The big Gray man

 

© Canongate

 

Much has been written about Alasdair Gray, the Scottish novelist, poet, playwright, artist, illustrator, academic and polemicist who passed away at the end of 2019.  I doubt if my own reflections on Gray will offer anything new, but he was a huge influence on me and I’m going to write about him anyway.

 

To a youth like me in 1980s Scotland, in love with books and writing, Gray seemed a titanic cultural presence.  Actually, ‘titanic’ is an ironic adjective to use in connection with him as physically he was anything but.  Bearded and often dishevelled, Gray resembled an eccentric scientist from the supporting cast of a 1950s science-fiction B movie and he once memorably described himself as ‘a fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glaswegian pedestrian’.

 

He was also a presence that seemed to suddenly loom up out of nowhere.  The moment when Gray became famous was in 1981 when his first novel Lanark was published.  I remember being in high school that year when my English teacher Ian Jenkins urged me to get hold of a copy and read it.  I still hadn’t read Lanark by 1983 when I started college in Aberdeen, but I remember joining the campus Creative Writing Society and hearing its members enthuse about it.  These included a young Kenny Farquharson (now a columnist with the Scottish edition of the Times) describing to someone the novel’s admirably weird structure, whereby it consisted of four ‘books’ but with Book Three coming first, then Books One and Two and finally Book Four.  And an equally young Ali Smith recalling meeting Gray and speaking fondly of how eccentric he was.

 

In fact, I didn’t read Lanark until the following summer when I’d secured a three-month job as a night-porter in a hotel high up in the Swiss Alps.  In the early hours of the morning, after I’d done my rounds and done my chores and all the guests had gone to bed, I’d sit behind the reception desk and read.  It took me about a week of those nightshifts to get through Lanark.  I lapped up its tale of Duncan Thaw, the young doomed protagonist of what was basically a 1950s Glaswegian version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which constituted Books One and Two; and similarly lapped up its alternating tale of the title character (mysteriously linked to Thaw) in the grimly fabulist city of Unthank, which constituted Books Three and Four.  A quote by sci-fi author Brian Aldiss on the cover neatly described Unthank as ‘a city where reality is about as reliable as a Salvador Dali watch’.

 

© Canongate

 

That same summer I read The Penguin Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka (1983) and the fantastical half of Lanark struck me as very reminiscent of Kafka.  Gray himself acknowledged that Kafka’s The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and Amerika (1927) had inspired him: “The cities in them seemed very like 1950s Glasgow, an old industrial city with a smoke-laden grey sky that often seemed to rest like a lid on the north and south ranges of hills and shut out the stars at night.”

 

The result was an astonishing book that combines gritty autobiographical realism with fanciful magical realism – fanciful and magical in a sombre, Scottish sense, obviously.

 

With hindsight, Lanark was the most important book in Scottish literature since Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy (1932-34).  By an odd coincidence I read A Scots Quair four years later when I was working – again – as a night-porter in a hotel in the Swiss Alps.  So my encounters with the greatest two works of 20th century Scottish literature are indelibly linked in my mind with nightshifts in hotels decorated with Alpine horns and antique ski equipment and surrounded by soaring, jagged mountains.

 

Lanark also appeared at a significant time.  Three years before its publication, the referendum on establishing a Scottish parliament had ended in an undemocratic farce.  Two years before it, Margaret Thatcher had started her reign as British prime minister – a reign during which Scotland would be governed unsympathetically, like a colonial property, a testing ground, an afterthought.  So Lanark was important in that it helped give Scotland a cultural identity at a time when politically it was allowed no identity at all.

 

Whilst telling me about Lanark, Ian Jenkins mentioned ruefully that he didn’t think Gray would ever produce anything as spectacular again.  Not only did it seem a once-in-a-lifetime achievement but it’d taken up half of a lifetime, for Gray had been beavering away at it since the 1950s.  He once mused of the undertaking: “Spending half a lifetime turning your soul into printer’s ink is a queer way to live… but I would have done more harm if I’d been a banker, broker, advertising agent, arms manufacturer or drug dealer.”

 

However, two books he produced afterwards, 1982, Janine (1984) and Poor Things (1992), are excellent works in their own rights even if they didn’t create the buzz that Lanark did.

 

© Canongate

 

Janine takes place inside the head of a lonely middle-aged man while he reflects on a life of emotional, professional and political disappointments, and masturbates, and finally attempts suicide whilst staying in a hotel room in a Scottish country town that’s either Selkirk or my hometown, Peebles.  (Yes, Peebles’ two claims to literary fame are that John Buchan once practised law there and the guy in 1982, Janine might have had a wank there.)  The protagonist’s musings include some elaborate sadomasochistic fantasies, which put many people off – Anthony Burgess, who’d thought highly of Lanark, was less enthusiastic about Janine – but it seems to me a bold meditation on Scotland in general and on the strained, often hopeless relationship between traditional, Presbyterian-conditioned Scottish males and the opposite sex in particular.

 

Poor Things, a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) set in Victorian Glasgow, initially seems very different from Janine but in fact it tackles similar themes.  The narrator, Archibald McCandless, relates how his scientist colleague Godwin Baxter creates a young woman, Bella, out of dead flesh just as Frankenstein did.  McCandless soon falls in love with her.  There follows an engrossing mishmash of sci-fi story, horror story, adventure, romance and comedy, but near the end things are turned on their heads for Bella takes over as storyteller.  She denounces McCandless’s version of events as witless fantasy and portrays herself not as a Frankenstein-type creation but a normal woman, albeit one ahead of her time in her views about feminism and social justice.  Again, the book is a rebuke to the attitudes of men – particularly insecure Scottish ones – towards women, partly possessive, partly madly over-romanticised.

 

Gray’s other post-Lanark novels are entertaining, if less ambitious.  Also, they’re never about what you expect them to be about.  The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985) looks like it’s going to be a comic tale of a Scottish lad-o’-pairts on his way up and then his way down in London – but it turns into a caustic commentary on the loveless nature of Scottish Calvinism.  Something Leather (1990), which is actually a series of connected short stories and again features copious sadomasochism, isn’t so much about kinkiness as about Gray’s disgust at the politicians and officials who oversaw Glasgow being European City of Culture 1990 – something he regarded as a huge missed opportunity.  A History Maker (1994), a science-fiction novel described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘Sir Walter Scott meets Rollerball’, isn’t an absurdist sci-fi romp at all but a pessimistic account of how humanity can never achieve perfect, peaceful harmony with nature.  And Old Men in Love (2007) promises to be a geriatric version of 1982, Janine, but is really an oddity whose ingredients include, among other things, ancient Athens, Fra Lippo Lippi and the Agapemonites.

 

Gray was also a prolific short-story writer.  He produced three collections of them, Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983), Ten Tales Tall and True (1993) and The Ends of out Tethers: 13 Sorry Stories (2003) and had several more stories published in Lean Tales (1985), alongside contributions from James Kelman and Agnes Owens.  I find his short fiction variable in quality, with some items a bit too anecdotal or oblique for my tastes.  But many are excellent and Ten Tales Tall and True is one of my favourite short-story collections ever.

 

The fact that Gray was an artist as well meant he also designed his books’ covers and provided the illustrations inside them.  Indeed, I suspect a few non-readers bought his works for their glorious visual qualities alone, for they enlivened the look of any bookshelf they sat on.  The Gray illustration I like best by the way is probably this one he did for his story The Star in Unlikely Stories, Mostly.

 

© Canongate

 

He also liked to make mischief with the conventions of how books are organised – with their back-cover blurbs and review quotes, prefaces, dedications, footnotes, appendices and so on.  For example, he wasn’t averse to adorning his books with negative reviews (Victoria Glendinning describing Something Leather as ‘a confection of self-indulgent tripe’) or imaginary ones (an organ called Private Nose applauding Poor Things for its ‘gallery of believably grotesque foreigners – Scottish, Russian, American and French.’)

 

As an artist, Gray was good enough to be made Glasgow’s official artist-recorder in the late 1970s and to enjoy a retrospective exhibition, Alasdair Gray: From the Personal to the Universal, at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in 2014-15.  His artwork included a number of murals on the walls of Glasgow and it’s a tragedy that some have been lost over the years.  Among those that survive, perhaps the most famous is at Hillhead Underground Station.  It contains the memorable and salient verse: “Do not let daily to-ing and fro-ing / To earn what we need to keep going / Prevent what you once felt when wee / Hopeful and free.”  Also worth seeing is the mural he painted, Michelangelo-style, on the ceiling of the Òran Mór restaurant, bar and music venue on Glasgow’s Byres Road.  It looks gorgeous in the photos I’ve seen of it, although regrettably when I was there with my brother a few years ago I was already well-refreshed with several pints of beer and forgot to look up.

 

I never got to meet the great man, though I’m pretty sure I saw him one night in the late 1980s in Edinburgh’s Hebrides Bar, talking animatedly to a group of friends and admirers.  Being shy, alas, I couldn’t muster the courage to go over and introduce myself.

 

One Scottish writer in whose company I did end up during the late 1980s, though, was Iain Banks, whom I got to interview for a student publication and who then invited me on an afternoon pub crawl across central Edinburgh.  Banks was delighted when I told him that his recently published novel The Bridge (1986) reminded me a wee bit of Lanark.  “I think Lanark’s the best thing published in Scotland in years!” he gushed.  Come to think of it, maybe it was the favourable comparison to Alasdair Gray that prompted Banks to take me drinking that day.

 

From austinkleon.com  

 

Ghostly goings-on

 

© Wordsworth Editions

 

As usual, I spent the recent festive season engaged in a very traditional, Christmas-y pursuit – the reading of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories.  And as usual, I found those ghost stories in the excellent Wordsworth Editions’ Tales of Mystery and Imagination series, which has published work by still-celebrated writers like E.F. Benson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, M.R. James and Edith Wharton but also by writers like Gertrude Atherton, Amyas Northcote, J.H. Riddell and May Sinclair, who were prolific and / or acclaimed in their day but whose names slipped into obscurity following their deaths.  (Getting republished by Wordsworth Editions might, of course, help to rescue their names from obscurity.)

 

This Christmas I read two more Wordsworth collections, both published in 2006: A Night on the Moor and Other Tales of Dread by R. Murray Gilchrist and Aylmer Vance: Ghost-Seer by Alice and Claude Askew.  Here are my impressions.

 

Firstly, I’ll talk about the collection I enjoyed less.  R. Murray Gilchrist was born in Sheffield but lived for much of his life in Holmesfield, 800 feet up in Derbyshire’s Peak District.  By the time of his death in 1917 at the age of 50, he was responsible for 22 novels and about 100 short stories.  However,  A Night on the Moor and Other Tales of Dread is something of a misnomer because most of the stories featured don’t particularly evoke feelings of ‘dread’.  Rather, they are tales of darkly gothic romance, where the atmosphere – and, alas, the prose – is often stiflingly thick.

 

These are stories where every building is an imposing structure with ‘stacks of twisted chimneys’, ‘great square windows’ and ‘a vision of gables’ and ‘so covered in ivy that from a distance it seems like a cluster of rare trees with ruddy trunks and branches’; where every garden is adorned with statues of satyrs, nymphs, dryads, dragons and the goddess Diana; and where the air is always suffused with the sickly-sweet smells of flowers, such as roses, lilies, honeysuckle, ‘withering snowdrops’ and ‘scarlet poppies, with hearts like fingers’ that effuse ‘a close and sleepy perfume’.  The villain of the story The Manuscript of Francis Shackerley even gives off ‘a rich smell of violets’ and it’s said that ‘his skin by some artificial means had been impregnated lastingly with their odour.’

 

Unfortunately, Gilchrist’s writing is frequently hamstrung by melodrama (“O the midsummer noontide; the trembling air; the golden dusk that clung around the fir trunks!”) and is occasionally clunkingly awful (“My thoughts had withered, my words had grown unpregnant”).  There’s an attempt to emulate the morbid, decadent intensity found in such tales by Edgar Allan Poe as Berenice (1835), Ligeia (1938), The Oval Portrait (1842) and Eleonora (1850), but while Gilchrist’s characters indulge in much pontificating and running hither and thither to no great effect, the impression you get is one of bluster rather than of anything genuinely, dissolutely macabre.  Some of the stories I found a real chore to get through.

 

Still, there are a few items where Gilchrist dials it down a bit and manages to strike a properly creepy note.  The Lover’s Ordeal is the tale of a dare that unexpectedly ends up featuring a vampire.  The Grotto at Ravensdale sees a newly married couple encounter tragedy at the titular (and haunted) cavern.  The Priest’s Pavan is about a harpsichordist forced to play some demonic music at a wedding party.  And A Night on the Moor itself is an atmospheric piece where the main character experiences a time-slip.

 

Also, two additional stories, The Panicle and The Witch in the Peak, are tagged on in an appendix at the end.  Presumably this is because they eschew the aristocratic characters, lavishly gothic settings and rather po-faced tone of the other stories and instead have straightforward and refreshingly humorous narratives where working-class people experience supernatural goings-on in the Peak District.  The 19-century Derbyshire dialect is slightly hard to decipher, but I enjoyed these two stories more than anything else in the collection and would have liked more with their flavour.

 

© Wordsworth Editions

 

Aylmer Vance: Ghost-Seer is more modest in its ambitions and I have to say I found it the more enjoyable read because of that.  It has eight stories, all connected by the recurring character of Aylmer Vance – ‘a curious-looking man, tall and lean in build, with a pale but distinctly interesting face’ – who as the title indicates is sensitive to paranormal activity and acts as a supernatural detective, trying to explain and put an end to hauntings suffered by other people.  The narrator, however, is an acquaintance of Vance’s called Dexter.  Vance tells the first three stories to Dexter, then Dexter becomes an unwilling participant in the fourth one, and then for the remaining four stories he joins forces with Vance and serves as a Dr Watson to his Sherlock Holmes.

 

There’s nothing spectacular here, but there are some imaginative ideas – the fire-raising ghost of a frustrated poet in The Fire Unquenchable, for example, or the malevolent spirit of a pianist using his music to haunt the woman he lusted after when alive in The Indissoluble Bond.  Meanwhile, The Stranger, about a young woman attracted to a mysterious figure she encounters in a local wood, is a nicely pagan affair with a hint of Arthur Machen; and the final story, The Fear, is impressively oppressive and does what it says ‘on the tin’.

 

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy Aylmer Vance as much as I might have done.  This was because a year earlier I’d read a Wordsworth Editions collection called Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder, written by William Hope Hodgson, which was a set of tales about, yes, another supernatural detective called Thomas Carnacki.  The Carnacki stories were good enough to have influenced later writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley and the Vance stories can’t help but seem a little pedestrian in comparison.

 

Aylmer Vance also suffers from a problem that’s inevitable when you have a series of supernatural stories that are mostly self-contained and have different elements (ghosts, poltergeists, vampires, etc.) but also have the thread of a recurring character.  If paranormal activity does happen, it must happen incredibly rarely – otherwise scientists would have observed and recorded it and acknowledged its existence by now.  So how does someone like Vance manage to defy all laws of probability and have eight full-blooded encounters with the supernatural in its different forms?  (William Hope Hodgson at least seemed aware of this credibility problem, for he interspersed his genuinely supernatural Carnacki stories with ones where the hauntings turn out to be hoaxes.)

 

Vance writers Alice and Claude Askew, incidentally, were a husband-and-wife team who supposedly penned over 90 novels during a 14-year period in the early 20th century.  During World War One, they found themselves in Serbia and later in Greece, working at a British field hospital and then for the Serbian Red Cross and also writing war despatches for publications like the Daily Express.  Like R. Murray Gilchrist, they died in 1917 but in a particularly tragic manner.  Both were killed while they were travelling from Italy to Corfu, when their boat was torpedoed by a German submarine.  Claude’s body was never found.  Alice’s body was recovered, however, and her grave is on the Croatian island of Korčula.

 

Deathlog 2019: Part 2

 

© BBC

 

Continuing my tribute to folk who inspired me who passed away in 2019…

 

July 2019 was a harsh month as it witnessed the deaths of two of my favourite actors.  The English character actor Freddie Jones, a man who over six decades managed to be a member of David Lynch’s repertory company, a Hammer horror regular, a collaborator with Federico Fellini and Clint Eastwood, a star of bucolic TV soap operas and much more, died on July 9th.  Ten days later saw the passing of the great Dutch star Rutger Hauer, who always managed to have a discomforting, Nietzschean-superman glint in his eyes whether he was appearing in a stone cold classic like Blade Runner (1982) or The Hitcher (1986), or in some hoary old exploitation rubbish, or in his advertisements for Guinness stout.

 

Other notable actors who died in July included, on the 9th, the American performer Rip Torn, whom I’ll always remember as demented coach Patches O’Houlihan in 2004’s Dodgeball, training Vince Vaughan and his team in the titular sport by hurling monkey-wrenches at their crotches; on the 18th, the American actor David Hedison, whose CV included the original The Fly (1958), the TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-68) and the James Bond movies Live and Let Die (1974) and Licence to Kill (1989), in which he became the first-ever actor to play Bond’s CIA buddy Felix Leiter twice; and English actor Jeremy Kemp, who appeared in everything from the early seasons of the seminal BBC TV police series Z Cars (1962-78) to war movies like Operation Crossbow (1965), The Blue Max (1966) and A Bridge Too Far (1977) and to the exuberant Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker comedy Top Secret! (1984).

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

August 5th saw the passing of American novelist Toni Morrison, author of Beloved (1987) and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.  August 16th brought a triple whammy – the deaths of American actor Peter Fonda who, through his work with director Roger Corman and his appearance in Easy Rider (1969) became a 1960s countercultural icon, before he settled down to become a more conventional action-movie hero in the likes of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974) and Race with the Devil (1975); of British-Canadian animator Richard Williams, whose work included Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and the legendary but never-finished epic The Thief and the Cobbler (1993), as well as animated sequences for The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and the Pink Panther movies; and of English actress Anna Quayle, memorably rotten as Baroness Bomburst in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

 

American bass guitarist Larry Taylor, who played with the blues-rock band Canned Heat, died on August 19th; English TV scriptwriter and immensely influential (though unsung) children’s-books author Terrance Dicks died on the 29th; and American TV actress Valerie Harper, Mary Tyler Moore’s co-star in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) and star of its spin-off Rhoda (1974-78), died on the 30th.

 

English playwright Peter Nichols, whose most famous works were probably A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1967) and Privates on Parade (1977) – both of which got capable film versions, Joe Egg directed by Peter Medak in 1972 and Privates directed by Michael Blakemore in 1982 – died on September 7th.  The next day saw the death of English starlet Valerie Van Ost, whose presence enlivened several Carry On movies and who provided Christopher Lee’s aristocratic vampire with his first victim in 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula.  She was also considered as a replacement for Diana Rigg in the stylish TV show The Avengers (1961-69) before Linda Thorsen got the gig.  Rik Ocasek, singer, songwriter and guitarist with new-wave American rock band the Cars, died on September 15th while Larry Wallis, an early member of thunderous heavy metal band Mötorhead, died four days later.

 

© Goodrights / Lionsgate Films

 

Finally, checking out on September 21st was American actor Sid Haig, whose early career involved many collaborations with director Jack Hill in such cherish-able exploitation fare as Spider Baby (1968), Coffey (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) and also more mainstream items like John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), George Lucas’s THX 1138 (1971) and the Bond movie Diamonds are Forever (1971).  Tired of being typecast as a heavy, Haig was ready to give up acting in the 1990s and considered becoming a hypnotherapist.  Cinema’s loss and hypnotherapy’s gain were thwarted by Quentin Tarantino, who lured Haig back to the screen for a role in 1997’s Jackie Brown. Thereafter, Haig kept acting, most notably as the droll, clown-faced Captain Spaulding in the Rob Zombie-directed trilogy of House of 1000 Corpses (2003), The Devil’s Rejects (2005) and 3 From Hell (2019).

 

The first week of October saw two notable departures in the musical world – Kim Shattuck, singer, guitarist and songwriter with American punk band the Muffs, died on the 2nd; and English drummer Ginger Baker, who most famously thumped the skins for the late-1960s power trio Cream but also played with Blind Faith, Fela Kuti, Hawkwind and Public Image Ltd, died four days later.  For a fascinating and at times disturbing profile of Ginger Baker, I’d recommend the 2012 documentary Beware of Mr Baker, which among other things features filmmaker Jay Bulger getting assaulted and having his nose broken by his mega-truculent subject matter.  Between those two deaths, on October 4th, English actor Stephen Moore passed away.  Moore’s voice is surely better known than his face, for he supplied the lugubrious, self-pitying tones of Marvin the Paranoid Android in the 1981 TV adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

 

From pinterest.com

 

Northern Irish poet and novelist Ciaran Carson died on October 6th, while Russian cosmonaut Alexi Leonov, the first human being to carry out a spacewalk, departed this world for good on October 11th.  Leonov was an artist as well as a cosmonaut and he once cheekily pointed out to sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke that a painting he’d done in 1967, showing the sun, earth and moon, bore an uncanny resemblance to an iconic scene in the following year’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Clarke had co-written with Stanley Kubrick.  On the day that Leonov died, so too did American actor Robert Forster.  Like Sid Haig, Forster had been a prolific actor during in the 1970s and 1980s but his career had somewhat entered the doldrums until Quentin Tarantino gave him a role in Jackie Brown.  More recently, Forster appeared in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), meaning he’s yet another member of the Twin Peaks alumni whom we’ve had to say goodbye to in the past few years.  Finally, Scottish journalist Deborah Orr died on October 19th and American film producer Robert Evans, who enjoyed a roll in the late 1960s and early 1970s with such classics as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Godfather (1972) and Chinatown (1974), died on October 26th.

 

Aged a venerable 103, the formidable French resistance fighter Yvette Lundy passed away on November 3rd.  The next day saw the death of Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne who, whether you loved him or hated him – I seem to remember describing him on this blog as a ‘twinkly-eyed shit-stirrer’ – was surely the most influential figure in Irish TV history and, through that, a major influence on the Irish psyche generally since the 1960s.  The frontman with a favourite 1980s folk-rock band of mine, John Mann of the Canadian outfit Spirit of the West, died on November 20th.   Check out Spirit of the West’s Hounds That Wait Outside Your Door for a more damning account of the Maggie Thatcher era than any British folk band managed to offer at the time.  And the American illustrator Gahan Wilson, creator of countless delightfully ghoulish cartoons, died a day later.

 

The brainy Australian (but British-based) polymath Clive James – a broadcaster, critic, novelist, poet and memoirist – died on the 24th.  James’s death wasn’t announced until three days later, which coincided with the death of Jonathan Miller, a brainy English polymath – a medical doctor, humourist, writer, TV presenter and director of film, stage and opera.  The simultaneous news of James’s and Miller’s deaths prompted many British people to quip on social media that the country’s collective IQ level had just dropped by a few dozen points.  And guess what?  Three weeks later, Boris Johnson got re-elected as British prime minister.

 

© United Artists

 

This blog-entry has already mentioned Peter Fonda, Rutger Hauer and Sid Haig.  On November 20th died an American actor who’d performed memorably with all three of them.  Michael J. Pollard appeared with Fonda in the Roger Corman-directed Hell’s Angels epic The Wild Angels (1966), with Hauer in Tony Maylam’s barking-mad monster movie Split Second (1992) and with Haig in the bloody but funny prologue to Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses.   However, Pollard will be most remembered for playing C.W. Moss, the spaced-out gas-stand attendant who ends up joining the gang of the titular bank robbers in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde.  I prefer him, though, in a movie he made two years later, Hannibal Brooks.  In that, Pollard and Oliver Reed play a pair of escaped prisoners of war in Nazi Germany / Austria who intend to do very different things with their freedom – the psychotic Pollard wants to kill as many Germans as possible, while the peace-loving Reed just wants to lead an elephant he’s befriended in the bombed Munich Zoo to safety.  With Pollard looking baby-faced and innocent and Reed being, well, Reed, it’s a surprise their roles weren’t reversed.

 

The final month of 2019 was another bad one for the acting profession.  The American character actors René Auberjonois – who among many notable performances played Father Mulcahy in the original, Robert Altman-directed M*A*S*H* (1970) – and Daniel Aiello died on the 8th and 12th respectively.  The Danish-French actress Anna Karina, frequently considered a ‘muse’ for Jean-Luc Goddard, died on the 14th.  English actor Nicky Henson died on the 15th.  Though the self-deprecating Henson liked to joke that the only information on his tombstone would be that he once appeared in an episode of John Cleese’s sitcom Fawlty Towers (1975-1979), I liked him for his performances in two British folk-horror movies, the gruelling Witchfinder General (1968) and the lovably laughable Psychomania (1971).  Claudia Augur, who played Domino in the 1965 James Bond movie Thunderball and was one of at least three Bond girls to pass away in 2019, died on the 18th.  And Sue Lyon, who played the pubescent moppet Dolores Haze, subject of the pervy lusts of Humbert Humbert (James Mason) and Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), in the 1962 Stanley Kubrick-directed adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, died on the 26th.

 

© Fontana

 

In other fields, Barrie Keeffe, scriptwriter of Britain’s best-ever gangster movie The Long Good Friday (1980), departed on December 10th; Roy Loney, co-founder of Californian garage-rock band the Flamin’ Groovies – the Groovies’ Slow Death is a particularly epic song to shake a leg to – died on the 13th; and American-born Anglo-Scots artist and illustrator Tom Adams died on the 17th.  The covers that Adams created during the 1960s and 1970s for a string of Agatha Christie novels, published in paperback by Fontana, are now considered iconic.  And December 29th saw the demise of Neil Innes, the doyen of British comic singer-songwriters, the deviser with Eric Idle of spoof-Beatles band the Rutles, and the unofficial ‘seventh’ member of the Monty Python team.  “I’ve suffered for my music,” Innes once told an audience.  “Now it’s your turn.”

 

Finally, the beginning and end of December brought sad news for the literary scenes of two countries I’ve had long associations with, Sri Lanka and Scotland.  On December 2nd, Sri Lankan novelist, poet and journalist Carl Muller passed away.  Muller’s engrossing and bawdy novel The Jam Fruit Tree was joint winner of Sri Lanka’s first-ever Gratiaen Literary Prize (founded by Michael Ondaatje) in 1993 and he was the first of his countrymen and countrywomen to have books published overseas.  And December 29th saw the death of Glaswegian author – and artist, playwright, poet, polemicist and academic – Alasdair Gray.  He was an important influence on me and I’ll be writing more about him on this blog soon.

 

From pinterest.com

 

Deathlog 2019: Part 1

 

© BBC

 

As 2019 draws to a close, here’s a name-check of some literary, cinematic, musical, artistic and other inspirations of mine who passed away during the year.

 

Musicians who died in January 2019 included American blues singer and pianist Willie Murphy (of Willie and the Bees), who passed away on the 12th; and American punk rock bassist Lorna Doom who departed four days later.  Doom had played with the raucous band The Germs, whose very first gig in 1976 set the scene for their subsequent performances: “We made noise for five minutes,” recalled guitarist Pat Smear, “until they threw us off.”  Meanwhile, in the world of letters, January 24th saw the death of Scottish journalist Hugh McIlvanney, the only sports-writer ever named Journalist of the Year in the British Press Awards.

 

January’s death toll was particularly high in the acting world.  English actor Del Henney, who’d appeared in gritty British thrillers like Villain and Straw Dogs (both 1971), died on the 14th.  Sonorous Welsh actor Windsor Davies, who’ll be best remembered as the tyrannical and occasionally sarcastic (“Oh dear, how sad, never mind”) Sergeant Major Williams in the BBC’s wartime sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974-81), died on the 17th.  English actress Sylvia Kay, who played the enigmatic Janette Hynes in the greatest Australian movie ever, Wake in Fright (1971), died on the 18th.  And the much-loved American character actor Dick Miller, first a regular in the movies of Roger Corman and then in those of Corman’s numerous proteges like Joe Dante, Jonathan Kaplan and Alan Arkrush, died on the 30th.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists   

 

Another slew of performers passed away in February.  English actor Clive Swift, best-known for his BBC TV sitcom work but whose movie credits include Frenzy, Death Line (both 1972) and Excalibur (1981) died on the 1st, while American actress Julie Adams, object of the scaly affections of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) died two days later.  February 7th saw the departure of English acting icon Albert Finney.  Back in America, action-movie and TV star Jan-Michael Vincent, who appeared in 1972’s The Mechanic, 1977’s Damnation Alley, 1978’s Hooper and many more, died on the 10th.  And Katherine Helmond, the wonderfully out-of-it Jessica Tate in the US TV soap-opera spoof Soap (1977-81), and also a supporting player in the Terry Gilliam movies The Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1983), passed away on the 23rd.

 

Much-admired German actor Bruno Ganz, who appeared in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and who’d just completed Lars Von Triers’ amusingly icky and provocative The House That Jack Built (2018), died on February 15th.  A month later, on March 13th, another Nosferatu-related death occurred when artist David Palladini, the artist who’d designed the movie’s gorgeously Art Nouveau poster, passed away too.

 

Musical deaths in February included those of Monkee Peter Tork on the 21st; Mark Hollis, singer-songwriter and co-founder of the respected synth / art-pop bank Talk Talk, on the 25th; and Andy Anderson, drummer from 1983 to 1986 on five albums by the Cure, on the 26th.

 

March saw another slew of deaths in the musical world, with the Prodigy’s memorably hissing, sneering singer and dancer Keith Flint dying on the 4th; surf-guitar maestro Dick Dale on the 16th;  and on the 17th, Yuya Uchida, singer with the psychedelic 1970s Japanese outfit Flower Travellin’ Band and also an actor in in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983).  Finally, American-born, British-based singer-songwriter and composer Scott Walker, who achieved success both as a solo artist and as a member of the Walker Brothers, died on the 22nd.

 

© Laurel Entertainment Inc

 

Among the actors who died in March was American Joseph Pilato, on the 24th.  Pilato played the fascistic and repellent Captain Rhodes in George A. Romero’s 1986 horror film Day of the Dead and the scene where he finally gets his come-uppance is for me the most satisfying death in horror-movie history.  (“Choke on ’em!” he yells as some hungry zombies munch on his vitals.)  Canadian actor Shane Rimmer, long-term resident of the UK, voice-actor for Gerry Anderson’s puppet TV shows and for many years the British film industry’s go-to guy if a level-headed North American was needed in a supporting role, died on March 29th.  Rimmer’s credits included a few James Bond movies and, by a sad coincidence, English actress Tania Mallet, who played the ill-fated Tilly Masterton in Goldfinger (1964) died the following day, while Serbian actress Nadja Regin, who’d appeared in both Goldfinger and From Russia with Love (1963) died a week later on April 6th.

 

Away from the acting fraternity, the fascinating W.H. Pugmire died on March 26th.  The Seattle-based Pugmire was a self-styled ‘punk rock queen and street transvestite’ who bore a fleeting resemblance to Boy George, and a distinguished author of H.P. Lovecraft-style horror fiction, and someone who’d spent the early 1970s doing the thankless job of being a Mormon missionary in Northern Ireland.

 

And now a few words about filmmaker Larry Cohen, who died on March 23rd and who was responsible for directing such ramshackle but thematically fascinating exploitation movies as It’s Alive! (1974), God Told Me To (1976) and Q: The Winged Serpent (1982) and scripting equally diverting items like Uncle Sam (1996) and Phone Booth (2002).  Even if the execution of those films never matched the originality of the ideas behind them, there was much to admire in Cohen’s oeuvre, especially in his love of improvisation.  When, for example, he and his crew nipped up to the top of New York’s Chrysler building without permission during the making of Q, filmed a gun battle there and unwittingly started pandemonium on the streets around the building because people thought a terrorist attack was in progress, Cohen promptly ordered his cameraman to film the fleeing pedestrians below as he thought they might provide valuable bonus footage.

 

© Hat Trick Productions

 

Finally, Irish actor Pat Laffan died on March 14th.  Laffan was best remembered for playing lecherous milkman (“There are some very hairy babies on Craggy Island and I think you are the hairy baby-maker!”) and vengeful psychopath Pat Mustard on TV’s Father Ted (1995-98).  His death, alas, wasn’t the only Ted-related one in 2019 for Brendan Grace, who played the drums-and-bass-loving priest Father Fintan Stack in another episode of the show, died on July 11th.

 

April saw the deaths of American fantasy / sci-fi writers Vonda N. McIntyre on the 1st and Gene Wolfe on the 14th; and, on the 18th, of British author and playwright John Bowen, probably best-known for his script for the BBC’s spooky folk-horror TV play Robin Redbreast (1970).  French actor Jean-Pierre Marielle – whom I’ll always remember for his portrayal of Arrosio, the gloriously eccentric but hapless and doomed private eye in Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) – died on the 24th.  British director John Llewellyn Moxley, responsible for the atmospheric chiller City of the Dead (1960), died on the 29th, while Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton died a day earlier.

 

For me, however, the saddest departure in April was that of seven-foot, three-inch English actor Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca – Han Solo’s best pal and a ‘walking carpet’ according to Princess Leia – in five Star Wars movies.  I love the fact that Mayhew was working as a porter at Mayday Hospital in Croydon when he was cast as Chewie in the original Star Wars (1977) and, despite that film becoming the highest-grossing one of all time, he continued to work there as a porter during the periods between The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983).

 

From collectors.com

 

May 9th saw the death of English comedian Freddie Starr, whose finest moment for my money was when he appeared in Michael Apted’s 1977 crime thriller The Squeeze.  Musician Jake Black, aka the Very Reverend Wayne D. Love of the London blues / country / techno / electronica / indie band Alabama 3, died on May 21st, while the following day saw the death of English children’s author (most notably, 1968’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea) Judith Kerr.  American horror writer Dennis Etchison died on the 28th, and the final day of May saw the passing of psychedelic singer-songwriter and musician Roky Erickson, of the 13th Floor Elevators and Roky Erickson and the Aliens.

 

Meanwhile, May 11th witnessed the loss of yet another cast-member of Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017), possibly the finest TV show ever.  At least the late Peggy Lipton, who played Norma Jennings, owner of the Double R Diner, got to see her character have a happy ending in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) when Norma finally got together with love of her life Ed Hurley (Everett McGill).  Which is more than could be said for poor old Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), apparently left trapped forever in a nightmarish parallel-universe limbo.

 

Yet more actors shuffled off the mortal coil in June: American actress Sylvia Miles, wonderfully pathetic in 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, on the 12th; frequently villainous American character actor Billy Drago on the 24th; and British actor Bryan Marshall, who was most memorably cast in 1980’s gangster epic The Long Good Friday, on the 25th.   The French actress Edith Scob, who in her youth made a stir playing the recipient of countless failed face transplants in Georges Franju’s still disturbing horror masterpiece Les Yeux sans Visage (1960), and who also made a late-career appearance in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012), died on the 26th.  And I was particularly sad to hear of the death of British TV actor Paul Darrow on June 3rd.  For people of a certain age, Darrow was the biggest hard-ass in the universe, i.e. Avon, anti-hero of the BBC’s surprisingly downbeat sci-fi series Blake’s 7 (1978-81).

 

Italian movie director Franco Zeffirelli, best known for adapting Shakespeare to the screen in elegant films like Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Hamlet (1990), which generations of British kids then had to watch at school as part of their English syllabus, died on June 15th.  Spanish director Narciso Ibanez Serrador, responsible for 1976’s sinister Who Can Kill a Child? died on the 7th.  And finally, New Orleans’ Dr John, the legendary bluesy, funky, boogie-woogie-ing singer and pianist, passed away on the 6th.  I was lucky enough to see Dr John perform at the Fleadh festival in London’s Finsbury Park in 1998.  Truly, he was the only man in the world who could look cool wearing a pair of hush puppies.

 

From wikipedia.org / © Derek Bridges

 

To be continued.

 

Boldly going where no chap has gone before

 

© Voyager / Harper Collins Publishers

 

The Sentinel is a collection of nine short stories written between 1945 and 1980 by legendary science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, perhaps most famous for his collaboration with filmmaker Stanley Kubrick that resulted in the movie and book versions of 2001: A Space Odyssey (both 1968).  Indeed the collection’s title story, which was first published in 1951, contains some of the same elements and themes as 2001 and is seen as its forerunner.

 

As you might expect from a science fiction writer like Clarke, The Sentinel treats its readers to descriptions of weird and wonderful alien lifeforms.  In the first and oldest story, Rescue Party, there’s a creature called T’sinadree, who ‘normally employed twelve legs and could use twenty when he was in a hurry, though no one had ever seen him perform this feat.’  There are vast jellyfish-like organisms, ‘more than a mile long’ with ‘scores of dangling tentacles’, floating in the atmosphere of Jupiter in A Meeting with Medusa, while The Songs of Distant Earth offers an underwater species called the Shining Ones, ‘giant squidlike creatures who communicate in the total darkness of the abyss by beautiful displays of multicoloured luminescence.’

 

However, it’s on page 183 of the collection, halfway through a story called Jupiter V, that we meet the strangest and most unexpected lifeform of all.  A woman.

 

Admittedly, the preceding stories had contained occasional, faint but tantalising hints that, somewhere in Clarke’s universe, women might exist.  In Breaking Strain, at a time of crisis, a crewman on board a spaceship reflects briefly about his ‘wife… of whom he was moderately fond’, presumably back home on earth.  In The Sentinel, a geologist inside a vehicle trundling across the moon’s surface describes himself being in the vehicle’s galley ‘by the frying pan waiting, like any terrestrial housewife, for the sausages to brown.’

 

But in Jupiter V, a tale of two rival expeditions engaged in a battle of wits over one of the moons orbiting the solar system’s biggest planet, which has turned out to be a giant spherical spacecraft laden with alien artefacts, Clarke holds back no more.  He actually shows a real, in-the-flesh woman.  She’s called Marianne Mitchell and, while the male characters in the story are scientists, space pilots and, in one case, a photographer commissioned to take pictures of the solar system by Life magazine, she has a less glamorous job: she’s a secretary.  But at least the story’s narrator credits her with having brains.  “I could tell that Marianne was a very intelligent woman,” he remarks.  “It was quite remarkable the way she saw my point of view… in everything I showed her.”  I’d like to think that was Clarke poking ironic fun at his narrator’s unthinking male chauvinism here but, to be honest, I’m not sure.  Also, the narrator expresses frustration that he has to show the dishy Marianne around the airless alien spacecraft while both of them are space-suited up.  “A space-suit is the most perfect chaperone ever devised, confound it.”

 

After this shockingly upfront description of womankind in Jupiter V, the creatures disappear from view again in Clarke’s subsequent stories.  Refugee has a humorous reference to a spaceman’s ‘plump girlfriend’: “He had never quite lived down a blind date on Mars which had given him a completely unwarranted reputation for preferring statuesque blondes.”  In A Meeting with Medusa, a woman’s voice from Mission Control is heard on the hero’s radio for a little while.  It’s not until the final story, A Song of Distant Earth, that a woman plays a prominent role in the plot and isn’t the butt of jokes, but A Song is only six pages long and is actually a synopsis of a never-realised follow-up movie to 2001 that Clarke sketched out for Kubrick.  It feels like a postscript to the collection rather than a story in its own right.

 

So, my first reaction to The Sentinel was ‘Wow!’ – and not ‘Wow!’ in a good way.  It’s a startling reminder of how traditional science fiction, back in the days when Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein were known as ‘the Big Three’, was a blatant, unabashed boys’ club.  As the award-winning writer N.K. Jemisin noted in a recent article, “Fifty years ago in science fiction… Nobody gave a damn about race or gender or any of these other identities.  Everyone was a white guy, and if you wrote a woman, she was a white guy with tits.”  And while female writers have won the Hugo Award for the year’s best sci-fi novel six times in the last decade, there are still dark corners of the sci-fi universe today inhabited by embittered male writers and fans who remain in a huff about girls barging uninvited into their genre and insisting on playing with their toys and taking all the fun out of it for them.

 

However, having got over the fact that Clarke fails to acknowledge the existence of half the human race in these stories, I have to admit I found most of The Sentinel extremely enjoyable.  Breaking Strain, about a spaceship losing its supply of oxygen, starts off as a bog-standard nuts-and-bolts science fiction tale but, while the air leaks out of the ship and the two men on board grow increasingly desperate, we’re treated to some unexpected character development.  Similarly, The Wind from the Sun, while ostensibly about a yacht race from the earth to the moon, is a meditation about aging and achievement that’s as character-driven as the sails of the futuristic yachts in it are solar-driven.

 

A Meeting with Medusa tells the story of an explorer entering the upper atmosphere of Jupiter and encountering a weird airborne ecosystem composed of giant creatures.  By itself, A Meeting is phantasmagorically entertaining – it reminds me of the 1913 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story The Horror of the Heights, which takes place in ‘the jungles of the upper air’ – but Clarke also cannily builds in a twist-ending that gives the story a new perspective.

 

And the title story is rather wonderful.  Like 2001, it features a mysterious alien transmitter on the moon that informs its distant, unseen creators when humanity arrives and interferes with it.  In other words, it lets them know that a technologically advanced civilisation has now evolved on earth.  The Sentinel conveys in just 11 pages both a sense of cosmic wonder and a sense of niggling trepidation.  As its narrator muses at the end: “…they must be very, very old, and the old are often insanely jealous of the young…  If you will pardon so commonplace a simile, we have set off the fire alarm and have nothing to do but wait…  I do not think we will have to wait for long.”

 

By the way, having recently waded through a few stories by other writers from the supposed Golden Age of Science Fiction, such as John W. Campbell’s practically unreadable 1938 novella Who Goes There?, I should also compliment Clarke on his prose.  Unlike that of many of his contemporaries, it’s sinewy and unshowy, never gets overheated and never gets in the way of the story it’s telling.

 

Even the story that for me is the worst one in the collection is entertaining in a fashion.  Refugee features a character who, Clarke hints in his introduction to it, was inspired by Prince Charles – ouch!.  (“Captain Saunders, who came from Dallas and had no intention of being impressed by any prince, found himself unexpectedly moved by the wide, sad eyes.  They were eyes that had seen too many receptions and parades, that had had to watch countless totally uninteresting things, that had never been allowed to stray far from the carefully planned official routes.”)  It’s also set in a futuristic Britain that’s managed somehow to strike a balance between human technological and social progress on one hand and ritual and tradition on the other.  This shows a rather affecting naivete on Clarke’s part and is amusing when you compare his starry-eyed version of 21st century Britain with the sorry place it’s really become in 2019.  For example: “The London Underground was still, after a century and a half, the best transport system in the world…”

 

Well, Arthur, that’s one prediction you certainly didn’t get right.

 

From wikipedia.org

 

Burgess gets his Kit off

 

© Vintage

 

I have to admit that when I first opened Anthony Burgess’s 1993 novel A Dead Man in Deptford, a fictionalised account of the life of Elizabethan playwright Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe, I knew next to nothing about its subject.

 

What did I know of Marlowe?  Well, I’d heard of his plays but never read them.  When I studied literature at university, I’d busied myself reading Shakespeare, and a little Ben Jonson, and even The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, who plays a supporting role in Dead Man.  But I didn’t get around to reading any of Marlowe’s plays and my only experience of seeing one was Derek Jarman’s post-modern movie version of Edward II, with gratuitously added Annie Lennox, from 1991.

 

What else?  I knew he’d been killed in a pub brawl – stabbed in the eye – in Deptford in London in 1593.  I knew he was the topic of the only joke I can remember from 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, which comes when a Thames boatman remarks to Joseph Fiennes’ Shakespeare, “I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.”  And I knew John Hurt played him as a 400-year-old vampire in Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 horror movie Only Lovers Left Alive.  Being an immortal bloodsucker evidently isn’t the glamorous, forever-youthful escapade it’s made out to be, because the real Marlowe was 29 when he died while in Only Lovers John Hurt looked all of his then 73 years.

 

© Recorded Picture Company / Pandora Film

 

No, the reason I started reading Dead Man wasn’t because of Marlowe, but because I wanted to see Anthony Burgess, an author famous for his rumbustious verbosity and love of language, tackle the minutiae of life in the Elizabethan era.  As you’d expect, Burgess doesn’t just dip a cautious literary toe into the 16th century milieu.  He strips off – gets his Kit off, so to speak – and dives into it headlong and takes to it like a duck to water.  Or to use a cruder simile, like a pig to shit.  Not that I’m comparing Burgess to a pig, of course, but there’s certainly plenty of shit present.

 

Yes, you can almost hear him smacking his lips with relish as his prose records the hurly-burly in all its glory and grottiness.   The bars, booze and burping (“Kit… drank deep and belched on the yeasty froth…”); the brothels (“…roars and screams and the rapture of dying…”); the food, both hearty (“…a baked pigeon with a forcemeat of saffron and dried rosemary…) and hideous (“Pickled herrings and mouldy bread…” and “…wormy cheese…”); the vagabonds (“…rufflers, abram-men, high-pads, buff-knappers, rattling mumpers, tat-mongers, wiping-drawers, kidlays and moon-cursers…”); the oaths (“By the six ballocks of the Trinity and the cheese of the milk of the Magdalen and the hundred prepuces of circumcised Jesus…”); the gore of the public executions (“…the prick and ballocks exposed then sliced away, the first blood healthily flowing, then the cross-cut along the belly so that the bowels gushed out…”); the gore of the stage (“…pig’s blood gushed from bladders hidden…”); the torture (“…a nail or two had been pincered out before the cracking of bone…”); the lack of dental hygiene (teeth that “showed their rotting waists…”); the fingernails (which “harboured the grease he scratched from his lousiness…”); the disease and plague (“…noxious urine spouting from mouth, nose and ears and all holes else…” and “…buboes… clear in his naked armpits…); the carcasses (“…a dead pied dog that lay with swollen belly ripe to burst…”); the snot (“…the hairs in his skewed nose had trapped scraps of dry mucus…”); the puke (“…in green and yellow coposity…”); the piss (“She sat in a pool of wet…”); and the general squalor (“…the dunghill that festered at the corner of Hog Lane…” and a nearby “…raintub on which flowers of filth were afloat…”).

 

In fact, Dead Man isn’t the first Anthony Burgess book I’ve read that’s set in Elizabethan times, for in 1964 he published a novel about Shakespeare called Nothing Like the Sun.  Will Shakespeare inevitably turns up in the later stages of Dead Man, though the Bard seems pragmatic and restrained compared to the incendiary and multi-layered Kit Marlowe (whose complexity is symbolised by the uncertainty and elasticity of his surname – he introduces himself as “Christopher,” but adds, “The other name is unsure.  Marlin, Merlin, Marley, Morley.  Marlowe will do.”)

 

Indeed, the contrast between the playwrights reminded me slightly of Burgess and his great contemporary, the novelist Graham Greene.  Both hung out in south-eastern France towards the ends of their lives but had little to do with each other.  Apparently, the ebullient, publicity-loving and self-mythologizing Burgess grated on the aloof, reserved and ascetic Greene, who disapproved of Burgess appearing on TV to “talk about his books.”

 

Actually, I enjoyed Dead Man much more than Nothing Like the Sun which, with a lengthy opening section in Stratford-upon-Avon before the action finally moved to London, took its time getting going.  In comparison, Dead Man doesn’t hang around.  After a brief preamble in which we meet the book’s narrator – who identifies himself as “a small actor and smaller play-butcher who observed him (Kit) intermittently though indeed knew him in a very palpable sense”, and muses philosophically about the impossibility and absurdity of telling the story of a man’s life without being present during every moment of that life, and even alludes to Schrödinger’s cat (“There was a philosopher who spoke of the cat that mews to be let out and then mews to be let in again.  In the interim, does it exist?”) – Burgess cuts to the chase.  We glimpse Kit as a student at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, before he crosses paths with poet Thomas Watson, who invites him to London and introduces him to Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham.

 

Walsingham immediately signs Kit into Her Majesty’s secret service and despatches him to the English College at Rheims in France on the pretence that he’s disillusioned with Protestantism and wants to explore the possibility of joining the priesthood.  His real purpose, though, is to spy on a cabal of English Catholics there who may be plotting to replace Queen Elizabeth with her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.  At the same time that he’s recruited by Sir Francis, he encounters Sir Francis’s young relative Thomas Walsingham and immediately becomes smitten with him.

 

From www.roseplayhouse.org.uk

 

The remainder of Dead Man’s 270 pages is a stew of spying and political intrigue – determined to make the most of Kit’s services, the older Walsingham sends him to the Low Countries and then to Scotland, where the skulduggery involves King James VI, regarded by just about everyone as “a drunkard, a sodomite and a coward” – and Elizabethan men, mostly Kit and Thomas Walsingham, indulging in ‘the love that dare not speak its name’.  Oh, and there’s a fair bit of playwriting and versifying too.

 

Adding further kinks to the plot is Sir Walter Raleigh, who draws Kit into his clique of aristocrats, thinkers and hangers-on.  Sir Walter and his gang are dangerous to know because their opinions and musings run the risk of being considered atheistic and heretical which, with Queen Elizabeth I the head of the English church, translates into treason.  The sneaky Raleigh reels Kit in by getting him addicted to tobacco – of which Raleigh, “the keeper of many keys”, is London’s main supplier.  Burgess cleverly attributes feminine qualities to the plant.  The otherwise completely male-orientated Kit describes it as a “delicious nymph” and his smoking habit as “daily ravishing of the nymph”.  His lover Thomas Walsingham later complains, “Your body does not smell as it did.  There is a rankness…” and adds, both jealously and ominously, “Yes, you are one of Raleigh’s tribe.”

 

With grim inevitability, the story leads towards the fatal events of 1593.  Kit, now in serious trouble with the authorities, heads for Deptford on the south bank of the Thames with the intention of boarding a ship and fleeing England.  First, however, he has a rendezvous in a local tavern with some shady associates of the now-dead Sir Francis Walsingham and the now-married Thomas Walsingham, who’s clearly begun to see his relationship with Kit as an embarrassment and encumbrance.

 

With his arrogance, his predilection for boozing and brawling, and his spying activities that contribute to a number of people dying horrible deaths, Kit is no angel.  But Burgess imbues him too with qualities like loyalty, conscience and self-doubt that make him relatable and likeable.  Also, Burgess – who’d previously featured gay heroes in books like Earthly Powers (1980) and Honey for the Bears (1963) – treats Kit’s homosexuality with sympathy and avoids making it a source of shame or torment for him even though, by the beliefs of the time, it guarantees him eternal damnation.  Kit is unapologetic about it.  He sees his orientation as being nobler than the instinct-driven sexuality of men and women that causes reproduction: “Male and female are grossly conjoined following nature’s words that they breed.  There is an airier or more spiritual mode of conjunction.”  He also rejects heterosexuality on the grounds of his relationship with his sisters and mother: “To bed a woman, which I have never done, has a strong stench of incest.”

 

That said, some might find a lack of subtlety in how Burgess seemingly juxtaposes Kit’s sexuality with the phallic imagery of knives and daggers.  When Dead Man isn’t getting excited about gay love scenes, it’s getting excited about blades.  Taking on a villain called George Orwell (who, Burgess claims in his postscript, was a real-life hoodlum in 16th century London), Kit “slashed Orwell’s daggering wrist, making Orwell howl and seek to drink the blood to stem its flow.”  Tangling with another villain called Cutting Ball, “his sword whistled as it dove to nick Ball’s wrist.”  Elsewhere, “his sword point pierced a fat buttock,” while his friend Thomas Watson gets caught “most bitterly in the brow with dagger”, leaving “a wound like a mouth that spoke blood.”  This imagery reaches its finale in the Deptford tavern when poor Kit receives a lethal eyeful: “The dagger point was too close to his eye for his eye to see it.”  Just to drive the association home, Burgess describes Kit’s first meeting with Thomas Walsingham as being “like the sharp knife of a sort of truth in the disguise of danger.”

 

Any other reservations about the book?  Well, the plot gets somewhat confusing with the number of characters called ‘Thomas’.  In addition to Thomas Kyd, Thomas Watson and Thomas Walsingham, there’s the playwright, poet and pamphleteer Thomas Nasche and the astronomer and mathematician Thomas Harriot.  Though of course the existence of so many Thomases in Marlowe’s life isn’t Burgess’s fault and at one point he has his narrator exclaim, “…“all these Toms, a world of toms like a night roof top…”  And talking of narrators, it feels a bit of a cop-out when on the very last page Burgess abandons his fictional narrator and reveals himself as the true chronicler of events: “Your true author speaks now…  I put off the ill-made disguise and, four hundred years after that death at Deptford, mourn as it all happened yesterday.”

 

But those are only quibbles.  On the whole, I found A Dead Man in Deptford a splendid book, a pleasure to read while Burgess’s exuberant prose captured both the complexities of Christopher Marlowe and the rough and tumble of the world around him, without – as I’ve occasionally found elsewhere with Burgess – becoming hard to follow.  Given that the book was the last thing Burgess had published in his lifetime, before his death the following year at the age of 76, it’s retrospectively cheering to note that the book showed no sign of decline in the great man’s abilities.

 

To use the unavoidable pun – he remained at the peak of his earthly powers.

 

© The International Anthony Burgess Foundation

 

Deighton classified

 

© Harper Collins

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a James Bond buff.  Because of this, I’d wanted for a long time to get my hands on a copy of Len Deighton’s 1962 spy novel The Ipcress File – my interest in it being that it’s often touted as the anti-Bond.

 

Whereas 007 is a posh ex-public schoolboy with oodles of money and charm at his disposal, Harry Palmer, spy hero of The Ipcress File, is an unprivileged and ordinary-seeming bloke with only his working-class wits to help him negotiate the hazardous, occasionally dangerous world of espionage.  Whereas Bond swans around in glamorous international locations enjoying the finest in cuisine, liquor and cars, Palmer trudges the lugubrious streets of London peering at the rain and the pigeons through an oversized pair of glasses.  Whereas Bond wins ladies’ hearts with his unflappable insouciance, Palmer gets dumped on by his superiors for his insolence, which to them signifies that he’s a troublesome oik who doesn’t know his place.

 

That, at least, was the impression I always had of Deighton’s character thanks to seeing the 1965 film version of The Ipcress File, which featured in its lead role that impeccably deadpan man of the people Michael Caine.  (At least, he was a man of the people until the 1970s, when he started moaning about his tax bill.)  It was a surprise, then, to finally open the original novel a few weeks ago and discover that it wasn’t what the film version had led me to believe.  It wasn’t quite as different from the Bond novels as I’d expected.

 

I should qualify that by saying I’m talking in terms of characterisation, not in terms of plot.  For unlike the straightforward, action-adventure plot dynamics of the average Bond novel, the narrative of The Ipcress File is a twisty, at times head-scratching thing that produces plenty of surprises about who’s working for and spying on whom.

 

Anyway, firstly, forget about Harry Palmer.  The hero of Deighton’s novel goes through its 250-odd pages without ever revealing his name.  Early on, somebody calls him ‘Harry’, but he immediately muses: “Now my name isn’t Harry, but in this business it’s hard to remember whether it ever has been.”  All we have is an anonymous narrator recounting events with a laconic turn of phrase whilst giving few clues about his personality and background.  In other words, the main character in The Ipcress File is a cypher, an empty space into which readers can project their own personalities and so imagine themselves at the centre of the intrigue.

 

A cypher was pretty much what James Bond was too – not so much a properly-rounded character as a device for drawing in the reader.  His creator Ian Fleming was careful not to give him too much individuality.  This policy extended from his bland name (famously borrowed from the ornithologist who wrote the book Birds of the West Indies) to his lack of a life-history – it was only in You Only Live Twice (1964), the last novel published in Fleming’s lifetime, that we learn much about him and even then it turns out that Bond was orphaned at an early age, i.e. denied anything as character-forming as a family background.

 

Being a blank canvas isn’t the only thing that Deighton’s protagonist has in common with Bond.  Both their jobs involve some globe-trotting.  Now this came as a shock to me after seeing the film The Ipcress File, which determinedly confines its action to the British capital.  However, the book sees him pursue a kidnapped scientist to Lebanon – resulting in a deadly blunder that the film has happening in a London car-park – and later being posted to a Pacific atoll that the American military have commandeered in order to observe and measure the explosion of a neutron bomb.  The Pacific episode, set in a remote and inhospitable fragment of the tropics that the Americans have converted into a base containing “two athletic fields, two movie theatres, a chapel, a clothing store, beach clubs for officers and enlisted men, a library, hobby shops, vast quarters for the Commanding General, a maintenance hangar, personnel landing pier, mess hall, dispensary, a PX, post office, a wonderful modern laundry and a power plant”, is at times so odd and surreal it doesn’t so much resemble a spy story as something by J.G. Ballard.

 

© Lowndes Productions / Rank Organisation

 

And like Bond, the hero of the literary Ipcress File has refined taste buds.  We variously see him tucking into ‘Russian tea and apple strudel’, ‘Dgaj Muhshy (chicken stuffed with nutmeg, thyme, pine nuts, lamb and rice and cooked with celery)’, ‘totem poles of lamb, aubergine, onion and green pepper’, ‘iced Israeli melon’ and ‘fine lobster salad and carefully-made mayonnaise’.  Even his sandwiches seem classy by 1962 standards, consisting of ‘cream cheese with pineapple, and ham with mango chutney… with rye bread’.  Admittedly, this appears too in the film, which has a scene where Caine’s Harry Palmer bumps into a superior in a shop and is chided for paying “ten pence more for a fancy French label” of button mushrooms.  The disdainful superior adds: “You’re quite a gourmet, aren’t you, Palmer?”

 

However, where Deighton’s hero and Fleming’s hero part ways is in their relationships with their employers.  Whereas Bond seems at ease in the secret service, Deighton’s character lacks the wealthy and privileged background that most of his colleagues and superiors have.  And he isn’t impressed by what that background has produced.  He begins the novel working for Military Intelligence under a man called Ross, “a regular officer, that is to say he didn’t drink gin after 7.30 P.M. or hit ladies without first removing his hat.”  Ross, we hear, has given him plenty of ‘toffee-nosed dressing downs’ and at one point he rambles at inordinate length about his huge and lavish garden.  “Ross,” the perplexed narrator breaks in, “Mrs Laing and Dorothy Perkins are roses, aren’t they?”

 

Early in The Ipcress File, though, he’s transferred from Ross’s unit to a civilian intelligence department of the Home Office called the WOOC(P).  Not that he’s much happier with the person in charge there, a character called Dalby who’s “an elegant languid public-school Englishman of a type that can usually reconcile his duty with comfort and luxury.”  When Dalby asks him if he “can handle a tricky little special assignment,” he retorts, “If it doesn’t demand a classical education I might be able to grope around it.”

 

Having to work with people from moneyed backgrounds presents him with another problem.  His superiors don’t seem to appreciate the fact that he needs a steady income and regular payment of expenses to survive.  When he switches from Ross’s outfit to Dalby’s, he wonders how long he “would have to make the remnants of this month’s pay last before the new scale began.”  Later, he complains that he’s “still two months behind with pay and three with allowances” and that “a claim for £35 in overseas special pay” was “overdue by ten and a half months.”

 

This also surfaces in the film, with Ross and Dalby (played by Guy Doleman and Nigel Green) depicted as a pair of condescending bowler-hatted toffs who view Palmer as an irritant with ideas above his station.  But the unflattering commentary about Britain’s class system is diluted slightly by the addition of a military theme.  Ross and Dalby are both of upright army-officer stock while Palmer, we hear, had an inglorious time in uniform.  (I assume that as an ordinary soldier he was caught up in illegal black-market activities in Germany, though I could be wrong.)  Anyway, he’s spent time in a military prison and might be thrown into one again if he gets on the wrong side of his employers.

 

Thus, Palmer’s insolence isn’t just the result of a general social resentment – it comes too from a particular resentment against an institution, the army, that’s blighted his past and could potentially blight his future.  Meanwhile, the film plays down his financial frustrations and shows him protesting instead against the needless bureaucracy of his work.  Dalby, for instance, insists on a lengthy report being written after every excursion he makes ‘into the field’.

 

Incidentally, James Bond gets the best of both worlds.  He’s well-bred enough to know his way around a flashy casino or exclusive golf club, and is choosy about what he eats, drinks and drives, but he knows how to avoid coming across as an arse when mingling with ordinary working folk.  Note how easily he gets into conversation with a pub landlord in Moonraker (1955), say, or with Tiffy, the bargirl at the bordello in The Man with the Golden Gun (1965).  As Henry Chancellor puts it, he’s a ‘snob about things’ but not ‘about people’.

 

To sum up then, I found the hero of Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File rather more Bondian than I’d anticipated.  But what distinguishes him from Ian Fleming’s master-spy is class.  One has an ample supply of it.  For the other, it’s the bane of his bloody life.

 

© Lowndes Productions / Rank Organisation

 

On Target with Terrance

 

From youtube.com

 

If you were to draw up a list of great children’s authors of the 20th century, you’d no doubt end up with names such as Roald Dahl, Alan Garner, Tove Jansson, Clive King, C.S. Lewis, Astrid Lindgren, A.A. Milne, Philip Pullman and Rosemary Sutcliffe.  But you probably wouldn’t think of including Terrance Dicks, who passed away late last month at the age of 84.

 

Dicks made his name on television as a scriptwriter and script editor.  He was involved in TV shows like The Avengers (1961-69), Moonbase 3 (1973), Space 1999 (1975-77) and ITV’s dreadful but (almost) never-ending soap opera Crossroads (1964-88) and also a raft of TV adaptations of classic literary works that the BBC broadcast on Sunday evenings and included Great Expectations (1981), Beau Geste (1982), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1982), Oliver Twist (1985), David Copperfield (1986-87) and Vanity Fair (1987).  But his most famous TV work was with the BBC’s long-running science fiction / fantasy show Doctor Who, which kicked off in 1963 and is still with us today – though it had a 16-year hiatus between 1989 and 2005 – and is now a massive franchise on par with Star Wars and Star Trek.  Yet I suspect it was as a writer of books, not TV shows, that Dicks left his greatest legacy.  He had a huge but unsung influence on the reading habits of British kids during the 1970s and 1980s.

 

Dicks served as script editor on Doctor Who from 1970 to 1974, when the title character was played by Jon Pertwee as a gloriously imperious, pompous, vintage car-driving, cape-and-bowtie-wearing, karate-chopping man of action, and also contributed the occasional script to the show during the tenures of Pertwee’s immediate predecessor (Patrick Troughton) and successors (Tom Baker and Peter Davison).  However, it’s for his role as novelist-in-chief for Target Books’ Doctor Who series that perhaps Dicks is most important.

 

© Target Books

 

The Target series turned most of the Doctor Who TV adventures from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s into neat, collectible paperbacks, with attractive and colourful covers that were often courtesy of fantasy-artist Chris Achilleos.  Now if you were a Doctor Who fan back then, as I was, there were no such things as whole-season box sets, Internet streaming or BBC iplayers, or indeed, DVDs or even video cassette tapes, to allow you to catch up with missed episodes: ones you’d missed recently because you’d been doing something else at the time – the show was broadcast early on Saturday evenings, which always made it a bugger to catch up with – or ones you’d missed because they’d been broadcast before you were born.

 

Also, the BBC was decidedly uninterested in repeating past episodes of Doctor Who. In fact, the corporation had wiped many of the early episodes featuring the first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, assuming that the tapes served no financial or cultural function and only took up unnecessary space in their archives.  Considering how the BBC has made millions since then selling the show and its memorabilia to worldwide audiences, they must be really kicking themselves about that act of brainless destruction now.

 

So, in those days, if you were a ten-year-old wanting to experience past adventures with past Doctors, your only option was to buy the Target novelisations, the majority of which were penned by Dicks in his simple, no-nonsense, fast-moving prose.  Admittedly, I think their quality tailed off a bit in later years as demand for them increased, and the backlog of un-novelised adventures grew greater, forcing Dicks to churn them out at a faster rate, but the some of the ones he wrote in the 1970s were great and, even without the TV show behind them, would have stood up as excellent children’s books in their own right: for example, The Auton Invasion (1974), The Abominable Snowmen (1974), The Terror of the Autons (1975), The Three Doctors (1975), The Genesis of the Daleks (1976) and The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977).

 

© Target Books

 

The only problem with Dicks’ books was that they made the stories seem much more spectacular on the page than how they’d appeared on the screen.  Actually, one of Dicks’ paragraphs, coupled with a child’s imagination, could make them seem very spectacular indeed.  What in the books were teeming utopian cities, vast gladiatorial arenas and huge bustling spaceports were on television poky little BBC studio-sets – bare, blank, shaky, obviously low-budget.  Meanwhile, immense alien deserts, wastelands and battlefields were invariably a big quarry outside London where the show seemed to do 80% of its outdoor filming.  So years later, when you finally got to see those old TV episodes that you’d previously only known through reading the novelisations, they were inevitably an anti-climax.

 

At ten years old, and as a budding writer, I decided to follow Dicks’ example and write my own Target Books Doctor Who novelisation.  I made up my own TV adventure in my head and then wrote it as a book, by hand, in a hundred-page jotter.  I even added my own black-and-white illustrations every dozen pages or so.  The cover (again drawn by me) showed a giant, gauntleted fist grabbing hold of planet Earth.  The book was called Bloodlust of the Sontarans.  (The Sontarans were war-like, potato-headed aliens who at that point had appeared on the show a couple of times to menace Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker’s Doctors.  When it was relaunched in 2005, the Sontarans were reintroduced during the Doctor-ship of David Tenant and one of them, played by Dan Starkey, even became a semi-regular character while Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi occupied the lead role.)

 

Two years later, I decided to produce my second Doctor Who novelisation, and for this one I became positively hi-tech.  My parents had given me a typewriter for Christmas, so with that I banged out about 130 paperback-sized pages and then taped them together.  There were no illustrations in this volume, but I drew a vivid, hopefully Chris Achilleos-style cover showing Tom Baker getting his head fried by a futuristic brain-washing machine.  This I titled Destruction of the Daleks and, yes, it featured the show’s number-one villains, the demented, eye-stalked, kitchen-plunger-waving, pepperpot-shaped space-Nazis, the Daleks.  The premise of my novel was that the Daleks had started to be killed off by a newly evolved virus and were going to extreme lengths to locate a cure for it.  I was rather peeved when, several years later, the BBC seemed to nick my idea and used it as the basis for an official Doctor Who TV adventure, Resurrection of the Daleks, which starred Peter Davison as the fifth Doctor.  I should have sued.

 

© Target Books

 

As I said, I’m positive Dicks’ books got a lot of kids (who otherwise would have been glued to their TV sets all the time) reading, even if it was the TV connection that got them to open the books in the first place.  And as I’ve suggested in the previous two paragraphs, he was also a big influence on kids who wanted to become writers themselves.  Decades later I still write stuff, and get the occasional thing published, and when I use certain words I’m reminded of Dicks, who originally showed me how to use those words in certain ways.  For example, ‘croak’ used instead of ‘said’, as opposed to just describing the sound that frogs make – that came from Dicks using it in reference to the Daleks.  (Predictably, the word that the Daleks were croaking was “Exterminate!”)  Or ‘wheezing’, to describe a peculiar type of sound, not just people with a bad cold – that adjective Dicks commonly used to evoke the noise made by the Doctor’s space / time-ship, the Tardis, when it was materialising or dematerialising.

 

I ended up with an impressive, colourful row of Target / Doctor Who novels on my bookshelves.  I assumed it was just me who was geeky enough to possess such a collection, but then one day in the late 1980s I happened to be in the Edinburgh flat of one Dougie Watt, whom I knew fairly well back then and who is now an established novelist and historian, and I noticed a similar row of Target books on his bookshelves too.  However, as Doctor Who was definitely not considered cool at that point in time, and labelling yourself a Doctor Who fan was about as damaging to your street credibility as announcing that you took a shower once a month or your all-time favourite musical act was Rick Astley, I tactfully pretended I hadn’t noticed them and avoided Who-shaming my friend.

 

With its relaunch in the 21st century, Doctor Who – suddenly cool again – has had many writers of books, comics, television and films falling over themselves to write either TV-show episodes or spin-off novels for it: for instance, Dan Abnett, David Bishop, Eoin Colfer, Jenny Colgan, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Paul Cornell, Neil Cross, Richard Curtis, Neil Gaiman, Mark Gatiss, A.L. Kennedy, Jamie Mathieson, James Moran, Patrick Ness, Kim Newman, Simon Nye, Robert Shearman and Toby Whitehouse.  In addition, the three ‘showrunners’ who have helmed Nu-Who so far, Russell T. Davies, Stephen Moffat and, currently, Chris Chibnall, all made their names as writers originally.  So it’s a writers’ show through and through.  And I suspect a good number of these people were influenced, at least in part, in finding their calling as writers by reading Terrance Dicks’ books back in their childhoods.

 

Meanwhile, Chris Chibnall, if you’re reading this and fancy commissioning a script for the next season of Doctor Who with the title Bloodlust of the Sontarans, give me a call.

 

© Target Books

 

The dark mastery of Stephen Volk

 

© PS Publishing

 

Constructing a work of art around a real and well-known person who existed within living memory is a hazardous business.  You’re immediately open to criticism from those who disagree with your portrayal of that person or, indeed, who think it wrong to attempt a portrayal in the first place.  To give a recent example, I’ve seen both an author and an academic slam Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood on social media because, supposedly, (1) it depicts Bruce Lee unflatteringly, and (2) it depicts Charles Manson, who shouldn’t be depicted at all.  Neither author nor academic had actually seen the film so that they could make proper, evidence-based judgements about it.  But in true Mary Whitehouse fashion (i.e. acting on hearsay) they were happy to denounce it anyway.

 

Come to think of it, it isn’t just hazardous writing books or plays or making films about real people within living memory.  There’s plenty of folk in Scotland who’ll happily bend your ear about how William Shakespeare got it all wrong about Macbeth.

 

Someone who lately plunged into these dangerous waters is novelist and scriptwriter Stephen Volk, whose credits include the screenplay of the ground-breaking supernatural TV movie / pretend documentary-investigation Ghostwatch (1992), which according to IMDb “earned the dubious honour of being the first TV programme to be cited in the British Medical Journal as having caused Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in children.”  Volk’s 2018 collection The Dark Masters Trilogy contains three novellas and features no less than four real-life figures who, in the 20th century, loomed large in the cultures of film, fiction and the esoteric.

 

The first novella, Whitstable, concerns the English horror-movie star Peter Cushing.  Although he passed away a quarter-century ago, and despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that his trademark gentlemanliness, good manners and charm seem utterly extinct in the bad-tempered, Brexit-coarsened Britain of 2019, Cushing still commands much affection among film-buffs of a certain age.  Indeed, he made the headlines in 2016 when the makers of the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One controversially used CGI technology to resurrect his Grand Moff Tarkin character from 1977’s original Star Wars movie.  (Objectors claimed it was disrespectful to Cushing’s memory and set worrying precedents, but I have to say I was just delighted to see the old boy back on the screen, even if it wasn’t really him being him.)

 

© Hammer Films / Warner Bros

 

The second novella in The Dark Masters Trilogy is called Leytonstone and describes a (mostly) imaginary episode from the London childhood of that great director of suspense movies, Alfred Hitchcock.  Incidentally, I recently read a 1967 interview with Orson Welles (conducted by Kenneth Tynan), where the stout bearded one said confidently of Hitchcock: “I honestly don’t believe that Hitchcock is a director whose pictures will be of any interest a hundred years from now.”  Well, Orson, we’re now in 2019 and people seem as fascinated by ‘Hitch’ as ever.  So you have 48 years left for your prediction to be proven right.

 

The final novella, Netherwood, offers an unlikely team-up.  It has the occultist Aleister Crowley, the notorious self-styled ‘Great Beast’ and ‘Wickedest Man in the World’ whose antics in the early 20th century terrified clean-living, God-fearing people who believed everything they read in the British popular press, joining forces with Dennis Wheatley, the one-time bestselling author of adventure and thriller novels, most notably black-magic potboilers such as 1934’s The Devil Rides Out, whose villain was supposedly inspired by Crowley.

 

All three are splendid, but the Cushing one is my favourite.  It’s set in 1971 during the darkest period of the actor’s life.  His beloved wife of 28 years, Helen, has just died of emphysema.  Devastated, he shuts himself away from the world in his home in Whitstable, the Kent seaside town of the title.  One day, however, he forces himself out for a walk along the beach and encounters a boy who’s daft about horror films but still slightly too young to distinguish fantasy from reality.  Having seen the 1958 Hammer version of Dracula, where Cushing plays the learned vampire-slayer Van Helsing, the boy assumes Cushing is Van Helsing and asks him for help.  He believes his mother’s boyfriend is a vampire because the boyfriend enters his bedroom at night and does things to him that leave him feeling physically and spiritually drained. “Afterwards, I feel bad,” he explains, “like I’m dead inside.”  Horrified by what he’s discovered, Cushing has to set his own emotional turmoil aside and figure out how to help the boy.

 

A story that pits someone like Cushing, a monster-hunter in the comfortable world of old gothic horror films, against a genuine monster who sexually abuses children could have been a disaster if it hadn’t been done properly.  But Volk achieves the appropriate tone, writes with delicacy and pulls the trick off.  Particularly good is the finale, where Cushing confronts the mother’s boyfriend in Whitstable’s cinema during a matinee showing of one of his recent horror epics, 1970’s The Vampire Lovers.  What’s happening on the screen contrasts ironically and memorably with what’s happening in the stalls.

 

Clearly, Volk has been meticulous in his research and doesn’t put a foot wrong in his portrayal of Cushing – his habits, idiosyncrasies and speech patterns, his deeply-felt Christianity and his love for his wife, whose death cast a shadow he never escaped from afterwards.  And there are enough knowledgeable references to his movies to keep fans happy.  Also spot-on are Volk’s descriptions of Whitstable and his evocation of the sights and sounds of a typical south-east England seaside town – pleasant (waves, seagulls, boats and the ramshackle, antiquated charm of the seafront) and unpleasant (small-town gossip, nosiness and parochialism, tourist tat and the often-neglected neighbourhoods set back from the areas frequented by holidaymakers).

 

From tvtropes.org    

 

Leytonstone begins with an incident from Alfred Hitchcock’s boyhood that the director himself mentioned in later life.  One day his father sent him to the local police station with a note instructing the policemen to lock him in a cell.  The policemen obliged, much to the lad’s horror and bewilderment since he didn’t know what he’d done wrong.  It transpired that his father merely  wanted to show him what happened ‘to naughty boys’.  As I remember the story, Hitchcock’s incarceration lasted only a few minutes.  In Leytonstone, however, it goes on for a whole night.

 

I’d assumed that the police-cell ordeal would form the bulk of Leytonstone, so I was surprised when it finished early on in the story.  Volk is more interested in what happens afterwards and spins a tale whereby the now screwed-up little Alfred does something horrible to a schoolgirl he’s become obsessed with (a blonde, obviously).  In turn, the consequences of his misdeed rebound on his doting mother and involve the scheming policeman who’d originally locked him up.

 

Leytonstone skilfully manipulates the readers’ emotions.  We feel sorry for the hapless, juvenile Hitchcock when he’s the victim of his father’s perverse ideas about instilling discipline.  Later, he becomes a little monster who deserves our contempt, but we still find ourselves rooting for him when his schoolmasters and the police start to close in on him.  This manipulation, of course, was characteristic of Hitchcock himself as a filmmaker.  Witness, for example, 1973’s Frenzy, where we start off believing that Jon Finch is an unpleasant loner and possibly a serial killer while Barry Foster is a likeable chirpy Cockney chappie who loves his mum; but then have to radically rearrange our sympathies when we discover that Finch is really the hero and Foster is the villain.

 

Lastly, Netherwood is set in post-World War II England and has the ailing Aleister Crowley enlisting Dennis Wheatley’s help to fight what he claims is a monstrously evil scheme involving the sacrifice of a child and the coming of a new demagogue on par with Hitler.  The pair invoke occult forces in an effort to thwart this and there’s an ambiguous conclusion that leaves Wheatley wondering just what’s happened.  Has the infamously slippery Crowley pulled a massive joke on him?  The story is engrossing and the interplay between the two men is delightful.  In lesser hands, Wheatley could have become a figure of fun, reacting priggishly to Crowley’s constant, gleeful provocations, but Volk makes him surprisingly sympathetic.  He’s tortured by feelings of class inferiority – he thinks he’s married ‘above himself’ – and by guilt that, middle-aged, he couldn’t physically fight for his country during the war.  (But I’ll say more about Wheatley’s sympathetic-ness in a minute.)  Crowley is engaging too.  Scoundrel though he is, he seems to be trying to do the right thing here.

 

From  en.wikipedia.org  

 

Quibbles?  Well, I felt the epilogue to Leytonstone, where we see the elderly Hitchcock looking back on a life of fame and fortune, was a tad unnecessary – the story made all the points it needed to make while Hitchcock was still a child.  And I suspect some readers will find the conclusion of Netherwood slightly disappointing after all the build-up.  I suppose Volk had to pull his punches.  If what Wheatley went through in the story had had more tangible results, I imagine he’d have written books very different from the ones he did write during the next three decades till his death in 1977.

 

Meanwhile, those familiar with Wheatley may raise an eyebrow at how Volk generally avoids referring to the man’s unpleasantly right-wing politics – which in 1947, with Clement Attlee’s Labour government busy setting up a cradle-to-grave welfare state, he’d have been spouting at every opportunity.  Indeed, according to his Wikipedia entry, he penned at this time a ‘letter to posterity’ wherein he denounced the government’s reforms as something ‘bound to undermine the vigour of the race’ and advocated the ‘ambushing and killing of unjust tyrannous officials.’  His reactionary views increasingly surfaced in his occult works, where the forces of Satan were found to be in league with things that Wheatley disapproved of, like trade unions, feminists, pop music and – least forgivably, in 1973’s Gateway to Hell – the black civil rights movement.

 

To be fair to Volk, today Wheatley is the least well-remembered of his ‘Dark Masters’.  He and his books seemed to disappear off the public’s radar the moment he died (something that’s cleverly foreshadowed at one point in Netherwood) and his persona is the least well-known.  Presumably Volk had to work on his character to make it sympathetic and interesting enough to draw the readers through the story, which meant smoothing off some rough edges.

 

Because of its focus, The Dark Masters Trilogy is somewhat restricted in its appeal.  You probably need to be my age or older to fully appreciate it.  I remember my boyhood as being an era when BBC1 showed Hitchcock seasons on Friday nights and BBC2 showed horror-movie double bills (often featuring Cushing) on Saturday nights; when buying Wheatley’s black-magic epics was something you did furtively because their 1970s covers, courtesy of Arrow Books, were illustrated with pictures of topless, big-breasted ladies dancing around flames; and when the bookshops where you bought your Wheatleys were crammed too with sensationalist books about the occult, esoteric and supernatural, cashing in on a fad for such subjects that’d been created in part by Crowley (who by 1967 had garnered enough street credibility to appear on the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album).  I doubt if Volk’s heroes and anti-heroes figure much in the memories of people younger than me.

 

But if you’re in the target demographic and remember the above things fondly… Then you’ll love this book.

 

© Allan Warren / Creative Commons

 

Du Maurier, du merrier

 

© Penguin

 

One nice thing that’s happened to me in the past year or so has been my discovery of how good a writer Daphne du Maurier was.  I’d long been aware of her novels like Jamaica Inn (1936) and Rebecca (1938) and short stories like The Birds (1952) and Don’t Look Now (1971), but before 2018 The Birds had been the only thing by her that I’d read.

 

Then, two Christmases ago, my partner gave me a collection of her short fiction that had Don’t Look Now as its title story and I really enjoyed it.  Admittedly, I didn’t think the fictional Don’t Look Now was quite as good as the famous film that it inspired in 1973 – by a sad coincidence, the film’s director, the brilliant Nicolas Roeg, died soon after I finished the story – but I thought some of the other things in the collection, like A Border Line Case and The Way of the Cross, were crackers.  Now I’ve just completed another book of her short stories called The Blue Lenses and Other Stories, which was originally published in 1959 as The Breaking Point.  I’m happy to report that the tales in it are every bit as satisfying.

 

Much of the Don’t Look Now collection had a common theme, that of English people travelling abroad and having problems – by turns humorous, serious and horrible – as they leave their comfort zones and encounter the new and the strange.  This theme reappears in a couple of stories in The Blue LensesGanymede even uses the basic scenario of Don’t Look Now itself, i.e. an English visitor coming unstuck in Venice.  However, the tale isn’t a macabre one but a painful comedy of errors.  An older gay Englishman lusts after a teenage Venetian waiter and gets his comeuppance from the lad’s shady relatives, who happily lead him on whilst milking him of his money.  Ganymede has a few uncomfortable moments where you wonder if it’s being anti-gay or, alternatively, anti-Italian.  But du Maurier – herself believed to have had a lesbian relationship with Gertrude Lawrence – gets away with it, balancing our sympathy for the pathetically naïve Englishman with our satisfaction at him getting his just deserts from the Italians.  (For all his pitifulness, he is still a predator.)

 

The Chamois has an English couple travelling to some far-flung Greek mountains because the man, obsessed with hunting the goat-antelopes of the title, has been tipped off about the sighting of a notable and shootable specimen there.  To get to the peaks that are its territory, they entrust themselves to the care of a goatherd-cum-mountain-guide with a primordial appearance.  The woman, narrating the story, describes him as “wrapped in his hooded burnous, leaning upon his crook…” with “the strangest eyes…  Golden brown in colour…”  There follows a series of psychological revelations about the couple – the man hunts to make up for inadequacies in his psyche and the woman, shall we say, is simultaneously turned off and turned on by his hobby.  And a weird, almost mythical narrative unfolds wherein they find it harder and harder to distinguish between the beast they’re seeking and the man-beast who’s escorting them.

 

Similar weirdness occurs in the stories The Pool and The Lordly Ones – the former about a pubescent girl staying at her grandparents’ country house and experiencing strange dreams involving a pond in the woods beyond the garden, the latter about a misunderstood mute child who runs off with some unidentified ‘beings’ who come in the night while he and his family are holidaying on a remote moor.  Both contain dashes of W.B Yeats-style mysticism and Arthur Machen-style folk horror and are among the best stories in the book, even if in The Lordly Ones I saw the ending coming a mile away.

 

From famousauthors.org

 

The remaining stories are admirably varied.  The Menace is a comedy with a slight science-fictional element, about a movie star called Barry Jeans who sets hearts aflutter by communicating as few words and expressing as little emotion as possible onscreen.  Offscreen he’s not much more vocal or expressive and listlessly leaves all decisions to his bossy wife and his sizeable entourage of hangers-on.  Then some new technology ushers in ‘the feelies’, which promise to be as game-changing for the film industry as the arrival of ‘the talkies’.  In the feelies, film stars are wired to a machine that transmits their sexual energy – what Austen Powers would call their ‘mojo’ – to the audiences watching them in the cinemas.  Barry’s entourage are horrified when preliminary tests suggest that the inscrutable star’s mojo is almost non-existent and so they embark on a drastic campaign to pep that mojo up.  The Menace sees du Maurier taking the mickey out of Hollywood and I suspect it might have been inspired by some less-than-edifying experiences with the place – for example, she was sued for breach of copyright after Rebecca was made into a film in 1939.

 

The Alibi is the collection’s most twisted tale, about a well-to-do and respectable man who one day seemingly flips: “He was aware of a sense of power within.  He was in control.  He was the master-hand that set the puppets jiggling.”  He walks away from the routines, conventions and obligations of his upper-middle-class existence, invents a new identity for himself and secretly rents a room in a seedy part of London.  Initially, he plans to commit murder – but his Nietzschean madness subsides somewhat and instead he starts living a parallel life as an aspiring artist, using the room as his studio.  But his project gets knocked for six when the story reaches an unexpected and nasty conclusion.

 

Different again is The Archduchess, an exercise in magical realism.  It describes the final days of a ruling dynasty in a Ruritanian microstate called Ronda, somewhere in southern Europe, which has discovered the secret of immortality.  It’s difficult to know where du Maurier’s sympathies lie here.  Is she writing in favour of the dynasty and, by extension, of aristocracies and the status quo everywhere?  Or is she satirising it?  One thing I will say – her account of a devious revolutionary named Markoi, who edits Ronda’s main newspaper and uses it to seed the minds of the population with doubts, suspicions and eventual paranoia, so as to engineer the downfall of the ruling order, strikes a chord today.  Markoi seems all too familiar in a modern world of fake news, where Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News helped propel Donald Trump into the American presidency and, in Britain, the Barclay Brothers’ Daily Telegraph has just achieved a similar feat with Boris Johnson.

 

Finally there’s the title story, The Blue Lenses, which I found rather terrifying.  Its set-up is a familiar one, about a woman in a hospital recovering from an eye operation who discovers that things suddenly aren’t as they’re supposed to be.  But unlike the hero in John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (1951), who removes the bandages from his eyes and finds that the world really has gone to hell, the nightmare experienced by the heroine of The Blue Lenses is ambiguous.  The surreal, if not grotesque things that she sees have a subjective quality and you wonder about her sanity.  What makes the story more effective is her decision to pretend to the hospital staff around her that nothing is amiss, while she tries to figure out what’s happening.  Her desperate efforts to stay composed heighten the horror of the situation.

 

As a collection, The Blue Lenses and Other Stories ticks off the checklist of things I want to find in a book of short fiction: clear, lucid prose; plenty of incident; a variety of tones and genres; and an obvious commitment at all times to telling an entertaining yarn.  It’s another package of du Maurier marvelousness.