Our man in Pyongyang writes a book


One place that I’ve been to during my travels and that I haven’t written about in this blog so far is the DPRK, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – or North Korea as it’s known to the English-speaking world – where I worked from 2005 to 2007.  Predictably, that’s the country about which people will bombard me with questions if, in conversation, I let it slip that I’ve been there.  Sure, they’ve heard plenty about the DPRK on one hand, but they know nothing about the details of life there on the other.  So, understandably, they’re intensely curious.


However, before I took up residency in the DPRK’s capital city, Pyongyang, I was warned by my superiors to say nothing about the country to Western journalists and to avoid expressing opinions about it on social media.  Basically, if uncomplimentary comments are made about the country’s regime, and the intelligence services get to hear of them, steps may well be taken to punish the commenter.  And if that person is untouchable because, say, he happens to be a Westerner with Western diplomatic privileges, then the people he works with who are touchable may be punished instead.  Thus, by mouthing off publicly about life in the DPRK, I might put at risk the North Korean people whom I worked with.  (My North Korean colleagues, incidentally, were by-and-large lovely people.  They possessed a mocking, nicely sarcastic sense of humour that was actually very much like the humour of the British.)


Anyway, I’ve noticed that John Everard, who was British Ambassador to the DPRK during the second year I lived there, has recently written a book – a memoir from the sound of things, though with some historical and political commentary as well – about the country called Only Beautiful Please.  According to the reviews I’ve read (for instance, at http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/120816/north-korea-john-everard-journalists-reporting and http://londonkoreanlinks.net/2012/12/19/book-review-john-everard-only-beautiful-please/), it’s an informative and entertaining work, but the very existence of this book makes me feel uncomfortable.


I have a suspicion that if the book is less than positive about the regime’s character, the North Koreans whom John Everard was in regular contact with during his time there (and who presumably and unintentionally supplied him with many of the anecdotes about daily life in the DPRK that fill the book’s pages) could get into big trouble.  At least some of those people, I would imagine, were ones I had contact with too.


Now I have nothing against Mr Everard.  During the year that I knew him, he was extremely supportive of the programme I was working on.  I was also very grateful to him and his staff at the British Embassy in Pyongyang when, three weeks before I was due to finish there in 2007, a family bereavement meant I had to leave the country a little sooner than I’d anticipated – they dealt with various pieces of red tape and enabled me to make an early exit.  Nonetheless, I sincerely hope he’s been cautious about what he says in his book and about whom he attributes his ‘inside information’ to.


One thing I will say about my life in Pyongyang – I had to devise a lot of strategies to deal with the plentiful free time that I found myself with.  During those two years, I read a great deal.  I managed, for example, to read all of Thomas Hardy’s lesser known novels – Two on a Tower, A Laodicien, The Hand of Ethelberta, Desperate Remedies, The Well-Beloved.  Also, I ended up writing a book myself.  This was a history of one of my local football teams back in Scotland, Peebles Rovers, which was researched by my brother and his mate, Dougie Swann.  They sent me the results of their research and I wrote it all up.



The History of Peebles Rovers was published while I was still living in Pyongyang.  How my blood froze when I discovered that the local newspaper in Peebles, the Peeblesshire News, had printed an article about it.  One of the Peeblesshire’s tabloid-trained hacks interviewed my brother, then ignored everything he’d said and invented a pile of lies about how the book had been written in Pyongyang.  The finished article made out that I’d written the book under oppressive circumstances similar to those under which Anne Frank had written her diary in wartime Amsterdam.  Now obviously the North Korean intelligence services don’t normally read the Peeblesshire News when it comes out every Friday morning.  For a while, however, when you Googled the words Ian Smith North Korea, the first thing that came up was a link to the article, bad-mouthing the DPRK, on the newspaper’s website.  But I didn’t get into any trouble about it, as things turned out.  My hosts evidently didn’t consider me worthy of the occasional security check.


In a later attempt not to succumb to inactivity and indolence, I joined forces with my next-door neighbour, who was Swiss, and we undertook a project whereby we transformed one of our apartment-building’s garages.  Until then, the garage had been a long-disused concrete shell, festooned with cobwebs and smothered with dust.



We cleaned the garage out, painted it, installed some lights and furniture and turned it into a Cuban theme bar.  As you do.  Thus, if John Everard’s book refers to a crazy pair of foreigners who turned their Pyongyang garage into something resembling a hang-out on the main tourist drag in Havana, that will be us.  Though I’m sure that it doesn’t.



Mind you, as this photograph proves, the future author of Only Beautiful Please was spotted enjoying the ambience of Pyongyang’s first Cuban bar on its opening night.



The moonshine boys: film review / Lawless


(c) Filmnation


Lawless, the recent 1930s-set American-backwoods gangster movie, comes with impressive credentials.  It’s directed by John Hillcoat, whose CV includes the 2005 Australian-western The Proposition and the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road.  It’s scripted by singer-songwriter and occasional novelist Nick Cave, who also scripted The Proposition.  (Along with Warren Ellis, he supplied the music for The Road, but had no hand in that film’s screenplay.)  And its cast contains a number of big-hitters, both established stars like Guy Pearce and Gary Oldman and up-and-coming ones like Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska and Shia LaBeouf.  Yet despite the talent on display, and despite some good moments, Lawless never manages to be the sum of its parts.  Why not?


Part of the problem is the weight of expectation attached to Lawless, following Hillcoat and Cave’s previous collaboration, The Proposition. That film was remarkable – ostensibly it was a western, though one set in the 19th-century Australian outback rather than on the American frontier.  It was suffused with lyricism but also doused in brutality, and – an increasingly rare thing for a period movie made these days – it was unflinching in its depiction of the dust, dirt, flies, grease and general squalor that constituted the daily living conditions for most people at that particular time and place.  Indeed, it left you feeling that the great civilising moment in Australian history came when somebody decided to import shampoo.


The plot of Lawless has some similarities with that of The Proposition.  Both films concern a trio of brothers living on the wrong side of the law, three sibling bushrangers in The Proposition, three sibling bootleggers called the Bondurant brothers – played by Hardy, LaBeouf and Jason Clarke – operating in the Virginian mountains during Prohibition in Lawless.  Also, both feature a lawman who tries to resolve problems through moderation and diplomacy, only to have his work violently and bloodily undone when a hard-line and unsympathetic superior intervenes.  In the case of Lawless, things turn bad with the arrival of Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, whom Guy Pearce plays as an out-and-out and practically psychotic bastard.


Unfortunately, that’s all there is to Lawless.   At the start, the three Bondurants are happily distilling moonshine while the county sheriff and his men tactfully turn a blind eye to their activities, provided a few free jars of the stuff are occasionally passed their way.  Then Pearce appears on the scene, disturbs the equilibrium, makes life hard for the Bondurants, and things reach an inevitably vicious conclusion.  Not only does the overall plot seem a bit thin, but it feels illogically protracted.  Even half-an-hour in, Pearce has shown himself to be such a malevolent prick that you wonder why Hardy and co couldn’t just shoot him to shreds there and then.


As a sub-plot, we have LaBeouf as the youngster of the family trying to prove himself to his older and more experienced brothers.  At first, he fails to impress.  He makes a fool of himself, gets beaten up and generally achieves nothing but derision.  Later, however, after he manages to strike an audacious deal that allows him to supply moonshine to a mobster in Chicago, played by Gary Oldman, he wins their respect and becomes a proper player in the family business.  Needless to say, as LaBeouf gets more successful, and as the money rolls in in growing quantities, his suits become costlier and smarter, his 1930s jalopies become bigger and shinier, and his demeanour becomes slicker and brasher.  But of course this young-novice-ascending-the-ladder-of-crime theme is one that’s appeared over and over again in gangster movies, ever since the days of real Prohibition.  Al Pacino, for example, has played a character undergoing the same rite-of-passage twice in his career, firstly in Francis Ford Coppola’s original Godfather movie in 1971 and then in Brian De Palma’s remake of Scarface in 1982.


In the absence of anything new, and with a lack of any real narrative meat, Lawless reminded me most of Sam Mendes’ 2002 effort with Tom Hanks, The Road to Perdition – another 1930s-set gangster film that looked good and had its moments of drama, but in the end simply hadn’t enough substance to become a classic.  I find this disappointing to report as I’d hoped the 1930s American Prohibition / Great Depression setting would fire Nick Cave’s imagination and inspire him to pen a weightier script than he did.  (Then again, he was working from the 2008 book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, a descendent of those Bondurant brothers, who in fact were real-life bootleggers in 1930s Virginia.  So Cave may have found his hands tied.)  Cave obviously has a fondness for this period, since it’s been a setting both for several of his songs, such as Stagger Lee, which begins, “It was back in ’32 when times were hard / He had a Colt 42 and a deck of cards…”; and for his first novel And the Ass saw the Angel, whose main character is described on the back-cover blurb as ‘(o)utcast, mute, a lone twin cut from a drunken mother in a shack full of junk.’


That said, Lawless contains much to enjoy during its two-hour running time.  The cinematography, capturing first the melancholy autumnal hues of the Virginian mountain forests (though it was actually filmed in Georgia) and then their verdant summer greenery, is gorgeous.  And Cave’s script does provide some inventive moments: lyrically inventive moments, such as when LaBeouf, infatuated with the local Baptist preacher’s daughter and tanked up on moonshine, stumbles drunkenly into a church service and finds himself participating in a weird but somehow erotic foot-bathing ceremony; and violently inventive ones, such as when Hardy punches a guy on his – ouch! – throat tumour.


And the performances are good.  LaBeouf manages to stay on the right side of smug – even as he rises towards the position of bootlegger kingpin, he keeps his character human and faintly mock-able, so that he doesn’t lose our sympathies.   Oldman’s role barely amounts to more than a cameo, but it’s always good to see him.  Pearce, meanwhile, doesn’t so much give a performance as serve up a king-sized portion of ham.  It’s quality ham, though — you can’t say he isn’t entertaining.


Among the supporting cast, mention should be made of Bill Camp as the peaceable local sheriff who finds himself stuck between a rock and a hard place while the situation between Pearce and the Bondurant brothers escalates into warfare; and Dane DeHaan who plays the Bondurants’ timid and lame-footed cousin Cricket.  As the brothers’ backroom boffin who designs and maintains their illicit stills and carries out repairs and improvements to their cars – he even discovers that their vehicles can run on moonshine when gasoline is in short supply – I suppose Cricket is to them what Brains was to the Tracey brothers in Thunderbirds.


However, if the film belongs to anyone, it belongs to Tom Hardy, who plays Forest Bondurant, the alpha male of the pack.  Hulking, brooding, often near-inarticulate and sometimes frighteningly brutish, Hardy generates a physical magnetism that makes it wholly believable that, say, a character as smart and sophisticated as the one played by Jessica Chastain should fall for him, mountain hick though he is.  I think a while back I wrote on this blog that Britain had never produced an actor the equal of the scary-yet-fascinating Oliver Reed, either B.O. (Before Ollie) or A.O. (After Ollie).  Well, on the strength of Hardy’s performance here, Britain has now.  Though I hope Hardy doesn’t blow his career as spectacularly as Reed did.


A word about the film’s musical soundtrack, which as you might expect from a production boasting the heavy involvement of Nick Cave, is very good.  For Lawless, Cave and Warren Ellis formed a ‘house band’ called the Bootleggers and invited a number of famous singers and musicians to collaborate with them, including the former Screaming Trees frontman and Isobel Campbell’s sometime partner in song, Mark Lanegan (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8A5tfubT_k), Gram Parson’s old muse Emmylou Harris (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yVfrkQjiB4) and legendary 85-year-old Virginian singer and banjoist Ralph Stanley (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3_BXZphU3Y).


The soundtrack isn’t for those expecting the music of a 1930s Virginia-set film to be historically and culturally accurate.  Among the above names, only Ralph Stanley belongs to the musical tradition of the area — the tradition brewed from Irish-Scottish folk, jazz and blues influences that, by the mid-20th century, was going under the name of ‘bluegrass’.  Purists may balk too at the fact that Stanley contributes a solo track that’s actually an eccentric cover of the Velvet Underground’s White Light / White Heat (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77lc1yxBtFE).  But most aficionados of good music won’t need to imbibe much moonshine before they find themselves tapping a foot to the tunes accompanying this movie.


Seven reasons why Robert Burns still rocks


From robertburns.org.uk


Tonight and over the weekend, whisky will be guzzled, haggis devoured, bagpipes blasted and Scots-dialect poetry recited with gusto at thousands of special suppers and get-togethers organised around the globe.  This is because today, January 25th, is the 254th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard and one of its most popular contributions to international culture.


Burns’ fame on the global stage is perhaps a little surprising, given that most of his poetry is written in Scots, rather than in standard English (whatever that is).  So why, more than two centuries after he died at the age of 37, is Robert Burns such a big deal?  Here are some reasons.


One.  Burns was a champion of the common man.  Born in humble circumstances, one of seven children of a farmer in Ayrshire, he was much more in tune with the ordinary masses than any of his literary contemporaries.  The American poet Waldo Emerson described him as the poet of ‘the poor, anxious, cheerful, working humanity’.  The fullest expression of his egalitarian instincts was the song A Man’s a Man for a’ That, which was adopted as an anthem by the anti-slavery abolitionist movement.


Unsurprisingly, later, socialists claimed Burns as one of their own.  A 1929 translation of his works into Russian sold a million copies and the Soviet Union honoured him with a commemorative stamp in 1954.  However, Burns obviously had appeal for capitalists too, for there are allegedly more statues of him in North America than of any other writer.


Two.  Burns was a songwriter too.  Indeed, if anything, he is more pervasive as a songwriter than as a poet.  In addition to A Man’s a Man…, he put Auld Lang Syne on paper – which, by virtue of being belted out at New Year celebrations everywhere, is arguably the most universally-sung song in the world.  In Japan it is played at everything from high school graduation ceremonies to evening closing-time in department stores.


Three.  Burns wasn’t afraid to criticise the moral and religious mores of his time.  His contempt for the censorious regime of Scotland’s Presbyterian Church was expressed most famously in Holy Willie’s Prayer, wherein a supposedly pious pillar of the church prays to God and unwittingly reveals himself as a scheming, bitter, drunken, lecherous hypocrite.  John Betjeman was so impressed by the conceit that he borrowed it for his poem In Westminster Abbey.


Four.  Burns has a massive cult that keeps his memory alive.  The first Burns societies began to congregate in his honour in about 1800, four years after his death. In 1859, the first centenary of his birth, almost 900 events were staged – 60 of them taking place outside Britain and the US.  Today, Burns societies are to be found everywhere from Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo and from Winnipeg to Jakarta.  It is claimed that the Russians have more such societies than even the Scots do.


Burns suppers on January 25th are marked by lusty recitals of his greatest poems, speeches and copious consumption of whisky and haggis.  Praised as the ‘great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race’ in Burns’ Address to a Haggis, haggis is surely the only offal-based foodstuff to have a piece of world-class literature written in its honour.  No other writer is commemorated by a yearly celebration on this scale.  Dublin’s James Joyce-themed Bloomsday on June 16th doesn’t come close.


Five.  Burns invented the concept of the doomed, decadent romantic poet.  Long before Byron and Shelley were painting the towns of Europe red and proving themselves mad, bad and dangerous to know, Burns had earned himself a mighty reputation for dissipation, both in the pub and in the bedchamber.  His love of strong drink is obvious in poems like John Barleycorn while his promiscuity led to him siring at least a dozen children with at least four different women – a common jibe at the time was that you could see his face in every pram on Edinburgh’s Princes Street.


Six.  Burns is controversial.  No doubt the arguments that have raged about him over the centuries have helped keep his fame alive.  Much debate has centred on whether or not someone with Burns’ obvious character flaws deserves such veneration.  At the beginning of 2009, just before the 250th anniversary of his birth, right-wing Scottish historian Michael Fry caused a storm in Scotland’s media when he denounced Burns as a ‘racist misogynist drunk’ who didn’t deserve to be presented to people as a role model – unwittingly echoing modern-day concerns about the examples that the likes of Pete Docherty or the late Amy Winehouse set for young people.


Seven.  It might be written in a particular dialect, but Burns’ work has had a considerable influence on the English language and on English-language culture.  Here are a few examples:


Proverbs from Burns:

The best laid plans of mice and men will go astray (‘The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley’ / from To a Mouse).

To see ourselves as others see us (‘To see ousel’s as ithers see us’ / from To a Louse).

There is no such uncertainty as a sure thing (attributed to Burns).


Phrases from Burns:

Man’s inhumanity to man (from Man was Made to Mourn).

Do or die (from Bannockburn).

Clean as a whistle (‘as toom’s a whissle’ / from The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer).

Fast and furious (from Tam O’Shanter).

Time nor tide (from Tam O’Shanter).

A parcel of rogues (from A Parcel of Rogues in a Nation).


Titles taken from Burns:

John Steinbeck’s novel, Of Mice and Men.

M.R. James’ short story, reckoned by some to be the greatest ghost story in English literature, O, Whistle and I’ll Come to you my Lad (the title of a Burns poem).

Ken Loach’s film, Ae Fond Kiss (the title of a Burns song).

The Vin Diesel car-chase / street-racing movie The Fast and the Furious.  (All right, with that one, the producers may not have been aware of the Robert Burns connection when they chose the title.)


Three sides to every story: book review / The Pyramid by William Golding


(c) Faber


William Golding’s 1967 novel The Pyramid was not the book the blurb on its back cover had led me to believe it was.  “Written with great perception and subtlety,” said the blurb, “The Pyramid is Golding’s funniest and most light-hearted novel, which probes the painful awkwardness of the late teens, the tragedy and farce of life in a small community and the consoling power of music.”


Having dealt with such hallucinogenic (and at times mentally exhausting) scenarios as a prehistoric one where gentle and semi-telepathic Neanderthals were exterminated by newly-appeared and ruthless Homo Sapiens (in The Inheritors), and a medieval one where a visionary and increasingly demented cathedral dean oversaw the building of a towering and tottering spire (in The Spire), and of course a desert-island one where a bunch of marooned private schoolboys descended into savagery (in Lord of the Flies), Golding could surely be forgiven for wanting to take a break from the heaviness, put his feet up for a while and write something light and wryly humorous about teenage frustrations and pretensions in a sleepy English country town.  However, I hadn’t gone far into The Pyramid before I realised it was going to be a darker and more challenging book than I’d expected.


Firstly, it should be explained that The Pyramid isn’t properly a novel, but a trilogy of novellas with the same central character and first-person narrator, and the same setting: Oliver, son of a lower-middle-class chemist employed in a doctor’s dispensary, and Stilbourne, the English Home Counties town where Oliver has grown up during the 1920s.  The supporting cast, which varies slightly from story to story, consists of Oliver’s parents and neighbours in Stilbourne.  Only in its central novella does The Pyramid supply the light-hearted fun that’s promised by the back-cover blurb.  I found the first and third novellas rather bleak.


In the first and longest story, Oliver is 18 years old and is sitting out the final summer before he leaves Stilbourne and begins undergraduate life at Oxford University.  He’s first seen moping, in classical teenager fashion, about the great imagined love of his life, Imogen Grantley, who comes from a higher-class family “with money to spend” and is soon to be married.  Thoughts of Imogen vanish, however, when events throw Oliver into the company of another local girl, Evie Babbacombe, who “was the Town Crier’s daughter and came from the tumbledown cottages of Chandler’s Close.”


The fact that, in the town’s social pecking order, Evie is as below Oliver as he is below his beloved Imogen is underlined by an observation he makes about Evie’s eccentric mother: “At normal times Mrs Babbacombe radiated a social awareness and friendliness that was indomitable, though seldom reciprocated…”  She’d make “a gracious, sideways bow to a person entirely out of her social sphere.  Naturally these greetings were never acknowledged or even mentioned; since no one could tell whether Mrs Babbacombe was mad, and believed herself entitled to make them, or whether she came from some fabulous country where the Town Crier’s wife and the wife of the Chief Constable might be on terms of intimacy.”


Oliver becomes infatuated with Evie – “In the conflict between social propriety and sexual attraction there was never much doubt which side would win” – though it’s a physical infatuation only.  When they enter into a relationship, of sorts, he has no intention of extending it beyond the start of autumn when he’s due to arrive among Oxford’s ivory towers and dreaming spires.  Accordingly, he is panic-stricken when the possibility arises that he may have made Evie pregnant.


The Pyramid’s opening tale is in many ways its most troubling, because we see Oliver unconsciously treating Evie with as much social contempt as others in the town – for example, Robert Ewan, caddish son of the local doctor, who has his own designs on Evie – treat him and his parents.  And when he first forces himself upon Evie on a wooded slope overlooking Stilbourne, for all his teenage clumsiness and cluelessness, we find his behaviour repellent.  Later, Evie spells out to him just what it was he did to her: “It all began…  when you raped me…  Up at the top of the hill…  In the clump.”


After that, the second novella in The Pyramid provides some welcome humour.  Set during the holiday period at the end of his first term at Oxford, it tells how Oliver, back in Stilbourne, gets roped into participating in a production called The King of Hearts, staged by Stilbourne Operatic Society (SOS), for which his mother plays piano.


Even here, the town’s class system – its virtual caste system – throws a long shadow: “…even if we had had a mass of talent and a vast stage, orchestra pit and auditorium, there would still have been an overriding limitation, the social one.  None of the college’s closed society was available; and Sergeant Major O’Donovan helped us only because he was right on the fringe of it.  Then again, at least half of Stilbourne’s population was ineligible, since it lived in places like Chandler’s Close and Miller’s Lane, and was ragged.  Though Evie sang and was maddeningly attractive, she would never have been invited to appear, not even as a member of the chorus.  Art is a meeting point; but you can only go so far.”


To produce their musical, the society has hired a professional called Evelyn De Tracey, whom Oliver’s besotted mother describes as “a charming man” who’s “taken all difficulties in his stride.”  Unexpectedly, Oliver gets taken into De Tracey’s confidence and he discovers the producer to be a drunken reprobate who quietly regards Stillbourne Operatic Society as the parochial, petty-bourgeoisie no-hopers that, frankly, they really are.  Making things more interesting still is the fact that Oliver, who has been drafted in to play a gypsy fiddler, has to share a stage with his old love Imogen and her new husband, Norman Claymore.  Claymore’s singing voice is described as sounding “like a gnat”.  His ego, however, is considerably larger than a gnat.


In its third and final episode, The Pyramid has Oliver returning to Stilbourne many years later, a successful man who has risen in the social hierarchy.  A chance meeting sets him reminiscing about the woman who taught him music when he was a child, an aloof and free-spirited woman called Clara ‘Bounce’ Dawlish who was never held in high esteem by Stilbourne’s respectable society.  Bounce scandalised the town by getting involved with a humble Welsh chauffeur called Henry Williams – “poor, hard-working, eager to improve himself, a lover of music and a first-class mechanic.”  Ironically, during the decades that followed, Henry – who represents technological and financial modernity – opened a garage in Stilbourne, built up a business and became its most powerful inhabitant, thus disrupting the established order.


As I embarked on this final novella, I expected what I was reading to become a sweet, wistful meditation on the impossibility of conducting a romance across the class divide in a closed-minded community.  However, the story proves to be more twisted.  It incorporates manipulation, betrayal and eventually madness, and neither Bounce nor Henry emerge from it particularly well.  Also, a last-minute comment from Oliver himself changes our perception, disturbingly, of how he’d viewed Bounce and her relationship with Henry.


As this entry should make clear, the class system is the monster in whose baleful gaze the incidents of The Pyramid take place.  (Incidentally, I assume this is why the novel is called The Pyramid, because it refers to the shape of the social hierarchy, with many at the bottom and few at the top).  It pervades the three stories as unwelcomingly but as powerfully as the fly-smothered pig’s head that proclaims itself the beast in Lord of the Flies.


I used to have a rather fanciful notion of what William Golding was like.  When he was still alive, white-bearded and venerable-looking, I imagined him as a cross between a grizzled old sea-dog and a wise old mystic, a figure partly Ferdinand Magellan and partly Obi-Wan Kenobi.  It was a surprise when, last year, I read an article by Robert McCrum in the Observer, in which McCrum described a less serene William Golding, a man tortured by feelings of class inferiority. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/mar/11/william-golding-crisis.)


Mentioning Golding’s daughter, Judy Carver, McCrum writes: “But he was never at ease, even with literary recognition. When I came to know him, many years later when I was an editorial director at Faber and Faber, he was by then garlanded with both the Booker and the Nobel prizes. But he always struck me as someone who was not just socially awkward, but mildly belligerent about his awkwardness, too. His daughter says that, with her father, the touchy subject of class is something ‘you cannot make too much of’. She adds that ‘the good burghers of Marlborough’ (where her father grew up) never failed to arouse the most bitter feelings of social inadequacy. For Golding the class gulf was ‘as real as a wound’, and contributed to terrible episodes of rage throughout his life.”  I don’t know how much truth there are in McCrum and Carver’s comments – but The Pyramid certainly provides evidence to support them.


The other monster stalking the pages of The Pyramid is the small-town nosiness that compels everyone to find out about everyone else’s business and to pass (usually disdainful) judgement on it.  Stilbourne comes across as being as tiny, as mercilessly exposed and as maddeningly claustrophobic as the little tooth of rock on which the title character finds himself stranded in Golding’s Pincher Martin.  Emblematic of this is Oliver’s mother, who “(l)ike all the women in our Square… was a habitual detective.  They, the women, were not satisfied with the railed-off enclosure before each house, nor with the spring-locked doors…  My frail little mother, then, might stand behind our muslin curtains for half an hour, watching to find what a new hat, a meeting, a gesture, an expression even, could reveal.”


With such monsters at large in the social milieu of Stilbourne, one might conclude that young Oliver is not that much better off than Ralph, Piggy, Jack and company, stuck on the most famous desert island in 20th-century English-language literature.


Jon Finch: 1941 – 2012


I don’t want to turn this blog into a series of obituaries, especially after last month when I wrote about the recently departed Sir Patrick Moore and Gerry Anderson.  I was, however, saddened to hear last week about the passing of the excellent film and TV actor Jon Finch.  Finch, who hadn’t worked for seven years, had been living quietly in the English town of Hastings and his death in December seems to have gone undiscovered for a time.  Furthermore, word of his funeral wasn’t announced until this month.  For that reason, obituaries for him in the British media have been intermittent and patchy and I thought I’d write a few words here.


Finch began his career in television, went into films and ended up back in television.  For a couple of years in the early 1970s, while he was doing film-work, he had the opportunity to become massive, but that didn’t happen.  Finch, who valued his privacy and had a low opinion of the whole celebrity circus, may well have preferred it that way.


He began acting on television in 1964, appearing in ITV’s notoriously dire soap opera Crossroads.  In 1970, like many a British TV actor at the time, he got his break in movies thanks to Hammer Films – who were always looking for cheap acting talent to appear in their low-budget but cheerfully sensationalist horror movies.  He duly provided vampire-hunting support to Peter Cushing in Roy Ward Baker’s okay The Vampire Lovers and appeared too in Jimmy Sangster’s dreadful Horror of Frankenstein.  Then Roman Polanski hired him to play the title role in his version of Macbeth and Finch’s career trajectory suddenly swung upwards.


(c) Columbia Films 


Polanski’s take on Shakespeare’s Scottish play was bloody, dark and bleak – everything that a good production of Macbeth should be, in my opinion.  In this film, what works in favour of Finch as Macbeth, and of his co-star Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth, is the fact that they’re both so young.  The audience therefore feels they have little power over their destiny.  Rather, they’re swept to their tragic ends by dark forces that are both political and supernatural.


Polanski’s Macbeth got an unsympathetic appraisal from many critics, who couldn’t see beyond the film’s high level of violence and who linked it with what Polanski had gone through in August 1969 – when his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and four others were slaughtered at his house in Beverly Hills by acolytes of hippie-cult nutcase Charles Manson.  New Yorker critic Pauline Kael even wondered if Polanski’s staging of the murder of Macduff’s family was an attempt to recreate the carnage that Manson had orchestrated.  In fact, the film’s screenwriter, celebrated theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, is reputed to have challenged Polanski about the amount of blood displayed in this scene, to which the director retorted, “You should have seen my house last summer.”


From Roman Polanski, Finch moved on to Alfred Hitchcock and he landed the lead role in 1972’s Frenzy.  Although Frenzy hardly represents Hitchcock at the peak of his artistry, it’s by far and away the best of the director’s last clutch of films, which include Torn Curtain, Topaz and Family Plot.  It also shows Hitchcock at his most disturbing.  The murder sequence involving Barbara Leigh-Hunt, who plays Finch’s ex-wife, is the most brutal thing he ever did, and the potato-truck ride (where serial strangler Barry Foster tries to retrieve an incriminating piece of evidence from a corpse he’d concealed earlier inside a huge sack of potatoes) is pretty gruelling too.


Playing an innocent man accused of and hunted down for Foster’s murders, Finch bravely refrains from making his character sympathetic.  Indeed, he’s something of a shit and has a violent streak, and for a period at the start of the film we think he really is the strangler.   (By the time it becomes clear that Foster is actually the culprit, Hitchcock – a master manipulator of his audience’s emotions – has presented him as a chirpy, likeable chap.  Thus, we find ourselves siding more with Foster than we do with Finch.)


(c) Universal Pictures


Having worked with two of the world’s greatest directors, Finch seemed destined for major fame and indeed he was soon offered the chance to replace Sean Connery in the James Bond series.  Finch, however, declined and the role went instead to the somewhat less invigorating Roger Moore.  (Around this time he also turned down the role of Aramis in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers, which would have seen him acting alongside another actor with a low opinion of movie stars and movie stardom, Oliver Reed.)


In fact, in 1973, Finch did play a vaguely James Bond-like character when he took the role of Jerry Cornelius in Robert Fuest’s The Final Programme, which was based on the first of the four Cornelius novels written by Michael Moorcock, set in a surreal, 1960s-esque and science-fiction-tinged world where the fabric of reality is definitely beginning to fray.  I’ve never seen The Final Programme, though from all accounts Fuest did a pretty cack-handed job of it.  In the stills, though, Finch at least looks the part of Moorcock’s enigmatic hipster-cum-secret-agent hero.  Moorcock himself disapproved of the film adaptation, although he liked Finch’s performance and paid tribute to him on his website / discussion forum Moorcock’s Miscellany the other day (http://www.multiverse.org/fora/showthread.php?t=27663).


Towards the end of the 1970s, Ridley Scott lined Finch up to appear in his ground-breaking sci-fi horror film Alien.  Finch was supposed to play Kane, a character who doesn’t last long in the movie’s script but is certainly pivotal to it.  He’s the unfortunate crewmember who goes exploring the mysterious crashed spaceship and ends up with an alien egg inside his chest.  Two days into filming, however, Finch became too ill to work – either from bronchitis or from complications caused by his recently-diagnosed diabetes, depending on which story you believe – and was replaced by John Hurt.  Thus, he missed appearing in the infamous ‘canteen’ scene where Kane expires and the alien makes its first appearance, one of the most (literally) explosive scenes in horror-movie history.


From there on, it was through his television work that Finch remained in the public consciousness.  In the late 1970s, he appeared in the BBC Television Shakespeare, a series featuring adaptations of all the Bard’s plays.  Though they were criticised for the conservative manner in which they were brought to the screen and for their general staginess, the adaptations certainly couldn’t be faulted for the top-notch acting they contained.  In Richard II, Finch played Henry Bolingbroke to Derek Jacobi’s Richard and John Gielgud’s John of Gaunt.  With Bolingbroke elevated to monarch, he then played the title role in the sequels Henry IV Part One and Part Two, with Anthony Quayle as a jovial, red-cheeked Falstaff and David Gwillim as Henry’s offspring, Prince Hal.  (In reality, Gwillim was only six years younger than Finch.)


Still picky about his roles, he passed on the opportunity to play Doyle in Brian Clements’ hugely popular espionage / action series The Professionals.  Ironically, the role eventually went to Martin Shaw, who’d played Banquo to Finch’s Macbeth.  On the other hand, out of loyalty to Hammer, he starred in the first episode of the studio’s 1980 anthology series The Hammer House of Horror.  And for a quarter century he gave guest turns in popular shows like The New Avengers, The Bill, Maigret, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes and New Tricks.


Finch’s final appearance was a film one, in Ridley Scott’s 2005 crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven, so at least he got to work with that director nearly three decades after his gig in Alien fell through.  Thereafter, he kept a low profile in Hastings, in declining health but seen now and again in some of the town’s public bars.  I wonder if the regulars in those Hastings pubs were aware that old ‘Finchy’, as he was known, had once headlined films directed by Hitchcock and Polanski and had come within a whisker of being 007.


His Master loses his Voice


(c) The Huffington Post UK


I guess I could be described as a Luddite or a technophobe because I still prefer to buy music in a physical form rather than to download it.  While it’s nice to have a selection of tunes to carry around with you on an iPod or a laptop hard-drive, I feel it’s much nicer to have a music collection that you can see and that occupies space on your shelves.  Also, though I may be wrong, I suspect that the musicians / composers / songwriters responsible for the music will make a tiny bit more money when it’s sold as a compact disc rather than sold as a dribble of Megabytes, leaking down from the great cyberspace ether.  (That said, I realise that musical artists have been ripped off brazenly by record companies since the year dot, or at least since Thomas Edison knocked together his phonograph in the late 19th century.)


Although I continue to buy music in compact-disc form, I haven’t bought any CDs in HMV – the high-street music and DVD retailer that a few days ago announced its bankruptcy, putting 239 stores and 4,350 jobs at serious risk across the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland – for about 10 years. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-21021073)   That’s not to say I wasn’t dismayed to hear about its impending closure.  On the contrary, I was furious.  On December 24th, I bought HMV gift-vouchers as last-minute Christmas presents for a couple of relatives and it seems that those vouchers are useless now.  The chain continued to sell vouchers right until the end, long after its management was surely aware of its desperate situation and aware that those vouchers were likely not to be honoured.  In other words, even while HMV breathes its last, it’s managed to swindle me out of £75.  (http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2013/jan/16/hmv-accused-of-theft-over-gift-vouchers.)


When I went CD-buying in Edinburgh – which I had to do, as the only CDs on sale in my little Scottish hometown of Peebles are a few in the local branches of Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s, which invariably feature the caterwauling of the latest hapless clones to have rolled off the Simon Cowell conveyor belt of karaoke – I avoided HMV’s store on Princes Street and shopped elsewhere.  I bought new stuff in Fopp on Rose Street and second-hand stuff in Hog’s Head Music and the Record Shack on Clerk Street.  For indie and punk I went to Avalanche in the Grassmarket and for blues, world and folk music I went to the wonderful Coda Music on the Mound.  I’d go to Ripping Records on South Bridge too, but only to buy concert tickets.


A few optimistic souls have ventured that HMV’s demise will help small and / or independent record shops like those I’ve mentioned above, but the general situation for such shops is already so desperate that I don’t imagine it’ll make much difference.  For depressing evidence of this, you only have to look at the independent Aberdonian record store OneUp, an outlet I frequented during my Aberdeen-based undergraduate days in the 1980s.  In existence since the late 1970s, OneUp has announced it will shut on January 31st.  Meanwhile, back in Edinburgh, Avalanche was near to announcing its own closure, although its owner, Kevin Buckle, has now said he’ll stay open a little longer and see if HMV’s expiry leads to an improvement in business.


And because HMV took over Fopp in 2007, it’s more than likely that Fopp will disappear soon as well.  I’ve heard speculation that some entrepreneur might want to buy Fopp and liberate it from HMV’s dying carcass, or that it might even be subject to a staff buy-out.  But in the present climate, would any bank be willing to lend the money to enable this to happen?  I doubt it.  (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-21027043)


That’s what happens in a highly-charged market economy like our own.  The most successful company gets to grow and grow, in the process taking over its competitors or putting them out of business.  Once it has a monopoly, or a near-monopoly, it’s free to implode through its own managerial stupidity.  And after it’s gone, all that’s left in its area of business is a wasteland.  So there’s late-era capitalism for you.  You know it makes sense.


The stupidity that did for HMV was borne out of complacency.   Not so long ago the store was making fabulous amounts of money, while high-street rivals like Virgin and Zavvi fell by the wayside.  But as a recent article by Philip Beeching in the Guardian makes clear, a decade ago HMV was idiotically dismissive of the threat posed by online retailers and music downloading.  He recalls Steve Knott, HMV’s then MD, saying in 2002: “downloadable music is just a fad and people will always want the atmosphere and experience of a music store rather than online shopping.”   Knott’s words should be engraved on HMV’s tombstone.  (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/15/why-did-hmv-fail.)


Thankfully, concert venue the HMV Picture House on Lothian Road, which had belonged to HMV’s entertainment wing, was sold to MAMA and Company at the end of last year.  So at least central Edinburgh should continue to have a decent-sized live-music venue for the foreseeable future.  However, regarding recorded music, I guess I’d better get used to hunting for it on the Internet, as nearly everyone else seems to be doing these days.


Incidentally, the last music shop that survived for any length of time in Peebles was Taste Records, which sold singles and albums on vinyl in the pre-CD 1970s, firstly in the town’s Northgate in premises occupied now by a gift-shop, and later on the high street at the current site of the Royal Bank of Scotland.  For many Peebles High School students at the time, including myself, the highlight of the week was a visit to Taste Records during lunch-hour, where you could blow your pocket money on the latest single (or if you were wealthy, the latest album) by your favourite band.  Buy a record by a particularly cool outfit and you’d be centre of attention back at school all that afternoon as your schoolmates insisted on poring over its cover art and sleeve-notes.  (Our definition of ‘cool’ at the time included Rush and the Electric Light Orchestra, so that adjective is used in a very subjective way.)


The shop also provided local newspaper the Peeblesshire News with charts of the week’s best-selling records, printed under the headline On the Turntable and with the byline ‘Courtesy of Taste Records’.  One week those elderly fuddy-duddies in the Peeblesshire News mistakenly transcribed a song in the Taste charts, David Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging, as Boys Keep Swimming – a gaffe that was reprinted in the New Musical Express for the nation’s amusement.


For a brief period last year, it looked like Peebles would again have its own music store – Gazmo’s Records in Dalatho, about 10 minutes’ walk from the high street.  My mate Gary Martin, who sells records over the Internet, acquired the premises of a former hairdresser’s there to store his stock.  He figured it wouldn’t do any harm to use the premises as a shop too, so that punters could wander in off the street and browse through his records in physical form, and so he opened Gazmo’s.


But he hadn’t banked on the strife he would get from the utility company Scottish Water, which demanded an exorbitant sum of money for him to be connected to the water supply.  In a business such as a hairdresser’s, Gary explained to me at the time, you would use a lot of water.  The water needs of Gazmo’s Records, however, amounted to no more than one kettle-ful a day, to keep him going in mugs of tea.  So the money Scottish Water was requesting seemed both illogical and grossly unfair.  Eventually, he decided that the shop was more trouble than it was worth and he shut it down.  People lament about our towns losing their small shops, but why should rapaciously greedy utilities companies make it so difficult for local people to start up new ones?


Gary, meanwhile, is evidently getting more pleasure from his side-project, which is performing in a blues band called the Jensen Interceptors.  Here’s a review of them: http://www.touncryer.co.uk/the-jensen-interceptors/.  And here’s what they sound like: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiX9XqBozmM.



Tunisia’s revolution two years later


Are you a glass-is-half-full or a glass-is-half-empty person?  Due to my dour, rainy Calvinistic upbringing, when I look at a half-drunk pint of beer, I tend to see a chasm of depressing emptiness in the upper half of the glass.  I envy those optimistic souls who revel in the sight of the half-pint of beer still occupying the lower part of the receptacle.


I suppose being of a glass-half-full or half-empty disposition affects how you view the condition of Tunisia two years after the revolution on January 14th, 2011, when the population rose up against the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, against his hateful Lady Macbeth-type spouse Leila Trabelsi, and against her Mafia-esque family, and chased them out of the country.


Those who see the glass as being half-full will point to how the anniversary of the revolution two days ago was marked by the gathering in central Tunis of various groups who don’t necessarily like one another – supporters of Ennahdha, the supposedly-moderate Islamist party that dominates the current ruling coalition, supporters of the main opposition party Nida Tounes, members of the trade union movement the UGTT, and some Islamic extremists who were protesting outside the French Embassy on Habib Bourguiba Avenue about French military intervention against their adulterer-stoning, limb-amputating, shrine-demolishing, music-banning brethren in northern Mali – and yet, despite the potential for trouble, the day passed off relatively peacefully.  Surely, optimists will say, this indicates that Tunisian politics, post-revolution, have acquired a certain maturity and people are able now to voice conflicting views without coming to serious blows.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/01/14/despite-revolutions-challenges-free-speech-valued-on-anniversary/; http://www.tap.info.tn/en/index.php/politics2/4644-two-years-after-revolution-divided-tunisians-rally-in-habib-bourguiba-avenue.)


And although I’d spent most of January 14th out of Tunis, it was pleasant to arrive back there at about 5.00 PM and find the streets quiet and relaxed – folk making their leisurely way around the shops that were open, coffee-drinkers and shisha-smokers sitting outside the cafes and enjoying the last part of the day, which had been a national holiday.  And incidentally, I liked how the clock tower at the bottom of Habib Bourguiba Avenue had had its column swathed in the red of the Tunisian flag, whilst the flag’s white circle, containing the crescent and star, had been positioned over the clock faces.


Meanwhile, Ennahdha’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi is definitely in the glass-half-full camp, if the following article, published in The Guardian on January 14th, is anything to go by: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/13/tunisia-pursuit-democracy-arab-model.  Supposedly penned by Ghannouchi himself (though I suspect his daughter Intissar, who’s contributed to the Guardian in the past, had a hand in it), the article claims that “Tunisians are for the first time the true protagonists of their history, and are engaged in an experience that will be a model for democracy in the region.”  “The governing coalition of secularist and Islamist parties,” writes Ghannouchi, “…(d)espite their differences…  have clearly demonstrated the possibility of reconciliation, co-operation and partnership between moderate Islamists and moderate secularists, an important model for the Arab world.”  He concedes that Tunisia faces severe problems of economic underdevelopment and unemployment and insists that the solutions “to many pressing demands can only be found in long-term structural change”.  Embarrassingly, Ghannouchi’s article put the Tunisian revolution as happening in January 2010, rather than January 2011, although in a later Guardian edition this error was amended.


I’m afraid I don’t find myself gushing with the same enthusiasm that Ghannouchi apparently is, and it’s not wholly down to my pessimistic nature either.  One concrete reason is the continuing harassment, intimidation and disruption caused by the Salafist extremists whom Ennahdha has not done enough to curtail, either because of incompetence, or naiveté, or – if you’re a conspiracy theorist – silent complicity in what the Salafists want to achieve, which is a Tunisia run under Sharia law.


By an unhappy coincidence, the night before the revolution’s anniversary, Sunday 13th, I joined some colleagues for a meal in a restaurant at the top of the hill in Sidi Bou Said, which is a village a little way up the coast from Tunis.  Sidi Bou Said is probably the most picturesque tourist spot in the vicinity of Tunis and it has two main claims to fame.  Firstly, the gorgeous lights and colours of the locality have attracted many famous artists over the years, both Tunisian (Yahia Turki, Brahim Dhahak) and European (Paul Klee, Louis Moillet, August Macke).  Secondly, it is the site of an important Sufi mausoleum – indeed, Sidi Bou Said takes its name from a Sufi saint who settled there in the late 12th or early 13th century – and is a place of Sufi pilgrimage.


When I arrived at the restaurant on Sunday evening, everyone was talking about a fire that’d done severe damage to the mausoleum the night before.  The staff in the restaurant speculated that the fire could have broken out accidentally, though as Salafists have been targeting Sufi shrines, both in Tunisia and across northern Africa – they consider the veneration of saints in Islam to be blasphemy – it seemed more likely to be an act of vandalism.  Indeed, the authorities have since confirmed that what happened at Sidi Bou Said was arson. (http://mideasti.blogspot.com/2013/01/mausoleum-of-sidi-bou-said-destroyed-in.html.)


Before entering the restaurant I’d suspected that something was up, because the street outside seemed to contain a lot of people – too many, at that particular point in the evening, for them to be tourists – and they seemed to be hanging about rather than heading anywhere.  It transpired that a government minister was dining in a restaurant across the street and these people had gathered to protest – presumably about the destruction of the mausoleum and about Ennahdha’s seeming inability to prevent such carnage happening.  When I left the restaurant I was in a couple of hours later, the crowd in the street had become even denser and it took some careful manoeuvring to get through it.  I have to say, though, that it was probably the most genteel, most middle-class-looking crowd of protestors I’ve ever had to worm my way through and they gave off no vibes of impending violence.  One man had even come along to protest in a wheelchair.


However, after emerging from the far side of the crowd, I saw coming up the hill a squad of policemen.  They weren’t in riot gear, but they were armed with batons and one guy at the back was furtively carrying a gun for firing tear-gas canisters.  So it didn’t seem like a good idea to loiter in the vicinity.  (The crowd gave an ironic cheer when the cops came within sight of them.)


It wasn’t until the next day that I discovered that the crowd wasn’t on the street to make a protest about the burning of the mausoleum at all.  The government minister in the restaurant was actually Tunisia’s foreign minister, Rafik Abdessalem, who was entertaining some visiting dignitaries from the Gulf.  Abdessalem has been embroiled in controversy recently.  He’s been accused of using public money to fund some expensive (and possibly scandalous) stays in Tunis’s Sheraton Hotel.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/01/02/foreign-affairs-minister-embroiled-in-controversy-over-hotel-stays/)  The folk outside the restaurant were indignant taxpayers, determined to make Abdessalem aware of their discontent.  I heard that eventually Abdessalem and his guests had to be escorted to safety via the restaurant’s kitchen.


Incidentally, Rafik Abdessalem happens to be Rachid Ghannouchi’s son-in-law.  If I were a Tunisian, I might be starting to wonder if there’s an unwritten rule demanding that all my country’s leaders, pre-revolution and post-revolution, bestow nice favours on their in-laws.


A glass-half-full person would no doubt point to those protestors the other night in Sidi Bou Said and say it’s wonderful that citizens in the modern Tunisia aren’t afraid to let their politicians know what they think of them.  No longer are they willing to tolerate any crap from their ruling classes.  As a glass-half-empty person, though, I have to say that when I see such reminders of mindless Salafist vandalism on one hand, and of old-style corruption-nepotism on the other, my heart sinks.  Either because of incompetence the main ruling party here seems unable to stamp out the two spectres of religious extremism and corruption, or because of self-interest it seems unwilling to stamp them out.


However, to end this entry on a cheerier note…  Here are a few photographs of the achingly lovely Sidi Bou Said on a less turbulent day.



Strange places in the Scottish Borders 2: Hermitage Castle


The 20-mile valley of Liddesdale runs south-west through the Scottish Borders, right to the northern edge of England.  Because it offered a passageway into Scotland for English armies, Liddesdale was of huge strategic importance to the two, often-warring countries.  In his book The Steel Bonnets, about the Border Reivers, the brigands who from the 13th to 17th centuries raided homesteads along the English-Scottish frontier, George Macdonald Fraser described it as ‘the bloodiest valley in Britain’.  When the Scots decided to build a fortress in the valley in the 13th century – a move that itself almost sparked a war with England – they erected something that did justice to a territory with such a history of conflict and bloodshed.  Hermitage Castle is about the grimmest and most oppressive castle I’ve come across.



The Hermitage Castle that stands today is actually the second one on the site.  All that remains of the original, timber structure, which was probably built by Sir Nicholas de Soulis, are the big earthwork defences.  Work on the second castle began in 1340, under its then owner Sir Hugh de Dacre.  However, it wasn’t until the time of his successors, William Douglas, the 1st Earl of Douglas, and his illegitimate son, George Douglas, the 1st Earl of Angus – at the time George was regarded as being the product of incest because his mother was the sister-in-law of William’s wife – that the castle acquired the hulking, H-shaped form that greets visitors to modern Liddesdale.


The castle later became the property of Sir Patrick Hepburn, the 1st Earl of Bothwell.  His great-grandson James, the 4th Earl of Bothwell, became Mary Queen of Scots’ third husband after her second husband, the hapless Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, was murdered in an assassination plot that involved both gunpowder and strangulation – he suffered the latter when the former failed to blow him to pieces.  Bothwell was implicated in the murder.  In 1566, the year before Darnley’s death, Mary was said to have had ‘a scandalous tryst’ with Bothwell at Hermitage Castle.  He’d been injured in a skirmish with some Reivers and was laid low at Hermitage and Mary, hearing of his wounds, embarked on a frantic 25-mile ride from the town of Jedburgh to be at his side.  The comfort she ended up giving him was allegedly more physical than medicinal or spiritual.  However, research by one of Mary’s biographers, Lady Antonia Fraser, casts doubt on the veracity of this story and it may have been put about by her enemies as a way of blackening her character.


Once the crowns of Scotland and England had been united in 1603 under Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland – James I as he’s known in the English history books – Hermitage Castle lost its territorial importance and by the 18th century it’d become a ruin.  In 1820 the 5th Duke of Buccleugh carried out much-needed repairs to the castle and in 1930 it was handed over to the care of the state.  It is now looked after by Historic Scotland.


When I turned up one day at Hermitage Castle, on my trusty bicycle, the weather was reasonably sunny.  Accordingly, on the southern side of the building, the grass was dry, the ground firm and the air fresh – whereas on the northern side, within its considerable shadow, everything felt cold, damp and dank.  The outer castle walls were cliff-like masses of stone, dark-grey in colour and freckled with pale fungi.  I saw few smears of bird-droppings on those stone blocks, as if the local birdlife sensed a negative vibe emanating from the place and didn’t want to nest there.  Windows appeared in those thick walls only sparsely, were different sizes and were arranged in irregular patterns.  The entrance door, meanwhile, seemed ridiculously small and was dwarfed by the surrounding stone.



Inside the castle, the ground was covered by uneven flagstones in places and by pebbles in others.  Some of the tumbledown interior walls had a fur of moss that was a mixture of lurid colours – yellow, brown, green, orange.  The randomly positioned windows allowed me only the briefest glimpses of the surrounding countryside, while in one corner-tower a gap in the roof made the sky seem remote and unreachable.  There was also a small, deep prison-vault that for its inmates must’ve felt like being in hell itself.  Wherever I went inside, I heard a sinister rustle caused by the current in the nearby burn, the Hermitage Water.



Scribbling in my notebook at the time, I wrote: “Dark, solid, brutal, oppressive.  Like the sort of place Darth Vader would use as a holiday home when he’s in the Borders.”  The allusion may have been cheesy but it seemed appropriate, because there is a Darth Vader-ish feel to Hermitage Castle.



Inevitably, that chronicler – not necessarily an accurate chronicler – of all things old, historical and Scottish, Sir Walter Scott, took an interest in Hermitage Castle in the early 19th century and there was a revival of interest in the stories and folklore attached to the place.  It is said, for example, to be haunted by the ghost of Mary Queen of Scots, and a nearby bog is known as Queen’s Mire because it was here that Mary was supposedly thrown off her horse during her ride back from her tryst with Bothwell.


However, the most famous legend associated with Hermitage Castle concerns William de Soulis, son of the original castle’s founder, Sir Nicolas de Soulis.  According to this legend, he practised the dark arts and employed a creature called Robin Redcap as his familiar.  While the familiars of wizards and witches are usually depicted as black cats, owls, toads and the like, Soulis’ familiar was a truly hideous being.  In his book about the mythical beasts of Scotland Not of this World, Maurice Fleming describes Robin Redcap as ‘a thick-set old man with fierce red eyes, long tangled hair, protruding teeth and fingers like talons.’


Carrying out all manner of terrible and blasphemous deeds, Soulis and Robin Redcap terrorised the surrounding countryside.  However, Soulis’ fate was itself terrible.  In the end his outraged subjects – though some stories say it was a local prophet and mystic, Thomas Learmont of Erceldoun, known more simply as Thomas the Rhymer, using his magical powers – rose against him and boiled him alive in a cauldron of molten lead.  Nothing is known about Robin Redcap’s fate and it’s even claimed he still lurks in Hermitage Castle, unbeknown to those tourists (such as myself) who visit it during its opening season from April to September.


The real William de Soulis confessed to being part of a conspiracy against Robert the Bruce in 1320 and died imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle.  This treachery against Bruce, who is of course the greatest hero in Scottish history, may account for how since then his name has been discredited by folkloric association with black magic and monsters.