Death log 2016 – part 1


© American International Pictures


You may have noticed that one or two people died in 2016.  Here are some folk who passed away this year who’ll be particularly missed at Blood and Porridge.


January 10th saw the departure of musical legend and stylistic chameleon David Bowie, who was commemorated in no fewer than three postings on this blog:


Die Hard (1988)
Directed by John McTiernan
Shown: Alan Rickman

© Silver Pictures / 20th Century Fox


The British actor Alan Rickman died four days later.  Rickman’s career, and especially his talent for playing delightfully fiendish villains in movies like Die Hard (1988) and Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991), was also celebrated at Blood and Porridge:


January 9th saw the passing of American actor Angus Scrimm, who’ll be fondly remembered by horror-film fans for playing the Tall Man in Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm movies.  And Scottish writer Robert Banks Stewart died on January 15th.  Banks Stewart was well-known for creating the TV detective shows Shoestring (1979-80) and Bergerac (1981-91) and he also scripted two of the scariest stories of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who, 1975’s Terror of the Zygons and 1976’s The Seeds of Doom.  The alien monsters in the former adventure, the repulsively slimy and sucker-covered Zygons, proved so popular that forty years later they’re still menacing Peter Capaldi in the revived Doctor Who.




Another British actor to depart in January 2016 was actor Frank Finlay, who passed away on the 30th.  Finlay played Porthos in the classic trilogy of Musketeers films directed by Richard Lester in 1973, 1974 and 1989; Van Helsing in the BBC’s stately adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1977; and Dr Fallada in a less reputable vampire epic, Tobe Hooper’s hilarious Lifeforce (1985).  He also had the curious distinction of playing Inspector Lestrade in two different films where Sherlock Holmes investigates the Jack the Ripper killings, 1965’s A Study in Terror and 1979’s Murder by Decree.  The final day of January saw the death of Irish broadcaster Terry Wogan, whose twinkly-eyed, possibly toupee-bearing visage seemed to symbolise the BBC during the 1980s as much as Ronald McDonald did McDonald’s or Colonel Sanders did the KFC.  Equipped with a soft brogue, gentle wit and inability to take himself or anyone else too seriously, the ubiquitous Wogan could host any ropey old chat-show or game-show and make it entertaining.


Italian author Umberto Eco died on February 19th.  I always thought his acclaimed novel The Name of the Rose (1980) was overrated, but at least the film version six years later gave Sean Connery one of his last good film roles.  On February 22nd, the British cinematographer Douglas Slocombe passed away at the venerable age of 103.  Slocombe’s half-century career included such highlights as Dead of Night (1945), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Servant (1963), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), The Italian Job (1969), The Great Gatsby (1974) and the first three Indiana Jones movies (1981, 84 and 89).  Another great behind-the-scenes man of British cinema, production designer Ken Adam, died on March 10th.  Not only was Adam responsible for the spectacular and now iconic sets of seven James Bond movies between Dr No (1961) and Moonraker (1979), but he designed the War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964), reckoned by Steven Spielberg to be the greatest movie-set ever.


© Hawk Films / Columbia Pictures


Another Kubrick veteran, the actress Adrienne Corri who appeared in 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, died on March 13th.  Among her other credits was a role in the bloody but fairy tale-like Hammer horror movie Vampire Circus (1972).  Two days later saw the death of Sylvia Anderson, the one-time Mrs Gerry Anderson, co-producer of such classic kid’s puppet TV shows as Stingray (1964-65), Thunderbirds (1965-66), Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-68) and Joe 90 (1968-69) and such adult sci-fi TV shows as UFO (1970)  and Space 1999 (1975-77).  In Thunderbirds, she also provided the voice for the gorgeous and glamorous, though frankly plastic, Lady Penelope.  Author Barry Hines died on March 18th.  His most famous work was A Kestrel for a Knave (1968), which a year after its publication was filmed as Kes by mighty British director Ken Loach.


© ITC Entertainment


The comedy world took a treble hit in spring 2016.  The English comedienne, actress, writer and director Victoria Wood died on March 24th; the Scottish comedian and comic performer Ronnie Corbett on March 31st; and the great American stand-up, actor, writer and producer Gary Shandling on April 20th.  The passing of the impish and fruity-toned Corbett prompted this tribute from Blood and Porridge:




Welsh actor Gareth Thomas, who played intergalactic freedom-fighter Roj Blake in the BBC’s downbeat 1970s space opera Blake’s Seven, died on April 13th.  Surely the most traumatic TV moment ever came at the end of Blake’s Seven’s final episode, which sees Blake bloodily gunned down by his second-in-command Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) who wrongly suspects him of treachery.  (“Have you betrayed us?  Have you betrayed… me?!”)  A week later, on April 20th, film director Guy Hamilton passed away.  Hamilton was another James Bond alumni with four 007 movies under his belt, most notably 1964’s Goldfinger.  And April 21st was a day when another great musical talent was snuffed out: Prince.  Blood and Porridge paid its respects to the saucy purple one here:


On April 24th we bid adieu to two character actors who’d enlivened many an old British B-movie: Australian Lewis Fiander, who’d had supporting roles in the horror movies Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) and Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972) and was the leading man in Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s splendidly creepy Spanish film Who Can Kill a Child? (1976); and British-Chinese actor Burt Kwouk, who was best known for playing Inspector Clouseau’s manservant Cato in the Pink Panther movies, though he’d appeared in a lot of movies and TV shows besides.  Kwouk was a big favourite at Blood and Porridge, which published this tribute to him a year ago:


By June, the month when the United Kingdom voted for Brexit, it was clear that 2016 was going to be remembered as a monumentally shite year.  This unhappy fact seemed to be reinforced by the passing of the great Muhammad Ali on June 3rd, which was recorded on this blog here:




June 12th saw the death of one of Scotland’s more outré eccentrics, Tom Leppard, aka the Leopard Man, who was reckoned by the Guinness Book of Records to be the world’s most tattooed man.  A former soldier, Leppard had his body covered in a leopard-skin pattern of spots and spent much of his later life living in a remote bothy on the Isle of Skye.  On June 19th, the American-Russian actor Anton Yelchin died in a tragic freak accident.  Aged just 27 at the time of his death, Yelchin had made a name for himself in impressive movies like Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (2015), as well as in the rebooted Star Trek movies where he played Chekov.  And Bud Spencer, the burly Italian Olympian swimmer and comic actor, died on June 27th.  In partnership with Terence Hill, Spencer made 20 movies of rumbustious and destructive slapstick that regularly turned up as supporting features in British cinemas during the 1970s.  Watch Out, We’re Mad (1974) and Crime Busters (1977) are particularly fondly remembered at Blood and Porridge.


Finally, June ended and July began with what Blood and Porridge dubbed ‘the curse of the Radiohead video.’  No sooner had the avant-garde British rock band released a video for their new song Burn the Witch, which combined the look and the Claymation animation style of the classic British TV children’s shows Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton (1967) and Chigley (1969) with the plot of the classic British folk-horror movie The Wicker Man (1974), than: (1) Gordon Murray, producer and animator of those children’s shows died on June 30th; and (2) The Wicker Man’s director Robin Hardy died on July 1st.  Here’s what Blood and Porridge had to say about Hardy:


© XL


To be continued…  Unfortunately.


Greene ups the auntie


© Audible Studios


I certainly felt ready to read Graham Greene’s Travels with my Aunt a few months ago. I started this novel just after Britain’s ruling Conservative party had held its annual conference, which itself came after the British electorate’s vote to leave the European Union. Most Conservatives being anti-EU, their party conference this year was shrill and gloating, loud with jingoistic rhetoric about the greatness and specialness of Britain and with xenophobic rhetoric about pulling up the drawbridge against immigrants, Europeans and foreigners generally.


And I began Travels with my Aunt with the words of Prime Minister Theresa May ringing in my ears. In her keynote conference speech, May made it plain that in her view the decent thing to do is to stay at home and not sully yourself with such dangerous concepts as living and working overseas (and presumably associating with foreigners). “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world,” she intoned, “you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the word ‘citizenship’ means.”


Having lived and / or worked at different times in Switzerland, Japan, Ethiopia, India, the Republic of Ireland, North Korea, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Myanmar, Mauritius and – my current place of abode – Sri Lanka, I thought: “Wow, that’s me told. Sorry, Theresa!”


Actually, that’s not true. I didn’t think that at all. What I really thought was: “Bog off, you ignorant, parochial, narrow-minded, curtain-twitching cretin, you.”


After that, I was eager to get into Travels with my Aunt, written by Graham Greene in 1969. Its story, the back-cover blurb assured me, was a humorous one about an unadventurous Englishman having his mind broadened and horizons widened by foreign travel. And the process whereby he becomes a citizen of the world, rather than remaining a citizen of the stultifying Little England beloved by Theresa May, has an unlikely facilitator – his elderly but still sprightly and impetuous Aunt Augusta.


And for most of its length, that’s how the narrative of Travels with my Aunt unfolds. Henry Pulling is a fifty-something retired and never-married bank manager, living in a sedate part of London with a garden of carefully cultivated dahlias (“the Polar Beauties and the Golden Leaders and the Requiems”) and an ex-army major next door. His main plan for the future is to produce some home-made jam since “a man in retirement has to have some hobbies if he is not to age too fast”. Had he lived 47 years later, the timid Henry probably wouldn’t have voted to leave the EU – he would’ve been a reluctant Remainer. But I’m sure that, generally, he would’ve admired the cut of Theresa May’s jib.


One day Henry attends his mother’s funeral, which passes with an efficiency and lack of fuss that he approves of: “The flowers were removed economically from the coffin, which at the touch of a button slid away from us out of sight. Afterwards in the troubled sunlight I shook hands with a number of nephews and nieces and cousins whom I hadn’t seen for years and could not identify. It was understood that I had to wait for the ashes and wait I did, while the chimney of the crematorium gently smoked overhead.” At this point he meets Aunt Augusta, his mother’s younger sister, whom he hasn’t seen for more than half-a-century.   Henry soon decides it was a good thing his family saw nothing of her for so long: “She had a temperament my mother would not have liked.” But almost immediately, he finds himself entangled in a web of eccentric acquaintances, far-flung locales and not-entirely-legal activities that somehow surrounds the old lady.


By page 12, Henry is visiting his aunt’s apartment above a London pub, which she shares, seemingly intimately, with a burly middle-aged Sierra Leonean called Wordsworth. By page 26, Henry is having visitors of his own – the police, eager to examine the contents of his mother’s ashes-urn, which he unwisely took with him to his aunt and Wordsworth’s flat and which they believe now contains something besides human remains. And twenty pages further, the same police are informing him that there’s “more cannabis than ashes” in the urn.


Meanwhile, Henry also gets roped into accompanying his newly-discovered aunt on her travels. By page 30 she’s made him escort her to Brighton, where she tracks down an old friend called Hattie, who’s now a fortune teller. Giving Henry a tea-leaves reading, Hattie predicts: “…you’re going to travel. Across the ocean. With a lady friend… I see a lot of confusion too and running about.” Henry retorts, “That’s most unlikely… I lead a very regular life. A game of bridge once a week at the Conservative Club. And my garden of course. The dahlias.”


Needless to say, Hattie’s predictions are on the money. By page 60, Henry finds himself heading for Paris in the company of Augusta and a dodgy-looking red suitcase that proves to be “stacked with ten-pound notes”. By page 91 he’s with her on board the Orient Express, bound for Istanbul where she has a rendezvous with a mysterious General Abdul. He makes the acquaintance of an American hippy-chick called Tooley, who offers him a cigarette: “It had an odd herbal flavour, not disagreeable. ‘I’ve never smoked an American cigarette before,’ I said.” And by page 183 Henry is journeying across the South American interior to Paraguay, summoned by Augusta after she’s installed herself there with a former lover called Mr Visconti. There’s no surprise when it transpires that both of them are up to their necks in a smuggling operation.


During their travels Augusta regales Henry with stories – tales of past adventures and lovers that are rambling, fanciful, at times ridiculous and no doubt economical with the truth. But they indicate that the old lady has led a life – in contrast to Henry, who’s managed to spend most of his life in the same bank-branch, first as a clerk, then a cashier, then a manager. The funniest of Augusta’s stories involves a chancer called Curran, with whom she once set up a fake church in Brighton. Called the Doggie Church, it catered for the spiritual needs of canines and, obviously, was designed to fleece the congregation’s owners. “It was Curran who set me reading theology,” she tells her nephew. “He wanted references to dogs. It wasn’t easy to find any – even in St Frances de Sales. I found lots about fleas and butterflies and stags and elephants and spiders and crocodiles in St Frances but a strange neglect of dogs.”


The exchanges between the feisty Augusta and the fusty Henry – who, despite himself, develops a wanderlust and taste for adventure as the book progresses – are a constant delight. Modern readers will have problems, though, with how Greene depicts the character of Wordsworth. Specifically, they’ll be uncomfortable with how he milks Wordsworth’s Sierra Leonean patois for easy and nowadays politically-incorrect laughs: “The telephone talk all the bloody time while you not here… Oh, poor Wordsworth not understand one bloody word. Ar say to them you no talk English. They go away double quick.” Yes, I know, Greene wrote the book in an era when awareness of racial stereotyping, among British authors anyway, was practically non-existent and it seemed acceptable to use coloured characters for comic relief. But still. I found myself cringing every time Greene had Wordsworth open his mouth.


That said, Wordsworth is allowed some development and by the book’s finale he’s become its most virtuous character – certainly its most loyal, probably its most principled. Gratifyingly, Henry’s attitude towards him changes. After viewing him at the start with shock, suspicion and probably lightly-disguised horror, he reacts to Wordsworth’s reappearances in later chapters with the joy of someone reunited with a dear old friend.


Travels with my Aunt is a funny book but there’s a point, near the end, when it suddenly stops being funny. Greene suddenly switches mode from entertainer to moralist. Henry and Augusta have had a lot of fun on their travels, but much of that fun has involved illegality and now there’s a price to be paid. Thus, the story finishes on a sour note. A sympathetic character gets killed, the nephew and aunt find themselves in cahoots with another character who’s utterly unsavoury, and in the final paragraph Henry makes a couple of admissions that show his escape from his mundane existence as a retired English bank manager and transformation into a well-travelled man of the world have cost him his decency.


I still think Theresa May is talking objectionable drivel with her citizen of the world / citizen of nowhere claims. However, if I were debating the matter with her, Travels with my Aunt probably isn’t the book I’d use to back my argument. She might read the ending and jeer: “See? I told you so!”


© Daily Telegraph    


Manly stuff


(c) Planet Stories


I’d heard the name of the American writer Manly Wade Wellman before.  He was, for instance, one of the people to whom Stephen King dedicated his non-fiction book Dance Macabre back in 1982.  But I was unfamiliar with his work until recently when I picked up a collection of his fantasy-horror fiction called Who Fears the Devil?, published by Planet Stories in 2010, 24 years after Wellman’s death.


The short stories in Who Fears the Devil? are set in the Appalachian Mountains, whose wilderness areas and remote human settlements are evoked by Wellman as vividly and convincingly as, say, the towns, woods and hills of New England that form a frequent backdrop to the tales of H.P. Lovecraft; or those neighbourly mid-western small towns, all porches and picket fences, that feature prominently in the work of Ray Bradbury.


Wellman, a prolific writer of pulp detective, science fiction, horror and western fiction who also spent his later decades teaching at the University of North Carolina, captures the stark grandeur of this environment – dizzying mountains, mysterious forests, secluded valleys, frothing brooks and tumultuous waterfalls.  He also nails the character of its human inhabitants, their innocence and good-naturedness conveyed in the cadences of their speech.  Practically every page of Wellman’s Appalachian stories seems to ring with unpretentious but pleasingly musical dialogue, his mountain characters trading such utterances as: “Do my possible best…”, “Won’t be no better singing and dancing the day these young ones marry up…”, “I’ve known men kill them themselves because she’d put her heart back in her pocket on them…”, “I’m right sorry…” and “I hear that somebody around here took a shot at my great-grandboy…”  (Admittedly, there isn’t much good-naturedness conveyed in that last utterance.)


Roaming these mountains, valleys and forests is Wellman’s most famous creation, Silver John, who earns a crust here and there as an itinerant singer and guitarist.  John, who made his first appearance in 1951 in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is no simple-minded hick.  Like many American men of his generation, he’s travelled – albeit in an unplanned manner, doing military service for Uncle Sam during World War II.  He’s also well-read and learned, able to discuss Freud and Sir James Hopkins Jeans’ The Mysterious Universe when the need arises.  And he’s similarly well-informed about the fields of folklore, superstition and the paranormal – which is just as well, because wherever he wanders, he seems to encounter trouble in the form of supernatural deities, mythical monsters and havoc-wreaking human dabblers in the occult.


Basically, Wellman’s Silver John stories are the adventures of a psychic investigator discovering, battling and defeating the forces of darkness, which come in different guises in each instalment.  In effect, the John stories are The X-Files without the FBI, the suits or the torturous alien / UFO conspiracy plot; or Scooby Doo without the meddling kids, the Scooby snacks or the Mystery Machine; but with hillbillies, dungarees and lots of Appalachian folk songs and balladry instead.




There’s something supernatural about John himself, though.  For one thing, at the start of each story he usually finds himself performing a song that, spookily, prefigures or comments on the supernatural events that come later.  Thus, when he sings Little Black Train (a song popularised in real life by Woody Guthrie) early on in a story of the same name, it’s no surprise that an appearance is soon made by a phantom and, yes, death-dealing black train: “The little black train is rolling in / To call for you tonight…”


John’s nickname, incidentally, comes from the strings on his guitar, which are made of silver.  As supernatural creatures are known for not liking silver – silver bullets being the main way to kill a werewolf, for example – John is able on more than one occasion to ward off evil using his music.  Indeed, in the story O Ugly Bird! he resorts to using his silver-stringed guitar as a club and just clobbers the monster with it.


There’s a bewildering variety of strange and creepy things going on in these stories.  With its theme of unspeakable beings from other universes, One Other comes close to the science-fictional horrors of H.P. Lovecraft.  Meanwhile, Walk Like a Mountain deals with a giant who claims lineage from Biblical figures like Goliath and who’s also in the mould of John Henry, the superhuman railroad worker from 19th-century American folklore.  On cue, Silver John starts playing a John Henry folksong on his guitar: “The mountain was high, the sun was low / John laid down his hammer and died…”


Both Call Me from the Valley and Trill Coaster’s Burden feature old mountain customs and superstitions.  Call Me includes a ‘dumb supper’, which was a midnight ritual enacted by young women as a way of conjuring up the image of the person they were destined to marry.  And Trill is about ‘sin-eating’, which Silver John explains thus: “Somebody dies after a bad life, and a friend or paid person agrees that the sin will be his, not the dead one’s.  It’s still done here and there, far back off from towns and main roads.”


Nobody Ever Goes There, an account of a weird town divided in two by a river, where one half is populated and one half is deserted and where for some unspoken reason nobody from the populated half of town ever crosses the bridge to the unpopulated half, is worthy of an episode of The Twilight Zone.  Most outré of all, though, is The Desrick on Yandro, which charmingly postulates a whole ecosystem of undiscovered mythological creatures living on a remote North Carolina mountain: the Bammat, “something hairy-like, with big ears and a long wiggly nose and twisty white teeth sticking out of its mouth”, the Behinder, which can’t be described “for it’s always behind the man or woman it wants to grab,” the Skim which just “kites through the air” and the Culverin, “that can shoot pebbles with its mouth.”  Alas, once these fabulous beasties have done their turn in The Desrick on Yandro, they don’t reappear and aren’t mentioned again in Wellman’s stories.


Manly Wade Wellman’s writings about Silver John are richly imagined, utterly charming, hard to forget and unlike anything else I’ve read.  Actually, they’re so rich and peculiar that it’s difficult to digest more than one or two of them in one sitting.  It’s best to treat Who Fears the Devil? like a box of chocolates – not to be gorged on but to be dipped into occasionally, so that you have sufficient time to savour each of its treats.


The Saint is a dick


© Avon Publications


When it comes to Simon Templar, aka the Saint, the heroic crime-fighter created by author Leslie Charteris, most people of my mature vintage think of one man only.  Visualising Templar, who’s slightly on the wrong side of the law himself but who’s always on the right side of virtue, we see his immaculate leather shoes filled by the equally immaculate, if rather plastic Roger Moore.


For much of the 1960s, Moore played him in six series and 118 episodes of the TV series The Saint, which was then endlessly repeated on television during my childhood in the 1970s.  Moore didn’t always wear a tuxedo and bowtie when he essayed Templar, and he did occasionally have a hair out of place.  But Roger Moore in a tuxedo and bowtie without a hair out of place is certainly how the character looks in my imagination.


So closely is Moore associated with the role that it’s easy to forget that other actors played Templar before and after him.  Movies about the Saint were made as early as 1938, which saw the release of The Saint in New York starring Louis Hayward.  A glut of Saint films followed, with the character played most often – seven times – by the silken-voiced George Sanders.  He also appeared on the radio, most notably with Vincent Price filling the role in a show broadcast from 1947 to 1951.  Yes, those early adaptations of the Saint featured some sumptuous-sounding actors.  If Sanders was silken, Price’s tones were downright velvety.


Nine years after Roger Moore had quit as Templar, an attempt was made to revive the Saint on television with 1978’s Return of the Saint, starring Ian Ogilvy.  I like Ogilvy because he appeared in some old British horror movies I’m partial to, including The Sorcerers (1967), Witchfinder General (1968) – which also starred that old radio Saint, Vincent Price – and From Beyond the Grave (1973).  And I think it’s sweet that more recently Ogilvy has reinvented himself as a children’s author.  But the 1970s TV series was definitely a damp squib.  Also unsuccessful was a final 1997 film version, which had Val Kilmer in the title role.


 © Coronet Books


But enough about films, television and radio.  What of the fifty-odd books featuring Templar that appeared between 1928 and 1997 and were mainly written by Leslie Charteris?  (Later, there were collaborations, including one between Charteris and the science-fiction author Harry Harrison; and after Charteris’s death in 1993, two final books were written by other people.)  I’d never read any of those, so for me the print version of the Saint was an unknown quantity.


In 2013, many of the Saint books were republished by Mulholland Books and I recently discovered a batch of them on sale at one of my local bookshops.  Keen to sample the literary Simon Templar, I bought The Saint Meets his Match (1931) and the book that inspired the first-ever film version, The Saint in New York (1935).


The Saint Meets his Match does not begin well: “The big car had been sliding through the night like a great black slug with wide, flaming eyes that seared the road and carved a blazing tunnel of light through the darkness under the over-arching trees; and then the eyes were suddenly blinded, and the smooth pace of the slug grew slower and slower until it groped to a shadowy standstill under the hedge.”  I find it difficult to envision a slug sliding, or a slug with eyes flaming, or a tunnel of light being carved, or a car groping, or a standstill being shadowy.  And to get five such tortured similes in the first sentence of a book is a bit off-putting.  However, once Charteris’s prose calms down and the story gets going, what follows is quite engaging.


It sees Templar tangling with a crime gang dramatically known as the Angels of Doom.  Then he unexpectedly finds himself allied with the gang’s female mastermind, Jill Trelawney, who with her ‘tawny-golden’ eyes and ‘cornfield gold’ hair is as beautiful as she is clever and dangerous.  It transpires that Jill is really using the gang as a means to locate and get revenge on the men she believes were responsible for her father’s death – an Assistant Commissioner of Police who died in despondency and disgrace after being accused of leaking information about police operations to the criminal underworld.  Not only is she convinced that her father was framed and the culprits are still at large, but one of them is still operating high in the ranks of Scotland Yard.  When on page 81 she identifies the first of them and shoots him dead, it’s clear that she means business.


You don’t have to be a genius to figure out, early on, who the real villain / information-leaker is at Scotland Yard, but the story plays out pleasantly enough.  You get languid aristocratic baddies with names like ‘Lord Essenden’ being nefarious in their stately country houses.  And taking orders from them and doing their dirty work, you also get stereotypical old-school British hoodlums with names like ‘Pinky Budd’ and ‘Slinky Dyson’ who drop their aitches and say ‘what’ instead of ‘who’ or ‘which’.


Mind you, I suspect that even the most naïve and sheltered of Charteris’s 1930s readers, who might have believed Pinky and Slinky were realistic figures of gritty, cutting-edge crime fiction, would have found the events on page 157 hard to swallow.  Here, Templar and Jill are imperilled in a subterranean chamber under Lord Essenden’s mansion that’s rapidly filling with water: “The stream beside the wall had been four feet wide when he had first seen it.  Now it was twice that width, and there was a turbulent flurry in its dark waters…  And it rose with an appalling speed…”  Still, any book that threatens its heroes with death-by-drowning in a flooding underground chamber is okay by me.


What I did find problematic with the book is the fact that Templar seems a bit of a dick.  I don’t mean ‘dick’ as in ‘private dick’, i.e. a ‘private eye’.  I mean ‘dick’ as in ‘dickhead’, i.e. a ‘knob-end’, ‘arsehole’ and ‘tosser’.  Clearly in love with himself, he saunters through the book dispensing hopefully-witty insults and being irritatingly flippant.  No doubt Charteris intended him as a buccaneering, laughing-at-danger daredevil, but he just comes across the wrong way.  I know Roger Moore played him with a smug insouciance (which was also how he played James Bond later on), but I don’t remember him being as annoying as the literary Saint.


© ITC Entertainment Group / Peter Rodgers Organisation


One character who puts up with a lot of bullshit from Templar is the lugubrious policeman Inspector Claude Eustace Teal, who in the books is both his wary ally and his nemesis – Templar himself is regarded as a criminal and Teal would put the cuffs on him if he got the chance.  When they first cross paths here, Templar taunts him by calling him, “Claude Eustace old corpuscle” and demands, “Do you want a tip for the Two Thousand, or have you come to borrow money?”  Later, when Templar threatens him, “I shall throw you down the stairs and out into the street with such violence that you will bounce from here to Harrod’s,” you just wish that Teal would turn around and arrest his ass.


At least in The Saint in New York, Templar’s prattish-ness feels less of an issue.  Probably this is because he’s in a different milieu, one populated by a meaner breed of villains – Big Apple gangsters who, for example, will kidnap a child and have no qualms about killing her if their demands aren’t met.  With them, you can almost forgive Templar his facetiousness.  It takes a certain courage to take the piss out of someone who’ll shoot you in the face if they don’t appreciate the joke.


Structurally The Saint in New York isn’t that different from The Saint Meets his Match.  Again, there’s a theme of revenge, with Templar aligning himself with an American millionaire who wants to take out the scumbag gangsters who murdered his son.  Again, there’s mystery, about who the Mr Big figure pulling the strings of those gangsters really is.  And again, you’ll already have a good hunch about who that Mr Big figure is early on in the book.  It’s more downbeat, though, with a somewhat melancholy ending.  Let’s just say that this time the Saint doesn’t get the girl.


I found the books diverting and, even after eighty years, they stand up reasonably well.  That said, I’m in no rush to read another instalment of the Saint’s adventures.  I’ve spent enough time in Mr Simon Templar’s company to last me for a while, thank you.


From World Collectors Net


Coming up for Orwell


© Penguin Books


A couple of years ago something piqued my curiosity about George Orwell’s lesser known novels and since then I’ve been working my way through them.  I’ve read Burmese Days (1934), Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and most recently Coming Up for Air (1939).  I’ve found them surprisingly good.  The worlds they depict may not be as iconic as those of Orwell’s two post-war triumphs, Manor Farm in Animal Farm (1945) and Airstrip One in 1984 (1949).  But they ooze with as much vivid and sordid detail as the non-fiction books he wrote during the 1930s, which are better remembered today – Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and Homage to Catalonia (1938).  Also, they convey similar frustration and despair, their imaginary characters being as much victims of circumstances as the real characters Orwell encountered whilst travelling and researching his non-fiction.


Coming Up for Air, written on the cusp of World War II, maintains the high standard.  Its narrator is George Bowling, a 45-year-old insurance salesman whose exterior is at odds with his interior.  Superficially, he’s “an active, hearty kind of fat man, the athletic bouncing type that’s nicknamed Fatty or Tubby and is always the life and soul of the party”.  Inside, though, he’s suffering what in modern parlance would be called a mid-life crisis – one coinciding with his acquisition of a new set of dentures, which informs the novel’s opening line: “The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.”


But Bowling’s discontent is fuelled by more than his sense of physical decay.  He’s stuck in a little house in one of the countless streets that “fester all over the inner-outer suburbs”, mortgaged to the hilt by something called the Cheerful Credit Building Society.  “Building societies are probably the cleverest racket of modern times,” he broods.  “My own line, insurance, is a swindle I admit, but it’s an open swindle with the cards on the table.”  He shares the house with two noisy offspring – “Two kids in a home the size of ours is like a quart of beer in a pint mug” – and a shrewish wife called Hilda.  “Butter is going up, and the gas-bill is enormous, and the kids’ boots are wearing out and there’s another instalment due on the radio – that’s Hilda’s litany.”


To escape from this, Bowling immerses himself in the past and the book’s central section has him recounting his life-story, especially his boyhood in an Oxfordshire market town called Lower Binfield, “in a bit of a valley, with a low ripple of hills between itself and the Thames, and higher hills behind.”  Thus, he grew up within a stone’s throw of the countryside and it’s his antics there with his young mates – cycling, swimming, ferreting, stealing birds’ eggs, ice-skating in winter – that he recalls most fondly.


But fishing was his main passion as a boy.  “It’s queer, the feeling I had for fishing – and still have, really.  I can’t call myself a fisherman.  I’ve never in my life caught a fish two feet long, and it’s thirty years now since I had a rod in my hands.  And yet when I look back the whole of my boyhood from eight to fifteen seems to have revolved round the days when we went fishing.”  And the memory that haunts him most of all is of visiting Binfield Manor, an estate overlooking the town, and discovering a pool hidden away behind a dense screen of bushes and tree-boughs.  Populating this pool were some huge carp.  “A pool gets forgotten somehow, nobody fishes in it for years and decades and the fish grow to monstrous sizes.”


The idea Bowling has at the book’s start is to sneak away for a few days – pretending to his unsympathetic wife that he’s making a work-trip.  He’ll return to Lower Binfield for the first time in decades, buy a fishing rod and fish in the secret pool.  The final third of the book describes what Bowling finds when he gets there.  Predictably, things have changed and not for the better.


Orwell’s account of Bowling’s early life in Lower Binfield is engrossing.  By a coincidence, a few months earlier, I’d read Cider with Rosie (1959), Laurie Lee’s memoir of growing up in a Cotswolds village in the 1920s.  It’s fun to compare Lee’s famously lyrical and nostalgic work with Coming Up for Air and the more hard-headed approach Orwell takes in it.  “It’s not like I’m trying to put across any of that poetry of childhood stuff.  I know that’s all baloney…  The truth is that kids aren’t in any way poetic, they’re merely savage little animals, except that no animal is as a quarter as selfish.”  Orwell illustrates this with a few examples, most graphically: “We used to catch toads, ram the nozzle of a bicycle pump up their backsides and blow them up till they burst.  That’s what boys are like.  I don’t know why.”  (To be fair to Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie is darker than it usually gets credit for.  At one point it has the villagers closing ranks and hiding the identity of a murderer.  At another it has a gang of boys plotting to rape a girl in the woods.)


But it’s not just the past that’s on Bowling’s mind.  He’s conscious of the future too, a future that’s ominously symbolised at the beginning of the book by a low-flying bomber he notices from his train-window.  A cataclysmic new war is on its way.  “I can hear the air-raid sirens blowing and the loudspeakers bellowing that our glorious troops have taken a hundred thousand prisoners…” he ruminates.  “I can see it all.  I see the posters and the food-queues, and the castor oil and the rubber truncheons and the machine guns squirting out of bedroom windows.”


Later, he wonders, “what’ll happen to chaps like me when we get Fascism in England? The truth is it probably won’t make the slightest difference… the ordinary middling chaps like me will be carrying on just as usual.  And yet it frightens me – I tell you it frightens me.”  Bowling sees not just war ahead but, riding on its coat-tails, the nightmare of totalitarianism.  Indeed, Coming Up for Air feels at times like a precursor to 1984.  Possibly, in the alternative historical timeline of 1984, Bowling survived to the 1960s, after the atomic wars and Britain’s absorption into the super-state of Oceania.  Though I suspect that he’d have been sensible enough to discard his lower middle-class trappings and disappear into the ranks of the Proles.


Unfortunately, this theme causes Coming Up for Air’s one misstep.  Near the end, Orwell describes a traumatic incident in the new, not-necessarily-improved Lower Binfield, which serves both to highlight again the inevitability of war and to convince Bowling that it’s time to abandon the past and return home.  But the incident feels unlikely and contrived.  For me, it makes the book fall a little short of perfection.


But generally it’s an excellent read.  What’s striking about it today are Orwell’s rueful observations about the injustices of the economic system in pre-World War II Britain.  For instance, Bowling is a prisoner of his mortgage (“we don’t own our houses, even when we’ve finished paying for them.  They’re not freehold, only leasehold”); and he recalls how his father’s seed-shop in Lower Binfield was gradually squeezed out of existence by a bigger, better-resourced rival called Sarazins’ (“the big retail seedsmen who had branches all over the home county”).  Such details sound depressingly familiar.  They’re reminders that cutthroat, laissez-faire capitalism didn’t just begin at the end of the 1970s when neoliberals like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to power.  In this respect, Coming Up for Air feels uncomfortably closer to 2016 than it does to 1984.


And now for A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935)…


© Ralph Steadman / New Statesman 


Carry on cabbie


© Jonathan Cape


Irvine Welsh’s 2015 novel A Decent Ride continues the story of ‘Juice’ Terry Lawson, who previously appeared in the Welsh oeuvre as a major character in the 2001 book Glue and a supporting one in 2002’s Porno.  (Incidentally, Porno was the sequel to Welsh’s breakthrough novel, 1993’s Trainspotting; and, even as I write this, it’s being filmed by Danny Boyle as Trainspotting 2.)


When he made his debut in Glue, Terry – arrogant, fickle, devoid of self-awareness, not terribly bright and driven by a desire to shag everything in a skirt in the Edinburgh area – seemed like the book’s least likeable character.  However, later in the book, after Terry had lost his sex appeal, piled on the pounds and turned into a roly-poly Falstaff-like figure, he’d become surprisingly endearing.  Welsh rounded off Glue with a hundred-page tour-de-force of comic writing with Terry, whilst cleaning windows at Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel, somehow befriending a North American singing superstar (inspired by Celine Dion) who was in town for an Edinburgh Festival gig.  He took her on a pub-crawl down some bars in Leith that were definitely off the recommended list for festival-visitors.  The singer’s manager, believing her to have been kidnapped, set off in pursuit.  The episode concluded with Terry wedged upside down between the banisters at the top of a hotel stairwell, reflecting on how a ‘lesser man’ – i.e. one with a smaller beer-gut – would have slipped between the banisters and dropped down the stairwell to his doom.


By the time of Porno, Terry had slimmed down again and was back giving it ‘to the ladies’.  His favourite pastime got a boost when he fell in with Trainspotting’s most entrepreneurial character, Simon ‘Sick Boy’ Williamson, who put him to work starring in homemade porn movies he was shooting in the backroom of a pub.


In A Decent Ride Terry is still making porn with Sick Boy, but he earns his main living by driving a taxi around the tram-ravaged streets of Edinburgh – the novel is set in 2011-2012 with the city still blighted by the over-budget, behind-schedule tram-works.  Meanwhile, he remains Edinburgh’s number-one Lothario, although with him now in his late forties you wonder for much longer he can, er, keep it up.  The book begins with him giving a taxi ride to Ronnie Checker, an American billionaire-cum-reality-TV-show-star with a terrible haircut who’s planning a dodgy property deal in the Scottish countryside and who can’t possibly be based on anyone in the real world.  Terry ends up becoming Checker’s sidekick and confidant in Scotland.  Perversely, thanks to his apparent ignorance and lack of self-awareness, he appears more trustworthy than all the suited sycophants Checker has working for him.


A Decent Ride‘s plot soon becomes tangled.  While Ronnie Checker enlists Terry’s help in securing three fabled and priceless bottles of Scotch whisky, with the success or failure of his quest depending on a game of golf with a billionaire rival, Terry also gets unwillingly roped into minding a ‘massage parlour’ for a local gangster.  And there’s serious stuff going on in his personal life too.  He learns that his hated father Henry – who walked out on his family while Terry was a youngster – is dying of cancer in hospital.  He meets for the first time his half-brother Jonty, a simple-minded but good-natured soul whom Henry sired with another woman (subsequently abandoned as well).  Most importantly, he’s informed that thanks to a just-diagnosed heart condition he can’t have sex any more.  Terry unsurprisingly takes this last thing badly.  It unhinges him to the point where he starts imagining he’s being berated by his sex-starved penis.


Into this, Welsh also weaves various real-life goings-on in Edinburgh during 2011 and 2012 – not only the trams fiasco but the 2012 Cup Final between Hibs and Hearts, and also Hurricane Friedhelm, the storm that struck Scotland in December 2011 and was less elegantly but more memorably known to the locals as ‘Hurricane Bawbag’.  Ronnie Checker, with bad memories of Hurricane Katrina, finds Hurricane Bawbag traumatic.  Cowering in his Edinburgh hotel room during it, he thinks: “That castle, that’s where the high ground is, that’s where I gotta be!  I’ll bet that Salmond guy – Jesus, even the politicians are out of shape here – and all those assholes are up there right now, drinking the best Skatch, gorging themselves on sheep’s intestines, safe and secure from this f**king apocalypse!”


I admit I started reading A Decent Ride with low expectations.  Terry is amusing in Glue but he’s one of its several main characters; and I was dubious about him sustaining a book on his own.  Perhaps seeing this as a potential problem, Welsh makes his half-brother Jonty the focus of several chapters, but Jonty’s naïve, simple-minded narrative voice is hard to listen to.  I also felt Welsh was recycling too many ideas from his earlier books.  The joke of Juice Terry meeting Donald Trump is lessened by the fact that we’ve already had the joke of Juice Terry meeting Celine Dion in Glue.  And when Terry’s frustrated penis starts talking to him – doing a Mel Gibson impersonation and shouting “Freedom!” – you recall how Welsh had a tapeworm talking out of the hero’s stomach in 1998’s Filth.


© The Guardian


And yet…  A hundred pages into A Decent Ride, I realised I was hooked.  I couldn’t stop reading it.  Terry is allowed some character development and I was pleasantly surprised to find him both a smarter character – he puts one over on Ronnie Checker – and a nicer one – he takes Jonty under his wing – than I’d thought.  (Thankfully, Jonty’s ramblings become less annoying as the book continues and I came to appreciate Terry’s sense of protectiveness towards him.)   And even if certain plot elements are derivative, Welsh wrings some genuine laughs out of them.  A Decent Ride is never going to be seen as a work of searing realism in the way that Trainspotting was – there are too many absurdities and coincidences – but, taken in the right spirit, it is very funny.


At the same time, readers who enjoyed Welsh’s disregard for restraint, subtlety and good taste in earlier novels like Marabou Stork Nightmares (1995) and Filth will savour the moments of visceral hideousness that occasionally crop up in A Decent Ride.  Incidents involving necrophilia, incest, anal rape and a cremation that goes gruesomely wrong (reminiscent of an episode in Iain Banks’ 1992 novel The Crow Road) prove that the beast still has teeth.


One nice thing about Welsh is how the characters from his various books wander in and out of each other’s stories, creating the impression that Edinburgh is one big Irvine-verse of junkies, jakeys, gangsters, football hooligans and misfits having overlapping adventures.  Here, as well as a guest appearance by Sick Boy, we get Clifford Blades – the kindly but luckless stooge to the loathsome Bruce Robertson in Filth – making a welcome return as one of Terry’s fellow cabbies.


The obvious danger with A Decent Ride is that by having a hero as shag-happy as Terry the book runs the risk of being sexist or misogynist.  When he claims that “F**k off means naw, naw means mibbe, mibbe means aye n aye means anal.  Guaranteed!” he’s hardly in tune with a modern world where there’s been much debate about what constitutes legitimate consent to sexual intercourse and where “No means no!” has become a call to arms.  To avoid this, in part, Welsh cheats.  He has Terry intervening to protect the girls at the massage parlour against some vile gangsters – a plot contrivance showing that, at heart, despite his sexist bravado, Terry is one of the good guys.


But mainly, Welsh opts for the view that sex, between consulting adults, is a good thing; and if, like Terry, they want to get as much of it as they possibly can, well, good luck to them.  By a coincidence, I read A Decent Ride at the same time that I read French author Michel Houellebecq’s 2005 novel Platform, which takes a clinical and ultimately sour and pessimistic attitude towards sex and sexuality.  I have to say that I much preferred the simple, straightforward and happily bacchanalian celebration of sex that you get in A Decent Ride.


Indeed, it almost makes you proud to be Scottish.


The Golding notebook


(c) The Guardian


During my youth I read a number of books by William Golding.  I read Lord of the Flies (1954) as a schoolboy, of course.  While he was teaching it as a set text on the English syllabus, my teacher recommended a couple of other novels by Golding and I tracked down and read them too.  These were The Inheritors (1955), Pincher Martin (1956) and The Spire (1964).  Somewhere along the way, I also read The Scorpion God (1971), consisting of three novellas that were set in prehistory, ancient Rome and ancient Egypt.  But for a long time afterwards, that was that as far as William Golding was concerned for me.


Then a few years back, in a second-hand bookshop, I picked up a set of novels that comprised Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth trilogy: Rites of Passage (1980), Close Quarters (1987) and Fire Down Below (1989).  I greatly enjoyed them, especially the first one, which in the year of its publication had won the Booker Prize.  No doubt one reason why I liked them so much was the fact that I’m a sucker for any sort of story taking place in a ship, on the high seas, in historical times.  Anyway, the trilogy reminded me that there were several books by Golding I still hadn’t read – books that seemed to remain below the radar, out of sight and out of mind, while everyone raved on about Lord of the Flies.  So I vowed to read the rest of Golding’s fiction.


I recently completed my quest, having read five more William Golding novels in the last two-to-three years.  Coincidentally, each one of the five was published in a different decade during the second half of the 20th century: the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.  Here’s what I thought of them.


Free Fall (1959)


Golding’s meditation on fate, free will, memory and regret has an Englishman called Mountjoy – who’s a talented artist but a troubled human being – end up in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II.  There, he gets incarcerated in a terrifyingly black and unknowable room with the promise that he’s soon to be tortured.  The German officer who’s placed him in it was, disturbingly, a psychiatrist in his pre-war civilian past.


Alone in the darkness, struggling to retain his sanity, “trapped without hope”, the artist relives parts of his life: his impoverished childhood, his adoption by a priest, his schooldays when he alternated between the influences of a sympathetic, rational-minded science teacher and a sadistic religious-education one, and his tragic relationship with a young woman.


It’s an uneven book.  I read it two years ago and can still remember the prison-camp scenes and the childhood ones vividly, although other parts of it have faded in my memory.  But overall, Free Fall had a considerable impact on me and it’s definitely an underrated novel in the Golding canon.


3.5 out of 5, I’d say.


(c) Faber Books


The Pyramid (1967)


The Pyramid is a trilogy of connected novellas concerning a young man – later, not-so-young – called Oliver and his relationship with the small market town in ‘middle England’ in which he grows up.  Its cover-blurb would have you believe that The Pyramid represents William Golding lightening up and attempting to write something funny.  And the central novella is funny, dealing with Oliver’s involvement in a production by the town’s amateur operatic society, organised by an outside professional producer who, it becomes clear, is utterly contemptuous of his small-town charges and is also a drunken reprobate.


But the first story, dealing with Oliver’s first love affair, is actually very troubling.  The way he ends up treating the object of his affections makes us wonder if the barbarism that soon surfaces on the island in Lord of the Flies is actually any further away from the teenaged characters here, in England.  Meanwhile, the final story has a sad, with-the-wisdom-of-hindsight flavour as Oliver looks back on the life of the eccentric and ostracised woman who taught him to play piano.  It ends with a savage twist that gives a new perspective to what has gone before.


I struggled with the first story in The Pyramid, but the second and third ones are very well-told.  For all its pastoral charm, incidentally, the town is portrayed as being rife both with social snobbery and with the curtain-twitching desire to know and gossip about everyone else’s business.  Actually, it doesn’t sound that much more hospitable an environment for Golding’s characters than the desert island in Lord of the Flies or the prehistoric forest in The Inheritors.


My verdict? Another 3.5 out of 5.


Darkness Visible (1979)


For me, Darkness Visible was where Golding lost the plot.  Literally lost it – for though there are tracts of memorable writing here, the plot is too bizarrely convoluted for it to be enjoyable.  We get a social misfit called Matty, grotesquely disfigured in his childhood thanks to a German bomb during the London Blitz, who grows up with possible supernatural powers, including the ability to converse with spirits; a pair of attractive but sociopathic twin girls called Sophie and Toni, whom we first see stoning a duckling to death as it swims past on a river; an episode dealing with Matty’s schooldays and his encounters with a paedophilic schoolmaster; a detour to Australia, where Matty almost gets castrated by an Aborigine; and a criminal plot, hatched by one of the twins, to kidnap the child of a wealthy oil sheik from the English boarding school where Matty has found work as a handyman.  Darkness Visible feels like Golding throwing his hands up in disgust at the 1970s, a decade of oil shortages, terrorism and general doom and gloom.  But the disgust he tries to express here comes out in too garbled a form.


2.5 out of 5 for this one.


(c) Faber Books


The Paper Men (1984)


For all its faults, I prefer Darkness Visible, which at least had some memorable sections, to The Paper Men, which isn’t memorable at all.  Indeed, The Paper Men is another example of why, for me, so much British literature sucked in the 1980s – because it’s about writers.  (The situation reached its nadir in 1984, when the Booker Prize managed to have on its six-book shortlist five books that had novelists, biographers, literary critics and literary lecturers as their main characters.)  Surely, if you’re a writer, nothing is more pointless, irrelevant and incestuous than writing about other writers?  Yes, they say you should write about what you know, but why write about something that’s of no interest to the 99.999% of the world’s population who aren’t writers?


Worse, The Paper Men is about an ageing writer called Wilfred Barclay being pursued by a single-minded academic who wants to get hold of his personal papers so that he can write Barclay’s biography.  This makes it a particularly up-its-own-arse variant on the above – a campus novel.  (In the 1980s you could hardly move for the number of campus novels around, penned by the likes of David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury and Howard Jacobson.)  The ruefully abrupt ending to The Paper Men sticks in my mind, but I can barely remember anything about the 190 pages that preceded it.


2 out of 5 (and I’m being generous).


The Double Tongue (1995)


After The Paper Men, I thought I’d read everything by William Golding.  But then I discovered that a final novel, The Double Tongue, had been published two years after his death in 1993.  I didn’t expect much of it, since what was published was a second draft – and if he’d lived a little longer, Golding would’ve done another draft before submitting it to his publisher.  Thus, as it stands, The Double Tongue is an unfinished version.


But I found the book surprisingly enjoyable.  The story of a girl called Arieka who becomes a priestess at the Oracle of Delphi on Greece’s Mount Parnassus, at a time when the Romans are flexing their muscles in the direction of the Ancient Greeks, it’s brisk, wry and melancholic.  It’s probably not quite what Golding had intended, and it’s not in the same league as something like Robert Graves’s classic 1934 novel I, Claudius (which also features an appearance by the Oracle of Delphi).  But The Double Tongue at least ends William Golding’s career on a positive note.


A solid 3 out of 5.


(c) Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Ballard rises


(c) Recorded Picture Company / Film4 / StudioCanal


J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise, about a community living in a towering luxury apartment complex who gradually lose their marbles and grow dysfunctional and then dystopian, was first published in 1975.  However, I read it a decade later, after I’d become a massive fan of Ballard’s stories of psychological and sociological aberration.  So in my mind the novel is connected more with the 1980s.  I imagined the book’s well-heeled but losing-it characters as sleek Thatcherite yuppies.  Indeed, a few years after I read it, the Canary Wharf business district, including the 50-floor One Canada Square that for many years was Britain’s tallest building, started to spring up in east London.


Now, an additional three decades later, director Ben Wheatley, producer Jeremy Thomas and scriptwriter Amy Jump have unveiled their film version of High Rise and given it a strongly retro-1970s aesthetic.  Thus, when I watched it the other day, it was slightly discombobulating to see a book written in the 1970s, read by me in the 1980s, brought to the screen in the 2010s and set in a world that is the filmmakers’ exaggerated reimagining of the 1970s.


Just how retro-1970s is Wheatley and co.’s take on High Rise?  Answer: very.  There’s the stylistically gruesome 1970s – blokes wear flared trousers and have shit moustaches (Luke Evans’ moustache is particularly shit), ladies totter about on platform heels, everyone puffs on cigarettes.  There’s the happy, silly 1970s – Abba get referenced with a version of SOS, though it’s actually Portishead doing a slow, spooky rendition of the song.  And there’s the apocalyptic 1970s, the 1970s that had Britain’s conservatives worried their country was going to hell in a handcart – we catch a glimpse of Mary Whitehouse’s least favourite children’s comic, the notoriously violent Action (or ‘the seven-penny nightmare’ as it was dubbed by horrified tabloids); and we hear punk rock arrive in the form of Mark E. Smith of the Fall snarling his way through 1979’s Industrial Estate.  And the piles of garbage that accumulate with disconcerting speed in the high-rise building’s foyer bring to mind Britain’s strike-plagued Winter of Discontent in 1978/79.


(c) Recorded Picture Company / Film4 / StudioCanal


It’s no surprise that Wheatley has opted for this setting because 1970s British culture is clearly a big influence on him.  His earlier movies Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013) owe much to the 1970s British ‘folk horror’ films The Wicker Man (1973) and Blood on Satan Claw (1970); while his amusing black comedy about caravanning serial killers, Sightseers (2012), is a reworking of the famous 1976 TV play by Mike Leigh, Nuts in May (with a body count, obviously).  He’s also described the visionary British directors Nicholas Roeg, Ken Russell and John Boorman, all of whom hit their creative peak in the 1970s, as ‘the holy trinity’ for him.  I wonder if he was attracted to High Rise not so much because of the chance to film a J.G. Ballard novel as because of the fact that long ago it’d been a directorial project for his one of his heroes, Nicholas Roeg.


That’s not to say that Wheatley’s cinematic tastes diminish High Rise as an adaptation of a literary work.  It doesn’t lose the peculiar flavour of the original novel or its author. In fact, compared to the previous big movie versions of Ballard’s work, Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987) and David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), both of which bear the unmistakable stamp of their directors’ personalities, High Rise is the most Ballardian film of a Ballardian book yet.


We get that strange combination, so typical of Ballard, of well-bred, buttoned-up Englishness – like boys in a posh boarding school, the men in High Rise refer to one another by their surnames – and creeping madness.  In High Rise, like in much of his fiction, the characters tend not to resist the cataclysm that’s taking place around them. They conspire with and embrace it instead.  Here, while life in the building gradually goes tits-up through an escalating series of lift malfunctions, power-failures, water-stoppages and outbreaks of anti-social behaviour, its inhabitants don’t seem that bothered.  They celebrate the process by partying in the corridors and need little incentive before they graduate to staging raids against rival floors and finally to killing each other.


Tom Hiddleston neatly captures this unsettling blend of conventionality and insanity, repression and regression, in his portrayal of the main character, Robert Laing.  He’s a gentleman physiologist who moves into one of the building’s shiny new apartments but who never gets around to unpacking the stacks of boxes containing his possessions.  He ends up wearing the metallic grey paint he’s bought for redecorating the place like war-paint.  (This is after he nearly beats to death a customer who also wants the paint in the building’s 15th-storey supermarket: “It’s my paint!”)  By the movie’s finish – which also serves as its prologue – Hiddleston is acting out the novel’s opening line, which incidentally is one of the greatest opening lines in modern British literature: “As he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”


(c) Recorded Picture Company / Film4 / StudioCanal


Wheatley is also well-served by the supporting cast, which includes Luke Evans, Sienna Miller, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Reece Shearsmith and Bill Paterson; and, in the role of Royal, the architect who designed the high rise and now lives at its top in an opulent penthouse surrounded by rooftop gardens, Jeremy Irons.  Early on, we see Irons and his wife hosting a fancy dress party with the theme of the Palace of Versailles, the Ancien Régime and Louis XVI, which is tempting fate when the less wealthy families on the lower floors are already getting pissed off about the faltering infrastructure.


High Rise won’t be everyone’s cup of tea and it doesn’t surprise me that it’s received mixed reviews, with detractors throwing around terms like ‘muddle’ and ‘dog’s dinner’.  Anyone expecting a straightforward yarn wherein folk in a block of flats go Lord of the Flies will be disappointed.  Ballard was never terribly interested in linear narratives and Wheatley honours the tradition by providing scenes that seem randomly hallucinogenic, comedic and horrific.  Like Ballard’s fiction generally, the film is stuffed with ideas that are played around with for a while before being discarded.  And given that some of the characters appear a bit unhinged even when the high rise is functioning normally, it’s a bit difficult to develop a logical plot here.  How do you chart a descent into collective madness when several participants seem mad anyway?


Nonetheless, I greatly enjoyed High Rise and I assume other fans of J.G. Ballard’s work will enjoy it too; and I suspect the great man himself – who died in 2009 – would have got a big kick out of it.  I found the film enthralling and compulsive, disturbing and at times unfathomable; and since seeing it I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.  Which is the same effect that Ballard’s books have always had on me.  A result for Ben Wheatley, I’d say.




McIlvanney’s loyalties


(c) Hodder and Stoughton


“Life’s a spendthrift mother.  Once she has given what she has, it’s ungrateful to complain that she didn’t have the foresight to take out an insurance policy on your behalf.   You just say thanks.”


The above line probably isn’t one you’d expect to find in a detective novel.  But it comes from Strange Loyalties, published in 1991, which was the third and final book by Scottish writer William McIlvanney to have as its hero Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw.  A few weeks ago I got around to reading it.


Laidlaw is tough enough to hold his own among the hard men, low-life and riff-raff he encounters during his police-work in the mean streets of Glasgow, but he’s also an intellectual and philosophical soul and by the time of Strange Loyalties he’s more philosophical than ever.  This is partly because he’s now in his middle years; and partly because he’s seen Scotland and the old industrialised, working-class character that once defined much of it transformed – not for the better – by the economic policies of the Thatcher government of the 1980s.


Strange Loyalties begins with Laidlaw setting out to solve another case, though this time it’s a personal matter rather than one of police-work.  Back in his Ayrshire hometown of Graithnock, his brother Scott has recently died in a road accident, a senseless accident that hints at suicide.  Taking it upon himself to investigate on a non-official basis, Laidlaw wonders, “Where did the accident begin…?  In the middle of the road?  At the kerb-side?  In the pub before he went out?  In the fact that he drank too much?”  But while he digs into his brother’s past, he comes across another death that needs investigating.  Not far from where his brother lived and died, Laidlaw hears about an ex-miner called Dan Scoular, who’s been killed in a supposed hit-and-run accident.


Although McIlvanney wrote two previous Laidlaw novels, 1977’s Laidlaw and 1983’s The Papers of Tony Veitch, Strange Loyalties is actually more of a sequel to his 1986 novel The Big Man – which, despite being populated with gangsters, is regarded as one of his ‘mainstream’ and ‘literary’ works.  The Big Man tells the story of how Dan Scoular, after losing his job in the local colliery, reluctantly agrees to take part in an illegal bare-knuckle fight being organised by two Glaswegian gangsters.  The gangster he’s fighting on behalf of, Matt Mason, is offering a large sum of money that would help him and his family make ends meet.  Inevitably, after going against his better instincts and accepting Mason’s proposal, Scoular finds out there are more complicated and nastier things going on behind the scenes.  At The Big Man’s end, Scoular betrays Mason and returns to his home town, not knowing if or when the gangster will seek revenge against him.  Unfortunately for Scoular, that revenge has been exacted by the start of Strange Loyalties.


Though Laidlaw never had a chance to meet and know Scoular, he feels a bond with him and undertakes the job of pinning his murder on the villainous Mason.


Meanwhile, he also has to unravel the mystery surrounding his brother Scott.  Though Scott was involved with some of the people who knew Scoular – shortly before his death, for instance, he was seen arguing with Frankie White, the local petty criminal who unwisely set Scoular up with Mason in the first place – he doesn’t seem to have been killed at Mason’s bidding.  Laidlaw rummages in the affairs of his brother’s widow and of a well-to-do local businessman who’s taken a shine to her since Scott’s death.  However, Laidlaw gradually realises that the answer lies further back in the past.  Scott was an amateur painter and a piece of art he’s left behind suggests that the seeds of his destruction were sown while he was a young, idealistic undergraduate.  Inexorably, the novel moves towards a denouement where Laidlaw learns that his brother wasn’t just a victim.  He was responsible for bad things too and then had to live with the guilt of them.


The theme of guilt runs though Strange Loyalties like colouring running through a stick of rock.  However, the book’s also pervaded by a melancholy about things changing and things being lost.  Laidlaw empathises with the late Dan Scoular because he was a decent, old-fashioned working man who was screwed by the economic changes – in his case the destruction of Britain’s coal industry – of the 1980s.  And Laidlaw is instinctively suspicious of the flash character with whom his former sister-in-law has taken up – a symbol of a new society where approval is bestowed not on those virtuous in character but on those with the most money in their pockets.  “Why,” he ponders, “do the best of us go to waste while the worst of us flourish?”


In one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, Laidlaw catches up with the slippery Frankie White when he returns to the area to visit his dying mother.  Old Mrs White has no knowledge of her son’s criminal activities and believes him to be decent; and Frankie begs Laidlaw to pretend to be his friend and say good things about him at her bedside, so that she’ll pass away feeling some pride in him.  Laidlaw recognises Mrs White as being of an older generation of working-class women who toiled in hard circumstances, sacrificed everything for their families and never complained; and out of respect for her he plays along with Frankie’s deception.


Laidlaw’s yearning for simpler and more virtuous times and his distrust of materialistic modernity come to a head late in the novel when he returns to Glasgow and has to deal with his girlfriend.  She’s a patient and good-hearted person but her line-of-work – running a fancy, upmarket, yuppie-orientated restaurant – can’t help but irritate him.  And when Laidlaw appears, slightly the worse for drink, at a party being held there for some of the city’s movers and shakers, the results are painful.


Strange Loyalties isn’t perfect.  There are a couple of errors – for example, a Polish man who arrived in Scotland during World War II is described as a ‘prisoner of war’, but since the Poles fought against the Nazis the Scots surely wouldn’t have treated him as a P.O.W. – that ought to have been sorted at the editing stage.  And where the Dan Scoular and Scott Laidlaw plotlines overlap, I feel there are a few threads left hanging that could’ve been tidied up.  But nonetheless it’s an excellent book.  I hate people who snobbishly differentiate between ‘literary’ fiction and ‘genre’ fiction, but Strange Loyalties skilfully blends both.  It’s succeeds whatever way you look at it, either as a literary story with a bit of police-work in it; or as a detective story with some literary ambitions, which it more than meets.


Incidentally, it would’ve been great to see Laidlaw reappear in a fourth novel.  But that, alas, will never be because McIlvanney died in December of last year.  Still, Strange Loyalties at least gives his tough but contemplative detective a fine send-off


(c) BBC


Burma, by George


You know the feeling of pleasurable surprise and relief you get when you’re walking through a place you haven’t been in before, populated with people you don’t know, and ahead you suddenly spy a familiar face?  I had that feeling a while ago while I was walking along a street in Yangon, capital city of Myanmar.  Under the awning of a bookshop I spotted a kindly-looking face, liberally etched with lines and sporting an avuncular moustache, which could have belonged to some British character actor who specialised in playing crusty civil servants and harassed bureaucrats in post-war Ealing comedy films.


Yes, the face was that of the great English author, essayist and journalist George Orwell.  It was pictured on a poster advertising a new edition of his 1934 novel Burmese Days, which was set in Myanmar while it was still part of the British Empire, ruled from Delhi and known as Burma.  The edition advertised was a Burmese translation done by Maung Myint Kywe in 2013.



By coincidence, I’d read Burmese Days for the first time only months earlier.  As the Scottish political commentator and columnist Gerry Hassan has noted, Orwell “challenged three big issues of his day, Stalinism, Nazism and… Empire.”  Burmese Days, which draws on Orwell’s experiences as an officer in the Indian Imperial Police during the 1920s, sees him grapple with the third of those topics, the British Empire.


Incidentally, it’s still a topic capable of causing controversy.  Take, for example, the publicity given to a recent YouGov poll that suggested 44% of Britons believed their country’s record of imperialism was something to be proud of.  This is despite the Indian Famine of 1899-1900, which killed at least a million people and was brought about in part by the British colonial administrators’ belief in laissez-faire economics.  Despite the British Empire’s invention, during the Boer War, of concentration camps – in which 26,000 Boer women and children lost their lives.  Despite the 1919 Amritsar Massacre in Punjab, which may have caused as many as 1000 fatalities.  And despite the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya during the 1950s that led to 12,000 official deaths but possibly another 8,000 or more unofficial ones.  Oh, and let’s not forget Britain’s messy exit from the Asian sub-continent, which sparked the largest mass-migration in human history, the Partition of India, and which killed something between 200,000 and two million people.


Obviously, when I started to read Burmese Days, I didn’t expect Orwell to be singing the praises of British imperialism.  No, I expected him to slaughter it.  So how did the book measure up to my expectations?


What surprised me was that I didn’t think it was that stridently anti-Empire.  At least, Burmese Days doesn’t seem so much to condemn the greed, ruthlessness and hypocrisy behind the imperial system.  Rather, it focuses on the effects – most of them bad, admittedly – on the individuals working day to day at the business-end of it.  The British characters, living in a district called Kyauktada, are an exhausted, corrupted and brutalised lot.  Flory, the novel’s hero in theory if not in deed, is weak, indecisive and, ultimately, tragically stupid – but more on him in a minute.  Then there are characters such as Ellis, an out-and-out racist bastard; Lackersteen, a drunken lecher who, when his wife’s back is turned, will happily chase a bit of tail, whether it’s the local Burmese women or his own niece; and Lieutenant Verrall, whose youthful and dashing veneer only briefly disguises the fact that he’s an arrogant, stuck-up and untrustworthy arsehole of the highest, or lowest, order.


The British memsahibs are no better.  Mrs Lackersteen is a scandalmongering and scheming shrew who’s managed to spend decades in Burma without ever learning a word of the local language.  Meanwhile, her niece Elizabeth, who arrives part-way through the novel and becomes, for a while at least, an item with Flory, initially gives the impression of sophistication but soon proves to be vacuous and fickle.  Flory loses his appeal for her in part because he tries to acquaint her with the indigenous culture, which he finds fascinating but she thinks is primitive and disgusting.  A little later, she’s relieved to fall into Verrall’s arms instead – though Verrall, needless to say, drops her the moment he decides it’s time to sling his hook.


Yet Burmese Days isn’t just about British colonial types being horrid.  The natives are pretty awful too.  Local Burmese magistrate U Po Kyin is vile morally and physically.  Not only is he wickedly corrupt but he’s grossly obese and Orwell’s descriptions make him sound like a cross between Fu Manchu and Jabba the Hut.  Aware of his own evilness, U Po Kyin hopes to neutralise his bad karma (and avoid being reincarnated as a frog or a rat) by spending his later years building Buddhist pagodas.  Elsewhere, Ma Hla May, who at the start of the book is Flory’s mistress, is a vain and profligate creature who elicits no sympathy even though, on paper, she’s a victim of a white man’s wantonness.  She’s such a diva that we can understand why Flory has no qualms about ejecting her from his household when Elizabeth appears on the scene.


If the British Empire is to be despised, Orwell suggests here, it’s not so much because of its oppression of countries.  It’s because it brings out the worst and promotes the least savoury of what’s already in those countries.


(c) Penguin Books


It’s hard finding someone in Burmese Days whom you feel much sympathy for.  Flory is understanding towards and knowledgeable about the Burmese and has no illusions regarding the system he’s working for, but his wishy-washiness in front of his racist countrymen and his failure to see Elizabeth for what she is become annoying.  Meanwhile, his best friend in Kyauktada is an Indian doctor called Veraswami, who is clearly intelligent and decent but prey to a foolish idealism.  For Dr Veraswami is the only person in the novel who passionately believes that – surprise! – the British Empire is a force for the good, bringing civilisation to corners of the globe where it didn’t exist before.  This prompts some ironic discussions where Flory, one of the oppressors, argues against the Empire while Veraswami, one of the oppressed, argues for it.


Burmese Days’ main storyline concerns a scheme by U Po Kyin to destroy Veraswami.  The doctor, well aware of what U Po Kyin is up to, is desperate to join Kyauktada’s European Club, which he believes will give him sufficient status to protect him against the fat magistrate’s plots.  He pins his hopes on Flory nominating him for the club’s membership — though to do this, Flory will have to show courage and square up to the club’s more bigoted members, like Ellis and the Lackersteens, who’ll object to having an Indian in their social ranks.  Thus, we spend the book waiting for the feckless Flory to bottle it and abandon his friend Veraswami by failing to nominate him.


But in the end, this doesn’t happen.  What happens is that U Po Kyin eliminates Flory before he can (or can’t) get Veraswami into the club.  Just as Flory and Elizabeth rekindle their romance, the magistrate encourages the spurned Ma Hla May to create a very public scene that leaves Flory humiliated.  Revolted, Elizabeth dumps Flory again and he kills himself – though in depriving him of the shallow and insipid Elizabeth, you can’t help feeling that U Po Kyin and Ma Hla May have done him a favour.


It’s all good dramatic stuff, but I was left with the impression that the novel pulls its punches a little.  Because Flory isn’t given a chance to betray Veraswami, Burmese Days is never quite the damning indictment of the British colonial mind-set – which compels even a well-meaning character like Flory to do something utterly shameful – it should be.


By the way, I’ve made Burmese Days sound like a litany of grimness and despair, but in fact I thought it was an entertaining read.  A lot goes on in its pages, and not just the twists and turns of the intrigue between U Po Kyin and Veraswami and of Flory’s doomed romance with Elizabeth.  There are also episodes involving an attack by a buffalo, a hunting expedition, an earthquake, an assassination with dahs (Burmese swords), a rebellion and a riot.  And the narrative is nicely embroidered with Orwell’s descriptions of the landscapes and indigenous culture.  However, the fact that Burmese Days is so busy with incident and detail is another reason why I have difficulty in viewing it as primarily a work of anti-imperialist polemic.


On the other hand…  Last week, I finished reading Doris Lessing’s 1950 novel The Grass is Singing.  Now if you want a crushing condemnation of European colonialism, you should read that.  It truly is depressing.