Cable cars are cool

 

During my sojourn in Barcelona last month, I made a day-trip to Montserrat, a many-peaked mountain in the city’s hinterland that’s home to Santa Maria de Montserrat, a gorgeous Benedictine abbey.  The mountain also boasts some spectacular and weird-looking rock formations, towering above the abbey, and a network of walking trails that follow the ridges between the peaks and offer fantastic views.  There’s a number of stunning attractions at Monserrat, then, but I must admit that the feature that made me most excited appeared at the beginning of the visit.  To get from the local railway station to the abbey, near the mountaintop, you have to ride in – yes! – a cable car.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Put a male of my age and from my part of the world inside a cable car and he’ll immediately start reliving boyhood fantasies about being a World War II Allied commando trying to penetrate some Alpine castle that’s become an SS headquarters and is accessible only by an aerial cable system.  He’ll be inside one cabin, dangling thousands of feet over some vertiginously deep Alpine ravine, while another cabin is approaching from the opposite direction packed with hostile German soldiers.  He’ll be shooting at them with an imaginary machine gun and making duh-duh-duh-duh-duh noises, while imaginary German soldiers are falling wounded out of the other cabin, plunging to their doom and screaming, “Aaaaargh!”  (According to the World War II-themed comics I read as a kid, that was the main difference between German soldiers and Japanese soldiers.  One lot went “Aaaaargh!” when they got shot, while the other lot went “Aieeeee!”)

 

For this you can blame Alistair Maclean.  Brought up in the 1920s as the son of a church minister in the Scottish Highlands – he was a native Gaelic-speaker and spoke English as a second language – Maclean served in the Royal Navy during World War II and saw action in the Atlantic, Arctic, Mediterranean and Far East.  After the war, he started turning his experiences into fiction and wrote well-received novels like HMS Ulysses.  Later, however, perhaps realising that a growing part of his readership was too young to have actually experienced World War II, was less interested in gritty realism and was more interested in slap-bang adventure, he made his stories faster, flashier and pulpier.  Accordingly, 1967’s Where Eagles Dare, a World War II story about a band of commandos led by a British officer and his American sidekick, Major John Smith and US Army Ranger Lieutenant Morris Schaffer, attempting to rescue a captured Allied general from the Schloss Adler, a castle high in the Bavarian Alps that is equipped with – yes! – a cable car, was little more than a string of action set-pieces.  The only thing that spiced it up slightly was some intrigue involving agents and double agents, and double-crossing and triple-crossing, that Maclean had obviously borrowed from the spy genre.

 

If Where Eagles Dare-the-novel sounds cinematic, it’s because MacLean wrote it at the same time that he wrote the screenplay of Where Eagles Dare-the-movie, which was released the following year, in 1968.  It also got a re-release in the mid-1970s, when I was starting to discover the joys of my nearest fleapit cinema, and by the following decade it was popping up regularly on TV.  Playing Schaffer and Smith were the up-and-coming Clint Eastwood and the mighty Richard Burton, whose life had several similarities to that of Alastair Maclean – both men ended up living as tax exiles in Switzerland, both had a fondness for the bottle that eventually helped to kill them, and both are now buried in the Vieux Cemetery in Celigny.

 

Though the movie version of Where Eagles Dare has an impressive cast, it’s the action sequences that stay in the viewer’s mind.  This is particularly so with the sequence involving the – yes! – cable car system that connects the Schloss Adler with the world below, when Burton leaps from the roof of one cabin, across an abyss and onto the top of another cabin passing in the other direction, just before the first cabin blows up.  The jump was performed by legendary stunt man Alf Joint, whose feats appear too in the James Bond, Superman and Star Wars movies.  When I was nine years old, I saw a profile of Alf Joint on a TV news programme and was so impressed that I spent the next six months telling everyone that I was going to be a stunt man when I grew up.  At the time I was eating about three Twix bars and half-a-dozen bags of crisps a day and was shaped like one of those then-popular space hoppers, so people took this claim with a large pinch of salt.

 

Despite the excellence of Where Eagles Dare’s stunts, and despite Eastwood and Burton, I suspect that filmgoers in 1968 who paused outside the cinemas long enough beforehand to take in the film’s poster might have been slightly disappointed by the film itself.  This is because the poster was designed by Frank McCarthy, surely the greatest film-poster artist of all time when it came to war / adventure movies.  McCarthy had the ability to capture all of a movie’s big action sequences in a single, adrenalin-drenched tableau.  The characters were depicted in taut-and-sweaty action poses, guns invariably blazing, whilst the surfaces tilted at crazy angles beneath them and explosions went off around them like turbo-charged fireworks.  Here’s what he promised cinema-goers who were queuing to see Where Eagles Dare:

 

From conancompletist.com/darkofthesun/McCarthy_the_list.html

 

McCarthy, in fact, did posters for some of the greatest war movies of the 1960s – The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, Von Ryan’s Express, titles that are guaranteed to make blokes of a certain age (including, no doubt, Quentin Tarantino) go misty-eyed with nostalgia.  Here are a few more of his posters, although my favourite one (after Where Eagles Dare) is actually for a lesser-known movie, 1968’s The Mercenaries.  In that poster, the action takes place on the roof of a train, which is only slightly less thrilling than on the roof of – yes! – a cable car.

 

From conancompletist.com/darkofthesun/McCarthy_the_list.html

 

A good number of Frank McCarthy’s film posters can be viewed online at http://www.conancompletist.com/darkofthesun/McCarthy_the_list.html.  Meanwhile, here’s a link to a fan website devoted to Where Eagles Dare: http://www.whereeaglesdare.com/.

 

12 new experiences in Boris-opolis

 

Although I said in my previous entry that I was no fan of London in my youth, my opinion of the city has improved over the years.  In fact, now, I think it’s a marvellous place.  It isn’t exactly a city of great beauty – the fact that the inspiringly grand St Pancras Renaissance Hotel rises on one side of Euston Road while a pastel-pink and jaw-droppingly hideous branch of Premier Inn hulks along the other side doesn’t suggest a place imbued with much sense of aesthetics – but it gets by on chutzpah.  Basically, there’s a hell of a lot to do – a near endless supply of museums and galleries to explore, concerts and plays to attend, restaurants and pubs to eat and drink in, parks and gardens to lounge in, oddities and curiosities to scratch your head at.  In fact, it must be tragic for Londoners themselves.  They live in a city of limitless possibilities and yet, as London Mayor Boris Johnson keeps reminding us, they’re busy working, making money and generating the wealth that’s ensures the rest of the United Kingdom stays afloat, just about.  They surely can’t have free time to go out and enjoy themselves.

 

Last weekend I was in London and during those two days I managed to do the following.

 

On the first day, I (1) visited the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road, which had a temporary exhibition of Japanese ‘outsider art’ and a permanent exhibition of curios, including Napoleon’s toothbrush, Nelson’s razor, Darwin’s walking sticks, Florence Nightingale’s moccasins, shrunken heads, phrenology skulls, anatomical models carved from ivory, antique enema syringes, glass eyes, metal noses, bullet extractors, a snuff container made out of a ram’s head, an iron and velvet chastity belt, anti-masturbation devices from the turn of the century that were made of ‘nickel plated steel’ and ‘probably British’, and the most horrific-looking mummy I’ve ever seen (http://www.wellcomecollection.org/).  I then (2) visited the British Library, where an exhibition called Propaganda: Power and Persuasion was in progress (http://www.bl.uk/whatson/exhibitions/propaganda/index.html), and in the evening I (3) ate an Ethiopian meal at the Mercato Restaurant on Caledonian Road and (4) sought out the celebrated Pineapple Bar in Kentish Town for a few drinks.

 

From www.culture24.org.uk 

 

The next day, I (5) paid a visit to the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square (http://www.wallacecollection.org/) and later on (6) had a wander around the gorgeous Leadenhall Market on the edge of the City of London and in the shadow of Norman Foster’s Gherkin.  I (7) had a few pints in the Pride of Spitalfields pub off Brick Lane and (8) ate Malaysian food at nearby Spitalfields Market.  I also (9) fitted in a visit to the Petrie Museum of Egyptology at University College London, where at the front desk you’re handed a torch and you feel like an archaeologist yourself, exploring an Egyptian tomb, as you peer through the torchlight at the items cluttering the endless but shadowy shelves (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/petrie). Later, I (10) went to the Courtauld Gallery off the Strand, which is hosting an exhibition called Becoming Picasso (http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/index.shtml). And lastly, I (11) checked out the new Parcel Yard Bar in King’s Cross Station (see my previous entry) and (12) the new-ish BrewDog Pub in Camden.

 

From www.ancient-egypt.co.uk

 

I must have been in the city dozens of times now, but all of the above were brand-new, first-time experiences for me.  London is a place that keeps surprising you, every time that you go back.

 

Liking London isn’t the same as approving of it, though.  We keep hearing how the UK economy is in the doldrums and Britons are living in an era of austerity, but you wouldn’t think that in the capital, seeing the amount of development going on around you.  Small wonder that recent statistics show how 80% of Britain’s tower-cranes are now operating on sites in London (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/dafd13d4-b3fc-11e2-b5a5-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2UhnlVwCE).  Indeed, there’s something indecent about the extreme economic gap between London and the rest of the country.  Not only does London have a superabundance of museums and galleries, which are heaving with tourists, but many of them you can enter free of charge.  Compare that situation with, say, the unhappy one of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where the city council is planning a 50% cut to its cultural budget and ten of the city’s eighteen libraries are facing closure (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-21668498).

 

And it isn’t surprising that so many people in the English regions, in Wales and in Scotland were left scratching their heads at the adulation heaped by most of the British media on the recently-deceased Margaret Thatcher – at the claims that she’d saved Britain, put the ‘great’ back into Britain, made Britain prosperous and vibrant again, and so on, ad nauseum.  Most of the British media, of course, are based in London, where you can still believe you’ve never had it so good.  For those of us living in the wastelands outside that glorious cosmopolitan bubble, however, the Thatcher legacy looks considerably less wonderful.

 

Anyhow, I at least salute London for being rainforest-like in its immense cultural biodiversity.  You’ve got to be lobotomised – well, you’ve got to be a singularly unimaginative package-tour holidaymaker – if you visit and can’t find something fascinating going on, every day of the week.  However, bearing in mind all the madcap development happening under Boris’s watch, whereby every acre of it seems to be getting bought and sold, getting levelled and rebuilt upon, getting lumbered with vanity structures of glass, steel, concrete, soullessness and ugliness, let’s just hope that a few years from now all that biodiversity isn’t stripped away – leaving London as, say, dull as Singapore and culturally arid as Dubai.

 

King’s Cross Station in really good pub shock

 

 

When I started to visit London, in the early 1980s, I didn’t have a high opinion of the place.  One reason for this was because Maggie Thatcher, to me the doyen of all things southern, uncaring, materialistic and right-wing, lived there and accordingly ‘southern’, ‘uncaring’, ‘materialistic’ and ‘right-wing’ were adjectives I found myself applying to London itself.  Another reason was that, despite London’s obvious sense of itself as the ultra-cosmopolitan centre of the universe, its pubs seemed to shut at ridiculously un-cosmopolitan times.  Indeed, thanks to divergences in the Scottish and English licensing laws, you could drink an hour later most evenings in my hometown of Peebles (population about 8000).  However, perhaps the biggest reason for my dislike of London was the fact that, like most people living in the eastern half of Scotland, the first and last parts I’d see of it were King’s Cross Station, from which trains went up the east-coast line to Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen.

 

In those days King’s Cross wasn’t a place from which a city would want visitors to draw their first and last impressions of it.  It was shabby, dank and disreputable-feeling and seemed to be inhabited by a tribe of permanently-drunk vagrants, most of whom were Scottish.  I got the impression they’d once been normal travellers, but Something Bad had happened to them one night while they’d been waiting on a King’s Cross platform to catch a train north.

 

The first time I travelled out of King’s Cross Station, at the age of 16, I found myself in a seedy waiting room killing time until the Edinburgh-bound Nightrider service left at midnight.  An incredibly dishevelled and drunk bag-lady was shuffling about the room in oversized plimsolls, begging money from people and being loudly abusive when they said no.  The most horrified reaction she provoked was when she approached a prim-looking middle-aged couple.  Hearing their accents, she exclaimed delightedly: “Och, ye’re frae Dundee!  I’m frae Dundee too!”  Then she spent the next five minutes trying, unsuccessfully, to become their friend.  At another point, a brave, if foolhardy, young American backpacker attempted to stand up to her.  “Why don’t you just go away and leave us all alone?” he demanded.  This prompted the Dundonian bag-lady to spout a long stream of anti-American abuse at the poor guy, which climaxed with the memorable insult: “Och, away an’ shag Joan Collins!”

 

Finally deciding that she wasn’t going to get any money from the tenants of that waiting room, the bag-lady headed for the door.  Before she went out, however, she announced, “This is what I think o’ yous aw!”  Then she bent over and farted loudly.  And during the years since, that episode was what I’d immediately think of when somebody mentioned King’s Cross Station.

 

Yes, I know, King’s Cross has acquired a sort of prestige thanks to the works of J.K. Rowley.  It’s become a place of pilgrimage for foreign tourists versed in the Harry Potter books, desperate to see Platform 9½ where Harry, Hermione and the Weasley clan catch the Hogwarts Express and which is only accessible to wizards, able to pass through the brick wall that conceals it from the eyes of Muggles.  Indeed, for the past few years, the station has had a sign erected saying Platform 9½, while half a luggage trolley is stuck to the wall underneath as if someone with magical powers is in the process of towing it through the brickwork.  Cheesy though the spot is, there’s no end to the tourists who come to snap pictures of the sign and trolley.

 

But with my memories of King’s Cross Station’s grimness and unsavouriness, I always believed the only people who walked into its walls were tottering down-and-outs with Scottish accents.

 

A couple of days ago I was in the station again.  I’d known it was getting an overhaul at the moment but didn’t expect it to be as spruced-up as it was – although the refurbishments aren’t on the same grand scale as those at the neighbouring St Pancras.  What really surprised me, though, was what’s been done to the old parcel offices at the end of the Western Concourse.  They’ve been converted into a new two-storey bar called the Parcel Yard, which retains the offices’ wooden walls and dozen-paned windows, making it a cosy maze of passageways and smaller and larger drinking alcoves.  The ceilings are still cluttered with old pipes and ventilation ducts and there’s plenty of railway paraphernalia on display, such as signs, pictures and posters, to remind you that you’re drinking in a railway station of some antiquity (if not much elegance).  By the standards of pubs generally it’s a very agreeable place; and considering how grubby the bars are in most British stations, by railway standards it’s a gem.

 

 

In fact, the only railway station bar I can think of that rivals the Parcel Yard in quality is the gorgeously decorated Centurion Bar up the east-coast line in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  Imagine what you could do if somebody dolled up the station bar in Peterborough, halfway between London and Newcastle, and made it decent too. Then you could embark in a quality pub crawl along the east-coast line, starting in the Parcel Yard and winding up in the Centurion.  Mind you, I’ve drunk in that Peterborough Station pub a few times and from what I’ve seen of it, it’s beyond redemption.

 

Happy 100th, Mr Cushing

 

From petercushing.co.uk

 

The actor Peter Cushing, who was born a century ago today, is remembered as a fixture of British horror movies, but for me it’s a role he played in a non-horror film – a swashbuckler set in the 18th century – that best sums up his unique persona.  In 1962’s Captain Clegg, he plays a prim village vicar, given to gently chiding his congregation during church services when their hymn-singing isn’t as energetic as it should be.  However, it transpires that being vicar is just a front for his real activities — for after dark he reveals himself as the titular Captain Clegg, a fearsome former pirate who now, ruthlessly, runs a smuggling operation that his parishioners are all part of.

 

(c) Hammer

 

In his private life, Cushing would have made a perfect village vicar.  He spent his free time in the quiet town of Whitstable on the Kent coast and was a birdwatcher, model-maker and painter of watercolours (as well as being patron of the Vegetarian Society).  Famed for his gentlemanliness, the critic John Brosnan remarked that in the 1970s you could go through the entire British film industry and find nobody with a bad word to find about him.  Indeed, Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in 1976’s Star Wars, said the hardest part of her role was summoning the hatred that, onscreen, she had to show Cushing’s villainous, planet-destroying Governor Moff Tarkin — so charming was Cushing towards her off-screen.

 

Saintly though the real Cushing was, many of his film characters had definitely gone to the dark side.  Several were cold-blooded and fanatical scientists who assumed that the ends justified the means, no matter how unspeakable the means might be — including Baron Frankenstein, whom he played in the series of horror films that Hammer Films based on Mary Shelley’s novel, very loosely, between the late 1950s and early 1970s; and in 1958’s The Flesh and the Fiends, Doctor Robert Knox, who was the real-life Edinburgh medical lecturer that Burke and Hare supplied with freshly-murdered corpses.  Later in his life, as Cushing’s gaunt features grew even gaunter, he got increasingly cast as Nazis, of which Moff Tarkin was one variation.

 

Such was the strange dichotomy of Cushing the person and Cushing the movie villain that it’s a pity he never got around to playing Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  (He did, though, appear as the lawyer Utterson in a version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s celebrated horror story, 1970’s I, Monster, where the main role was taken by his very good friend and frequent co-star Christopher Lee.)

 

But he played good guys too – most notably Van Helsing in five of Hammer’s Dracula movies; and Sherlock Holmes in Hammer’s 1958 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, in a sixteen-episode BBC television series in the 1960s and finally in a television movie in the mid-1980s.  His BBC performances as Holmes are much admired, although Cushing, a perfectionist, felt that the show’s hectic shooting schedule didn’t allow him to give the role his best.  With uncharacteristic causticity, he told the actor Douglas Wilmer (who’d played Holmes in a previous series) that he’d “rather sweep Paddington Station for a living than go through the experience again”.

 

(c) Hammer

 

He also played Winston Smith, the doomed hero of George Orwell’s 1984, in a television version in 1954, scripted by Nigel Kneale and performed live before the cameras as TV plays invariably were in those days.  By then in his forties, Cushing was as thin, gaunt and haunted-looking as you’d expect a citizen in a cruelly totalitarian society to be, so he gave Smith a physical as well as emotional believability.  (You can now watch the play in its entirety on youtube — though you’ll probably wince at the fact that it was posted there by the Glenn Beck Book List.)

 

Cushing’s popularity in 1950s British television prompted Hammer Films to hire him for the first of their colour-shot horror movies – The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, Dracula in 1958 and The Mummy in 1959 – which began a long tradition of British horror filmmaking, still in existence today thanks to movies such as Ben Wheatley’s Kill List.  Cushing didn’t particularly like horror films but was philosophical about being typecast in them.  If cinema audiences wanted to watch him in them, he thought, fair enough.

 

Conventional wisdom has it that Cushing saw his career flourish while British Gothic cinema itself flourished, in the late 1950s and during the 1960s.  However, his career declined in the 1970s when British horror films, and British films generally, lost their popularity.  I wouldn’t agree with this idea, however.  Maybe it’s because his 1970s movies, which began to appear on TV when I was in my early teens, were the first Cushing movies I was exposed to and so they occupy a special place in my heart.  Or maybe it’s because Cushing’s performances became even more intense and powerful after his wife Helen, whom he adored, died in 1971.  Anyway, I feel it’s in those 1970s films that you get his best work.

 

(c) Tigon

 

In 1972’s Twins of Evil, for example, he plays Gustav Weil, the leader of a band of Nathaniel Hawthorne-style puritans who come into conflict with a vampire cult.  Weil is so sanctimonious and zealous, obviously tormented by psychological demons as well as by the bloodsucking ones around him, that he tips over into villainy and the viewer’s sympathies end up more on the side of the vampires.  Meanwhile, I remember being genuinely upset by the nihilism of the same year’s The Creeping Flesh.  Cushing’s character here is a kindly archaeologist who digs up a skeleton that might just belong to a mythological creature called the Evil One — the devil, basically.  Flesh reconstitutes itself on the skeleton and the Evil One comes back to life.  The film ends with it stalking the world again while Cushing, whose warnings about the thing are dismissed by everyone as a madman’s ravings, is imprisoned in an asylum run by a villainous rival (played as usual by Christopher Lee — he and Cushing made 22 films together).

 

(c) Amicus

 

I wasn’t a big fan of the horror-anthology movies made by Hammer’s rival studio, Amicus, but in the midst of the stories in their schlocky 1972 compendium Tales from the Crypt, Cushing gives a performance that’s rather heart-rending.  In Tales‘ third story, he plays a kindly, melancholy old widower, tormented by snobby neighbours who believe his presence is lowering their neighbourhood’s tone and lowering their property prices.  They wage an escalating hate campaign against him, spreading lies and rumours that deprive him of everything he holds dear – including his pet dogs and the friendship of the local children – until he is driven to suicide.  (This being a horror film, he doesn’t stay dead for long, of course.)  The story is genuinely upsetting because Cushing’s acting conveys the tragic consequences of a real-life horror – the spitefulness that human beings are capable of.

 

To be fair, Cushing appeared in his share of duff movies, but his acting skills could make any film seem about 50% better in terms of quality than it actually was.  A case in point is Freddie Francis’s ropey 1975 film, Legend of the Werewolf, where Cushing is a joy as an amiable Parisian pathologist who has to work out why so many cadavers are suddenly appearing on his slabs with fang-marks and claw-marks.  He was also good in the barmy 1972 British-Spanish co-production Horror Express, which puts him and Christopher Lee together on the Trans-Siberian Express in 1906.  Cushing and Lee are on the same side for once and play their roles like bemused horror-movie versions of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in an old Road movie.  Also on the train is a freshly dug-up, alien-possessed and reanimated prehistoric ape that has the power to suck its victims’ brains out through their eyeballs.  “Is Professor Saxton’s fossil still at large?” inquires Cushing at one point with appropriate dryness.

 

(c) Granada

 

With his appearance in Star Wars, Cushing entered the era of the modern cinematic blockbuster, but because of ill-health and because by the late 1970s the British film industry had come close to extinction, it was his last high-profile role.  (It’s a pity that he turned down John Carpenter, who offered him the role of Doctor Loomis in the first Halloween movie.  Carpenter wanted ‘an old British horror guy’ to play Loomis and eventually recruited Cushing’s fellow old British horror guy, Donald Pleasance.)

 

Cushing spent his final years in his beloved Whitstable, where he became a local legend.  Not only does the town have a pub named after him, but his residency there inspired local punk band the Jellybottys to write their most famous song, titled with admirable directness Peter Cushing Lives in Whitstable.  And this year, to mark the centenary of his birth, horror writer Stephen Volk penned a novella called Whitstable, set in the town in 1971 during the months following Helen Cushing’s death.  The novella sees a grieving Cushing approached by a youngster who, confusing him with the vampire-hunting Van Helsing he’s seen in horror films, begs him to protect him from his abusive stepfather, whom he believes is a vampire.

 

 

Many film actors of Cushing’s generation plied their trade in the staid, black-and-white British dramas, romances and comedies of the post-war period, aimed at domestic audiences, and they have faded from the public’s memory now.  But Cushing bestrode a more dynamic strand of British film-making — the British Gothic, which presented its blood and grue in lush Technicolour red and which appealed to international as well as home audiences with its sensationalism and sensuality.  As a result, he remains fondly remembered.  At times icily villainous, at other times a font of avuncular charm, he’s as iconic as ever.

 

RIP the Keg

 

I was back in my hometown of Peebles, in the Scottish Borders, for a few days recently to help my Dad celebrate his 78th birthday.  Walking along Peebles High Street for the first time in several months, I discovered this sign on the door leading up to the first-floor Keg Lounge Bar.  Yes, it seems that the Keg is no more.

 

 

Maybe it’s been a victim of the ‘pub-a-geddon’ of recent years where, thanks to ridiculously low alcohol prices in the supermarkets, to the smoking ban and to changing social habits, countless Scottish (and British) bars have gone to the wall.  Or maybe the Keg’s proprietor, Roddy Mackay, who has a stake in another Peebles bar, the Central in the Northgate, simply decided he had enough on his plate with one pub to run, never mind two.

 

The Keg played an important role in my formative pub-going and alcohol-drinking experiences.  When it was a conventional boozer with almost an island bar in the middle (drinking space on three sides of it, but a wall and passageway on the fourth side), the Keg was where I’d go at the age of 16 for a furtive pint or two on Saturday evenings after playing rugby for the local youth team, Peebles Colts.  A little later, when I’d grown bolder, I nip in there too during lunch-hours on schooldays.

 

I remember entering the Keg during lunchtime on the last schoolday of 1981.  Because it was the end of term, and it was almost Christmas, that afternoon the entire student population of Peebles High School would be herded down to the parish church and made to sit – yapping, whinging, girning, fidgeting, squirming, nose-picking and farting – through a special festive kirk-service.  These services invariably ended with the deputy rector, Sandy Charleston, standing up at the altar, not to wish us a Merry Christmas but to give us a bollocking for our unruly and disrespectful behaviour in the House of God.  That lunchtime, the guy sitting beside me in the Keg proved to be David Macfarlane, the son of the Church of Scotland minister in Peebles.  He turned around to me, flashed a mischievous grin and said, “My Dad isn’t looking forward to this afternoon.”

 

This was before the big crackdown on underage drinking in pubs that occurred in the mid-1980s.  I still maintain that this was the worst thing to ever happen in terms of encouraging responsible drinking habits among young people.  In the old days, under-18-year-olds drinking illegally in pubs generally kept their intake to sensible levels, kept their mouths shut and behaved themselves because they didn’t want to attract attention to themselves.  If they did get out of hand, there were plenty of adults in the environment around them to sort them out.  However, when they got kicked out of the pubs and took to drinking supermarket booze in the middle of parks, they had no restraints to stop them drinking to excess and going berserk.

 

After I’d reached the legal drinking age, every time I went into the Keg, it seemed to have undergone another transformation – and the transformations were mostly horrible.  By the early 1990s, it was hosting karaoke nights, where the singing was uniformly dire and projected at ear-blistering volumes.  (I’ll never forget a Peebles woman attempting to do a rendition of Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of my Head, which emerged from the speakers as “Cannae git ye oot o’ ma heid.”)  A little later, and more promisingly, the function room halfway up the stairs became home to occasional raves, shrouded with dry ice, pierced by strobe-lights and pulsing with hypnotic beats.  At one point too, the island bar vanished and the serving counter shifted to the far end of the lounge, leaving the main part of it to be used as a dance floor.  I remember this having a weird fluorescent lighting system that caused the dancers’ teeth and dandruff-flecks to glow almost radioactively.

 

In the end, I could only bring myself to enter the Keg once a year, on the evening of December 25th.  This was when – bloated with Christmas turkey, sprouts and roast potatoes but determined not to join the other members of my family in their torpor on the sofa watching the Christmas edition of Eastenders – I’d force myself out for a nocturnal walk and try to find a venue where I could sink a few quiet and philosophical pints.  The Keg was invariably the only thing open.  Its draft beer tasted f**king dreadful, by the way.

 

I won’t miss the Keg.  But as a place that was such a large component of my – and many other people’s – misspent youth, I will find it strange that it isn’t there any longer.

 

That’s gotta hurt

 

Here are a few details from a 12th-century church mural displayed in Barcelona’s Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya that prove that the public’s appetite for seeing fellow human beings tortured and mutilated in gruesomely imaginative ways did not begin with Hollywood ‘torture-porn’ movies like James Wan’s Saw (2004) or Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005).  That appetite was present a very long time earlier and it was catered for by the gory depictions of martyrdom found in countless works of religious art.

 

The difference, of course, is that while critics and social commentators have reacted to today’s torture-porn movies as if they heralded the end of civilisation as we know it, it was perfectly okay to be turned on by images of saints being dismembered, flayed, impaled, etc, in the Middle Ages so long as you hid your morbid fascination behind a veneer of beatitude.  And anyway, such images had the church’s approval.

 

As if to reinforce the claim I’ve just made, the fourth and final detail shows someone falling painfully foul of a saw.

 

 

The Palau de la Musica Catalana

 

 

Built between 1905 and 1908 as a home for Barcelona’s influential choral society the Orfeo Catala, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Palau de la Musica Catalana is a gorgeous and elaborate work of Art Nouveau in brick, steel, glass and tiles.  It was designed by Lluis Domenech i Montaner – despite what Barcelona’s tourist information would have you believe, not every building of note in the city was masterminded by Antoni Gaudi – and its construction was partly funded by the city’s industrialists.

 

Yes, it’s a great irony that the flowery, swirling dreaminess of Art Nouveau was meant to give its admirers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries an aesthetic escape from urban life and from its landscapes of factories, slums, smog and dirt.  Yet the people financing Art Nouveau were often the factory owners and businessmen who’d made all their money from the industries that’d created those grim urban landscapes.

 

 

The centrepiece of the Palau is its concert hall, which seats 2,200 and is supposedly the only such hall in Europe that during daytime is illuminated only by sunlight and not by artificial lighting.  This is thanks to the huge inverted dome of decorative, mostly blue glass that dips from the centre of its ceiling.  Adorning the sides of the hall, meanwhile, are 18 female figures who are supposed to represent the muses of Greek mythology, a bust of the Catalonian choir director Anselm Clave who was instrumental in reviving his community’s folk songs, a bust of Beethoven, and a depiction of the Valkyries from Wagner’s celebrated opera.  The guide showing us around the building explained that Clave was chosen as part of the decor because he symbolised ‘old’ music, Beethoven was chosen because he symbolised ‘classical’ music, and Wagner’s opera was chosen because in 1908 Wagner was seen as the embodiment of ‘new’ music.

 

Wagner – a representative of modern music?  Well, he did invent heavy metal, I suppose.

 

 

Being pre-human: book review / Before Adam by Jack London

 

(c) Hesperus

 

I discovered Jack London in the conventional way.  Like millions of others in the English-speaking world, I was made to read White Fang and The Call of the Wild at school, which gave me the impression that London only wrote about dogs at the North Pole.  Now that’s all well and fine, but after reading two books on that particular subject I felt no wish to read any more, and I didn’t bother about Jack London for many years afterwards.

 

I rediscovered Jack London in a very unconventional way.  A while back, I was working on an educational project based in a hard-line communist country – one of the last hard-line communist countries in the world – and was asked to put together an English-literature course for a local university.  The texts set for this course had already been approved by the communist authorities and one of them was London’s novel Martin Eden.  The socialist London, I learned later, was much admired in the Soviet Union and there’s even a 10-kilometre-long lake named after him in Siberia.

 

A semi-autobiographical novel dealing with both the spiritual barrenness of the wealthy classes and the absurd pretensions of the literary elite, Martin Eden, I realised, was actually very good.  And there wasn’t a husky or an ice floe in sight.

 

After that I read such London books as The Sea Wolf and People of the Abyss, which was a journalistic tome about a period in 1903 when London passed himself off as an common sailor and lived in his namesake city’s East End, writing about the wretched living conditions and human specimens he experienced there – thirty years before George Orwell did the same thing more famously in Down and Out in Paris and London.  I also read a lot of his short stories, for which the adjective ‘cracking’ could have been invented.

 

Jack London appeals to me too because he managed to live the sort of life that would seem unbelievable if he’d been a character in another writer’s story.  Not only did he acquire massive literary fame in his short 40-year life, but at different times he worked in a cannery, a jute mill and a power plant, sailed a sloop around San Francisco Bay as an oyster pirate, got arrested for vagrancy and spent time in a penitentiary, served on a sealing ship that took him as far as Japan and, of course, prospected for gold in the Klondike.  To make the romance of Jack London just that little more romantic, he also died at a tragically young age and that most writerly of afflictions, alcohol, at least contributed to his death.  London even managed to pen a late-in-the-day memoir about his relationship with alcohol called John Barleycorn, in which he described drinking copious amounts of the stuff but – like a true alcoholic – repeatedly denied that he had a problem with it.

 

Before Adam is a minor but intriguing London novel from 1907, narrated by a modern-day American who’s been plagued from early childhood by dreams with a recurrent theme – that he’s a member of a tribe of pre-Homo Sapiens ape creatures living back in the middle of the Pleistocene Epoch.  Eventually, after attending college and studying psychology and evolution, he decides that what’s lurking in his subconscious is an elaborate set of ‘racial memories’, passed down to him from a remote ancestor through countless generations and through numerous twists and turns of evolution.

 

For most people, such racial memories manifest themselves only vaguely, for example, as dreams about falling (which their distant primate ancestors did a lot of, from trees) or as an instinctive fear of the dark.  London’s dream-haunted narrator, however, has been given nightly access to the adventures of Big Tooth, a member of some missing-link-type species called the Folk.  Big Tooth’s Folk live in caves and hover on the evolutionary scale a little way above their forest-dwelling neighbours, the Tree People – outright apes – and another tribe living in the locality called the Fire People, who wear animal skins, light fires and, ominously, have invented the bow and arrow.  Thus, the narrator of Before Adam relates the life story of his prehistoric alter-ego Big Tooth after he’s pieced it together from his thousands of dreams.  The story runs from Tooth’s childhood to the cataclysmic events where the Folk are all but wiped out by the encroaching Fire People.

 

On one level Before Adam is a rollicking adventure story with a pretty heroine – the Swift One, who eventually becomes Big Tooth’s mate, is described thus: “Her eyes were larger than most of her kind, and they were not so deep-set, while the lashes were longer and more regular…  Her incisors were not large, nor was her upper lip long and down-hanging, nor her lower lip protruding… and while she was thin-hipped, her calves were not twisted or gnarly” – the villains are (literally) brutish and the narrative is spiced with battles, narrow escapes, chases and encounters with sabre-toothed tigers.  In some ways, it feels like a forerunner to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, which was published in 1912, although the racial-memory device with which London frames the narrative gives it a more literary feel than Burroughs’ stories about the yodelling, vine-swinging Tarzan.  It helps that London’s ideas are similar to those of the soon-to-be-fashionable Carl Jung.

 

Before Adam is reminiscent too of William Golding’s 1955 novel The Inheritors, another tale about prehistoric ape creatures.  Indeed, the fashion in which the human-seeming Fire People set about destroying the Folk prefigures Golding’s storyline, which has his Neanderthal characters falling foul of the ‘new people’, i.e. Homo Sapiens.  Golding, however, is game enough to tell his story from the point of view of one of the Neanderthals, rather than take London’s approach and have a contemporary narrator filter and interpret the prehistoric events for the benefit of the reader.  This makes The Inheritors seem as artistically superior to Before Adam as it seems to the Tarzan books.

 

London’s set-up creates a few problems for the narrative.  The Folk lack sufficient perception of time, progress and cause-and-effect to do anything other than live for the moment – “Life was hit or miss and happy-go-lucky with us.  Little was ever planned, and less was executed.  We ate when we were hungry, drank when we were thirsty, avoided our carnivorous enemies, took shelter in the caves at night, and for the rest just sort of played along through life.”  This means the story ends up as a fairly random and haphazard collection of events, with only the impending genocide waged by the Fire People giving it some momentum.  At the same time, the suspense is limited by our knowledge that, whatever happens, Big Tooth and his family will survive at the end – they have to, so that through their descendants their memories will be planted in the narrator’s subconscious many generations later.

 

But Before Adam is an engaging book and, at only 124 pages, it’s worth spending a couple of hours with.  And the various members of the Folk whom Big Tooth encounters and whom the narrator describes make surprisingly amiable characters: “In spite of the fear under which we lived, the Folk were always great laughers,” observes the narrator at one point.  “We had the sense of humour.  Our merriment was gargantuan.  It was never restrained.  There was nothing halfway about it.  When a thing was funny we were convulsed with appreciation of it, and the simplest, crudest things were funny to us.”

 

Then the Fire People show up and slaughter the jolly little fellows.  Yes, that sounds human.

 

Bella, Edward and Jacob — not as rubbish as Michael Gove

 

(c) The Daily Telegraph

 

British Prime Minister David Cameron has been getting it in the neck recently for not being right-wing enough.  This has been particularly so after last week’s local election results in England, when Cameron’s Conservative Party didn’t do very well, but the further-to-the-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) did very well indeed.  To stop voters defecting to UKIP, claim many of his back-bench MPs, and commentators in the right-wing press like the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Spectator, Cameron needs to toughen his act.  For example, he should stop being nice to those ghastly foreigners who inhabit the European Community and he should stop promoting unspeakable leftie ideas like legalising gay marriage.

 

Ideally, its right-wing critics seem to think, the Conservative government should be restoring the country to the happy, blissful state it was in back in 1951, when Britons knew Europe only as a distant place on a map, like Antarctica, and homosexuals got put in prison; and it was okay to give your children lung cancer through passive smoking, and everyone still carried ration books as a glorious reminder of the Blitz spirit.

 

However, while Cameron gets castigated by right-wingers who believe that bringing back hanging, flogging and National Service would soon make Britain great again, those same critics look approvingly on his Education Minister, Michael Gove.  Gove speaks their language.  He’s spent his tenure in charge of England’s schools – his remit doesn’t cover those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – crusading against loathsome modern teaching methods, such as encouraging creative thinking.  He’s striven to re-introduce common-sense notions into schooling, for example, that history consists of chronological sequences of battle-dates and kings and queens and it’s about proclaiming the greatness of Britain over those aforementioned ghastly foreigners; and that the English language is governed by a single set of never-changing grammatical rules that children need to learn like mathematics.  (Anyone using slang or a dialect is clearly an oik in Gove’s world.)

 

Anyway, I’ve noticed that Gove gave a speech on Thursday last week, in which he set his sights on a new target – young people’s reading material.  Addressing an audience at Brighton College, Gove said, “Too many children are only too happy to lose themselves in Stephenie Meyer…  There is a great tradition of English literature, a canon of transcendent works, and Breaking Dawn is not part of it…  You come home to find your 17-year-old daughter engrossed in a book.  Which would delight you more – Twilight or Middlemarch?”

 

(c) Little, Brown

(c) Penguin

 

Now I’ve said some cruel words about Ms Meyer in the past in this blog, and I would sooner drill a hole in my head than read a romantic story that featured wimpy spangly vampires as characters and propagated Mormon values like abstinence and the ‘traditional’ roles of females.  Though obviously, millions of readers around the world would disagree with me.  Nonetheless, I feel I must defend Ms Meyer here against the greater evil.  Michael Gove is a troll who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

 

Gove should know that kids reading anything – anything – is good.  From what I’ve seen in the past few years of teenage reading habits (or the lack of them), if I had a 17-year-old daughter, I think finding her engrossed in any book at all when I came home would delight me.  Far better that she was reading Twilight than playing a computer game or watching some dross on satellite TV.  (Computer games and satellite TV started seeping into homes and deadening children’s minds across the land in the 1980s, when Gove’s heroine Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.  Why didn’t she do something to stop it?)  And once my daughter had developed her reading ability, and got fed up with the adventures of Bella, Edward, Jacob and co, maybe then she might graduate to reading something a little more, well, literary.

 

And much as I like George Eliot, if I found my teenage daughter reading the 900-page Middlemarch, I’d think that was just a little bit disturbing.  I’d wonder if she was like one of those creepy, supernaturally-precocious children who appeared in Village of the Damned and who intended to take over the world when they grew up.  Which was probably how Michael Gove came across when he was the same age.

 

For the record, I spent much of my boyhood reading juvenile crime novels like Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators series, and Target Books’ novelisations of the Doctor Who adventures (usually written by the indefatigable Terrance Dicks), and a lot of comics – most avidly, Action Comic, which ended up being banned because of its graphic violence in 1977.  A little later, in my teens, I was reading stuff by war writers like the leave-nothing-to-the-imagination Sven Hassell and horror writers like James Herbert, Stephen King and even the monster-crab-obsessed Guy N. Smith.  I worked my way through the grisly contents of quite a few volumes of the Pan Book of Horror Stories too.  I suppose none of these were on the young Michael Gove’s reading list.

 

(c) Corgi

(c) Pan

From sevenpennydreadful.co.uk

(c) New English Library

 

I eventually got around to reading Middlemarch, when it turned up as a set text on a literature course I was doing in my early twenties.  Since then, I’ve become a big admirer of Ms Eliot and have read nearly all of her other novels: Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss, Romola, Felix Holt and Adam Bede.  However, I haven’t read Daniel Deronda, although it’s sitting on a bookshelf in front of me even as I write this.  I keep telling myself that I’m going to read it soon.

 

I know, it’s terrible – I’m in my forties and I haven’t even read Daniel Deronda yet.  No doubt Michael Gove would put this failure down to my inadequate, trendy-leftie schooling.

 

Ray Harryhausen: 1920 – 2013

 

From digitalspy.co.uk

 

Tuesday this week saw the passing of the movie special-effects veteran Ray Harryhausen.  Younger filmmakers have been swift to pay tribute to Harryhausen, as they should do – the likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, Sam Raimi, Tim Burton, Nick Park and Terry Gilliam owe him a huge debt in terms of inspiration.

 

Ray Harryhausen wasn’t just a special-effects technician – he was a special-effects titan, a man who turned the process of stop-motion animation into an art-form and became arguably the greatest backroom wizard in cinematic history.  Harryhausen discovered his vocation when, as a kid in 1933, he was taken to a screening of King Kong.  Obsessed with the movie, the young Harryhausen learned how the special-effects man and stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien had used small, intricately-jointed models of Kong to bring the ape to life.  Slowly, methodically, incredibly painstakingly, O’Brien made slight adjustments to those models in between shooting them one frame of film at a time.  The result of these countless tiny adjustments was that when the footage was played back you had Kong moving onscreen with life-like fluidity.

 

Harryhausen was soon making his own stop-motion models and eventually he became apprenticed to O’Brien.  Before they won an Oscar for 1949’s Mighty Joe Young – a sort of King Kong-lite, about a giant gorilla who instead of swatting biplanes at the top of the Empire State Building rescues children from burning orphanages – O’Brien advised Harryhausen to work on giving his creations characters, not just mechanical movement.  He even suggested that the the budding animator go and study anatomy.

 

Harryhausen took O’Brien’s advice and he strove to invest his animated figures with soul.  As a consequence, in this modern era of CGI-drenched fantasy movies, critics commonly complain that today’s computer-generated monsters ‘lack the personality’ of Harryhausen’s creatures.  At the news of Harryhausen’s death, the author and critic Kim Newman tweeted: “It now takes 500 pixel-wranglers to do what Ray Harryhausen did better singled-handed.”

 

My childhood and adolescence in the 1970s and early 1980s coincided with the final decade of Harryhausen’s film-work – Golden Voyage of Sinbad appeared in cinemas in 1973, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger in 1977 and Clash of the Titans in 1981.  Such was the success of Golden Voyage of Sinbad that his original Sinbad movie, 1958’s Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, was subsequently re-released, so I saw that on a big screen too.  Meanwhile, Harryhausen’s earlier movies from the 1950s and 1960s, such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1952), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1959), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), The First Men in the Moon (1964), One Million Years BC (1966) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969), had become fixtures on TV.

 

For some annoying reason, ITV insisted on showing many of these films on weekday afternoons, so that they started while kids like myself were still at school.  I remember on one occasion I lied to my teacher so that I could get out of school early, run back to my house and catch the beginning of Jason and the Argonauts at half-past-two.

 

(c) Columbia 

 

Though I liked monster movies, I quickly became critical of how their special effects were done.  I hated films where the giant creatures were clearly men in suits, stomping on model cities composed of shoebox-sized buildings, as was the case with the Japanese Godzilla movies.  I was also unimpressed by dinosaurs that were glove-puppets (see 1974’s The Land that Time Forgot) or magnified real-life lizards (as in 1960’s dreadful remake of The Lost World – “It’s a mighty tyrannosaurus!” cast-members would cry at the sight of something that was obviously a blown-up iguana with additional warts and frills glued onto it.)

 

But Harryhausen’s creatures were different.  Their shapes were uniquely monstrous, so that they couldn’t have special-effects men operating them from the inside, and they moved with a strange, graceful autonomy.  Furthermore, his dinosaurs were recognisable dinosaurs – brontosaurs, allosaurs, triceratopses – which was important when you were ten years old.

 

(c) 20th Century Fox / Hammer

 

The movies were sometimes less-than-great in other departments.  Most notoriously, One Million Years BC, which Harryhausen made for Hammer Films, wasn’t scripted with much attention to paleontological science.  It had Raquel Welch and other Playboy Bunny-like cavewomen in fur bikinis living alongside dinosaurs in the Calabrian Stage of the Pleistocene Epoch.  Nonetheless, Harryhausen’s work elevated such films into the realms of low art.

 

Harryhausen came to Edinburgh a dozen years ago and gave a talk at the (now closed) Lumiere Cinema at the back of the National Museum of Scotland.  Recently, a literary magazine called the Eildon Tree had published a story of mine that was about growing up in a small town in the 1970s and being dependent on the local fleapit cinema for escape into more exciting and more glamorous worlds.  Because of the story’s theme and setting, Harryhausen’s Sinbad movies got mentioned in it a few times.  So not only did I attend Harryhausen’s talk, but I brought along a copy of the magazine in case he was doing a signing session afterwards.

 

Although he was over 80 years old by then, Harryhausen was sharp-witted and good-humoured and he remained in good form despite some stupid questions from the audience.  (“Why didn’t you make a movie about the Loch Ness Monster?”)  The next day, Peter Jackson was flying him to New Zealand so that he could visit the set of the first Lord of the Rings movie, which was maybe why he was so jovial.  There were a lot of kids present and they were entranced by the jointed monster-models from various films that he’d brought with him.

 

Afterwards, a long queue of people assembled before Harryhausen’s podium with movie memorabilia for him to sign.  He observed drily that much of that memorabilia consisted of posters for One Million Years BC, in which Raquel Welch was displayed prominently in her fur bikini – so much for stop-motion animation.  Finally, it was my turn.  I handed over my copy of the Eildon Tree, open at the page where my story started, and asked if he could autograph it.

 

“It’s something I’ve had published,” I explained.  “It name-checks your Sinbad movies.”

 

Harryhausen looked at me, chuckled and said, “You know, son, you look a bit like Sinbad yourself!”

 

That didn’t just make my day – it made my month.

 

(c) Columbia