Strange places in the Scottish Borders 4: Thomas the Rhymer’s Eildon Hills

 

From Wikidpedia

 

The Eildon Hills are the natural landmark of the Scottish Borders.  The hills – or hill, since they’re sometimes classified as a single hill with a triple peak – rise just south of the town of Melrose, which is famous for its ruined abbey.  They are also associated with multiple legends and pieces of folklore, a few of which are mentioned on this page of Julian Cope’s Modern Antiquarian website: http://www.themodernantiquarian.com/site/6971.

 

One legend has it that the three hills were the handiwork of the supposed 13th-century wizard Michael Scot.  Originally they were one massive peak but then Scot, seemingly in an effort to stave off boredom, used his magic powers to cleave them in three.  Actually, the Michael Scot of historical reality was the most important academic figure to ever emerge from the Borders and it’s unfair that he’s mostly remembered as a medieval wizard.  (He did practise alchemy and astrology, regarded as occult subjects now, but in his day these were treated as serious academic topics.)

 

Scott, who may have been born near Melrose, was educated at the Universities of Oxford and Paris.  Later, he learned enough Arabic to be able to translate the works of Aristotle from Arabic – the only language in which they’d been preserved at the time – into Latin, thus making them accessible to the great minds of medieval Europe.  His travels took him from a post at the University of Toledo in southern Spain to Sicily, where he worked for Popes Honorious III and Gregory IX, and then to Balermo and the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, whom he supposedly cured of several illnesses.

 

For Scot’s modern reputation as a medieval Scottish Gandalf, we can blame Dante, who in his Divine Comedy depicted him as a wicked magician suffering in the eighth circle of hell, and James Hogg, who portrayed him as a black magician in his novel The Three Perils of Man, and Sir Walter Scott, who wrote about his magical feats in the Lay of the Last Minstrel.  He has also turned up in recent fantasy novels by Michael Scott Rohan, Jane Yolen and Katherine Kurtz, and television viewers may even know him as the tetchy magician played by Peter Mullan in the children’s series Shoebox Zoo.

 

 

But returning to the Eildon Hills…  Other legends allege that the hills are hollow and inside them you’ll find either a chamber containing the slumbering King Arthur and his knights, or the realm of Elfland – Fairyland.  The latter legend ties in with the stories surrounding another 13th-century Borders man with mystical attributes, Thomas the Rhymer.

 

Thomas the Rhymer has been described as ‘Scotland’s answer to Nostradamus’ because of his powers of prophecy.  Also known as Thomas Learmont of Erceldoune, the medieval name for the Borders town of Earlston, he is said to have acquired these powers whilst walking one day in the Eildon Hills.  Here, beside a particular tree – ‘the Eildon Tree’ – he came across the beautiful Queen of Elfland.  Their encounter formed the basis for the folk ballad ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, which in modern times has been performed by such folk luminaries as Steeleye Span and Ewan MacColl.

 

The ballad opens with these verses (which I’ve quoted from the website http://www.angelfire.com/sc2/scotsforindependence/history/thomas.html):

 

True Thomas lay on Huntly bank;
A ferly he spied wi’ his ee;
And there he saw a lady bright 
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.

Her shirt was o’ the grass-green silk,
Her mantle o’ the velvet fine;
At ilka tett of her horse’s mane
Hung fifty sil’er bells and nine.

True Thomas he pulled off his cap
And louted low down to his knee:
All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven!
For thy peer on earth I never did see.

O no, O no, Thomas, she said,
That name does not belang to me;
I am but the Queen of fair Elfland,
That am hither come to visit thee.

 

Taking a fancy to Thomas, the Queen transported him back to her magical domain within the hills for a romantic tryst.  When Thomas returned to the mortal world after what had seemed like a brief fling with the Queen, he discovered in Rip Van Winkle fashion that seven years had passed in human time.  In addition, the Queen of Elfland had given him the ability to prophesise as a parting gift.

 

This gift brought him fame and fortune afterwards.  Thomas is reputed to have foretold the death of the Scottish king Alexander III in 1296, the rise to power of Robert the Bruce in the early 14th century and the Battle of Flodden in 1513.  Such was his reputation as a prophet that even in the 18th century the Jacobites used his predictions to justify their cause in the rebellions of 1715 and 1745.

 

What did the future hold for Thomas himself?  Legend has it that he disappeared whilst taking another walk, with the implication that he was spirited back to Elfland – presumably by the Queen who’d so appreciated his amour the first time round.  (As his Wikipedia entry records him living from 1220 to 1298, let’s hope that he was still a spritely lover in his seventies.)

 

Like Michael Scot, the real Thomas the Rhymer was probably a notable man whose accomplishments have been obscured by fanciful legends.  In his book The Borders the historian Alastair Moffat identifies Thomas as a bard attached to the Earls of Dunbar, who owned land and a castle in Earlston.  Moffat suggests that Thomas was actually a late example of the bards-cum-mystics who populated Welsh tradition, because he lived while the cultural influence of the Britons, from whom the Welsh are descended, was still felt in the Borders.  (The Cumbric language, which like the Welsh language was an offshoot of the ancient Brittonic tongue, had only recently died out in southern Scotland.)  On the other hand, Moffat makes a case for him being ‘the earliest Scottish poet writing in English’.  Thus, he was a figure of tremendous importance in Scottish literary history.

 

Thomas the Rhymer inevitably became a literary figure himself, for example, in Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 poem The Last Rhyme of True Thomas and Nigel Tranter’s 1981 novel True Thomas.  Meanwhile, his seduction by the Elfland Queen has been a popular topic for artists as well as folk singers.  If you type ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ into Google Images you’ll find an array of Nouveau-Celtic pictures of the two lovers, with the Queen depicted as a Disney-esque princess on a white steed.

 

I should say that beautiful, elegant fairies (and for that matter, cute little ones with gossamer wings) were largely a creation of literary minds that came after Thomas’s time – see William Shakespeare and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  In 13th-century Scotland, fairies were seriously feared by people, who regarded them as vindictive and untrustworthy.  If their appearance wasn’t monstrous, they were believed to look sinisterly not-of-this-world.  So I suspect that if the encounter ever did take place, the Queen of Elfland would have resembled Snow White’s evil stepmother, and Thomas’ reaction to her would have been less one of romantic enthusiasm and more one of terror.

 

A stone, erected originally by the Melrose Literary Society in 1923 and re-erected in 1970, commemorates Thomas the Rhymer on the lower slopes of the Eildon Hills.  It supposedly marks the site of the Eildon Tree where, according to the legend and ballad, Thomas and the Queen first met.  You can find it beside the old road, now closed to traffic but traversable on foot or bicycle, that links the A6091 above Melrose with the B6389 at Newtown St Boswells.

 

Extracts from the secret Tunisian diary of Ian Smith, aged 47-and-a-bit

 

 

December 8th, 2011

 

I arrived home this evening and discovered that the part of the street immediately in front of my ground-floor flat was being used for location-filming by a film or TV crew.  They’d cordoned the area off to traffic, and pedestrians had to use the opposite pavement.  A railway-like track had been placed on the road-surface and a camera and cameraman were mounted on a trolley that trundled along this track, keeping pace with the actors who were prowling about the pavement outside my front windows.

 

There was a huge crowd of local people watching and it was difficult to distinguish between who was an onlooker and who was a member of the crew.  The entrance to my building was clogged with kids, sitting on the doorstep, determined to observe every moment of the proceedings.  Hours later, they were still there, watching the very last crew-members gather up and load away the very last pieces of equipment.

 

I wonder what the nature of the film or TV show was that’d persuaded the crew to use my street, with its dilapidated coffee houses and wee shops, graffiti-ed walls and piles of left-out rubbish bags (messily eviscerated by feral cats), as a location.  I hope they weren’t making a gritty, squalid crime drama, populated with low-life and set in a Tunis slum.

 

 

September 3rd, 2012

 

I arrived back from holiday to find my ramshackle old flat surprisingly intact and in order.  No leaks, no blocked drains, no electrical faults, no bad odours.  I was pleased by this until I opened the doors in the end wall of the kitchen and looked outside into the flat’s little ‘back court’.  Near the drain in the corner there was an odd-looking puddle – a grey and somehow furry puddle.

 

I approached the thing, wondering what it was.  It stank to high heaven.  After a moment, I began to discern an outline among the furry gloop: two hind-legs, a torso, two more legs, a small head…  I realised I could just about see a cat in that puddle – what had once been a cat.

 

I knew that during the preceding days Tunis had seen its first autumn rains.  My guess was that the cat had died up on the roof sometime before and during the intense summer heat had practically liquefied.  Finally the rain had washed it down into my back court.

 

I doused the whole back court in detergent and, when my nose could no longer detect the reek of decomposing cat, I scraped the remains off the ground and sealed them within four layers of plastic bags, and added them to the neighbourhood rubbish-heap on the street outside.  That’s about the most disgusting thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.

 

 

April ?th, 2013

 

Late one morning I was walking along Avenue de Paris, away from Avenue Habib Bourguiba.  A number of street traders were, at intervals, hawking stuff from the side of the street – from stalls, from barrows, from panels set out on top of cardboard boxes, from sheets laid over the pavement.  I know that the legal status of these guys, selling their wares in this impromptu manner, is pretty suspect.  Anyway, part of the way along the avenue, I noticed that a white pick-up truck was drawing up beside each of these traders and a bald middle-aged man was sticking his head out of the driver’s window and shouting something in Arabic at them.

 

As soon as they heard this guy, the street traders would panic and clear their wares away in an instant.  One trader grabbed the ends of the sheet he had spread across the pavement, snatched everything up in a bundle and ran off with the bundle swinging over his shoulder, like a cartoon burglar with a sack marked ‘swag’.  Another did something similar with a large square panel from which he’d been selling DVDs – the panel turned out to be hinged in the middle, so he closed it like a giant book, with the DVDs inside, and made off with it under his arm.  Another trader again was manning what I thought was a stall but was actually a kind of barrow, with little wheels at the bottom and handles sticking out of its end – so he just grabbed the handles and trundled the thing at top speed around a corner and into a side-street.

 

I was walking at the same rate that the pick-up truck – pausing, revving up and shooting on to the next street trader – was moving at, so we more-or-less kept level the whole way along Avenue de Paris.  Thus, I witnessed these little scenes of panic again and again.  I assume that the cops had started a street-trading crackdown operation and were working their way along from Avenue Habib Bourguiba; and the fellow in the pick-up had some street-trading connections and was warning them just in advance of the cops.

 

Ironically, one of the side-streets that a trader fled down was called Rue des Entrepreneurs.

 

 

Walking out

 

The New Statesman recently published an article by its film critic, Ryan Gilbey, about the ethics of being in a cinema, getting up and walking out during a film (http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/07/last-week-i-walked-out-film-am-i-bad-person ).  This got me wondering.  Have I ever found myself in a cinema with a film that I disliked so much that I left the auditorium in the middle of it, pushing past people in the same row, jostling popcorn, blocking views of the screen, generally causing a disturbance?  Gilbey, who’s rarely done this himself, suggests that the communal experience offered by cinema-viewing is an inhibitor:  “Those who make a premature exit also release themselves from membership of the audience, and going it alone can often be an alienating experience.”

 

I agree with Gilbey.  To me, seeing a film in a cinema offers a much more intense and special experience than watching a film at home on a TV or laptop – there’s the shared anticipation among the audience before the curtains pull back from the screen and then, hopefully, the shared emotional engagement once the film is underway – and walking out before the film is done seems as sacrilegious as, say, belching in church.  However, the main reason why I’ve hardly ever walked out of a cinema-screening is simpler.  Normally I don’t go to the cinema to see a film that I suspect I won’t like.

 

There have been instances when I’ve come close to throwing in the towel, though.  In the mid-1990s I found myself watching Four Weddings and a Funeral in a Japanese cinema and realising that I didn’t, seriously didn’t like this film.  Partly it was because the characters were a bunch of super-wealthy Hooray Henrys and yet the filmmakers expected me to sympathise with them because they hadn’t yet met Mr or Ms Right.  Partly it was because of the way it portrayed the United Kingdom – a series of cloying images familiar only from tourist brochures and chocolate-box lids – and partly it was because the only time a working-class environment (a housing estate) was shown, it was as a rainy backdrop for the funeral of the title.  Yes, there are common people in Britain, it seemed to imply, and they’re only there for the bad stuff.

 

However, because I’d gone to see the film with a Japanese friend, I gritted my teeth and remained in my seat.  Later, I found that my friend – despite being a member of a package-tour-loving nation whom the film was obviously aimed at – hadn’t liked it that much either.

 

In other cases – Francis Ford Coppola’s version of Dracula, which I saw in Edinburgh, or Wes Anderson’s ultra-twee movie The Darjeeling Limited, which I saw in Paris – I stuck the films out because I thought that, given their directors’ reputations, they might reward my patience by getting better in their later stages.  Needless to say, neither of them did.

 

My cinematic tolerance was also pushed to breaking point one time in Addis Ababa, when I entered a cinema to see what the posters outside assured me was The Matrix.  However, when the lights dimmed and the screen lit up, the film on view wasn’t The Matrix.  It was an action-comedy called Knock Off, set in Hong Kong and starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.  Even then, I decided that having paid my money, I should remain seated and give Jean-Claude Van Damme a chance.  Afterwards, I could only vow – no more chances for you, Jean-Claude.

 

In fact, I have to go back to the late 1970s to recall a time when I walked out of a film before it ended, and in that case there were mitigating circumstances.  My family had headed to the Scottish west-coast town of Oban for a few days’ break and my parents, desperate to have an evening to themselves, dropped me and my three younger siblings off at Oban’s Phoenix cinema for a couple of hours to watch the recently-released Peter Yates adaptation of Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel, The Deep.  (The lady at the bed-and-breakfast place we were staying in had told us gloomily that the Phoenix, like many other small-town cinemas at the time, was rumoured to be closing down.  However, I’ve just googled it and discovered that – hurrah! – it’s still in business, currently showing Pacific Rim and Monsters University: http://www.obanphoenix.com/.)

 

(c) Columbia 

 

Due to some confusion about The Deep’s finishing time, I had to gather up my younger brother and sisters and herd them out of the auditorium ten minutes before the film ended, so that we could be collected by our parents outside at the time arranged.  It wasn’t a great loss – my siblings didn’t really look like they understood what was going on in the film, and one of my sisters had been seriously disturbed by the bit in it where a villain gets his head chomped by a giant eel.  I wasn’t too bothered myself, as I’d already read Benchley’s book and I knew how it would end, with Robert Shaw’s character getting killed.  (When I saw the film again on TV a few years later, I discovered that the sneaky filmmakers had actually changed the ending and Shaw survived.)

 

Incidentally, walking out of films early has also been the subject of a recent blog by the Sunday Mail columnist Peter Hitchens.  (I would provide a link to it, but this is the Daily / Sunday Mail we’re talking about, so I won’t on ethical grounds.)  Hitchens rants continually about the evils of recreational drugs, sex education, working women, same-sex marriage, multiculturalism, rock music and general ‘radical revolutionaries’ who ‘plan to cut ties to nation and God’ – that’s anybody to the left of Nigel Farrage, presumably.  He describes himself as a ‘Burkean Conservative’ although I’d say the first syllable of that description is more accurate.  Recently, Hitchens was seen leaving a cinema 30 minutes after buying a ticket to see the French movie Populaire, something that was then reported on Twitter, along with speculation that Hitchens had walked out because he couldn’t cope with the French soundtrack and English subtitles.

 

In a blog posting on June 3rd, Hitchens angrily refuted this.  He claimed the only reason he left was because the film was ‘embarrassingly bad’.  However, Hitchens then went on to talk about a movie he’d ‘stormed out of… in a Golders Green cinema more than 30 years ago’: Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.  “This was an act of demonstrative spite and rage…  I had been repeatedly told that Taxi Driver was a great work of art, etc, etc, etc.  But it turned out to be crude, dispiriting, squalid and violent, and without any moral or cultural purpose that I could see then or can work out now…  Interestingly, my walk-out was on that occasion met with snarls and rebukes from others in the audience, annoyed in some way that I wasn’t enjoying watching somebody have his fingers shot off.”

 

(c) Columbia

 

Hitchens’ comments about Taxi Driver provoke two reactions in me.  Neither of them involve surprise at his hatred for a film that I consider one of the greatest American movies of the 1970s and the peak of the ongoing collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.  (Bernard Herrman’s musical score for the film is pretty damned good too.)  Hitchens has such a stick up his arse that I wouldn’t expect him to like it.

 

Firstly, though, I’m surprised that it took him so long to walk out of the cinema.  The bit in Taxi Driver where the guy gets his fingers shot off happens very near the end – so I assume Hitchens elected to spend the bulk of the film sitting in his seat, fulminating at the disgusting-ness of it.  I would’ve walked out sooner if I’d been him.  (This seems typical of many censorious people, who apparently go looking to be offended and insist on watching material that they know fine well won’t suit their moral sensibilities.  The late Mary Whitehouse was a case in point.)

 

Secondly, it seems ironic that Hitchens should take umbrage at a film whose main character, De Niro’s screwed-up Vietnam vet Travis Bickle, spends his screen-time fuming at what he sees as the post-sexual-revolution decadence and rottenness of modern life: “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal…  Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”

 

In fact, if I had to liken British newspaper columnists to American movie characters, Peter Hitchens would probably be Travis Bickle.

 

Favourite places in Tunis 5: Le Plug

 

It’s tempting to describe Le Plug in the northern Tunis suburb of La Marsa as one of the very few heavy metal / electronica bars, if not the only one, on Tunisian soil.  But actually it’s not on Tunisian soil at all.  It’s on water.  You find it at the end of a pier called the Kobel El Hawa, a hulking baroquely-architectured structure on short, thick columns that protrudes into the waves off La Marsa’s shore (http://500px.com/photo/23572999).  I know, it doesn’t really look like a pier at all, but I’m going by the free online dictionary’s definition of a ‘pier’ as being a ‘a platform extending from a shore over water and supported by piles or pillars, used to secure, protect and provide access to ships or boats; or such a structure used predominantly for entertainment’.  So there.

 

The place is no doubt silent at the moment on account of it being Ramadan, but for most of the year Le Plug treats its patrons to music, loud music – heavy metal and rock during the earlier days of the week and techno on a Saturday.  (One metal-admiring friend told me dismissively that Saturday there was ‘techno and twats’ night, although I’ve been in Le Plug on Saturdays and the clientele seemed an awful lot less twattish than you’d encounter in an equivalent venue in the UK.)

 

The heart of Le Plug is up two flights of stairs at the highest and most seaward point of the Kobel El Hawa.  As you go through the entrance door there’s an alcove immediately on the right, curtained-off in the evenings, that is home to a miniature tattoo parlour.  Facing the entrance, meanwhile, is a bar-counter, behind which hang a skull-and-crossbones and a Union Jack defiantly emblazoned with the old war-cry PUNK’S NOT DEAD.  To the left extends a terrace, once open to the sea but now sealed in by windows, with a dance floor along its middle, with seats and tables at its sides and with small cobwebbed chandeliers and at least one mirror-ball dangling from its ceiling.  There are toilets halfway along this terrace and from what I’ve seen of the male one, they conform to the proud standards of rock bars the world over – the wash-hand basin has always been unspeakably blocked up and the walls are unappealingly slathered in what appears to be chocolate cake.

 

Outside, below the final staircase climbing to Le Plug’s entrance door, there’s a long rectangular space that’s been converted into another drinking area and has a second counter at its end.  On the long wall running along the back of this area, an artist has painted a rather natty mural showing the workings of some huge and intricate machine.  The mural is oddly organic-looking, in a Joan Miro-meets-H.R. Giger way, and it also incorporates bits of Leonardo da Vinci and Salvador Dali.

 

The staff at Le Plug are keen to discourage people from using cameras on their premises, as if they don’t want pictures of the place turning up on social media.  I would understand them wanting to keep the existence of their bar quiet in a country where there’s a small but troublesome bunch of religious nutters who no doubt regard heavy metal and techno as the embodiments of pure evil, but they already have a considerable online presence – they have a website (http://le-plug.com/) and they were recently the subject of a feature on the local English-language news website, Tunisia Live Net (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/02/15/le-plug-a-home-for-alternative-music-in-tunis/), so I don’t see what difference a few photographs would make.  Anyway, the last evening I was there, I did surreptitiously snap a picture of a detail on that epic wall-mural.  It depicts a frog in a Da Vinci-esque Vitruvian Man pose – I’ve posted the original here too so that you can compare them.

 

 

Entertaining Mr Greene: book review / Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

 

(c) Penguin

Published in 1932, Stamboul Train was Graham Greene’s first novel.  The legendary author was careful to label it an ‘entertainment’ so as to distinguish it from his more serious, more literary works that came afterwards.  Indeed, 40 years later, he said of Stamboul Train, “…I deliberately set out to write a book to please, one which with luck might be made into a film.”  (It was, under the title Orient Express, in 1934.)

 

So what might you expect Greene, with his ‘entertainment’ hat on, to serve up in a book set on board a train?  Might the train be the setting for an Agatha Christie murder mystery, or for a daring robbery, or for the outbreak of a deadly plague?  Might the train be taken over by agents of a hostile foreign power, or by terrorists, or by aliens?  Actually, no.  Stamboul Train, in fact, feels like many of the more famous and more lauded novels by Graham Greene.  The characters on the titular train, from Ostend to Istanbul, seem to do more travelling through their own troubled psyches than they do physically, across the expanses of 1930s Europe.  There’s a little action now and again, but it’s no more thrilling than the action in the author’s supposedly more serious novels.  That action happens quickly and haphazardly, it gets described in Greene’s customarily terse prose style, and there’s nothing heroic or glamorous about it.

 

Where the novel differs from the loftier titles in Greene’s oeuvre is its lack of Catholicism.  Unlike Brighton Rock, The End of the Affair, A Burnt-Out Case and The Honorary Consul, no member of the Roman Catholic Church in Stamboul Train, practising or lapsed, is subjected to pages of introspection about love, betrayal, self-sacrifice, fathers, etc.  Not that I’m complaining.  I regard Greene as one of the finest English-language writers of the 20th century and, having read his autobiography A Sort of Life, I understand how important his conversion to Catholicism at the age of 22 was to him – especially coming after his teens, when he’d suffered from bouts of suicidal depression and played Russian roulette.  But as an out-and-out atheist, I could never really engage with those sections of his novels where characters analysed their lives, loves, sins, guilt and so on according to the teachings of an institution dedicated to the worship of A Giant Invisible Pixie That Doesn’t Really Exist.  In fact, if his novels had been films on television, the Catholic sections would definitely be the bits where I’d retreat to the kitchen, boil up the kettle and make a cup of tea.

 

The typical Greene element that does figure in Stamboul Train, however, is left-wing politics.  Here it’s embodied in the character of Richard Czinner, a melancholy socialist politician exiled from his native Serbia, who intends to return to Belgrade to take part in an uprising.  It’s Czinner’s bad luck that the uprising kicks off earlier than planned, while he’s still stuck on the train.

 

The other main characters are Carleton Myatt, a Jewish trader on a business trip to Istanbul, and Coral Musker, a working-class chorus girl heading to the same city in the hope of getting some stage work.  Coral ends up befriending Czinner – as much as Czinner’s melancholy, distracted personality will allow – and falling in love with Myatt, who treats her with a certain bemusement but certainly isn’t unkind towards her: “He liked the girl’s thin figure and her face, the lips tinted enough to lend her plainness an appeal.  Nor was she altogether plain; the smallness of her features, of her skull, her nose and ears, gave her a spurious refinement, a kind of bright prettiness, like the window of a country shop at Christmas full of small lights and tinsel and coloured common gifts.”

 

The stops along the route bring additional characters and increasing trouble.  At Cologne the train is joined by Mabel Warren, an ageing, alcoholic and obviously lesbian English journalist and her younger and more glamorous ‘lady friend’, Janet Pardoe.  Mabel, a ruthless old hack who nowadays would probably make a good living writing for the Daily Mail – “Her manner was masterful; she sat down without waiting for an invitation.  She felt that she was offering this man something he wanted, publicity, and she was gaining nothing commensurate in return” – recognises Czinner and determines to find out what he’s up to, which makes his precarious situation even more precarious.

 

Meanwhile, Vienna sees the arrival of Josef Grunlich, a robber who’s just botched his latest job and killed a man and needs to leave Austria fast.  Although Grunlich is the character who most obviously belongs in a conventional thriller, his character infuses the plot with some much-needed energy.  One of the best scenes come shortly after the murder, when Grunlich – whose conceit of himself as a master criminal is at odds with the bungler he is in reality – decides nonchalantly to stop off at a café below his victim’s apartment.  “I am clever, he thought, I’ll be too much for them.  Why should I hurry like a sneak thief to the station, slip inconspicuously through doorways, hide in the shadow of sheds?  There’s time for a cup of coffee, and he chose a table on the pavement, at the edge of the awning…  Something struck the pavement with the clink of metal, and Josef looked down.  It was a copper coin.  That’s curious, he thought, a lucky omen, but stooping to pick it up, he saw at intervals, all the way from the café, copper and silver coins lying in the centre of the pavement.  He felt in his trouser pocket and found nothing but a hole.  My goodness, he thought, have I been dropping them ever since I left the flat? And he saw himself standing at the end of a clear trail that led, paving stone by paving stone, and then stair by stair, to the door of Herr Kolber’s study.”

 

At Subotica near the Serbian-Hungarian border, the authorities, whom Mabel has alerted, detain Czinner.  They also hold Grunlich and Coral, who is unfortunate enough to be in Czinner’s vicinity at the time of his arrest.  Before Myatt realises what has happened, the train chugs off with him still on board.  Thereafter, things become increasingly tense.  Will Czinner, subjected to an on-the-spot trial, be executed?  Will Grunlich’s criminal know-how help the three of them to escape from captivity?  Will Myatt manage to get back to Subotica in time to rescue them?  And will Myatt end up with Coral, or will he succumb to the growing temptations of the sexy, sophisticated and wealthy Janet Pardoe?

 

From the melancholic tone already established in the novel, you can guess that the ending won’t be a happy one.  Indeed, the unfortunate Coral, whose luck keeps turning further and further for the worse, calls to mind a more famous heroine in English literature, the heroine of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  Tess’s ongoing bad luck prompted Hardy to conclude his novel with the memorable line, “the President of the Immortals… ended his sport with Tess”; and you feel that poor Coral doesn’t fare much better with those Immortals here.

 

Modern readers might feel that Greene’s unflattering treatment of Mabel Warren reeks of homophobia – although he deserves credit for how he portrays Myatt, the decent-though-flawed Jewish businessman, especially at a time when anti-Semitic forces were gathering in Europe with ultimately devastating consequences.  Meanwhile, for a novel supposedly written to entertain and please, Stamboul Train contains a surprising blackness.  It’s black but it’s also undeniably Greene.

 

Favourite places in Tunis 4: Majestic Hotel

 

Just before I first visited Tunis as a tourist, about three years ago, I’d read on a couple of travel websites about an old Art Nouveau hotel called the Majestic, situated on Avenue de Paris, a bit shabby nowadays but still atmospheric, and supposedly not too expensive to stay in.  The trouble was, search though I did on the Internet, I couldn’t find any way of booking a room in the place.

 

Later, after I’d arrived in Tunis and found other accommodation (the decidedly not-Art-Nouveau Hotel Pacha on Avenue Kheireddine Pacha), I went hunting for the fabled Majestic.  It proved to be a hefty building on a street corner, five storeys high, its white walls adorned with ledges, corbels and balustrades so that it had the look of an ornately-iced wedding cake.  It also proved to be closed.  The corner entrance was boarded up and, although someone told me it was undergoing renovations, it gave off an aura of dereliction and decay.

 

 

About a year after I’d started living in Tunisia, I heard that the Majestic Hotel was open for business again.  The timing of the re-opening was not ideal, as Tunisia was newly into its post-revolutionary era and, thanks to the turbulence involved in unseating Ben Ali, the flow of visiting tourists had been reduced to a dribble.  Anyway, I went to investigate the rejuvenated Majestic.  As I’d expected, there was hardly anybody staying there, and the place smelt strongly of the white paint that’d been freshly applied to its already-white façade.  It did, however, look smart – as smart as it must’ve done when it originally opened in 1914 – and I had no doubt that it was a lot more expensive to stay in now than it’d been during its declining, budget-traveller years when I’d seen it mentioned on the Internet.  I was glad to have checked it out and I’ve returned a number of times since.

 

On entering the circular lobby, which comes complete with a miniature chandelier, you should ascend one of the staircases that curve up either wall to the first floor.  There you’ll encounter Le Piano, the hotel bar, which is equipped with a first-floor terrace.

 

 

The terrace is mostly sealed off from sight of Avenue de Paris by a row of railings and screens, decorated with little plant-boxes and punctuated by large stone urns that seem to cradle infant palm trees, only a clump of nascent fronds visible above each urn’s rim.  It would be nice to see more of the avenue below, but at least the railings, screens and urns – along with the big parasols that hulk over the tables – ensure that the terrace is well-shaded.

 

At the terrace’s end, a semi-circular fountain occupies a corner, while four flagpoles stand nearby bearing the Tunisian flag, the European Union one, the Arab League one and the Hotel Majestic one.  The latter flag is emblazoned with the hotel’s insignia, a curvy H superimposed on a curvy M, which seems to lurk everywhere – on the table napkins, the drinks mats, the menus.

 

 

Every couple of minutes, the calm of the terrace is interrupted by stately rumbling and jangling bell of a tram, passing along Avenue de Paris below.

 

 

During my most recent visits, a sign has been in evidence warning people in French that entry to Le Piano and its terrace is restricted to hotel guests only.  This might explain why I’ve never seen it containing more than half-a-dozen customers.  However, putting on my most imperious and moneyed air – and despite the customary shabbiness of my hair, beard and clothes – I’ve still managed to get served there.

 

Cinematic heroes 1: James Robertson Justice

 

From britmovie.co.uk

 

Forgive the pun, but in a brief blog entry it’s impossible to do justice to James Robertson Justice.  By the time he embarked on an acting career – his first screen appearance was in the Charles Crichton-directed wartime propaganda movie For Those in Peril, with his first substantial role coming four years later in Peter Ustinov’s comic fantasy Vice Versa – he’d already amassed a professional CV that would put Jack London’s to shame.

 

In London, he’d worked as a journalist at Reuters (alongside a 20-year-old Ian Fleming).  Then he’d upped and gone to Canada, where he’d tried his hand at selling insurance, teaching English at a boys’ school and being a lumberjack and gold-miner.  He’d worked his passage back to Britain on a Dutch freighter and during the 1930s served as secretary and manager to the British ice-hockey team.  He’d also had a go at being a racing driver, served as a League of Nations policeman and fought for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.  In World War II he’d been invalided out of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve because of a shrapnel injury.

 

On top of his decidedly varied working experiences, James Robertson Justice was a polyglot – according to whom you believe, the number of languages he could speak was four, ten or twenty – a keen birdwatcher and falconer (the latter hobby earning him the friendship of Prince Philip), a raconteur and bon viveur with an eye for the ladies and a penchant for fast and expensive cars, and perhaps most passionately of all, a would-be Scotsman.  Although he’d been born in Lewisham in London in 1907 – to, admittedly, a Scottish father – Justice told everyone that he’d been born in the shadow of a distillery on the Isle of Skye.  People went along with this and it was only in 2007 that a biographer, James Hogg, discovered Justice’s birth certificate and his non-Scottish origins: http://www.scotsman.com/news/celebrity/scots-actor-justice-outed-as-londoner-1-1427537.

 

To cement his Scottish credentials, Justice served as rector of Edinburgh University from 1963 to 1966 and in the 1950 general election he ran unsuccessfully as the Labour candidate for the Scottish constituency of North Angus and Mearns.  (Despite his friendship with the Queen’s husband and his taste for fine living, Justice’s politics were firmly of the left.)  One of the languages he could speak was Scottish Gaelic.  And he must have been proud that he starred in the most charming of old Scottish comedy movies, 1949’s Whisky Galore.

 

A larger-than-life character in reality, it’s unsurprising that fame, when it arrived for Justice, was a result of his playing a larger-than-life role.  1954’s Doctor in the House, based on the comic novel by Richard Gordon, follows the mishaps of four medical students (Kenneth More, Donald Sinden, Donald Houston and soon-to-be-a-star Dirk Bogarde) while they bumble, philander and idle their way through their studies at the fictional St Swithin’s Hospital.  Its irreverent tone struck a chord with British cinema audiences, whose patronage made it the biggest grossing film of the year.

 

That’s ‘irreverent’ in strictly a 1954 sense, however – Bogarde and co seem a pretty mild bunch of rebels even by the standards of the 1950s, which a couple of years later would see the advent of rock ‘n’ roll.  As biting medical satire goes, Doctor in the House is several hundred light-years behind, say, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H*.  In fact, the film would seem flat and stodgy today if it wasn’t for Justice’s turn as the chief surgeon at St Swithin’s, the hulking, pompous and delightfully ogre-ish Sir Lancelot Spratt.  The scenes involving Spratt are still capable of prompting guffaws – particularly the one with the famous ‘What’s the bleeding time?’ joke.

 

 

Bulldozering through the hospital wards and corridors and dragging a dazed trail of matrons, nurses and junior doctors in his wake, treating his underlings like dirt and so disdainful of the working-class patients that it’s debatable if he considers them capable of thought, Spratt could be seen as the socialist-leaning Justice’s piss-take of a pompous upper-crust Tory doctor, one who’s been thrust against his wishes into the brave new Labourite world of Britain’s fledgling National Health Service.  But the truth is simpler.  As Justice saw it, he was merely playing himself – or playing one side of his complex and contradictory self, not the side that’d fought for the Spanish Republicans and campaigned for the Labour Party, but the side with an unrepentant fondness for fancy cars, caviar, royalty and living it up.

 

The success of Doctor in the House and the impact of Sir Lancelot Spratt on the public’s imagination meant that he was immediately typecast and he spent the next decade-and-a-half playing variations on the role – comically-blustering aristocrats and authority figures who believed themselves entitled to behave any way they pleased and who didn’t give a tinker’s cuss what other people thought about it.

 

One exception to the rule was the memorable John Huston-directed, Ray Bradbury-scripted film version of Moby Dick in 1956, in which he played Captain Boomer.  Also, in the 1961 adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone, he was the commodore at Allied Command who rounds up Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn and sends them off to blow up the big German guns of the title.  Otherwise, comedies and pomposity were the order of the day.  Justice played Spratt in six more Doctor movies and played countless other Spratt clones.  At least for Justice, playing himself, it was easy money and his performances were always hugely entertaining.

 

One of my favourites is his turn as the bear-ish Luther Ackenthorpe in 1961’s Murder, She Said, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington, which starred the venerable Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple.  The lady detective takes on a job as a maid in the Ackenthorpe household in order to investigate a possible murder, and predictably she and Justice spend the film getting on each other’s nerves.   Miss Marple receives a shock at the end because Justice, despite the antagonism that’s existed between them, has concluded that she’s just the woman to share his matrimonial bed.  His proposal of marriage is hardly Shakespearean, however.  “You’re a fair cook,” he tells her, “and you seem to have your wits about you and, well, I’ve decided to marry you.”  Not surprisingly, Miss Marple manages to turn down his proposal without too much soul-searching.

 

Justice is also good in the 1962 comedy The Fast Lady.  It has a great cast – Julie Christie, making only her second film appearance, the suave Leslie Philips and the legendary Glaswegian comic performer Stanley Baxter – although when I watched it on youtube recently I found its humour a lot less sophisticated than how I remembered it from multiple TV viewings when I was a kid.  Justice plays a rich and arrogant sports-car enthusiast – again, this role was no leap for him – who runs gormless cyclist Baxter off the road.  When Baxter tracks Justice down to his country manor to complain, he falls in love with Justice’s daughter, Christie.  Meanwhile, Justice, chugging around on a riding-lawnmower like a medieval lord in a sedan chair, mangles Baxter’s bicycle into his lawn.

 

Shortly after playing yet another cantankerous and wealthy old bugger, Lord Scrumptious, in 1968’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – based on the children’s book by his old Reuters colleague Ian Fleming – Justice suffered the first of several strokes that would hobble and then finish his film career.  By the time of the last Doctor film, 1970’s Doctor in Trouble, his appearance as Sir Lancelot Spratt had been reduced to a cameo.  His final role was an appropriately Scottish-themed one, 1971’s The Massacre of Glencoe.  As the work petered out, so did his money, and in 1975 he died a sick and bankrupt man.  All in all, it was a sad and undignified end for one of the British cinema’s most flamboyant and gloriously imperious figures.

 

The marvellous Mr Méliès

While I was in Barcelona a couple of months ago, I happened across a gallery called the Caixa Forum, which inhabits the buildings of a former factory down the hill from the massive Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.  The Caixa Forum’s main exhibition at the time was dedicated to George Méliès, the legendary French illusionist, theatre-owner, artist and filmmaker.  As a filmmaker, he is now revered for being a pioneering special-effects wizard and the father of the science fiction movie genre.

 

From Wikipedia

 

To Méliès’ CV, I reluctantly have to add the professions of candy and toy salesman – because that was what he was reduced to doing at Montparnasse Station in Paris in the 1920s after a combination of bankruptcy, family tragedy and World War I had ended his movie-making days.  Happily, though, Méliès lived until 1938, by which time his achievements had been recognised by a younger generation of filmmakers and he’d been awarded France’s highest decoration, the Légion d’Honneur.

 

Before reaching the stuff in the Caixa Forum exhibition that was actually about Méliès, I had to pass a lot of preliminary displays detailing how modern cinema evolved out of the technology of late 19th century parlour trickery, magic shows and fairground arcades.  Arranged along several galleries were cameras obscura, magic lanterns, phantasmagorias, zoetropes, praxinoscopes and kinetoscopes.  I’m fascinated by such antique optical gizmos, but I would’ve been happier if the galleries hadn’t been inundated with babbling crowds of children, desperate to set their eyeballs against the various eyepieces that protruded from the devices’ brass casings.

 

Yes, I should’ve found it heartening that, in 2013, a collection of charming and ingenious machines from a century-and-a-half earlier still proved captivating for the kids of the smartphone and Nintendo Wii era.  However, I couldn’t help wishing that those noisy juveniles would bugger off and leave the magic lanterns, phantasmagorias and so on to people who could properly appreciate them, i.e. old farts like myself.

 

At last I reached the section about Méliès, which was stocked with film clips, stills and posters, with pre-production sketches and with re-constructed props from his most famous works – including a strikingly remodelled Selenite from his 1902 masterpiece Le Voyage dans la Lune, all claws, spikes, beak and crustacean-red body armour.  Inevitably, in the final room, clips were being shown from the Martin Scorsese’s 2011 children’s movie Hugo, which featured Méliès as a character, played by Ben Kingsley.

 

 

There was at least one error among the movie posters displayed.  According to Méliès filmography (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_M%C3%A9li%C3%A8s_filmography) on Wikipedia, which attributes to him an astounding 500 films — the number seems more astounding still when you consider that his film career lasted only 17 years and was over by 1913 — the 1908 movie Excursion to the Moon was actually directed by Segundo de Chomon and not by Méliès at all.

 

 

Of all the inventors, showmen and entrepreneurs who were present at the birth of cinema, Méliès was surely the most influential technically and culturally.  Not only did he write the whole special-effects manual – developing the stop trick, the dissolve, the multiple exposure, the time lapse – but when you view films like Le Voyage dan la Lune today it’s clear that he was a founder of the steampunk genre more than eight decades before the term was coined.  His influence can even be glimpsed in modern music and the attendant medium of the music video, as the work of Air (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0q19axCIxs) and the Smashing Pumpkins (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOG3eus4ZSo) testifies.

 

The surreal images that Méliès is remembered for – giant lunar mushrooms, somersaulting Selenites that explode in puffs of stage-smoke at a blow from an umbrella, celestial skies that are a weird mixture of astronomical charts and mythological figures, and of course, the moon’s girning visage when a space capsule embeds itself in its eye-socket – must’ve seemed astonishing to dawn-of-the-20th-century audiences.  Even today, they retain their magic.

 

 

Favourite places in Tunis 3: Neptune Restaurant

 

 

Half the time, it isn’t open when it ought to be open.  When it is open, and you go in, you’re received by several male waiters whose shambling gait and silent, grizzled visages suggest a platoon of shell-shocked survivors from a major military engagement during World War I – I’m a regular customer there and I’m usually only acknowledged with a weary nod, although I suppose that’s an achievement.  And then, when you’ve read the menu, you can spend a lot of time requesting various tasty-sounding seafood dishes, only to have each request dismissed with an unapologetic shake of the head or shrug of the shoulders.  Normally I end up ordering the same four or five items – fisherman’s salad, grilled shrimps, fried aubergine, chips – because that’s all they seem to have.

 

 

And yet…  And yet…  When you’re sitting on its terrace, when the sea below is a sheet of rippling turquoise, when the sun is bright and the sky is flawlessly blue, and when a waiter has just brought an ice bucket with a bottle of Chardonnay poking out of it, the Neptune Restaurant on the Carthage coast feels like the most invigorating place in the world.  Just make sure you keep your eyes fixed on the gorgeous middle distance, where the boats lazily roam to and fro.  You may spoil the illusion if you lower your head to inspect the more immediate surroundings, because the sea-facing wall of the restaurant looks rather dilapidated (and graffiti-ed these days) and the strip of beach along the wall’s base could definitely do with a tidy.

 

 

Your safest bet for finding the Neptune in operation is Sunday lunchtime, when it draws a crowd of French expatriates and well-heeled Tunisians wanting to enjoy a dejeuner that extends leisurely into the middle of the afternoon.  On the road outside, a little old man with a stick keeps vigilant guard over the clientele’s parked vehicles, although to be honest the most threatening things I’ve seen around the Neptune have been a few packs of gang-banging cats.  Here’s the little-old-man-with-a-stick seeing off a trio of marauding French tourists.

 

 

In fact, among the eateries along or off the Route la Goulette and Rue de Maroc, the road that connects Le Kram and Sidi Bou Said and snakes alongside the TGM line with its miniature Carthage railway stations (Salammbo, Byrsa, Dermech, Hannibal, Presidence and Amilcar), the Nepture is one of the very few where you can buy an alcoholic drink.  The district has plenty of popular and trendy venues but nearly all of them are ‘dry’.  To get from the Route la Goulette to the Neptune, you have to head seawards through some picturesque Carthage backstreets.  Here’s one of my favourites, the Rue Taieb Mehiri, so tree-lined that at times it resembles a luxuriant green tunnel.

 

 

Goodbye to Banksy

 

Unfortunately, for the umpteenth mysterious time, this blog exceeded its bandwidth in June.  The June malfunction irked me particularly because it happened just one day before Scottish novelist Iain Banks died from the gall-bladder cancer that he’d been diagnosed with only two months earlier.  This prevented me from posting a tribute to him – until now.

 

Banks became a big thing for me – and for many people like me – when he found success, fame and a certain notoriety with the publication of his first novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1984.  This was because he seemed to tick a lot of important boxes.  Like me and the crowd I hung out with, he came from a Scottish background, so we were familiar with many of the places he wrote about.  Like us, his politics were left-of-centre, with a leaning towards Scottish nationalism because independence seemed the best way to avoid being saddled with those right-wing Tory governments whom very few people in Scotland voted for.  And like us, he was obviously into literature, but he was also into some strange, off-beat writers whom stuffy literary critics would dismiss as being too ‘genre’ for serious consideration – Mervyn Peake, Brian Aldiss, M. John Harrison, etcetera.

 

You could argue that Alasdair Gray had blazed the same trail a few years earlier with his 1980 novel Lanark, but there was one important difference.  Gray had been a young man in the 1950s.  Banks, like us, was clearly of the 1980s.  (Like it or not – and we did not – Banks and us, his readers, were Maggie Thatcher’s children.)

 

 (c) Abacus

 

The Wasp Factory made an immediate stir with its blackly funny plot about Frank Cauldhame, a maimed delinquent living in a remote part of Scotland, who amuses himself with the shamanistic killings of insects, seagulls, rabbits and young children.  In quick succession Banks followed it with Walking on Glass, which showed the influence of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books; The Bridge, a paean to both the Forth Rail Bridge and to Gray’s Lanark, with a healthy dose of the J.G. Ballard short story Concentration City mixed in; and in 1987 Consider Phlebas, the first of many epic outer-space novels about an interstellar anarcho-utopian society called the Culture.  The Culture novels were attributed to Iain M. Banks, a move by his publisher to help fans of ‘serious’ mainstream fiction and fans of science fiction distinguish between what was what in his oeuvre.  At the time, the speculative fiction magazine Interzone remarked that it was delighted to see Banks at last ‘come out of the closet’ as a sci-fi writer.

 

In August 1987 Banks was scheduled to appear on a discussion panel at the Edinburgh Book Festival.  Around the same time I’d agreed to edit the latest edition of a small literary magazine called Alma Mater, published by some fellow-students at the University of Aberdeen’s English Literature Department.  Dr Isobel Murray, who’d been my tutor at Aberdeen for the past year, was chairing the Book Festival panel and I used my connection with her to persuade Banks’s agent to let me interview him after the panel, for Alma Mater.  (I later apologised to Dr Murray for so brazenly using her name as a calling card.)

 

The discussion panel, which I attended, produced its share of sparks.  In addition to Banks and Murray, it featured the Glaswegian crime writer Frederic Lindsay, whose 1983 novel Brond had been recently made into a TV series, directed by Michael Caton-Jones and starring a very young John Hannah.   (By a sad coincidence, Lindsay died this year just ten days before Banks did.)  And the panel was completed by another Glaswegian, Ronald Frame, author of the recently-published novel Sandmouth People.  It might be unfair to say that the tweedy Frame was a young fogey at the time, but he certainly gave the impression of being one.  When somebody in the audience asked the authors about their views on self-censorship, he said pompously: “I would never include anything I might regret in five years’ time.”

 

Banks immediately spluttered, “But those are the best bits!”

 

Afterwards I met up with Banks and a couple of his friends and conducted the interview in a pub in Edinburgh’s Rose Street – I think it was either the Kenilworth or the Auld Hundred.  Banks, who proved to be a gregarious and instantly-friendly Fife man, spoke into the mic of the clunky tape recorder I’d bought with me, transferring his voice onto a crackly cassette tape.  (Like just about everything else I possess, that tape now resides inside a cardboard box somewhere in my Dad’s attic.)

 

I asked him about the hostile reception that The Wasp Factory had received in some quarters.  (The Irish Times had described it as ‘a work of unparalleled depravity’.)  Banks had been surprised by this.  He’d expected some flak from animal rights groups, but not from the critics.  He’d learned that one reviewer who’d blasted the book as ‘the literary equivalent of a video nasty’ also worked in the Conservative Party office in London, which pleased him no end – offending that guy had been an honour.

 

I also asked him about his fondness for peppering his novels with references to the popular culture of the time.  In The Bridge, for example, just before the car accident that sets the surreal plot in motion, the hero slots a copy of The Pogues album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash into his car stereo.  Wouldn’t that make the books look a bit dated after a few years?  “Yeah,” he agreed, “it’ll date them.  But what the hell?”  He believed that characters living in a particular time and particular place would be influenced by the current popular culture, so he didn’t see why he should shirk from mentioning whatever music, books, films and TV programmes were fashionable at the moment.

 

(c) Abacus

 

Then I quoted Brian Aldiss at him – Aldiss had famously said that all good science fiction hovers at the edge of being something different from science fiction.  Banks agreed with that, sort of, but he also disagreed.  Enthusiastically, he told me how Consider Phlebas came with all the trimmings of a traditional Isaac Asimov / Robert Heinlein space epic: giant spaceships, laser cannons, inter-planetary battles.  He didn’t want it to be different from people’s normal perceptions of science fiction.

 

Did he, I asked finally, worry about being pigeon-holed — being pigeon-holed twice over, with one half of the world viewing him as a ‘Scottish’ author and the other half viewing him as a ‘sci-fi’ one?  Not at all, he said.  He was quite at ease with being regarded as Scottish.  And being seen as a sci-fi author didn’t bother him either, since science fiction was an ‘old love’ for him.

 

From Rose Street, we moved on to Greyfriars Bobby’s Bar in Candlemaker Row, just behind the statue of the famous Edinburgh terrier who’d spent 14 years in the adjacent cemetery guarding the grave of his dead master.  Poor wee Bobby, I remember musing, wouldn’t have lasted long if he’d been a character in The Wasp Factory.  By then a good number of pints had been drunk and the conversation had descended somewhat from the lofty heights of literary discussion.  I recall talking to Banks about Arthur Montford, the lugubrious Scottish TV football commentator famous for his eccentrically patterned sports jackets and for his catchphrases that included ‘What a stramash!’ and (uttered all too often) ‘Disaster for Scotland!’  At another point, somehow, we got onto the 1966 Hammer horror film Dracula Prince of Darkness.

 

The next issue of Alma Mater, containing my interview with Iain Banks, was published later that year.  A series of cock-ups by the typesetter meant that it looked pretty ropey, though thankfully the pages featuring Banks were okay.  The following year, I heard that Banks would be making an appearance at Edinburgh’s Science Fiction Bookshop in West Crosscauseway (now long-since vanished) and I went along to give him a copy of the magazine.  To my surprise, he remembered me and enthused about the mini-pub crawl we’d done that day: “That was a good afternoon!”

 

(c) Brown, Little

 

After that I read several more Banks novels: Espedair Street, Canal Dreams, The Crow Road, ComplicityThe Crow Road, his stab at writing a sprawling eccentric-family saga, is the book that everyone talks about, although I have to say that it’s not one of my favourites.  Sure, it has one of the best opening lines in modern literature (“It was the day my grandmother exploded”), but as with most other sprawling sagas about eccentric families, I find it too contrived for its own good.

 

On the other hand, I think Espedair Street, which is about a hapless rock musician who’s found fame, fortune and much unhappiness and is now trying to live anonymously in a rough part of Glasgow, is marvellous.  It’s certainly the warmest Iain Banks book I’ve read.  If I had to identify my all-time favourite novel about rock ‘n’ roll, in fact, it’d be a toss-up between this and Harlan Ellison’s Spider Kiss.

 

And I like Complicity, which welds a serial-killer plot onto Banks’ immense distaste for the corruption and inequalities of the recently-ended Thatcher era.  Much of it is set in Edinburgh, where scuzzy journalist-hero Cameron Colley boozes in a series of pubs ranging from the upmarket Café Royal on West Register Street to the desperate, late-opening Casbah in the Cowgate.  By then I’d lived in Edinburgh and I knew Colley’s haunts well.  I’d even had an experience similar to one he has in the Café Royal, when he stands in front of the bar’s gantry (which doesn’t contain a mirror although it looks as if it does) and in a drunken panic he believes himself to be a vampire.

 

(c) Brown, Little 

 

After Complicity, however, I stopped reading Iain Banks, probably because by then there were just too many young Scottish writers competing for my attention: Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, James Robertson.  (Banks’s success in the 1980s, of course, had helped pave the way for all these newcomers.)  Looking at his bibliography, up to the posthumously-published The Quarry, I see there are some 20 books of his, including the entire Culture series, that I haven’t read yet.

 

I definitely have some catching-up to do when I get back to Scotland.