetic attempt to hide my disappointment, I pretended that, being Northern Irish, I hadn’t really been supporting Scotland and I thought their defeat was funny.  So I turned around and started laughing at my brother.  I stopped, though, when I realised he was in floods of tears.  However, my mother had already seen me laughing at him and she gave me a deserved bollocking for making him even more upset.

 

Next up for Scotland was Iran – an unstable country in the early throes of a revolution.  Scotland was surely going to win this one, right?  Wrong.  The team played so badly that they scraped a 1-1 draw and that was only because an Iranian player called Eskandarian scored an own-goal.  This game was famous for its images of a totally-deflated Ally Macleod sitting hunched over in the Scotland dugout, his hands clamped over the top of his skull in an attempt to shut out the world – “Ally trying to dismantle his head,” as one wag described it later.

 

From sportingheroes.net / © George Herringshaw

 

To heighten the misery, the Scottish striker Willie Johnston was sent home after failing a drugs test.  Other football players have suffered drugs scandals, most notably the cocaine-snorting Diego Maradona.  But the hapless Johnston wasn’t even caught taking a glamorous drug – he tested positive for Reacitivan, a medication prescribed to him because he had hay fever.  Poor old Willie might as well have been busted for taking Benylin Chesty Cough Mixture.

 

By now the Scotland situation was looking grim.  Also grim was the atmosphere at Peebles High School.  One guy in my class told me there was a record shop in Glasgow that was now selling copies of Ally’s Tartan Army by Andy Cameron for a penny each – so that disgruntled punters could make a public display of smashing them into vinyl slivers on the pavement outside.  Meanwhile, a girl told me she couldn’t bear to drink Scotland’s national fizzy drink Irn Bru any more – because its name sounded it too much like ‘Iran Peru’.  Lessons with our English teacher, Iain Jenkins, strayed off the topic of Shakespeare and became lengthy post-mortem discussions about what was going horribly wrong in Argentina.

 

In fact, I remember us doing some creative writing one day and then Iain Jenkins reading out a poem that a mischievous pupil from south of the border had just penned about Scotland’s faltering World Cup campaign.  It contained the memorable line, “Poor Ally will have to emigrate to the moon” and the even more memorable couplet, “Willie Johnston is over the hill / That’s why he’s on the pill.”

 

To get through to the World Cup’s next round, Scotland now had to beat the Netherlands – and beat them by three goals.  There seemed zero chance of that happening.  From the dire way the Scots were playing, it looked much more likely that the Dutch would murder them.  Yet it was against the Dutch – who’d eventually make it to the competition’s final – that Scotland managed a victory.  Indeed, they were 3-1 up at one point in the game and if they’d knocked in another goal they could have lived to fight another day.   Alas, it wasn’t to be.  The Dutch eventually pulled one back, making the final score 3-2.  Scotland had won, but not by enough to stop them going home early.

 

Still, the game produced a brilliant Scottish goal by the diminutive Nottingham Forest player Archie Gemmill.  It was the best goal of that World Cup and possibly the greatest World Cup goal ever.  Incidentally, it’s also the goal whose footage is intercut with the hectic sex sequence in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1995) – no wonder a dazed Ewan MacGregor murmurs at the end of it, “I haven’t felt that good since Archie Gemmill scored against Holland in 1978!”  (Though I’m pretty sure that back in 1978 the Scottish football commentator Archie Macpherson didn’t really exclaim, as he does in Trainspotting, “A penetrating goal for Scotland!”)

 

From whoateallthepies.tv

 

So Scotland was out of the World Cup but with, technically, a wee bit of pride salvaged.  Sadly, such was the hype that’d accompanied them to Argentina that their campaign didn’t feel like anything other than an absolute disaster.  The day after the Holland game, I remember a schoolmate, the local postman’s son, coming into class.  He pulled out a tartan scarf, waved it around for five seconds and said flatly and unenthusiastically, “See that?  We beat Holland.  Magic.”  Then he put the scarf back in his bag and zipped it up again.  And nobody at school seemed to talk about Scotland, Argentina and the World Cup ever again.

 

Mind you, later that summer, I returned to Northern Ireland for a holiday.  People there seemed to view me as 100% Scottish now and they didn’t stop tearing the piss out of me about how crap Scotland had played in Argentina.

 

But let’s be fair to Ally Macleod (who died in 2004).  In popular Scottish mythology he’s often depicted as a vainglorious balloon, bragging that his team would win the World Cup, and then win the next World Cup, and probably the Ryder Cup, the Stanley Cup, the America’s Cup, the Ashes and the Tour de France as well.  But I’ve scoured the Internet and been unable to find most of the hyperbolic quotes that I’ve heard attributed to him.  It’s fairer to say that he made a few tactless comments and exuded a lot of optimism, which the overheated imaginations of fans and journalists turned into mass hysteria.  In the dispirited environment of post-World Cup Scotland, though, nobody wanted to admit their own culpability and poor Ally became the scapegoat.

 

Anyway, if you can ignore the hubris and focus only on the football, Ally’s 1978 squad didn’t do that badly.  Yes, they had two duff games but they only lost one of those, and then they achieved a win against the eventual finalists.  If the cards had fallen differently elsewhere in their first-round group, they might have got through to the competition’s next stage; and, having had their wake-up call, performed better.  Other teams in other World Cups have done so with the same first-round record of one win, one draw and one defeat – including England.

 

Much has been blamed on that ill-fated World Cup campaign.  People have found significance in how it came shortly before the 1979 referendum on creating a devolved Scottish parliament, which died a death because of apathy.  The Scottish public voted for the parliament, but not in sufficiently high numbers.  It’s tempting to join those two dots – but I’m inclined to blame this collapse in Scottish political willpower at the end of the decade on factors a lot more complex than Ally Macleod bullshitting us a bit about football in 1978.

 

One thing that can be attributed to 1978 is the evolution of the Scotland football team’s travelling support, the Tartan Army.  Thanks to the bitter lessons learnt then, modern Scotland fans have dumped any belligerent, nationalistic sense of expectation and have gone about the (often thankless) task of supporting Scotland with humour, irony, self-deprecation and a determination to have a good time no matter how bad the results.  As a result, they’re now one of the most popular sets of fans in the world.

 

Actually, when Scotland played England a couple of years ago at Wembley, I saw a picture of some Scottish fans posing in Trafalgar Square with a life-sized cut-out of Ally Macleod they’d brought along.   That made me smile.  With his erratic management skills and over-exuberant PR skills, the daft bugger put us through the wringer in 1978, but it’s nice to know his spirit still gets invited to the party.

 

From the Guardian / © Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

 

Deathlog 2017 – Part 2

 

© Paramount Classics

 

American Renaissance man Sam Shepard died on July 27th.  As a playwright he was responsible for Buried Child (1978), True West (1980), Fool for Love (1983), A Lie of the Mind (1985) and others; he acted in movies as varied as Days of Heaven (1978), The Right Stuff (1983), Black Hawk Down (2001) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007); he authored two novels and directed two films; and his screenwriting credits included Zabriskie Point (1970), Renaldo and Clara (1978) and of course Paris, Texas (1984), a movie I can’t think of now without hearing Ry Cooder’s elegiac slide-guitar score in my head.

 

Other casualties of July 2017 included the masterly horror-movie auteur George A. Romero, who died on July 16th; Welsh actor Hywel Bennett, one-time boyish-faced star of movies like The Family Way (1966), Twisted Nerve (1968) and Loot (1970), who died on July 25th; and Chester Bennington, singer with popular nu-metal band Linkin Park, who died on July 20th – I had little time for nu-metal music generally, but I thought Linkin Park were among the sub-genre’s least offensive practitioners.  Meanwhile, departing on July 15th was distinguished movie and TV actor Martin Landau, who first gained attention as a villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest back in 1959.  I’ll always remember Landau for playing Commander Koenig in the TV sci-fi show Space 1999 (1975-77) and playing a washed-up, drug-addled Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s delightful Ed Wood (1994).

 

© Toho

 

Where to start in August 2017?  Old Western movie-star Ty Hardin died on August 3rd, as did hard-working British TV and film actor Robert Hardy, who was still going strong in his eighties thanks to the Harry Potter franchise.  August 7th saw the passing of Japanese actor and stuntman Haruo Nakajima, who filled a rubber suit to play Godzilla in many a giant-monster movie for Japan’s Toho Company in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  Having played Godzilla in 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, Nakajima changed sides, donned an ape-suit and played King Kong in 1967’s King Kong Escapes.  Passing one day later was American country-and-western singer Glen Campbell, whom I’ll remember best for one of his occasional acting roles – as La Boeuf, the Texas Ranger who joins forces with Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) and Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 western True Grit.  The last day of August saw the demise of American TV actor Richard Anderson, fondly remembered by 1970s youngsters as Oscar Goldman in The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-78).

 

Another horror-movie auteur, Tobe Hooper – of Texas Chainsaw Massacre infamy – passed away on August 26th.  The great English science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss died on August 19th; while Gordon Williams, Scottish author of The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969), the basis for Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs, died on August 20th.  And legendary Hollywood funny-man Jerry Lewis left us on August 20th.  To be honest, I found his comedy movies about as amusing as toothache, but I can’t deny an older Lewis was excellent as the cynical comedian / chat-show host Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese’s twisted showbiz satire The King of Comedy (1982).

 

Bruce Forsyth, English TV gameshow host, entertainer and comedian – and supposedly the last person working on British television who’d first appeared on it prior to World War II – died on August 18th.  I found Forsyth’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-joking showbiz schtick hard to take, but I liked him for the guest appearance he made on The Muppet Show in 1976, when he helped Fozzie Bear stand up to those wizened, mean-spirited hecklers Statler and Waldorf.  That was definitely Bruce’s finest hour.

 

© ITC Entertainment

 

Len Wein, the great comic-book writer whose many achievements included creating the squishy half-man, half-plant Swamp Thing with the late Bernie Wrightson back in 1971, died on September 9th.  The following day saw the death of Irish-American author J.P. Donleavy.  I loved Donleavy’s 1955 novel The Ginger Man as a teenager, though I wonder if I would find it a bit juvenile if I read it again today.  Grant Hart, who manned the drumkit for the brilliant 1980s alterative-punk band Hüsker Dü, died on September 14th, and one day later yet another Twin Peaks (and Paris, Texas) alumni, the marvellous American character actor Harry Dean Stanton, passed away.  Another American actor, Bernie Casey, died on September 19th.  Casey’s roles included that of Felix Leiter in the ‘rogue’ Sean Connery / James Bond movie Never Say Never Again (1982), which made him the cinema’s first black Felix Leiter a quarter-century before Jeffrey Wright landed the part in the Daniel Craig Bond films.

 

Boxer Jake LaMotta, whose chequered career formed the basis for the classic Martin Scorsese / Robert De Niro collaboration Raging Bull (1980), died on September 20th.  A week later saw the death of Hugh Hefner, millionaire founder of Playboy magazine.  With his playmate-filled mansion and penchant for pyjamas, pipes and ship’s-captain hats, Hefner struck me as a sleazy and infantile old letch.  But I can’t belittle his literary taste – in between the nudie pictures, Playboy published work by Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Ian Fleming, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joseph Heller, Shirley Jackson, Ursula Le Guin, Norman Mailer, Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut and many more.

 

September 25th marked the death of English actor Tony Booth, best-known as a cast-member in the controversial but influential BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part (1965-75) and for being the real-life father of Cherie Booth, i.e. Mrs Tony Blair.  Here’s a fascinating fact: Booth claimed his great-great-great-uncle’s son was John Wilkes Booth, who was both an actor and the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.  I wonder if the staunchly socialist Booth felt tempted to emulate his ancestor once his son-in-law had been in office for a few years and shown his true colours.

 

The music world suffered another blow on October 3rd with the death of the agreeable American musician, singer and songwriter Tom Petty, while the comedy world said goodbye to the ground-breaking Irish comedian Sean Hughes on October 16th.  The same day saw the passing of venerable Guernsey actor Roy Dotrice, whose career stretched from The Heroes of Telemark (1965) to Hellboy II (2008), via 1984’s Amadeus where he played the title character’s father.  Like many a veteran British character actor, Doctrice got a late-career boost when he was cast in Game of Thrones (2011-present).  Other actors to die in October included Robert Guillaume – wonderful as Benson, droll butler to the chaotic Tate family in the American TV comedy Soap (1977-81) – and on October 9th the distinguished French actor Jean Rochefort.  Ironically, Rochefort may be best-known to English-speaking audiences for a role he didn’t play.  He was lined up to be Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam’s monumentally ill-fated and eventually-cancelled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.  In anticipation, Rochefort even learned to speak English.  The 2002 documentary Lost in La Manca tells the story of this epic that never happened.

 

From goseelivemusic.co

 

October 22nd saw the death of Daisy Berkowitz, one-time guitarist to Goth-metaller / shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, and on October 19th the Italian movie director Umberto Lenzi passed away.  Lenzi was prolific in several genres, but I’ll remember him chiefly for his 1974 thriller Spasmo, an elegant if not terribly sensible example of the Italian giallo genre.

 

November brought a rash of music-related deaths – Chuck Mosely, the 1980s frontman for the great American alternative / funk-metal band Faith No More, on November 9th; Michael Davis (nicknamed ‘Dik Mik’), who in the 1970s operated the appropriately futuristic-sounding ‘audio-generator’ for the legendary ‘space-rock’ band Hawkwind, on November 16th; and Australian-born TV composer Dudley Simpson, who died on November 4th.   Simpson’s career-highlights include the incidental music for Doctor Who during its creepiest phase in the 1970s and the unsettling and pulsating theme tune for The Tomorrow People (1973-79).  Saddest of all for me, however, was the passing on November 18th of Australian guitarist Malcolm Young, co-founder of AC / DC and mastermind behind that band’s mightiest guitar riffs.

 

November was also a bad month for British TV sitcom actors, witnessing the deaths of Keith Barron on November 15th and Rodney Bewes on November 21st.  In between television work, both men appeared occasionally in films – I particularly remember Barron in 1974’s movie adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot and Bewes (playing James Mason’s son) in the 1970 adaptation of Bill Naughton’s Spring and Port Wine.  Meanwhile, actor John Hillerman died on November 9th.  Hillerman played Higgins, the snotty English concierge of Tom Selleck’s building in Magnum P.I. (1980-88).  So convincing was he in the role that following his death I was surprised to learn he’d actually hailed from Texas.

 

© Universal Television

 

Finally, German actress Karin Dor died on November 9th.  In 1967’s You Only Live Twice, the villainous Dor tried unsuccessfully to kill Sean Connery’s James Bond by trapping him in a plummeting airplane.  Then her boss Ernst Stavros Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) punished her for her failure by dropping her through a trapdoor into a pool of hungry piranha fish – and lo, a cinematic cliché was born.

 

On December 6th, France mourned the death of its very own Elvis Presley, the Gallic rock-and-roller Johnny Hallyday.  I’m unfamiliar with Hallyday’s music, but fondly remember his acting performance in the 2002 movie L’Homme du Train.  In this, he starred alongside Jean Rochefort, who’d died just two months previously.  Indeed, the film’s ending, where both men die simultaneously and wind up standing together in ghost form on an ethereal railway platform, seems sadly and eerily prophetic now.  Five days later saw the death of English entertainer Keith Chegwin, whose relentlessly cheery presence was a staple of British children’s TV during the 1970s and 1980s, especially in Swap Shop (1976-82) and Cheggers Plays Pop (1978-86).  Later, self-deprecatingly and post-modernly, Chegwin played himself in Ricky Gervais’s TV comedy Life’s Too Short (2011-13) and the movie Kill Keith (2011); but I liked him best for his appearance, at the age of 14, as Fleance in Roman Polanski’s ultra-violent version of Macbeth (1971).

 

Bob Givens, the veteran American animator who designed the world’s coolest cartoon rabbit, Bugs Bunny, died on December 14th; while Christmas Eve saw the death of American actress Heather Menzies.  She was best-known for playing one of the Von Trapp children in wholesome musical blockbuster The Sound of Music (1965) but I preferred her for playing the heroine of a less wholesome movie, the Joe Dante-directed / John Sayles-scripted Piranha (1978).  Following her death, Dante called her a“lovely person who was immensely helpful and supportive as the star of Piranha, my first solo directing job.”

 

Finally, December 2017 saw the departures of two men who, in different ways, were excellent ambassadors for the world of science.  Heinz Wolff, the German-born scientist who appeared on British TV shows like Young Scientist of the Year (1966-81) and The Great Egg Race (1979-86) and who, with his bald, domed head and bowtie, looked splendidly like how you’d imagine a scientist to look, died on December 15th.  Meanwhile, space-shuttle astronaut Bruce McCandless, who in 1984 became the first human being to make an untethered flight in space, died on December 21st.  It seems dishearteningly symbolic that their deaths came at the end of a year when the most powerful man on earth was a nincompoop who didn’t just seem ignorant of science, but actively seemed to despise it.

 

From theinquirer.net

© NASA

 

When he was king

 

(c) PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Gramercy Pictures

 

The world seems a smaller, sadder and quieter place after the passing of boxing superstar and all-round sporting legend Muhammad Ali yesterday.

 

Smaller, sadder, quieter and also less eloquent, less witty and less entertaining: for Ali was a rare thing, a sportsman who’d honed his words to be as devastating as the way he’d honed his body.  You could fill a book with his pronouncements, witticisms and (usually) good-natured insults.  Of Sonny Liston, he said: “The man needs talking lessons.  The man needs boxing lessons.  And since he’s gonna fight me, he needs falling lessons.”  Of George Foreman: “I’ve seen George Foreman shadow boxing and the shadow won.”  Of Joe Frazier: “Joe Frazier is so ugly that when he cries, the tears turn around and go down the back of his head.”  On his refusal to serve in the US Army and fight in Vietnam, he said bluntly: “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.  No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”  On aging: “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”  (Well, that’s me told.)  And of course, on his less-than-modest self: “I’m not the greatest, I’m the double-greatest.  Not only do I knock ’em out, I pick the round.  I’m the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skilfullest fighter in the ring today.”

 

In his prime, his gob was massive and his patter was relentless; but still he was an idealistic man who wasn’t afraid to make bold and unpopular decisions.  However out-of-favour he temporarily became, though, through actions such as affiliating himself with the Nation of Islam or refusing the draft, he still ended up the best-known and best-liked American on the planet.  I got a sense of his universal appeal one winter’s day in 1996, while I was living in Sapporo on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.  Out on a freezing ice-and-snow-covered street I encountered a prim, middle-aged lady whom I knew as the mother of one of my Japanese friends.  Where, I asked, was she off to on an inhospitable day like this?  Oh, she said with an eager gleam in her eyes, she was going to the cinema — which was showing When We were Kings, the acclaimed and just-released documentary about Ali’s legendary ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, i.e. his bout with George Foreman for the world heavyweight title in Kinshasa in Zaire in 1974.  The fact that a Japanese housewife could be hurrying to see a documentary about a black American boxer who’d fought his last fight 15 years earlier was a sign of the weird and wonderful world that Ali had created.

 

And in fact I remember that Ali-Foreman fight of 1974 – when it rumbled, in the jungle.  I was a kid in Northern Ireland and no doubt all sorts of Troubles-related mayhem was happening that day, as it seemed to happen every day back then.  But the Rumble was the only thing anyone wanted to talk about the next morning.  We were discussing it, my eight and nine-year-old compadres and I, in the primary-school classroom.  Why, even our primary school teacher – another prim middle-aged lady – was talking excitedly about how Ali had beat Foreman.  And it was the same a year later when he took on Joe Frazier during the ‘Thrilla in Manilla’.  The next day we were rabbiting on about that too.

 

He was a divisive figure for a long time in the US, but 1970s Britain loved him.  He never seemed to be off British telly.  (Did Ali apply his publicity machine equally to every country in the world, I wonder, or did he just get a special kick out of indulging the limeys across the Atlantic?)  He was interviewed several times by Michael Parkinson.  He appeared on This is Your Life with Eamon Andrews.  He sent a cheeky filmed message to English football manager Brian Clough, a man who famously produced as much hot air as he did: “Clough, that’s enough.  Stop it!”   Christ, he even turned up on Jim’ll Fix It and I seem to remember him giving Jimmy Savile a friendly, joshing tap on the chin.  It’s just a pity he didn’t punch Savile’s horrible greasy face down his throat and out of his arse.

 

Ali’s boxing career didn’t end happily.  His 1980 fight against Larry Holmes, for instance, was a horror show.  It’s said that afterwards Holmes felt so bad about beating Ali so humiliatingly that he sat crying in his dressing room.  Thereafter, of course, Ali had to suffer the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s Disease – an affliction whose worst crime, perhaps, was to rob him, the most articulate of men, of the ability to articulate himself.

 

So it’s best to remember him by watching When We Were Kings, a documentary that captures the glory (and, admittedly, some of the grotesqueness) of the Rumble in the Jungle.  It shows you Ali at the peak of his greatness and a surprisingly dark and threatening George Foreman.  (This might come as a shock to a younger generation who know George primarily as the patron of the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine.)  It also allows you to see the 20th century’s most opulently corrupt dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who’d arranged the staging of the fight in Zaire.  And some of the 20th century’s greatest musicians, like James Brown and B.B. King, whom Mobutu had flown in for a musical gala to accompany it.  And the 20 century’s biggest literary ego, Norman Mailer, who was there to report on it.

 

Norman Mailer, actually, got a book out the event, 1975’s The Fight, which is well worth a read.  It provides a fascinating insight into the mind of the man who believed he was the greatest.  (It also mentions Muhammad Ali.)

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

Muhammad was a giant but he achieved his worldwide celebrity on account of his talents: his athleticism, his grace, his wit, his humour and his bloody-mindedness.  Which puts the modern-day celebrity of, say, Kim Kardashian into pitiful perspective.  And as someone who eventually became one of America’s greatest ambassadors to the rest of humanity – regardless of the often uneasy relationship between him and his mother country – it’s worth remembering that he was a Muslim.  Donald Trump, take note.

 

Death log 2015, part 2

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Continuing my tribute to people I liked who didn’t make it past 2015…

 

In January, the theatre, film and TV actress Geraldine McEwan passed away.  Prim and forthright, wry and twinkling, McEwan’s persona made her perfect for playing two of the greatest Misses in British literature.  In the 1970s she played the titular, self-assured but too-fond-of-Mussolini Edinburgh school-mistress in a TV adaptation of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  Spark reckoned McEwan best captured the essence of Jean Brodie, an accomplishment considering that Vanessa Redgrave had already played her on stage and Maggie Smith had played her on screen.  And later, from 2004 to 2007, she played Agatha Christie’s deceptively spinsterish and demure-looking sleuth in a dozen instalments of Miss Marple.

 

July saw the departure of the great Egyptian actor Omar Sharif.  Though he was famous for his performances in David Lean’s epics Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) and also for being the world’s most prominent bridge player, I’ll cherish Sharif most for playing the beleaguered Captain Brunel in Richard Lester’s 1974 thriller Juggernaut, which for my money is the best of the 1970s disaster movies.  Sharif’s calm and charm are put to the test when a psychotic criminal places six powerful bombs on board his passenger-stuffed cruise liner and – worse – the best the British government can do to help is send in a boozed-up bomb disposal expert played by the (at the time) boozed-up Richard Harris.

 

(c) United Artists

 

Writer Christopher Wood died in May, although his death wasn’t reported in the media until months later.  As well as co-writing the scripts for Roger Moore’s best James Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and for his worst one, Moonraker (1979), Wood was responsible for those oh-so-British, oh-so-1970s sex-comedy Confessions of… books and films, which he wrote / scripted under the pseudonym Timothy Lea.  In an interview with Penthouse magazine, Wood opined, “They were funny then, and they’re funny now.  Then again, I always did like smut.”  I’ve written about Wood before on Blood and Porridge, here:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=1549

 

In September, the American actress Catherine Coulson died.  In her supporting role as the Log Lady in David Lynch’s much-loved Twin Peaks (1990-91), she provided that TV series with some of its funniest and most bizarre moments.  Before that, she’d helped to fund and served as assistant director and camera operator on Lynch’s breakthrough movie Eraserhead (1977); and she’d been married for a time to the late Jack Nance, who played the spectacularly bouffant-ed Henry Spencer in Eraserhead and the easy-going but henpecked Pete Martell in Twin Peaks.

 

(c) Lynch/Frost Productions

 

October saw the death of Denis Healey, British Defence Minister under Harold Wilson in the 1960s and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Wilson and James Callaghan in the 1970s.  He was described as ‘the best Labour Prime Minister Britain never had’ so often that I’m sure he was heartily sick of the phrase.  Still, it’s surely true that if the Labour Party had made the pugnacious and rambunctious Healey its leader in the 1980s, he’d have had a better chance than anyone else of ousting Margaret Thatcher from Number 10.  Instead, though, Healey ended up as deputy leader only, under the hapless Michael Foot.  Foot was a gentle, intelligent and very well-read man, but he belonged to a different political era; and the right-wing British press of the 1980s tore him to pieces.  (Mind you, Foot’s treatment seems mild compared to the abuse that’s been hurled at left-winger Jeremy Corbyn since he became Labour leader in September this year.)

 

British film critic Philip French died in October too.  A reviewer for the Observer for a half-century, French was one of the few ‘establishment’ film critics whose opinions I could stomach during my youth in the 1970s and 1980s.  Unlike, say, Alexander Walker in the Evening Standard, or the BBC’s Barry Norman, or the ubiquitous Leslie Halliwell, French wasn’t a prude and didn’t allow his tastes to be boxed in by what was deemed ‘respectable’.  Actually, unlike a lot of his peers, he seemed to genuinely like films.  He loved Western movies in particular; and he was about the only major British critic to laud Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – now seen as one of the classics – when it was released in 1982.

 

In 2008, French identified his all-time favourite movies.  His list included such worthy choices as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006).  I’m not so sure about his inclusion of Gandhi (1982) or Ratatouille (2007), though…

 

Gunnar Hansen died in November.  In 1974, this Icelandic-born actor played Leatherface, the most memorable of the serial-killing and cannibalistic Sawyer family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Masked, able to converse only in mewls and gibbers, and wielding the buzzing chainsaw of the title, Leatherface was initially one of the most terrifying characters in horror-movie history.  It’s a pity that his fearsomeness has gradually been lessened by familiarity, with successive sequels and remakes trying to turn him into a money-spinning franchise.

 

From revolvermag.com

 

Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor, who also passed away in November, was drummer with the great heavy metal band Motörhead during its glory years of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  He thumped the tubs, as they say, on 1977’s Motörhead, 1979’s Overkill, 1979’s Bomber, 1980’s Ace of Spades, 1982’s Iron Fist and 1983’s Another Perfect Day; although he played with them again from 1987 to 1992.  Devotees regard him as part of the band’s greatest line-up, alongside front-man and bassist Lemmy and guitarist ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke.  Alas, he wasn’t the only member of that line-up to succumb to the Grim Reaper during 2015:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6016

 

Another hard-rocking fatality of 2015 was Scott Weiland, one-time vocalist with grunge band the Stone Temple Pilots.   I was sniffy about the Stone Temple Pilots when they appeared, seemingly riding on the coat-tails of Nirvana and Pearl Jam; but I suspect if I listened to their 1992 breakthrough album Core now, it would seem much better in retrospect – compared to the dross that’s clogged up the charts in the 23 years since.  Actually, I prefer the five years (2003-2008) that Weiland spent as vocalist with the super-group Velvet Revolver, whose line-up included three Guns N’ Roses alumni, Slash, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum.  I’ll always remember Velvet Revolver for their performance during the Hyde Part component of the Live 8 concerts in July 2005.  Swaggering onstage and promptly unleashing a sonic assault of heavy metal, Weiland, Slash and chums blew away a whole park-ful of cocoa-sipping Elton John fans and tofu-munching Coldplay fans.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAoL3QSDadE

 

In November, Jonah Lomu – the 1.96-metre-tall Tongan-New Zealand rugby player once described as ‘the first true global superstar of rugby union’ – died at the tragically young age of 40.  Lomu will live on in my memory for his performance during the semi-final between New Zealand and England in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  He laid waste to Will Carling, Rob Andrew, Rory Underwood, Mike Catt, Dean Richards and co. and helped his side knock 45 points past them.  Afterwards the Daily Telegraph described Lomu as “a runaway potting shed in boots” and said of the game generally: “If it had not added so much to English doom and despondency, it would have been permissible to laugh.”  To be honest, not being English, I laughed.

 

(c) The Guardian

 

Late 2015 was not a good time for old British character actors.  Warren Mitchell died in November.  Although Mitchell appeared in many low-budget British horror movies – The Trollenberg Terror (1958), Curse of the Werewolf (1961), Night Caller from Outer Space (1965) and Terry Gilliam’s medieval monster-fantasy Jabberwocky (1977) – and comedy movies – Postman’s Knock (1962), The Intelligence Men (1965), The Sandwich Man (1966) and The Assassination Bureau (1969) – he’ll be chiefly remembered for playing the reactionary loudmouth Alf Garnett in Johnny Speight’s 1960s / 1970s TV sitcom Till Death Us Do Part.  Speight intended Alf to embody the horribleness of right-wing bigotry.  Alf detested everyone outside his little bubble of white, Protestant, Conservative-voting southern Englishness, constantly insulted blacks, Pakistanis, Jews, Catholics, Scots, Welsh people and northerners, and at the same time was a hideous human being: selfish, cowardly, pig-ignorant and bullying.

 

It must have been galling for Speight (and Mitchell) when it became clear that many of the show’s fans hadn’t seen the irony.  They thought Alf was a hero for ‘speaking the truth’ and ‘telling it like it is’.  Mind you, that didn’t stop the two of them reviving Alf for further series in the 1980s, by which time he’d become a frail, pathetic old-age pensioner dependent on a home-help from the local social services, who happened to be – horror! – black; and for a final hurrah in 1997 with An Audience with Alf Garnett, which was broadcast on the eve of the general election that saw 18 years of Conservative rule come to an end and Labour sweep back to power under Tony Blair.  This was sly timing indeed, slice Tony Blair’s father-in-law was the actor Tony Booth, who’d played Alf’s layabout son-in-law in the original Till Death Us Do Part.

 

Also in November, British-Indian actor Saeed Jaffrey died.  The multilingual Jaffrey made over 150 movies in Britain, India and the States.  For me his finest hour was his supporting role as Ghurka soldier Billy Fish in John Huston’s epic adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling story, The Man Who Would Be King (1975).  The film is regarded as a major entry in the CVs of its two stars, Sean Connery and Michael Caine; but Jaffrey’s delightful performance as the quirky, loyal, courageous and ultimately self-sacrificing Billy Fish comes close to stealing the show from the two leads.

 

(c) Columbia Pictures

 

And in December Anthony Valentine died.  I’ll remember Valentine for appearing in every second TV show I watched as a kid – as a regular in Callan (1967-72), Colditz (1974) and Raffles (1975-77) and as a guest star in Department S (1970), Budgie (1971), Z Cars (1972), Thriller (1975), Space 1999 (1975), Minder (1979, 1980 and 1983), Hammer House of Horror (1980), Tales of the Unexpected (1980 and 1982) and Bergerac (1983).  But the biggest impression he made on me was in the 1976 Hammer horror movie To the Devil a Daughter, during which satanic forces caused him to spontaneously and explosively combust inside a church – a dangerous ‘full body burn’ stunt that was actually carried out by Hammer’s main stuntman Eddie Powell.

 

Finally, December saw the death of respected Scottish journalist Ian Bell, who for as long as I can remember penned columns for the Scotsman, Daily Record and Herald – it’s for his work in that last publication that he was probably most celebrated.  In a journalistic / political era of soundbites, platitudes and simplifications, Bell was admirably unfashionable.  His writing was cerebral and ruminative and required concentration but, if you persevered, you’d have a hard time disagreeing with his arguments by the time you reached its end.   

 

If I’m not mistaken, his final column was a critique of the speech given recently in the House of Commons by Labour MP Hilary Benn (though it was cheered to the rafters by his Conservative counterparts) that called on Britain to join the bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria.  “The great, acclaimed speech managed to say very little…” noted Bell.  “He did not explain why, having been wrong about three previous interventions, he had a remote chance of being right on this occasion.  He did not spare much of his passion on the risk of civilian casualties, despite all we know of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.”  Spot on, Ian.  And farewell.

 

http://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/14126940.Ian_Bell__The_dismantling_of_Hilary_Benn_s_empty_war_rhetoric/

 

(c) The Herald

 

Oh God, it’s Rod

 

(c) Rolling Stone

 

I have resisted the temptation to take a peek (or as they say in Scotland, a keek) at footage of the opening ceremony for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, which was held the other day in Glasgow.  This is because, from the snippets about it I’ve read in the news media, it was a bit of a cringe-fest.

 

For example…  Susan Boyle forgetting the lyrics to Mull of Kintyre, a ballad so simplistic I’d always assumed a monkey would manage to knock it out after a couple of days of being shut up in a room with some sheets of paper and a typewriter…  Battalions of wee kids running around, pretending to be Tunnock’s Teacakes…  John Barrowman being, well, John Barrowman…  The Red Arrows dousing the sky with red-white-and-blue smoke, the colours of the Union Jack, and discreetly not omitting the red smoke – because that would leave only white-and-blue smoke, the colours of the Scottish saltire, and with the referendum on Scottish independence just two months away the Ministry of Defence didn’t want to do anything that might encourage Scottish nationalist sentiment.

 

http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/uk-defence-secretary-blocked-red-3909504

 

(Oddly, during the Iraq War, the MoD was happy enough to put the saltire on leaflets distributed among the locals southwest of Bagdad when soldiers in Scotland’s Black Watch regiment were stationed there.  This was in the hope that those soldiers might be perceived as being different from unpopular American and ‘British’ forces.  So the MoD’s thinking regarding the saltire seems to be: use in illegal wars mounted by Tony Blair and resulting in 100,000+ deathsGOOD; acknowledging Scotland at a major sports competition, held in Scotland, where Scotland competes as a separate countryBAD.)

 

 (c) BBC

Courtesy, P. Smith

 

To be honest, the uninspiring but tourist-friendly, a-bit-crap-but-cheerful tone that seems to have pervaded the ceremony (again, from the bits I’ve read about it) was as much as I’d hoped for from the powers-that-be in Glasgow, a place that seems to have been under the dominion of the Scottish Labour Party since the late Bronze Age.  My expectations were low because: (1) the Labour city fathers of Glasgow were never going to attempt anything too rousing or imaginative – on the scale, say, of Danny Boyle’s opening for the 2012 Olympics in London – for fear of giving Scottish people ideas above their station and, again, tempting them to vote for independence in the referendum; and (2) with its few remaining ‘big hitters’ like Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander based down in Westminster, the gene pool of the Labour Party in Scotland is pretty shallow these days.  (I mean, have you heard Scottish Labour Party leader Johann Lamont try to construct a coherent sentence, let alone a coherent argument, in TV interviews recently?  Jesus Christ…)

 

Still, I’d have thought that no one involved in organising the ceremony would be so numpty-ish as to wheel on Rod Stewart to sing at it.  But they did.  Rod Stewart.  Rod bloody Stewart!

 

Now I’m not going to go into matters of Rod’s ethnicity and question his right to perform at the biggest sporting event held in Scotland in a generation.  He was born in London and whenever he opens his mouth he sounds like a dodgy geezer involved in a complex heist operation in Bethnal Green in a Guy Ritchie movie.  But his dad was from north of the border.  And even if he had no Scottish ancestry at all, if he wants to call himself Scottish, that’s fine by me.  However, there is the inescapable truth that, for a good long time, his music has been rubbish.  Lowest-common-denominator, soft-rock-singalong rubbish.

 

Sure, he was great between 1969 and 1975 when he was the frontman for the Faces, but there was never any chance of Ronnie Wood, Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones joining him onstage in Glasgow for a Faces reunion – especially as one of those guys is now dead.  But since the mid-1970s his career has been woeful in terms of quality, even if he has managed to shift ‘product’ by the lorry-load and made a fortune, which I suppose is what matters to him.  If the masses want endless, raspy wave-your-cigarette-lighters-in-the-air dirges like Sailing or You’re in my Heart, then Rod is the man who’ll happily provide them.  “Rarely has a singer had as full and unique a talent as Rod Stewart, rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so fully,” commented Rolling Stone magazine in 1980, rightly.

 

The nadir came in 1978 with Rod strutting around to a vaguely disco-y beat and singing Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?  The answer to that questioningly-titled song is, of course, an emphatic two-letter word.  The same two-letter word I would fire at Vladimir Putin if he stood up at a karaoke machine and started singing Don’t You Want Me, Baby?  Or at Imelda Marcos if she stood up at one and started singing Let’s Spend the Night Together.

 

That said, although I can’t stand Rod’s rendition of it, Do Ya Think I’m Sexy can’t be that bad a song in itself.  For there is at least one version of it in the world, sung by somebody else, which always brings a smile to my face.  Here it is:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZ-RiV6l_Q8

 

Now why couldn’t they have had him singing at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games?

 

Shades of Schaedler

 

(c) The Scotsman

 

A quick plug for a new football book, Shades: The Short Life and Tragic Death of Erich Schaedler, written by Colin Leslie, which will be launched today at Easter Road Stadium, home to Hibernian Football Club.  Shades tells the story of the legendary Hibs full-back Erich Schaedler, who started his footballing career in my hometown of Peebles and is mentioned in the two books I’ve authored about the local football clubs here, Peebles Rovers and Tweeddale Rovers.

 

In C’mon the Dale – The History of Tweeddale Rovers Football Club, I wrote the following about Schaedler:

 

“It was in the late 1960s that the possibly the most famous player associated with Tweeddale Rovers wore one of their jerseys.  The son of a German soldier who came to Scotland as a prisoner-of-war during World War II, got married and settled in the Scottish Borders, Erich Schaedler played his early football for both Tweeddale and Peebles Rovers.  Later, he signed for junior Edinburgh side Melbourne Thistle, then for Stirling Albion and finally for Hibernian, where he gained legendary status playing at full-back.  The pinnacle of his career came in spring 1974 when he played for Scotland – ironically, given his family background, against West Germany in Frankfurt.  A few months later, he joined the Scotland squad for the 1974 World Cup, which again took place in West Germany.  Thereafter, Schaedler played for Dundee in the late 1970s, returned to Hibernian in 1981 and rounded off his footballing career at Dumbarton in 1985.

 

“Schaedler’s experiences on the Peebles footballing scene were erratic to say the least.  He started off as an attacker, but during his first stint at Tweeddale Rovers there was a shortage of defenders and he was moved to the back of the field.  Subsequently, Peebles Rovers spotted him and signed him as a full-back, intending to play him on the left.  However, Peebles Rovers’ existing left-back was playing so well that Schaedler failed to get a team-place and he eventually returned to the other Rovers, Tweeddale.  Then the Peebles Rovers left-back who’d kept him out of the team broke a leg, and he departed from Tweeddale Rovers a second time.

 

“Barely had he returned to Peebles Rovers, however, than an injury left him with a damaged nerve in his neck and prevented him from playing for weeks.  By the time he’d recovered, the other Peebles Rovers left-back had also recovered from his broken leg and his place was gone again.

 

“However, a recommendation by a friend soon moved Schaedler north to Melbourne Thistle in Edinburgh – and the rest was history.”

 

The tragic and well-publicised circumstances of Erich Schaedler’s death – he took his own life on Christmas Eve, 1985 – mean that too often these days his name is known for the wrong reasons.  Let’s hope this new book will shine at least some light on the thing he should be remembered for, his remarkable talent as a football player.

 

Haile highly successful in Glasgow

 

In 2009, eight years after I’d finished working there, I returned to Ethiopia to research an MA dissertation.  It came as no surprise to me then to discover that the Asmara Road, one of Addis Ababa’s main arteries, had been renamed the Haile Gebrselassie Road.  This was in honour of the country’s greatest athlete, long-distance runner and twice-Olympic-champion Haile Gebrselassie.

 

When I lived and worked in Ethiopia from 1999 to 2001, Gebrselassie had already been accorded national-treasure status.  I remember attending a conference at Addis Ababa University while the 2000 Olympics were taking place in Sydney.  At one point a lecture hall I was in went ape-shit because it was announced that Gebrselassie had just won a gold medal in the 10,000 metres for Ethiopia.   However, adored and acclaimed though Gebrselassie is, the diminutive (five-foot-five) athlete has never allowed things to go to his head.  From all accounts he’s a humble, unassuming sort, mindful of his origins as the son of a subsistence farmer in Asala who first got into running by jogging eight kilometres every day to the nearest school.  He also does much for Ethiopian charities, including education, health and clean-water ones, and has even donated his Olympic medals to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of St Mary in Entoto.  I hope you’re reading this, Usain Bolt…  And making notes.

 

Last weekend, Haile Gebrselassie – who seems to have been around for so long now that I almost assumed he was getting near pension-age, although he’s actually only forty – made it to Scotland to take part in the Great Scottish Run in Glasgow.  Not only did he win the thirteen-mile half-marathon, but he ran it in an hour, one minute and nine seconds, making it the fastest half-marathon win ever seen in Scotland – clearly, Gebrselassie had kept away from the chips, Scotch eggs, white puddings, whisky and deep-fried Mars bars while he was sojourning in this dreich nation of ours.  It was also good going for a man who’d announced his retirement in 2010 after withdrawing from the New York City Marathon with an injured knee.

 

Incidentally, my sister ran in this year’s Great Scottish Run in order to raise money for a Motor Neuron Disease charity.  She completed it in two hours and fifty-six seconds and, I think, can be proud of herself for doing so in just under twice the time set by the mighty wee Haile.

 

Such was Gebrselassie’s popularity that, while I was in Ethiopia, local pop star Teddy Afro recorded a song about him.  Here it is, a dozen years later, on youtube – the song isn’t very good, but at least it’s not very good in a nice way.

 

 

Brian and Byron

 

 

I’ve spent the past few weeks doing a temporary job in Nottingham.  Here’s a photo of some civic sculpture near the city square, commemorating legendary football manager Brian Clough, who was in charge of local side Nottingham Forest from 1975 to 1993.  During that time, Clough guided Forest to winning the League Cup four times and the European Cup twice.  My apologies for the unprofessionalism with which I took this photograph, which has ended up with a sign in the background seemingly indicating a public toilet lodged in Clough’s right armpit.

 

Although he died in 2004, there has since been a revival of interest in Clough thanks to David Peace’s book The Damned United.  This was a fictionalised account of Clough’s turbulent and troubled 44-day tenure at Leeds United, then the mightiest football team in England, in 1974.  It was filmed in 2008 with Michael Sheen in the main role.  I know that Clough’s family were upset by both the book and the film.  I haven’t read Peace’s novel, although if it’s anything like his Red Riding books, some of which I am familiar with, it must make grim reading.  However, I’ve seen the film and I didn’t think it portrayed Clough in a particularly unsympathetic light.  Michael Sheen looks nothing like Clough but he does a good job of capturing the cocktail of lovability and punch-ability that made the man such a fascinating character.

 

 (c) BBC Films

 

Meanwhile, located a few miles up the road between Nottingham and Mansfield is Newstead Abbey.  This was the ancestral home of Lord George Gordon Byron, doyen of the romantic poets.  In fact, you could say that Byron wrote the rulebook on how to be a romantic poet, including how a romantic poet should be attired.  (Though as Rowan Atkinson once sneered in Blackadder the Third, “There’s nothing intellectual about wandering around Italy in a big shirt, trying to get laid.”)

 

Byron actually lived at Newstead Abbey for just six years, from 1808 to 1814.  The building, though, dates back to the twelfth century and it has monastic origins.  Standing now as a lone façade is the famous, historic-monument-listed West Front, which was once part of a church built there in the 13th century.

 

 

Not being particularly conversant with the romantic movement, the little I knew about Byron consisted of a few poems (for example, Ozymandias) and a few facts about his life – his general notoriety, of course; his lameness; his keeping of a pet bear during his student days at Trinity College in Cambridge; his suspected incest with his half-sister; and that wild weekend party he had on the shores of Lake Geneva with Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1818, during which copious opium was smoked and copious hallucinations were experienced, and after which, somehow, Frankenstein was written by Mrs Shelley.  To be honest, I only know that last stuff from watching Ken Russell’s gloriously crazed horror film Gothic, made in 1987 and starring Gabriel Byrne and Julian Sands.

 

(c) Virgin Films

 

Newstead Abbey now houses the Bryon Collection, a series of exhibits dedicated to the poet – so that when I arrived there one Sunday afternoon in September, I learned rather more about him.  For example, previously, I hadn’t known much about his death.  This occurred during the Greek War of Independence and was the result of a fever he caught in the Missolonghi Marshes the day before he was due to lead an attack on Lepanto.  Byron has since become a national hero in Greece, incidentally.

 

Less seriously, I liked this little exhibit about the intensely fashion-conscious Byron’s dress style.  It invites visitors to don ‘robes, shirts and tartan wraps’ and then inspect themselves in the mirror to see if they’ve achieved that vital ‘Byron look’, which made young ladies swoon in the 1810s and 1820s.  “The helmet,” visitors are instructed, “should be carried in the crook of your elbow – not worn on the head.”

 

 

You can also see Big Bad Byron’s bed, which he had transported to Newstead from his student rooms in Cambridge.  Also making that journey from Cambridge was his famous pet bear.  A guide in the building told me that the bear died after it escaped one day into the grounds.  The estate workers managed to recapture it, but when they tied a rope around its neck and attempted to drag it back to the house, they inadvertently throttled it.  Byron, who’d been away from Newstead at the time, was predictably displeased when he returned and discovered the fate that’d befallen his ursine pet.

 

 

And here’s a plaster bust of Byron, made two years after his death in 1826, standing by the majestic window in the building’s Grand Staircase.  Hanging at the top of the staircase, meanwhile, is Veronese’s grim, and somewhat homoerotic, painting Apollo flaying Marsyas.

 

 

Alas, I found in the building no mention of Ken Russell’s Gothic, in which Gabriel Byrne and Julian Sands, playing Byron and Shelley, had got so memorably and melodramatically addled.

 

The grounds around Newstead Abbey are extensive and gorgeous.  They contain a lake, a pond, a ‘fernery’, and about ten different gardens, including Japanese, French, Spanish and ‘sub-tropical’ ones.  Indeed, a lot of people who’d turned up there seemed more interested in using the place as a recreational park and picnic area than going into and exploring the house.  For that reason, the walk along the estate’s long driveway wasn’t particularly pleasant as there were constant processions of cars coming and going.  I was also narked that cyclists and walkers had to pay a pound at the estate gates just to use the driveway, although later this was balanced out by the relatively cheap five pounds it cost to get into the house itself.

 

Thankfully, for part of the way, a woodland path runs through the trees parallel to the drive – it’s not far enough removed from the drive to spare walkers the noise of car-engines, but at least the vehicles are no longer passing them by mere inches.  Halfway along the woodland path, I stumbled across this strange sight – a mouldering tree-stump whose topmost surface had been covered with small, round stones, resembling eggs crowded onto a circular tray.  I don’t know anything about forestry or woodsman-ship, so I have no idea what this was for. Creepily, it looked a bit Blair Witch Project.