Worms and pigs: film review / Filth

 

(c) Steel Mill Pictures

 

There were two reasons why I wasn’t expecting much from Filth, the recent film adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s 1998 novel about a depraved Scottish policeman.

 

Firstly, among Welsh’s books, Filth is the runt of the litter.  From what people have told me, it was written at a period in Welsh’s career when he was, shall we say, distracted by his recreational pursuits.  It was also, supposedly, banged out after the author had fallen foul of the Scottish police (in 1996 he was arrested for drunkenness at a football match) and was intended as his revenge on them.  I don’t know how much truth there is in these tales about the circumstances of Filth’s writing, but I can almost believe them from the end result, which is a rambling, shapeless mess.  It’s not unreadable and it has the occasional effective moment, but it’s obviously not the work of someone who was focused on achieving literary excellence.  Also, it’s a sad comedown for the man who’d written Trainspotting a half-dozen years earlier.  (Thankfully, with his next novel, Glue – which I think is a great book – Welsh got his mojo back.)

 

The second reason for my low expectations of Filth the movie was that the book’s main character, Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson of the Lothians and Borders constabulary, is played by James McAvoy.  (Robertson is an attempt by Irvine Welsh to distil all the least desirable traits of the human species into one person: he’s a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe, a sadist, a drunkard, a coke-fiend, a junk-food glutton, a Machiavellian manipulator of other people and, no doubt worst of all for Welsh, a supporter of Heart of Midlothian Football Club.)

 

Now I admire McAvoy a lot.  I think he has a wonderful, loveable arrogance not seen in Scottish acting since the days of the young Ewan McGregor (and before McGregor threw it all away on Obi-Wan Kenobi and some mediocre film choices).  But I didn’t think there was any way the slim, youthful McAvoy could convincingly play Robertson, who in my mind was a heavy, thuggish-looking bloke in his early middle-age.

 

However, Filth the movie, which has been directed and scripted by Jon S. Baird, is a good deal better than I’d anticipated.  Why?  To address the above misgivings in reverse order, McAvoy actually works very well in the lead role.  Indeed, I’d say that much of the film’s entertainment value is due to him.  Robertson is still the Grade-A bastard that inhabited Welsh’s pages but, somehow, McAvoy manages to invest the character with a certain humour and – very faintly – a likeability that makes it easier to navigate the film in his company than it was to navigate the book.  It helps that the one plot strand hinting at Robertson’s decency, which comes when he tries unsuccessfully to save a man’s life on an Edinburgh street and then, to his surprise, wins the admiration of the dead man’s wife and son, is more prominent on screen.

 

In fact, McAvoy’s youthfulness and good looks – which, admittedly, get increasingly ravaged as the film progresses – work in his favour in one way.  Reading the novel, I couldn’t understand how a character as gross as Robertson could have as many women running after him as he does, and have the stamina to keep up with them all.  In the film, with McAvoy in the role, you can almost believe that he’s romantically and / or sexually involved with the likes of Shirley Henderson, Kate Dickie, Shauna Macdonald and Pollyanna McIntosh.

 

As for the other problem, the poverty of the source material, Baird does a better job than anyone could have hoped for in fashioning a coherent storyline out of the novel.  He’s jettisoned much that made the original so baggy and what’s left gives the film at least some narrative drive.

 

Though many critics have marvelled at the darkness of the finished film, it’s considerably lighter than the novel, thanks to what Baird has omitted.  Gone is the bit where Robertson steals from a crime scene, an old lady’s burgled house, and then bullies the already-traumatised old lady; the bit where he erases the crime-movie screenplay that his commanding officer, D.C.I. Toal (in the film played by an unrecognisable John Sessions) has spent his every waking moment working on; and thankfully the bits describing Robertson’s epidermal problem on his lower abdomen that causes him, for example, to shed dead skin-flakes over the hair and shoulders of a female suspect while she’s forced to orally pleasure him.  Other things have been toned down, including the aforementioned oral-pleasuring sequence and the initial murder that sets the story in progress.  In the book, the murder was carried out with a claw-hammer.  In the film, it’s a slightly off-screen mass-kicking.

 

The item of sustained cruelty that survives from book to film is Robertson’s treatment of Clifford Blades, his meek, trusting friend from the local Masonic Lodge, whom he continually abuses, manipulates and humiliates whilst also tormenting his wife, Bunty, with nuisance phone-calls.  However, with the help of good performances by Eddie Marsan and Shirley Henderson as Clifford and Bunty, this sub-plot gains a little humanity and even humour on screen and is rather less gruelling.  Indeed, Baird’s whole approach to the blackness of Welsh’s vision is to leaven it with humour, so that we end up with a black – pitch black – comedy.  The historical and slightly gothic city of Edinburgh provides the film with its backdrop (parts of it were filmed around Victoria Street and the Grassmarket) and, as usual, the Scottish capital fits this sort of black humour well.

 

Ironically, the one element that doesn’t work in the film is the element that, for me, was the book’s redeeming feature.  That is the literary device that Welsh used to represent Robertson’s conscience, which is the supposed voice of a tapeworm growing inside his bowels (and presumably causing his skin disorder) – a stream of consciousness that appeared in a strand of rogue text weaving across the bottom of each page, providing a moral counterpoint to the evilness of its host’s thoughts, words and deeds.  In a cinematic attempt to replicate this, Baird swaps the tapeworm for a psychiatrist, played by Jim Broadbent, who pops up at various points to probe Robertson – initially, we assume that Broadbent’s character is real but it becomes clear that he’s a figment of Robertson’s increasingly deranged imagination.  Unfortunately, Broadbent’s appearances are only intermittent and don’t get the opportunity to build up to anything.  In fact, it probably would’ve been better if Baird had left the tapeworm / psychiatrist stuff out completely.  It’s not as if there isn’t enough going on in the film already.

 

Bleak, cynical, funny and boasting a tour-de-force performance from James McAvoy, Filth is a film that’s worth seeing provided you don’t mind having your snout rubbed in the muck for 97 minutes.  It’s also a film adaptation that’s considerably more than what the source novel deserved.

 

Cinematic heroes 4: David Warner

 

(c) ABC Pictures

 

For most actors, becoming typecast is a pain in the neck.  For the lugubrious-faced, distinctively-voiced David Warner, the day he became typecast – as an actor doing offbeat roles in offbeat films, often horror, science fiction and fantasy ones – was a pane in the neck.  As Keith Jennings, the decent but unfortunate photographer who befriends Gregory Peck’s ambassador Robert Thorn in 1976’s The Omen, he is memorably decapitated when a sheet of glass comes crashing off the back of a truck and shears his head from his shoulders.  Indeed, though The Omen was choc-a-block with people dying in gruesome freak accidents, and later there were Omen sequels with more freak accidents, and later still there were a half-dozen Final Destination movies following a similar template and serving up countless more freak accidents, the cinema has seen very few freak accidents as spectacularly shocking as Warner’s in that 37-year-old movie.

 

The main actors in the big-budget Omen – Peck, Lee Remick, Billie Whitelaw – were names not normally associated with horror movies.  Until then, Warner’s name hadn’t been associated with horror movies either.  Mancunian by birth, he started acting professionally in 1962 and the following year he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, which led to stage roles in Henry IV Part 1, Henry VI Parts I-III, Julius Caesar, Richard II, The Tempest, Twelfth Night and, in 1965, playing the famously self-absorbed and brooding Danish prince, Hamlet.  The earliest films he appeared in were sometimes theatrical in origin too, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Sea Gull, which both appeared in 1968.  However, it was in 1966’s Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment that he probably made his biggest impression on 1960s movie audiences.  In it he plays a working-class artist who’s abandoned by his posh wife, played by Vanessa Redgrave, and who goes to unhinged extremes to win her back.

 

When David Warner’s movie career is discussed, it’s often overlooked that he was once a regular performer with the legendary director Sam Peckinpah.  His association with the hard-drinking, coke-snorting, near-deranged filmmaker started with 1970’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue, in which he played an eccentric preacher who befriends Jason Robards’ titular hero.  Peckinpah often boasted, “I can’t direct when I’m sober,” and for the young Warner Hogue must have been quite an initiation into the director’s weird and wonderful ways.  When bad weather held up filming, Peckinpah and his crew went on a massive drinking binge and ran up a bar-bill worth thousands and thousands of dollars.

 

(c) EMI Films

 

In the next year’s Straw Dogs, Peckinpah’s taboo-busting film set in the English West Country and a prototype for what is known now as the ‘home-invasion’ movie sub-genre, Warner plays the village simpleton who unwittingly kills a local girl and then takes refuge in Dustin Hoffman and Susan George’s house with a squad of vigilantes on his trail.  In Cross of Iron, Peckinpah’s 1977 war movie about a doomed German platoon on the Russian front, he plays a humane German officer who just wants to get through the war in one piece.  In fact, in Cross of Iron, nearly all the Germans, including James Coburn’s gallant corporal and James Mason’s world-weary colonel, are humane types who view war with extreme distaste.  What upsets the apple-cart, and eventually gets most of them killed, is the arrival of Maximillian Schell’s glory-hunting Prussian officer who’s obsessed with winning an iron cross for himself and isn’t worried about his men dying in the process.

 

In 1973 Warner made his first appearance in a horror film, the British anthology movie From Beyond the Grave, whose stories were based on the writings of Ronald Chetwyn-Hayes.  In the film’s first story, The Gate Crasher, he plays an arrogant prick called Edward Charlton who acquires an old mirror from an antique shop and gets it on the cheap by lying to the shop-owner about the mirror’s likely age.  Charlton obviously hasn’t seen many horror films before – otherwise, he might have thought twice about fibbing to a proprietor played by Peter Cushing in a shop called Temptations Inc.  He soon gets his deserts.  The mirror turns out to be inhabited by a malevolent spirit, which possesses him and drives him to commit murder.

 

It was in the last years of the 1970s that Warner got his fondest-remembered roles, starting with the kindly but ill-fated Jennings in The Omen.  Then, in 1979’s Time After Time, he switches from being a nice guy to being a bad one, playing John Leslie Stevenson, a Victorian gentleman and friend of the pioneering science-fiction writer H.G. Wells, who’s played by Malcolm McDowell.  Unbeknownst to Wells, Stevenson has been making a name for himself in the London media of the time by butchering prostitutes in Whitechapel – for he is none other than Jack the Ripper.  When Wells unveils his latest invention, a functioning time machine like the one he would later write about in his famous 1895 novella, Stevenson uses it to escape the closing police net and scoot one century forward into the future.  But the machine has a recall facility, so a horrified Wells summons it back to the 19th century and uses it to follow Leslie to 1979, assuming that he’s let Jack the Ripper loose on Utopia.  Predictably, Wells is more than a little disappointed to find that the 20th century is less utopian than he’d anticipated.  And the Ripper has taken to the era’s sleaze, violence and heavy-decibel rock music like a duck to water.

 

A quirky and very entertaining movie, Time After Time was written and directed by Nicholas Meyer who, regrettably, hasn’t made anything as distinctive since.  Instead, during the 1980s, he got involved in making Star Trek films.  Actually, it’s probably because of Meyer’s involvement in the Star Trek series that both David Warner and Malcolm McDowell have made appearances in it – Warner was in both Star Trek V and VI.  I’m no fan of Star Trek or its movie spin-offs, but I quite like the sixth one, largely because Warner is in it.  He plays Chancellor Gorkon, charismatic leader of the Klingons and obviously modelled on the then Russian leader Mikael Gorbachev, who’s decided it’s time for the Klingon Empire to pursue peace-talks with the West, sorry, the Federation.

 

In 1981 Warner delivered another memorable performance in Terry Gilliam’s imaginative cinematic fairy tale The Time Bandits.  He plays a character called Evil, who’s been created by Ralph Richardson’s Supreme Being and then imprisoned in a hellish place called the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness – obviously, Warner and Richardson represent the Devil and God.  Some fine actors have played Old Nick in movies over the years, including Robert De Niro in Angel Heart, Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate and Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick, but for my money Warner’s portrayal is the most entertaining.  His Devil is a petulant and embittered character who spends his time ranting at his idiotic minions (“Shut up!  I’m speaking rhetorically!”) about how rubbish God is.  The Almighty, he argues, has wasted His time creating useless things such as slugs, nipples for men and 43 species of parrots when He could have concentrated on making laser beams, car phones and VCRs.  Warner steals the show in The Time Bandits, which is no minor achievement considering that in addition to Richardson the film stars Ian Holm, John Cleese, Sean Connery, Michael Palin, Shelley Duvall and a delightful gang of time-traveling dwarves led by the late, great David Rappaport.

 

Thereafter, Warner’s CV filled up with all manner of oddball movies, hardly Shakespearean in the acting opportunities they offered but relished by weirdoes and obsessives like myself: 1979’s Nightwing, 1980’s The Island, 1987’s Waxwork, 1991’s Cast a Deadly Spell, 1995’s In the Mouth of Madness and 1997’s Scream 2.  As an actor he’s adept at playing out-and-out villains, for example, his Dillinger / Sark character in the 1981 Disney computer-game fantasy Tron, a movie that was unappreciated at the time but that, in the decades since, has acquired considerable retro-cool.  He’s also good at doing mad scientists, like the splendidly named Doctor Alfred Necessiter in the whacky 1982 comedy The Man with Two Brains, which is poignant today as a reminder of those long-gone days when Steve Martin used to be funny.  But he also has harassed and melancholic qualities that lend themselves to playing fathers.  He was, for instance, the heroine’s father in 1984’s The Company of Wolves, Neil Jordan’s atmospheric and sensual adaptation of Angela Carter’s gothic story; while in Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes he plays Senator Sandar, father of Helena Bonham-Carter, the sexiest chimpanzee in the world.  In heavy simian make-up and in Warner’s unmistakable tones, Sandar sighs at one point: “Youth is wasted on the young…”

 

(c) Walt Disney Productions

 

In 1997 Warner also found time to appear in James Cameron’s Titanic, then the biggest-grossest movie of all time – and holder of that title until Cameron broke his own record with Avatar.  Say what you like about Titanic, about the mawkish love story between Kate Winslett and Leonardo Di Caprio, about Billy Zane’s cartoonish performance as the villain, about the unspeakable theme song sung by Celine Dion, but you can’t deny that it has a great supporting cast: Warner, Kathy Bates, Bernard Hill, Victor Garber, Bill Paxton.  Warner, playing Spicer Lovejoy, Zane’s valet, doesn’t have much to do apart from connive with his master, stalk around, spy on Kate Winslett and generally behave sinisterly.  He does, however, to get to punch Di Caprio in the guts after he’s been handcuffed to a railing on board the holed and sinking liner.  Actually, that’s my favourite bit in the film.

 

Warner has long been a fixture on television too.  He’s appeared in one-off TV movies and dramas like 1984’s Frankenstein, where he plays the creature to Robert Powell’s Victor Frankenstein and Carrie Fisher’s Elizabeth, 1993’s Body Bags and 2003’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; appeared in series and miniseries like 1981’s Masada, 1982’s Marco Polo, 1984’s Charlie, 2011’s Secret of Crickley Hall and, from 2008 to 2010, Wallander, in which he plays another father, this time to Kenneth Branagh; and lent his voice to animated shows, including the Superman, Batman and Spiderman ones during the 1990s.  In 1991, he guest-starred in three episodes of the second and final series of David Lynch’s classic off-the-wall soap opera Twin Peaks, playing Thomas Eckhardt, the Hong Kong-based crime-lord who has a long, dark and tangled history with Joan Chen’s Jocelyn Packard.  Mind you, Chen brings that history to an abrupt end by shooting him in the chest.

 

A few years later he was in the underrated, Oliver Stone-produced mini-series Wild Palms, which for the time was a very odd hybrid of conspiracy thriller, Alice in Wonderland and the then-new literary genre of cyberpunk.  Indeed, at one point, cyberpunk author William Gibson makes a cameo appearance in it.  Set in a near-future USA, when an organisation called the Fathers – a sinister cross between a multinational corporation, the Scientologists and the Tea Party – holds sway, the show has Warner as Eli, the slightly Obi Wan-like leader of an underground resistance movement.  The sequence at the end of one episode in which Eli and various sidekicks machine-gun their way into a clinic where Warner’s sickly son Chick is being held prisoner, in an abortive attempt to rescue him, is one of my favourite TV moments ever.  I’m not quite sure why.  Maybe it’s because of the quality of performers involved – besides Warner, the sequence has Kim Catrall and, playing Chick, Brad Dourif, who’s better known as the voice of Chucky in the Child’s Play movies.  Maybe it’s because The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun blasts away in the background.  Maybe it’s because it all ends badly – tragedy being the most powerful form of drama.

 

 

In 2005 Warner was involved with the TV institution that is The League of Gentlemen, the famously-twisted comedy series written by and starring Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson.  In fact, he didn’t appear in the television show itself, but in its cinematic spinoff The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse.  Like many a film-based-on-a-TV-show, it doesn’t really work on the big screen, though its most effective scenes are definitely those featuring Warner as a 17th century magician called Dr Erasmus Pea.  His character is rottenly evil but he’s very amusing too.  For example, while Dr Pea uses a pan to fry up a hellish concoction (including two recently gouged-out eyeballs) from which he hopes to grow a monstrous homunculus, the camera cuts to a close-up and he shows a pretentiously-absorbed expression worthy of a TV chef like Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay.

 

Warner clearly gets along with Mark Gatiss, since he has also appeared in Gatiss’s radio comedy show Nebulous and in The Cold War, a recent Gatiss-scripted episode of Doctor Who.  He also turned up as an interviewee in Gatiss’s 2010 documentary series A History of Horror, talking about – yes! – getting his head lobbed off in The Omen.

 

The past decade has seen Warner return to the stage, giving well-received turns as the venerable and vulnerable monarch in King Lear in 2005 and as Falstaff in Henry IV Parts I and II in 2007.  Let’s hope, though, that there are plenty of young filmmakers out there who grew up savouring his performances in the likes of Time After Time, The Time Bandits and Tron, who’ll offer him movie roles too and who’ll keep him employed for a long time to come.

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

A few more Nottingham pubs

 

(c) The Doctor’s Orders

 

The planners have done damage to Nottingham over the years, but the city has managed to hang on to some important items from one area of its architectural heritage – its pubs.  I’ve lived in other English cities, such as Norwich and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where it’s taken me several weeks to locate half-a-dozen old-style pubs that I’ve really, really enjoyed drinking in.  In Nottingham, I’d managed to find half-a-dozen such pubs within about three days.

 

Nottingham is a centre for micro-beer-breweries (such as Alcazar, Castle Rock, Full Mash and Magpie).  This means that a higher-than-average number of bars there stock traditional real ales and the Nottingham branch of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale), the organisation for non-corporate beer-lovers, is correspondingly strong.  CAMRA also concerns itself with the preservation of traditional pubs, resisting efforts to sell them off to property developers or, almost as bad, to ‘modernise’ them and convert them into shiny plastic hellholes blasting with loud music, flashing with fruit-machine lights and crowded with hen and stag parties.  So no doubt the strength of CAMRA in Nottingham has played a role in keeping some, at least, of those old hostelries intact.

 

I’ve mentioned some pubs already in previous entries about Nottingham – the three contenders for title of oldest pub in town, if not in England, the Trip, the Salutation and the Bell Inn; and those bars along the city’s admirable Mansfield Road, including the Peacock, the Lincolnshire Poacher and the Golden Fleece.  I thought that in this, my final entry about Nottingham, I would mention a couple more.

 

Tucked away on St James Street in the city centre, the entrance of the Malt Cross (http://www.maltcross.com/) is easy to miss – especially as the area is often infested with stag and hen-party revellers and serious pub and beer-lovers don’t like to dilly-dally there.  However, once you pass through its doors, you’re in for a treat, because the Malt Cross is actually a former music hall, one that was built in 1877.  There’s a spacious bar area on the ground floor, while stairs ascend to a wide first-floor balcony that looks down on the bar from three sides.  Above that, there’s an arched roof of glass and wood – the curved wooden beams don’t contain any nails or bolts and were apparently glued into position in the 19th century – which makes the Malt Cross an atmospheric place to have a drink while the rain is pattering down overhead.  It’s just a pity that some modern (i.e. hideous) items of city-centre architecture intrude on the view from the glass roof.

 

Meanwhile, in the Carrington area of Mansfield Road is the Doctor’s Orders (http://www.doctorsordersmicropub.co.uk/), which has been in existence for less than a year.  Founded by three real-ale lovers called Prakash Ross, Rob Arthur and Rich Burns, the pub occupies the premises of a former pharmacy and its drinking area consists of a front room that doesn’t even have a bar-counter – there’s merely a window looking into a cooling room where the pub’s casks of real ale are stored.  For service, one of the three proprietors takes your order and brings the requested real ale (or authentic, properly-strong cider) to your table.  As well as lacking a counter, the drinking room is devoid of TV screens, games machines and jukeboxes and to amuse themselves the clientele have to rely on more traditional means of entertainment – human conversation.  Which, once upon a time, was what all pubs were about.

 

Finally, in the retailing centre of Nottingham (and opposite a branch of the bland pub-chain The Slug and Lettuce), you’ll find Foreman’s (https://www.facebook.com/ForemansBar), a small punk rock-themed bar complete with a Union Jack, featuring a Sex Pistols-style safety-pinned Queen’s face, stuck across its cave-like ceiling.  While I was drinking in Foreman’s, I noticed that Henry Cluney, original guitarist with the legendary Belfast punk band Stiff Little Fingers, was scheduled to perform there in the near-future, although I wasn’t quite sure where he was expected to play – the pub’s interior is cramped indeed.

 

As a joke (I trust) the staff of Foreman’s had stuck up behind the bar a 2013 Cliff Richard photo-calendar depicting the saintly, clean-cut Cliff striking various faux-sexy poses on various tropical beaches.  While I was drinking there, a little old lady approached the bar and asked the barman to take the calendar down and pass it across to her for a minute.  She then started stroking the uppermost picture of Cliff while the calendar lay on the countertop.  I’m not kidding.

 

Best TV theme tune ever

 

A few evenings ago, a friend and I went to the Picture House on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road to attend a concert by Johnny Marr and his band.  Marr, of course, is most famous for being guitarist with The Smiths back in the 1980s and, while the band played some good stuff from his post-Smiths career, it was the handful of classic Smiths songs that peppered their set that evoked the biggest and fondest reactions from the crowd.  However, I have to say that even the likes of Panic, Big Mouth Strikes Again, How Soon is Now and There is a Light that Never Goes Out didn’t raise the hairs on the back of my neck quite as much as the tune that played over the venue’s speakers as Marr and his band-members walked on stage and picked up their instruments at the start of the gig.

 

That tune was the theme for the 1971 TV series The Persuaders.  Johnny Marr certainly knows what music to use when he’s making an entrance.

 

The epic and atmospheric Persuaders theme was composed by John Barry, who by then had scored a string of famous themes for the James Bond movies.  All swirling strings and synthesisers, it suggests that the television show following on from it will be full of wonderfully dark and gothic things.  Which, actually, it wasn’t.  Produced by Lord Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment, The Persuaders was about the crime-fighting adventures of two millionaire playboys, Englishman Lord Brett Sinclair and American Danny Wilde.  The leads were played by Roger Moore (just after he’d spent seven years playing the hero of another ITC show, The Saint, and shortly before he became James Bond in 1973’s Live and Let Die) and Tony Curtis (who’d been a major film draw in the 1950s and 1960s but whose star, unlike Moore’s, was on a downward trajectory – many behind-the-scenes stories about his stint on The Persuaders suggest that by then he was a considerable pothead, which no doubt didn’t help).

 

With Moore and Curtis mugging their way in a comical manner through a milieu that combined James Bond-style casinos and luxury hotels with what middle-aged, middle-class TV executives thought decadent, hard-partying late-1960s swinging London had been like, the best that could be said about The Persuaders was that it was amiably silly.  (No doubt there were tales to tell about the ‘Chelsea set’ scene of the time, wherein aristocratic dandies like Robert Fraser and Christopher Gibbs had rubbed shoulders with drugged-out rock-stars like the Rolling Stones and with fixtures of London’s gangland like the Krays.  Indeed, this had been touched upon in Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s movie Performance.  But The Persuaders’ producer Robert S. Baker didn’t want to go there, even if he’d known that ‘there’ existed.)

 

There was actually one episode of The Persuaders that disturbed me when I saw it as a kid – A Death in the Family, scripted by Terry Nation, which was a variation on the famous Ealing black-comedy movie Kind Hearts and Coronets.  In it, the members of Brett Sinclair’s family are murdered one by one by a minor and embittered relative who wants the family title and fortune for himself.  Whereas in Kind Hearts and Coronets, the various members of the family were played by Sir Alec Guinness, sometimes in drag, in this Persuaders episode several of the victims are played by Roger Moore, in different guises, including one in drag too.  Now if the sight of Roger Moore dressed as a woman isn’t disturbing, I don’t know what is.  Also making an unsettling impression on my six-year-old mind was Moore’s unflappable reaction as, one after another, his family are slaughtered around him.  That may possibly be due to the stiff-upper-lipped nature of his character, or, more likely, due to the woodenness of his performing style.

 

But never mind the show itself – John Barry’s The Persuaders theme is, to my mind, the best piece of music that’s ever been composed for a TV show.  Sometimes I like to fantasise that, one day, the show will be remade – by, say, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the Roger Moore role and some up-and-coming American star (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, for instance, or Ryan Gosling) in the Tony Curtis one.  They’ll keep the old theme music, of course, but make the show itself much darker and edgier than the original ever was.  That way, the drama will actually match John Barry’s wonderful music.

 

 

Scarecrow!

 

 

Last week this scarecrow stood guard over a field halfway along the valley.  Now, somehow, it’s uprooted itself and shifted to a new location, next to some rows of plastic-sealed silage bundles sitting near the bus-stop from which I often catch the Number 62 to Edinburgh.  While I’m walking towards the bus-stop, the wind sometimes stirs its empty coat-sleeves and, from a distance, it looks like it’s waving at me.

 

Now I really wish I hadn’t read W.H. Carr’s short story Mrs Anstey’s Scarecrow, which appeared in The Ninth Pan Book of Horror Stories.

 

 

Strange places in the Scottish Borders 5: Kagyu Samye Ling

 

 

My apologies for two inaccuracies in the title of this entry.  Firstly, the Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery and Tibetan Buddhist Centre isn’t really in the Scottish Borders.  It’s a few miles past the border of the, er, Borders, in the Eskdalemuir valley in Dumfries and Galloway region.  Mind you, nearly every time I’ve heard someone describe the place, they’ve called it ‘that Buddhist retreat in the Borders’, so I think we Borderers can almost claim it from our neighbours in southwest Scotland.

 

Secondly, of course, there’s nothing strange about the Buddhist religion.  What is a little strange, however, is the incongruous sight presented by a traditional Tibetan Buddhist temple standing in the midst of some very Scottish-looking hills, fields and forestry.  (The centre, it should be said, consists of much more than the temple – it also contains a college, library and museum dedicated to the preservation of Tibet’s religion, culture, medicine, architecture and arts and crafts.)  Actually, located a little way south of Kagyu Samye Ling, down the B709 road towards Langholm, are some relics from Scotland’s own religion and culture in the distant past, two 4000-year-old stone circles called the Loupin’ and Girdle Stanes.

 

 

Kagyu Samye Ling was established in 1967.  Helping to found it was the remarkable Dr Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist monk who’d fled his homeland in 1959, during the turmoil of the Tibetan Uprising that erupted after eight years of Chinese rule.  He was a member of a group who spent ten months crossing the Himalayas in the hope of finding sanctuary in north-west India.  The group had supposedly been 300-strong when it set out.  By the time they got to their destination, and after cold and hunger had taken their toll, the number had been whittled down to just 13, of whom Akong Tulku Rinpoche was one.  Later, in 1963, he arrived in Britain to study English at Oxford University and he worked as an orderly in a local hospital to support himself.

 

At the time of its inception Kagyu Samye Ling was based in a small country house in Eskdalemuir, but it has gradually expanded.  The temple, constructed with modern materials but using traditional Tibetan Buddhist architecture for its design, was finally completed in 1988.  The building of the temple was entirely carried out by volunteers.  Nowadays, the centre operates as a retreat providing study and mediation to visitors, and it also offers workshops and courses in a Buddhist system of psychotherapy devised by Akong Tulku Rinpoche himself.  It also concerns itself with charitable work, which is carried out on its behalf by an organisation called ROKPA International – ‘rokpa’ is a Tibetan word meaning ‘help’.  It has involvement in over 150 projects in Tibet, as well as in projects in Britain, Nepal and Africa.

 

 

My single visit to Kagyu Samye Ling occurred one dreich autumn’s day a few years ago and my needs were physical rather than mental or spiritual.  I was cycling up the B709 from Langholm and was heading in the direction of – still distant – Peebles.  I stopped off at the centre’s Tibetan tea room and, in my weary and chilled condition, I was massively thankful for the mug of steaming-hot Horlicks that the lady there served me.  I also took a walk around the grounds and snapped a couple of photographs, which I’ve used to illustrate this blog-entry.

 

I’m afraid that there’s a sad note to all of this.  A couple of days ago, word came through of Dr Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche’s assassination in the city of Chenghu in south-west China.  Police there claim that he, his nephew and his driver were stabbed to death by three assailants in ‘a dispute about money’.  The Free Tibet Campaign have declined to comment on his death until more information about it is made public – though I have to say that it sounds very dodgy.  Here’s a link to Akong Tulku Rinpoche’s obituary in The Scotsman newspaper:

 

http://www.scotsman.com/news/obituaries/obituary-dr-choje-akong-tulku-rinpoch-lama-1-3134023.

 

In praise of Mansfield Road

 

If I were Ban-Ki Moon, I would order UNESCO to slap World Heritage Site status onto Mansfield Road in Nottingham immediately.  With so many of Britain’s cities and towns these days resembling barren concrete moonscapes, populated only by dreary chain stores, flavourless fast-food outlets and anonymous Sky Sports-dominated pubs, Mansfield Road – at least, the section of it that runs from Nottingham city-centre to the intersection with Forest Road East and Mapperley Road – offers a rare and precious commodity: retailing biodiversity.

 

Located at the corner with Forest Road East is a shop called Twisted Playground, which sounds slightly like the Android Dungeon run by Comic-Book Guy in The Simpsons; though rather than selling comic-books it sells action figures and alternative clothing.  The Retro-Costume Hire shop next door is, alas, closed, but Twisted Playground has been given permission to display its wares in its empty neighbour’s window-space.  I bought a rather natty Jesus and Mary Chain T-shirt in this store.  Now you can’t buy that in f***ing Topshop.

 

 

All good shopping streets have at least one decent second-hand bookstore and Mansfield Road is no exception.  Geoff Blore’s Bookshop occupies some premises that may once have belonged to a provincial law firm – at least, that’s the impression given by the stately name Jermy and Westerman that occupies the top of the shop’s frontage.  The walls of its ground floor are lined from ceiling to floor with shelves and those shelves are stuffed to the gills with old books, including many orange-spined Penguin ones.  Moreover, when you venture up this establishment’s stairs – the staircase walls are packed with books too – you discover a couple of first-floor rooms that are literary Aladdin’s caves, loaded with countless more books.  After my first visit there I emerged bearing volumes written by Ambrose Bierce, Ian Fleming, T.H. White, Banana Yoshimoto, Jack Vance and Eric Linklater.  Now you can’t buy those in f***ing W.H. Smith.

 

 

There’s also a second-hand record store called Good Vibrations – which isn’t, as far as I know, connected with the famous store of the same name operated in Belfast by the legendary Terri Hooley.  Much of its stock consists of vinyl records, although I did discover a CD called The Great Beast Speaks, a collection of recordings made by the notorious early 20th-century occultist Aleister Crowley.  Now you can’t buy that in f***ing Tesco.

 

 

Other outlets that spice up the shopping experience on Mansfield Road include a doughty, old style hardware store called Stones; a private art gallery called Paige and Sivier; a musical instrument shop with a row of acoustic guitars in its window called Dave Mann’s Music – Dave Mann, incidentally, sounds like the name of a guitarist in a middle-league 1960s rhythm-and-blues band; a second musical instrument shop called Kai Dase Violins, which has a corner window protected by black metal rails and, standing behind those rails like a rare species of zoo animal, three upright cellos; a speciality clothes-shop with the self-explanatory title Harding’s Dancewear; a retro 1960s / 1970s clothing outlet called Daphne’s Handbag; and a strange wee shop selling slightly-antique items such as lava lamps, mirrorballs, cocktail shakers, curvy plastic 1960s chairs and clacketty old typewriters.  That last shop resembles a tiny exhibition room in a gallery of modern art and it was only open once during the many times that I passed it.

 

 

The street is also strong on the culinary front.  It boasts Indian, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, Jamaican and Turkish eateries and even the small supermarkets that appear along its length are often ethnic in character – I spotted Mediterranean, Caribbean and Eastern European / Russian ones.

 

The pubs there are generally very good too.  Even at its central-Nottingham end, just before the surroundings give way to concrete city-centre blandness, Mansfield Road is home to The Peacock, an antiquated, sedate and nicely-upholstered bar where D.H. Lawrence is supposed to have hung out, and Koegh’s, a rare Irish pub that actually has some Irish people in it.  Heading away from the centre, you encounter the Golden Fleece, well-known for the quality of its Sunday lunches and also for the live bands who sometimes perform on a stage at its rear; the cosy old real-ale stronghold The Lincolnshire Poacher; the Hard to Find Cafe, which is neither a café nor is particularly hard to find; the Loft, a trendy but cramped (squeezed into two narrow floors on its building’s first and second storeys) music club; and, at the Forest Road end of the street, The Maze, another live-music place with a two-o’clock bar licence on Friday and Saturday nights.

 

 

Among the upcoming attractions advertised at the Maze while I was drinking there were the long-lost (and not particularly missed) punk / ‘Oi’ band The Cockney Rejects, and a Pantera tribute band called Pantera 101%.  The fact that Pantera now have their own tribute band suggests that there can’t be anyone in the world who doesn’t, somewhere, have a tribute band dedicated to them.  The public-bar part of the Maze sports a gallery of framed black-and-white photos of the greatest names in rock-and-roll.  I was delighted to see that, among the likes of Elvis, Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and co, there was a portrait of the hard-rockin’ Lancashire legend that was George Formby, defiantly wielding his ‘axe’ (well, his banjo).

 

 

The street is, sadly, scarred by a couple of derelict premises.  There’s a second, now-abandoned record shop whose permanently-closed shutters are emblazoned with the memorable line of graffiti: Reality continues to ruin my life.  Another former shop used to sell ‘wigs, masks, fancy dress and party goods’.  And there’s an empty venue whose sign bears the mysterious wording King Oliver Trading Cards / John Priestly Autographs.

 

 

If I was ever put under ‘postal-district arrest’ and was ordered to remain in one small neighbourhood, never to step out over its borders, I think I’d be perfectly happy if the neighbourhood of my confinement was the stretch of Mansfield Road I’ve just described.  Everything necessary to meet my physical, mental and spiritual needs is there.  Why go anywhere else?

 

Haile highly successful in Glasgow

 

In 2009, eight years after I’d finished working there, I returned to Ethiopia to research an MA dissertation.  It came as no surprise to me then to discover that the Asmara Road, one of Addis Ababa’s main arteries, had been renamed the Haile Gebrselassie Road.  This was in honour of the country’s greatest athlete, long-distance runner and twice-Olympic-champion Haile Gebrselassie.

 

When I lived and worked in Ethiopia from 1999 to 2001, Gebrselassie had already been accorded national-treasure status.  I remember attending a conference at Addis Ababa University while the 2000 Olympics were taking place in Sydney.  At one point a lecture hall I was in went ape-shit because it was announced that Gebrselassie had just won a gold medal in the 10,000 metres for Ethiopia.   However, adored and acclaimed though Gebrselassie is, the diminutive (five-foot-five) athlete has never allowed things to go to his head.  From all accounts he’s a humble, unassuming sort, mindful of his origins as the son of a subsistence farmer in Asala who first got into running by jogging eight kilometres every day to the nearest school.  He also does much for Ethiopian charities, including education, health and clean-water ones, and has even donated his Olympic medals to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of St Mary in Entoto.  I hope you’re reading this, Usain Bolt…  And making notes.

 

Last weekend, Haile Gebrselassie – who seems to have been around for so long now that I almost assumed he was getting near pension-age, although he’s actually only forty – made it to Scotland to take part in the Great Scottish Run in Glasgow.  Not only did he win the thirteen-mile half-marathon, but he ran it in an hour, one minute and nine seconds, making it the fastest half-marathon win ever seen in Scotland – clearly, Gebrselassie had kept away from the chips, Scotch eggs, white puddings, whisky and deep-fried Mars bars while he was sojourning in this dreich nation of ours.  It was also good going for a man who’d announced his retirement in 2010 after withdrawing from the New York City Marathon with an injured knee.

 

Incidentally, my sister ran in this year’s Great Scottish Run in order to raise money for a Motor Neuron Disease charity.  She completed it in two hours and fifty-six seconds and, I think, can be proud of herself for doing so in just under twice the time set by the mighty wee Haile.

 

Such was Gebrselassie’s popularity that, while I was in Ethiopia, local pop star Teddy Afro recorded a song about him.  Here it is, a dozen years later, on youtube – the song isn’t very good, but at least it’s not very good in a nice way.

 

 

Books and films: The Thirty-Nine Steps

 

(c) Gaumont-British

 

In late August, the Eastgate Theatre in Peebles, my hometown, gave a showing of The Thirty-Nine Steps.  That was the 1935 movie adaptation, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, of the novel of the same name written by John Buchan and published in 1915.  Although he was born in Perth, Buchan had strong links with Peebles and there is now a John Buchan Museum doing business on its High Street.

 

Before the film began, the audience received a short talk from Buchan’s granddaughter, Lady Deborah Stewartly, about the several film versions of The Thirty-Nine Steps – of which Hitchcock’s was the first.

 

It turned out that Lady Stewartly’s opinions of those films accord with my own opinions of them.  The 1935 one, which had Robert Donat in the role of the book’s adventurer-hero Richard Hannay, is the best, but there’s considerably more Hitchcock in it than there is Buchan.  The second version, made in 1959, directed by Ralph Thomas and starring Kenneth More as Hannay, is basically a colour remake of the Hitchcock movie and is pretty piss-poor.  I liked Kenneth More when he was older, with sufficient grey hairs, wrinkles and gravitas to make him an impressive character actor, but I could never understand his appeal as a young leading man in the 1950s – back then I found him dully stiff-upper-lip and wearily earnest and he was, I thought, miscast as Hannay.  The third and final movie version to date was made in 1978 by the prolific, workmanlike and underrated director Don Sharpe and starred Robert Powell as a credible Hannay.  It’s more faithful to Buchan and is fairly good, although it’s botched by an over-the-top ending, which has Powell dangling from a giant hand on the clock-face of Big Ben.

 

Having seen Hitchcock’s Thirty-Nine Steps again, and on a big screen, I thought it’d be interesting to dig out Buchan’s novel, re-read it and compare book and film.  I originally read the novel when I was twelve years old and wasn’t very impressed by it.  Possibly this was because at the time I’d just read four or five of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and The Thirty-Nine Steps couldn’t help but seem creaky and low-key in comparison.  With hindsight, this was a bit unfair of me, considering how Hannay is now considered one of the main prototypes for Bond and generally Fleming owes Buchan a big debt.  (It should be also noted that The Thirty-Nine Steps, with its plot about an innocent man on the run, accused of a crime he didn’t commit and pursued by police and villains alike, provides a blueprint that’d serve Hitchcock well in his later films like Saboteur, North by Northwest and Frenzy.)

 

(c) Penguin 

 

My second reading of The Thirty-Nine Steps got off to a good start, for Buchan’s opening paragraph is a cracker.  It perfectly sets the scene for what’s to follow: “I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life.  I had been three months in the Old Country and was fed up with it.  If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that, I should have laughed at him, but there was the fact.  The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick, I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun.  ‘Richard Hannay,’ I kept telling myself, ‘you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.’”

 

In fact, those opening lines establish a theme that none of the film versions really capture.  When we first encounter Hannay, who has spent the past years living in Bulawayo in Rhodesia, he’s desperately bored.  He’s had a bellyful of London and its supposed sophistications and he’s desperate to return to the wide open spaces of the veld.  “I would give,” he says on page 2, “the Old Country another day to fit me into something; if nothing happened, I would take the next boat for the Cape.”

 

No sooner has he decided this, of course, than he is fitted into something.  His American neighbour and spy-on-the-run Franklin Scudder turns up at his door and confides in him about a massive anarchist plot to plunge Europe into chaos and war.  (Actually, Scudder’s initial claim is that it’s a plot directed by the Jews – but later, and in time to save the story from accusations of anti-Semitism, it transpires the real villains are the Germans, itching to invade Britain before World War I gets properly going.)

 

Before long, Scudder is slain “with a long knife through his heart, which skewered him to the floor”, Hannay is under suspicion for his murder and, knowing that the bad guys are coming after him too, he jumps on a northbound train and attempts to go to ground in Dumfries and Galloway in south-west Scotland.  There, Hannay admits that he “actually felt light-hearted.  I might have been a boy out for a spring holiday tramp, instead of a man of thirty-seven very much wanted by the police.  I felt just as I used to feel when I was starting for a big trek on a frosty morning on the high veld.”  Dire though Hannay’s predicament is, it’s at least provided him with the adventure that he’s missed for so long.

 

The adventure in Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps is strictly of the boys’ adventure variety.  The novel is sexless and women barely get a mention.  The only female characters who appear are the wife of a cattle-herd – she and her husband allow Hannay to stay in their cottage for a night and occupy the narrative for two paragraphs – and later on an old woman, another herd’s wife, who lets Hannay sit by her kitchen fire and gives him “a bowl of milk with a dash of whisky in it”.  She’s also in it for two paragraphs.

 

Predictably, this changed in 1935 when Hitchcock got his hands on the property.  Franklin Scudder becomes the attractive lady spy Annabella Smith, played by Lucie Mannheim, who picks up Robert Donat’s Hannay following a shooting incident at the local music hall – though before romance can blossom between the two of them, she’s murdered (the knife being administered to her back rather than through her heart).

 

In Hitchcock’s film the action shifts from the Southern Uplands to the Highlands, and the cattle herd who takes Hannay in for the night becomes a crofter, a flinty and untrustworthy one played by John Laurie, who later wrote the rulebook for playing dour Scotsmen when he portrayed Private Fraser in the legendary TV comedy show Dad’s Army.  His wife, meanwhile, is a young and innocent creature played by Peggy Ashcroft, who’s obviously drawn to Donat’s dashing version of Hannay – to the point where she gives him her husband’s coat just before he has to flee the police again.  The crofter’s coat contains in its breast pocket a Presbyterian hymn-book, which, later, handily stops a villain’s bullet.

 

Of course, the biggest example of Hitchcock sexing up Buchan’s story comes with the addition of a new character, Pamela, played by Madeleine Carroll, who ends up handcuffed to Hannay for part of the manhunt in Scotland.  The scene where Pamela has to remove her stockings and Donat’s shackled hand gets trailed up and down her legs is a typical flourish from the plump and famously pervy director.

 

In the book Hannay is no lady’s man, but he’s certainly adept at the art of disguise.  In the fifth chapter, Hannay persuades a Scottish road-worker to change places with him and, when the bad guys arrive on the scene, he successfully fools them into thinking that he’s just a manual-labouring local, not the man they’re pursuing.  As he rubs road-dust into his boots, trouser-legs, neck and eyes, scrapes away the edges of his fingernails, and breaks and reties one of his boot-laces, he reflects: “I remembered an old scout in Rhodesia, who had done many queer things in his day, once telling me that the secret of playing a part was to think yourself into it.  You could never keep it up, he said, unless you could manage to convince yourself that you were it.”  That may be so, but I can’t see how the well-to-do Hannay, whose family supposedly left Scotland when he was six years old, can give his pursuers a convincing mouthful of working-class Scots when they interview him in his road-worker’s guise: “I wasna up very early…  Ye see my dochter was merrit last nicht, and we keepit up late…”

 

The theme of disguise resurfaces later in the book when the villains display their skills at method-acting as well.  One of them infiltrates a top meeting of defence officials at St Anne’s Gate in London disguised as Lord Alloa, the First Sea Lord.  When Hannay reveals the ruse, someone splutters, “Do you mean to tell me that that man came here and sat beside me for the best part of half an hour and I didn’t detect the imposture?”

 

And at the end of the book, instead of the expected action-packed climax – Hitchcock has it happen back in the London music hall, where it turns out that the villains are using the photographic-memory act, Mr Memory, to store top-secret information – there’s an unsettling episode where Hannay bursts into a middle-class household on the southern-England coast, by the top of thirty-nine steps that descend to the sea.  Hannay believes that Britain’s military secrets will be conveyed down those steps, from the house, to a rendezvous with a German ship.  He finds himself in the presence of three men who appear to be respectable, golf-and-tennis-loving English businessmen with names like Bob and Percy and who wear “the colours of some club or school”.  Indeed, he begins to wonder if they are the villains in disguise and not authentic members of the middle class: “It couldn’t be acting, it was too confoundedly genuine.  My heart went into my boots, and my first impulse was to apologize and clear out…  There was nothing in their appearance to prevent them being the three who had hunted me in Scotland, but there was nothing to identify them.”

 

(It doesn’t help Hannay’s mission here that he professes himself entirely ignorant of the English middle class: “A man of my sort, who has travelled about the world in rough places, gets on perfectly well with two classes, what you may call the upper and the lower…  But what fellows like me don’t understand is the great comfortable, satisfied middle-class world, the folk that live in villas and suburbs.”  To be uncharitable to Hannay, you might say he doesn’t understand the layer of society that isn’t as wealthy as he is, but also isn’t poor enough to have to work as his servants.)

 

For me, this recurrent theme of disguise, play-acting and deception is what gives Buchan’s book a special flavour and, nearly one hundred years on, makes it seem a little more than a run-of-the-mill adventure yarn.  However, Hitchcock – who in 1960 would direct one of cinema’s most cunning essays about the art of disguise, Psycho – ignores this theme and concentrates on making his Thirty Steps purely an adventure yarn, if a very good one.  He does, I have to say, invest the plot with a little more logic than Buchan did.  I may have missed an important piece of information in the book, but I can’t for the life of me understand how Hannay, on the run for days across the moors of south-west Scotland, can suddenly stumble across a farming estate that’s actually the villains’ headquarters, compete with a storeroom full of explosives and “an oval of green turf… like a big cricket field” that’s used as a secret airfield.

 

In Hitchcock’s movie, Annabella Smith expires clutching a map of Scotland with a particular location on it encircled, and it’s to this area that Hannay makes his way.  Thus, we know that the foreign agents are hiding out there.  In the book, the fact that Hannay – who could have holed up in any part of Britain – discovers their lair seems like a colossal coincidence.

 

Buchan strains credibility further by inserting another wild coincidence into the story (which again isn’t in the Hitchcock film).  Whilst on the run, Hannay bumps into an acquaintance called Marmaduke Jopley – “a sort of blood stockbroker, who did his business by toadying eldest sons and rich young peers and foolish old ladies”, and who “was an offence to creation.”  In fact, Jopley’s touring car appears “by an amazing chance” on a lonely moorland road just after Hannay’s been in disguise as the road-worker, and he has no qualms about hijacking the car for a couple of pages.  All these coincidences leave one with the impression that a century ago Dumfries and Galloway was quite the happening place.

 

Hating Britain

 

(c) Daily Telegraph

 

I’m not a big fan of Labour Party leader Ed Milliband.  Until now I’ve viewed him as being bland, timid and vacuous.  However, at the Labour Party conference the other week, he seemed to suddenly develop a backbone by promising that a future Labour government would freeze household energy bills until 2017.

 

I’m sceptical that Milliband will ever become Prime Minister, and if he does I’m sceptical that this promise will ever become policy, but at least for once he managed to wrong-foot his political opponents and generate debate and headlines.  No doubt it was for this reason – Ed Milliband setting the agenda – that the world’s most horrible wee right-wing tabloid newspaper the Daily Mail decided last Saturday to go gunning for him.

 

Or rather, the Mail went gunning for Ed Milliband’s father, the late Marxist academic Ralph Milliband who, it claimed in a two-page expose, was a ‘man who hated Britain’.  To back this accusation, it quoted something the teenaged Ralph had written in his diary shortly after he’d arrived in the UK as a Jewish refugee, about the English being rabid nationalists.  Nearly thirty years later, Milliband Senior also wrote about his contempt for the British establishment, which he saw as including Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge, the army, the Church of England, the Times newspaper, the House of Lords and the monarchy.  Like father, like son, seemed to be the Mail’s subtext – don’t vote for Ed because he’s been tainted by the evil unpatriotic Marxism of his dad.

 

This past Tuesday, the Mail allowed Ed Milliband page-space to write a reply to these claims.  His father, he retorted, did not hate Britain – for one thing, during World War II, Milliband Senior had served in the British Navy against the Nazis.  (This, incidentally, was just a few years after the Mail had been espousing Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and printing headlines like Hurrah for the Blackshirts.)  However, the newspaper also published an unrepentant defence of its original allegations.  Ralph’s political views, it said, ‘underpinned incalculable human misery’ and the influence he may have had over young Ed was ‘a fundamental question of ideology and enormous public interest.’

 

By the latter part of this week the Jewish Chronicle writer Jonathan Freedland had also waded into the row, criticising the Mail for what he saw as an anti-Semitic tone in its Ralph Milliband coverage.  And a reporter from the Daily Mail’s sister paper, the Mail on Sunday, had been ejected from a memorial service held at London’s Guy’s Hospital for Ed Milliband’s uncle, Professor Harry Keen – she’d sneaked in, trying to get comments from Keen’s friends, relatives and colleagues about the controversy.

 

The first thing that struck me about this episode is the fact – obviously not graspable by the Daily Mail – that it’s entirely possible to be critical of a country, and of some or most of its institutions, without ‘hating’ it.  You can hold a place in great affection whilst also lambasting it for its failings.  George Orwell was, in his own, anti-patriotic way, a patriotic Englishman; and he is now revered by many for projecting a quintessentially honest, decent type of Englishness.  But Orwell, of course, was scathing of the political and social institutions in the England of his day.

 

The second thing to strike me was the irony of who was attacking who, and about what.  When it comes to hating Britain, Ralph Milliband is small potatoes compared to the Daily Mail, a newspaper that regularly pours bile over Britain’s education system, Britain’s welfare system, Britain’s national broadcaster, Britain’s trade union movement, Britain’s environmental movement, Britain’s immigrant community, Britain’s gay community, and most aspects of Britain’s 21st century culture.  In fact, the Daily Mail seems to hate everything in Britain that isn’t white, Christian, middle-or-upper-class, based in the English Home Counties and supportive of the Conservative Party or UKIP.  Which constitutes a hell of a lot more of Britain than what Ralph Milliband ever fulminated against.