The Rabbie, Robbie and Wally Museum



It says a lot about changing notions of life-expectancy and longevity that, in many of the tributes and obituaries written in the wake of Iain Banks’ death this year, Banks was considered to have died at the ‘comparatively young’ age of 59.  In facts, Banks’ innings was just two years short of that achieved by Sir Walter Scott who, when he passed away in 1832 at the age of 61, was deemed to have reached a reasonable old age.


Meanwhile, Scott at the end of his life seemed positively ancient when compared with the two towering figures of Scottish literature who came immediately before and shortly after him – Robert Burns, who died in 1796 at the age of 37 (from excess, if you believe the unforgiving Presbyterian accounts of his life); and the always-sickly Robert Louis Stevenson, who died in 1894 at the age of 44.  Yes, there was no time for procrastination in that era of Scottish letters – you got your work down on paper as quick as you could, in case the Grim Reaper came knocking soon.


Such melancholy thoughts were inspired by a recent visit I paid to the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, which would be more accurately titled the Three Writers’ Museum, since it deals only with Burns, Scott and Stevenson.  Situated on the Royal Mile in Lady Stair’s Close, which is on the same side as and a little way further up from Deacon Brodie’s Tavern (Deacon Brodie was the outwardly respectable but secretly criminal Edinburgh citizen who may have planted the idea for Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde in Stevenson’s head), the museum is squeezed into three floors of a narrow corner building whose last private owner was the 5th Earl of Rosebury.  In 1907 the Earl gifted the building to the City of Edinburgh on the understanding that it would be used as a museum.


Don’t go to the museum expecting the latest in interactive displays, animatronics, sound and visual effects.  It’s solidly old-fashioned – you read the information on the panels and look at stuff in display cases, which includes Burns’ writing desk and the swordstick he carried whilst employed as an Excise Officer, Scott’s chess set and his boyhood rocking horse (one foot-rest positioned higher than the other to accommodate his lifelong lameness) and the boots that Stevenson wore during the final days of his life on Samoa.  There’s also an eight-foot-or-so model of the Sir Walter Scott Monument, whose presence there seems a bit pointless when a ten-minute walk will take you to the real thing on Princes Street.


I have to say I like the austere, no-frills manner of the Writers’ Museum, which seemingly hasn’t changed for a century.  Once in a while, it’s nice to encounter a historical museum whose presentation style is rooted almost in the same era that its subjects lived in.


One word of advice, though.  Visit the Writers’ Museum before you visit Deacon Brodie’s Tavern or any of the other picturesque pubs that central Edinburgh has to offer because, with its low doorways and treacherous stone stairs, it’s not a place to negotiate when you’re a bit tipsy.  I cracked my forehead on a stone door-frame coming down from the first to the ground floor and I was entirely sober.  Honest!



Thank God for The Pogues


(c) Pogue Mahone


Christmas, which involves forced bonhomie in the workplace, family politics at home, and raw naked commercialism just about everywhere else, is for many people an endurance test.  It becomes even more of an endurance test as, from the radio, from PA systems in department stores and from the soundtracks of countless TV advertisements, you’re bombarded by Christmas music – or by the drivel that mostly passes for music at Christmas-time.  Wham’s Last Christmas, Wizzard’s I Wish it could be Christmas Every Day, Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is you, the overrated Bruce Springsteen croaking and wheezing his way through Santa Claus is Coming to Town…  I almost had a psychotic episode in my local Sainsbury the other evening while I was combing the shelves, trying to find a maddeningly elusive bottle of lemon juice, and Cliff Richard started to seriously get to me with Mistletoe and Wine.


So for yet another Christmas I find myself filling a glass with Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey and raising it in honour of the mighty Celtic punk / folk band The Pogues.  Their anthem Fairy Tale of New York, which first made the Christmas charts back in 1987, is possibly the only good popular song to have ever cashed in on the festive season.  When you’re struggling with your yuletide shopping and being subjected to an endless loop of Christmas-music torture by Shakin’ Stevens, Slade and all the other usual suspects, those opening chords of Fairy Tale of New York come like a gentle, soothing massage to your frazzled synapses.  I just hope that the Irish author J.P. Donleavy, from whose novel Fairy Tale of New York the song’s writers Jem Finer and Shane McGowan nicked the title, was so charmed by the tune that he never bothered to sue.


Yes, Fairy Tale of New York evokes such familiarity and affection from me these days that, hearing it, I almost feel I’ve bumped into an old friend at Christmas-time and am exchanging season’s greetings with him or her.  Like a proper friend, you know the person’s idiosyncrasies and character nuances – their negative traits as well as their positive ones.


You’re aware of a charming, expectant innocence – “They’ve cars big as bars / They’ve rivers of gold” – that at times bursts into a joyous euphoria – “The boys of the NYPD choir were singing Galway Bay / And the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day.”  (Actually, the New York Police Department doesn’t have a choir at all, just a pipes-and-drums band, which you catch a glimpse of during the song’s video.  But we’ll let that pass.)


At the same time, you sense a stubborn streak of melancholia – “An old man said to me, ‘Won’t see another one…’”  And you know there’s even a worrying potential for violence, as is demonstrated when singers McGowan and the late Kirsty MacColl start tearing into each other with lines like, “Ye’re an old slut on junk!” and “Ye scumbag, ye maggot, ye cheap lousy faggot!” – lyrics that have always caused discomfort amongst the politically-correct watchdogs of the Radio One playlist and amongst lily-livered light-entertainment singers who, over the years, have attempted to do cover versions of the song.  (Ronan Keating from the Irish boy-band Boyzone, when doing his own take on Fairy Tale of New York, changed the “ye cheap lousy faggot” line to “ye’re cheap and ye’re haggard”.  That was brave of you, Ronan.)


Kirsty MacColl’s death on the Mexican island of Cozumel 13 years ago – whilst swimming with her two sons she was struck by a speedboat belonging to Guillermo Gonzalez Nova, a supermarket magnate and one of Mexico’s richest men, in an dodgy accident that’s never been investigated to her family’s satisfaction – only makes the song sound more poignant now.  McGowan, thankfully and against all odds, is still with us.  I saw him discussing the song the other night on a TV survey of the nation’s 50 favourite Christmas songs, in which Fairy Tale of New York got to number ten – ten! – and he looked like a man who’d done some serious living in his time.  He was wearing an eye-patch, which I hope doesn’t indicate he’s reached a point in his dissolution where parts of him have started to drop off.


The Guardian saw fit to interview McGowan about his ‘family values’ the other day.  Here’s a link to the article, although none of the information will come as a surprise to anybody who’s read his entertaining book of memoirs, A Drink with Shane McGowan.


Incidentally, in the same issue of the Guardian, I see there’s an article about this Christmas’s appeal by music fans (proper music fans) to the Ancient Rock Gods to deliver them from Simon-Cowell-orchestrated / X-Factor-winner / Christmas-number-one evil.  This time they have launched a campaign to get Highway to Hell by the venerable Australian heavy-metal outfit AC/DC to the top of the Christmas charts, thus thwarting the single released by this year’s X-Factor victor, Sam Bailey.


There…  I’ve just written her name and already I’ve forgotten what it is.  Can anybody out there remember the names of anyone who’s won The X-Factor in previous years and gone on to enjoy a musical career of mayfly-like longevity?  Maybe apart from, you know, what’s-her-name?  Lennox Lewis.  Or Jerry Lewis.  Or whatever.


I always thought it said volumes about the cultural differences between Australia and Britain that in Australia Highway to Hell is the song that is most requested by people to be played at their funerals.  Whereas in Britain the number-one funeral song is the vomit-inducing Angels by Robbie Williams.


(c) Atlantic


The AC/DC campaign, of course, is inspired by the success in Christmas 2009 of a similar campaign to frustrate the Christmas-single ambitions of the then-latest wimp-bot to roll off the Cowell Conveyor Belt of Karaoke.  This involved getting Rage Against The Machine’s Killing in the Name of to the number-one slot instead.  (How gratifying it must have been for the nation’s parents on the morning of December 25th, 2009, to discover their young offspring jumping up and down on their beds and shouting out a new Christmas anthem: “F**k you, I won’t do what you tell me!”)


However, for me, the Christmas musical moment that rekindled my faith in humanity actually came long before Simon Cowell, The X-Factor and Internet campaigns.  In Christmas 1990, Cliff Richard released Saviour’s Day – following the success of Mistletoe and Wine in 1988, Cliff had obviously decided that his best bet for a pension plan was to corner the ‘old grannies’ market by releasing a heart-warming Christmas single every couple of years.  But after one week, Cliff was knocked off the number-one position by Iron Maiden singing Bring your Daughter to the Slaughter, a song that Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson had originally written for the fifth Nightmare on Elm Street movie.  This was despite the BBC refusing to play the song on Radio One and giving it almost zero coverage on Top of the Pops.


At the time, this unexpected yuletide turn-of-events prompted the As We See It editorial column in Scotland’s old-granny-loving newspaper the Sunday Post to lament that we were living in a sad, sick world.  Nonsense.  In my book, any world where Iron Maiden can usurp Cliff Richard from the Christmas number-one slot is a wonderful world indeed.





Pub royalty



There’s a crime novel written by Ian Rankin and featuring Inspector Rebus – I can’t recall its title – wherein Rebus winds up in Edinburgh’s Café Royal minutes after opening time.  Sole punter there, the good Inspector reflects that this is the best time to appreciate the establishment: where there’s nobody else in it and the atmosphere is truly still and cathedral-like.


A few mornings ago a friend and I found ourselves wandering about the eastern end of Princes Street just after eleven o’clock, at a loose end, and I suggested testing Inspector Rebus’s claim about the best time to visit the Café Royal.  So we nipped into the ornate 150-year-old pub and ordered a coffee – just coffee, seeing as it was only the back of eleven.  Well, coffee with a wee skoosh of Tia Maria in it.



I’ve been in the Café Royal countless times before, but either in the middle of the day when folk are coming in to order lunch or in the evenings when the place is packed with a just-finished-work crowd.  Now, having drunk there with the place practically to myself, I’m in agreement with Rebus. While light flooded in beneath the high, compartmented ceiling and alit on an atypically silent and empty but still-gleaming Circle Bar, the experience bordered on the religious.


No voices disturbed the serene calm.  Nobody intruded on the view of the murals along the back wall, made of Doulton ceramic tiles, painted by John Eyre and depicting various inventors in the act of inventing or discovering something – for the record, they are William Caxton, Michael Faraday, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Peel, George Stephenson and James Watt.  Nor did anyone impede the view of the majestic island bar with its clock-topped gantry, of the comfortable old leather seating alcoves below the windows, of the carved walnut screen that separates the Circle Bar from the adjoining Oyster Bar, of the white marble floor.



It fries my mind to think that at the end of the 1960s a place this lovely was almost sold to Woolworths, who wanted to turn it into an extension of the store they then had on Princes Street.  Thankfully, the city’s Planning Officer intervened, as did 8700 citizens, who put their signatures on a petition, and instead the Café Royal was given listed status.


It’s not perfect, mind you.  For much of the time that I’ve drunk in the Café Royal, the counter service wasn’t anything to write home about, although it seems to have improved in the past few years.  And in the toilets in the basement – after you navigate the low opening at the foot of the stairs with the sign warning DUCK OR GROUSE – they should do something about the water temperature in the wash-hand basins, which for as long as I can remember has been blisteringly, no, skin-strippingly hot.


I began with a literary reference to the Café Royal and I shall conclude with another one.  The gantry running along the middle of the island counter doesn’t contain a mirror but, because the bottles are arranged almost identically on the shelves on either side of it, it looks as if it does.  In Iain Banks’ political thriller Complicity, there’s a scene where the boozed-up, down-at-heels journalist-hero Cameron Colley has a panic attack at the Café Royal counter – he can’t see his reflection where he assumes the gantry-mirror to be and he drunkenly concludes that he’s become a vampire.  Thanks to some lengthy sessions in the Café Royal, I’m familiar with that panicked vampire feeling myself.



Live music dies again in Edinburgh




When I lived in Edinburgh in the late 1990s, I didn’t know how lucky I was regarding live music.  At least three venues where I regularly attended gigs at the time have, since then, bitten the dust – victims of the property-development madness that seemed to infect the Scottish capital even more strongly than it infected most other cities in the UK.


Most lamented was the loss of the Venue at 17 Calton Road, which started trading as The Jailhouse in the early 1980s and spent the next quarter-century hosting bands big and small.  A mate of mine recalls performing onstage there and feeling a surge of pride as he realised that the legendary Bob Mould of Sugar had played and sung on the exact same spot a few days earlier.  By 2006, however, the Venue had closed down; as had the Cas Rock on West Port (now a bland glass building that houses, among other things, a Sainsbury supermarket) and the Tap O’Lauriston just up the road from there on Lauriston Place, which was demolished to make way for a Novotel.  The Tap was a pub specialising in gigs by punk bands and it was there that I saw outfits like the New Town Grunts – whom I’d never heard of before and whom I’ve never heard of since, but who, like the Road Warrior at the end of Mad Max II, “now live on… in my memory.”


For a while, the lack of music venues in Edinburgh was embarrassing.  During the Scottish section of their UK tours, reasonably-sized bands would perform in Aberdeen and Glasgow, before making a beeline for the English border and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, bypassing Edinburgh even though the bloody place was supposed to be the capital city of Scotland.  Then a few years ago the situation drastically improved, with the opening of the Picturehouse on Lothian Road.


Originally the building had been an Art Deco cinema called the Caley, but it’d enjoyed a previous stint as a live-music venue during the 1970s and 1980s when, under the name of the Caley Palais, it’d hosted gigs by Pink Floyd, Queen, AC/DC, New Order and The Smiths.  In its new 21st-century incarnation, the Picturehouse functioned as a ‘mid-scale’ music venue, i.e. it catered for bands that probably wouldn’t fill a stadium but that were too big for Edinburgh’s other surviving downtown venues, like the Liquid Rooms (still soldiering on at the top of Victoria Street).


Although by then I wasn’t living in Edinburgh, I made a point of attending concerts at the Picturehouse whenever I was back in Scotland.  In recent years, I’ve seen there Bat for Lashes, The Charlatans, The Cult, The Damned, The Eels, Mark Lanegan, Johnny Marr, Mudhoney, The Ruts and The Vaselines.  I doubt if any of those performers would have shown their faces in Edinburgh if the Picturehouse hadn’t existed to accommodate them.


The beginning of this year saw the bankruptcy of the Picturehouse’s then owners, the music and entertainment group HMV.  However, it transpired that the venue had been acquired by another firm, MAMA and Company, and supposedly it was safe from closure.  This sounded a bit too good to be true.  And indeed, it was too good to be true – for MAMA and Company have just admitted selling the building on to another party that have no intention of retaining it as a live music venue.  This latest owner is none other than the pub chain J.D. Wetherspoon, who no doubt plan to turn it into yet another of their airplane-hangar-like, cheap-drink-and-food outlets.


Meanwhile, once again, Edinburgh will go back to being a poor relation to Glasgow in the live-music stakes.  (I know there’s the Corn Exchange near Longstone in western Edinburgh, but it seems to market itself more as a ‘conference centre, banqueting suite and exhibition hall’ these days and few bands seem keen to play there – which isn’t surprising, as the place has all the atmosphere and acoustics of a large concrete bunker.  Also, any time I’ve been there, I’ve had a bad vibe from the security staff.)  It’s a ridiculous situation for a city that every August prides itself on hosting the biggest arts festival in the world.


Here’s a link to a petition that’s been set up by music fans in Edinburgh, imploring Wetherspoon to keep the Picturehouse as a live-music venue.  Feel free to add your name.


Au revoir, O’Toole




Peter O’Toole’s death on December 14th didn’t get a great deal of attention in the British media, perhaps because after the massive coverage given to the passing of Nelson Mandela the media felt funeral-ed and obituary-ed out.  But I got the impression too that many people were surprised to hear that O’Toole hadn’t been dead for years already.  In the acting world he seemed to belong to a bygone era.  He really was the last of a thespian tribe of Mohicans.


Though he projected an aristocratic languor, O’Toole was a rare thing by today’s standards, a successful actor from a working-class background.  His father was an Irish bookie and metal-plate worker, his mother a Scottish nurse.  From his Dad, whose lackadaisical approach to his horse-betting business sometimes meant he didn’t have the cash to pay his winning customers, he inherited a relaxed approach to life that led later to some hair-raising exploits involving epic drinking sessions and sprinting into theatres moments before he was due onstage.  It’s uncertain whether he was born in Galway or Yorkshire, although he was brought up in Hunslet, an industrial district of Leeds.  But even if he was Yorkshire-born, O’Toole considered himself properly Irish – setting a trend among English actors of a certain disposition, like John Hurt and Daniel Day Lewis, to disown their Englishness and embrace their inner Irishman.


O’Toole once said that his generation of actors had been trained by having a mantra drummed into their heads, “Theatre, theatre, theatre”; and between the 1950s and 1990s he often seemed happier performing before live audiences than before film or TV cameras.  He did numerous Shakespeares, including Hamlet, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, The Taming of the Shrew and Troilus and Cressida.  In 1980, he directed and played the lead in the notorious production of Macbeth at the Old Vic that earned him the worst reviews of his career (“Macdeath!”, “Macflop!”).  Despite the reviews, or maybe because of them, it played to sold-out houses every night.  Also, he never seemed to go long without appearing in a play written by a fellow Irishman, such as Beckett, O’Casey and Shaw.


In 1989, O’Toole won acclaim playing the lead role in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, Keith Waterhouse’s stage drama based on the life of the spectacularly dissolute journalist who wrote for the Sporting Life, Spectator and Daily Mirror.  (“Jeffrey Bernard is unwell” was the excuse printed in the Spectator whenever Bernard got so plastered in the pubs of Soho that he was unable to hand in the copy for his weekly column.)  Inevitably, O’Toole was friends with Bernard in real life and according to my well-thumbed copy of Robert Sellars’ book, An A-Z of Hellraisers, which has entries on both men, “Most nights of the run Bernard would visit O’Toole in his dressing room, drink his vodka and then totter off to his seat in the stalls where he’d fall asleep before the end of the first act.  In the intermission he’d struggle over to the theatre bar where he gladly accepted free drinks from delighted audience members, something more heartening than his royalty cheques, which were taken by the Inland Revenue in lieu of unpaid taxes.”


O’Toole was the last of a breed of British actors legendary for their prodigious consumption of alcohol – a trait you rarely get these days among actors, working in a different world where all-powerful insurance companies can veto any project where bad behaviour by the performers might be a liability.  Michael Caine, who was O’Toole’s understudy during a 1959 production of The Long and the Short and the Tall at London’s Royal Court Theatre, learned the dangers of drinking with O’Toole when, at the end of a working week, he accompanied him to a restaurant and then suffered a two-day-long blackout that ended with the pair of them coming around in a flat full of strange women.  Later Caine discovered that they’d both been banned for life from the restaurant, for some mysterious misdemeanor he had no memory of.  “It’s better not to know,” O’Toole told him cryptically.


By the 1960s, O’Toole was boozing merrily with the likes of Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Peter Finch.  “I was silly and young and drunken and making a complete clown of myself,” O’Toole later reminisced.  “But I did quite enjoy the days when one went for a pint at one’s local in Paris and woke up in Corsica.”  Tales about O’Toole and Finch’s antics are legion: for example, when they went to the extreme of producing a chequebook and buying a Dublin pub on the spot so that they could get one more drink in it after closing time; or when they turned up at a friend’s funeral, ‘tired and emotional’, only to discover after much wailing and gnashing of teeth that they were actually attending the wrong funeral.


In the mid-1980s, Spitting Image broadcast its famous ‘Peter No-Toole’ sketch – O’Toole wakes up one morning and discovers he’s had a sex change operation, which he can’t remember anything about; so to find out what happened he phones Oliver Reed, with whom when he’s spent the previous night drinking.  However, by then, the image of O’Toole as a hellraiser was already a decade out of date.  In 1975, following severe abdominal pain, he’d had several yards of digestive tract surgically removed.  What remained of his body’s plumbing, doctors warned him, was unable to process alcohol and even small amounts of the stuff could kill him.  (In later life O’Toole did resume drinking, but he was much more cautious about the habit than in his youth.)



It sounds sacrilegious, but I’ve never had much time for Lawrence of Arabia, the 1962 epic directed by David Lean that turned O’Toole into an international film star.  Maybe that’s because I’ve only ever seen it on commercial television, peppered with lengthy advertisement breaks, which made it seem very long and tedious indeed.  If I saw it on a cinema screen and was able to enjoy the full, spectacular effect of Lean’s visuals – those vast desert landscapes, Omar Sharif’s camels, etc. – I might think differently.  I’m also unimpressed by his 1965 hit-movie What’s New, Pussycat?, which was scripted by Woody Allen.  It’s an example of a film sub-genre that to me has always seemed the cinematic equivalent of cold vomit: the smug, zany and irritatingly unfunny swinging 1960s comedy.  (In 1968 O’Toole had a cameo in another swinging 1960s comedy, made too with Woody Allen’s involvement, that was even worse, the truly awful Casino Royale.)


Far, far better among his 1960s output were the two films where he played King Henry II, 1964’s Beckett and 1968’s The Lion in Winter, which earned him his second and third Oscar nominations for Best Actor.  The Lion in Winter was also notable for a production mishap whereby O’Toole tore off the top of his finger when it got caught between two boats.  Trooper that he was, he disinfected the fingertip by dunking it in brandy, bandaged it back on and continued filming.


(c) Hemdale


But my favourite O’Toole performances came during the following decade.  He was very good in Peter Medak’s bizarre satire The Ruling Class (1972); in a 1976 adaptation of Geoffrey Household’s adventure Rogue Male; in Zulu Dawn, the 1979 prequel to the famous 1963 epic Zulu, which had made a star of his old understudy Michael Caine; and in The Stunt Man (1980).  And I particularly like his turn in 1970’s Murphy’s War, playing a singularly bloody-minded Irish sailor who’s the sole survivor of a U-Boat attack on his ship in the last days of World War II – he determines to hunt down and destroy the U-Boat and isn’t put off his mission when word comes through that the war has ended.  (When O’Toole is steaming towards the sub with a commandeered barge, crane and a salvaged, unexploded torpedo, the German skipper does himself no favours by trying to reason with him through a megaphone and calling him ‘English’.)


In 1979 he made an ill-advised appearance as the Emperor Tiberius in the disastrous, Penthouse Magazine-funded production of Caligula, which was followed by the debacle of Macbeth at the Old Vic.  Happily, O’Toole regained his credibility with his performance in 1982’s My Favourite Year, playing a reprobate ageing actor who’d made his name starring in old Hollywood swashbucklers.  The character was supposedly based on Errol Flynn; any resemblance to O’Toole himself was, presumably, unintentional.


Thereafter, O’Toole seemed to disappear off the radar – although it’s surprising, when you look at his filmography, just how much film and TV work he did during the last thirty years of his life.  That work ranged from the dreadful (1984’s Supergirl) to the prestigious (1987’s The Last Emperor, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and garlanded with Oscars); and even in the noughties he was still appearing in high profile productions, including Troy (2004), Stardust and Ratatouille (both 2007).  But O’Toole himself seemed content to keep a low profile.


(c) Columbia Pictures


My two last sightings of him were in the TV serial Casanova, scripted by Russell T. Davies and starring David Tenant – because Tenant played the young Casanova and O’Toole played the old one, Tenant had to wear contact lenses to match the brilliant blueness of O’Toole’s eyes, which had once gazed strikingly from cinema screens during Lawrence of Arabia – and in an interview he gave to the now-defunct Word magazine.  When asked in the Word interview what he did for exercise these days, O’Toole said he kept fit by walking behind the hearses of friends who’d died of heart attacks whilst doing exercise.  Proof that several decades of hard living hadn’t diminished Peter O’Toole’s capacity for wit.





I’ve just been writing about hellraisers, and it’s December 18th, 2013, which is the seventieth birthday of a certain Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.  So I will take this opportunity to say: “Happy Birthday, Keef.”


Honest Abe in Edinburgh



I didn’t know it until I was wandering around Calton Hill the other day, but Edinburgh actually boasts a statue of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States.  Lincoln, of course, was the man who delivered the Gettysburg address and preserved the American Union during the Civil War, and he’s surely a contender for the title of Most Awesome US President Ever.  (Not that he’s had much competition for that title recently.)  Honest Abe’s statue is to be found in the Old Calton Cemetery, the entrance to which is on the opposite side of Waterloo Place from the entrance to Calton Hill itself.  He stands magisterially atop a memorial to Scottish-American soldiers while the clock-tower of the Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street is just visible in the background.


Standing next to Possibly-the-Greatest-President-Ever in Old Calton Cemetery is the cylindrical mausoleum of Possibly-the-Greatest-Philosopher-Ever, David Hume – the 18th-century Edinburgh thinker who rejected causality, claimed that God’s existence could neither be proved nor disapproved and argued that morality was based upon man’s benevolence rather than upon reason.  Clearly, Mr Hume still has at least one admirer in Edinburgh, because when I was there I noticed that the bolt-and-padlock of his mausoleum’s door had been decorated with a cluster of violet flowers.



The other inhabitants of Old Calton Cemetery are less illustrious than David Hume, but some of them were notable figures in their day.  It is the resting place, for example, of Thomas Hamilton, the architect who designed the Royal High School building a little further up the road, which was once earmarked to house Scotland’s new devolved parliament – it would have spared the Scottish political establishment an awful lot of expense and embarrassment if they had put the parliament in the Royal High School, rather than in the white elephant that ended up being built, massively over-budget, at the bottom of the Royal Mile.  Hamilton was also responsible for the Martyr’s Monument, the obelisk that rises from the centre of the cemetery, erected in honour of the members of a universal suffrage group called the Friends of the People, who were persecuted in 1793.



Also interred there are the publishers William Blackwood, founder of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, which during its 163-year history published contributions by the likes of James Hogg, Thomas De Quincy, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad and John Buchan; and Archibald Constable, who was involved in the Ballantyne Press, the company whose collapse in the 1820s bankrupted Sir Walter Scott.  And the cemetery contains the remains of classical and historical painter David Allan, who at one time was likened to a ‘Scottish Hogarth’ (although he certainly wasn’t the satirist that Hogarth was).



Allan’s visage, carved on his tombstone, adds a decorative flourish to a graveyard that is, on the whole, rather austere-looking.  However, it is spectacularly situated, with Calton Hill to the north and the skyline of the Old Town to the south.  And at its there’s a striking alleyway lined on either side with hulking stone sepulchres.



If you follow the tomb-flanked alleyway to near its bottom end, you’ll find this mausoleum for a certain Robert Burn.  That’s Robert Burn, not Robert Burns, although the inscription mentioning ‘twelve children’ brings to mind the famously promiscuous ploughman-poet (who’s actually buried in Dumfries).  At the sides of the entrance to Burn’s tomb, these cowled faces stare blankly and disturbingly from the stonework.



Another feature of the cemetery that is uncharacteristically decorative is the headstone on the left-hand side of the entrance that, on its crest, bears the name of Captain John Gray. Mention is made too, down the stone below, of Elisabeth Wilkie, Thomas Gray and Michael and John Swan.  It also features a sturdy-looking galleon, sculpted near the top, while lurking on either side of the inscriptions are two of the most grotesque skeletal figures to be found on any Edinburgh headstone.  And on its back there’s a Masonic-looking carving that resembles a compass straddling a gallows (or a turned-around Freemason’s square).



I read somewhere that Captain Gray placed the headstone in the cemetery in memory of his parents, but I haven’t been able to find out why some visitors feel obliged to add to the pile of coins nestling on its summit.  Is it a Masonic custom?  Perhaps somebody out there could enlighten me?


Scotland’s disgrace



If you’ve been in Scotland recently, you’ve probably noticed that there’s an important referendum coming up.  Next September, Scots will either vote ‘yes’ to become an independent country or vote ‘no’ to remain a part of the United Kingdom.  You’ve also probably noticed that many grim, nay, apocalyptic warnings are being made by supporters of the ‘no’ option, which are then magnified by the headline-writers of Scottish newspapers like the Scottish Sun, the Daily Record, the Scottish Daily Mail, the Scottish Daily Express and the Scotsman (none of which, incidentally, are owned by Scots), about what will happen if Scotland goes for independence.


Lately, I’ve seen bloodcurdling predictions that food prices will ‘soar’ in an independent Scotland (as if food prices, and utility prices too, haven’t already soared in the UK these last few years).  I’ve seen warnings too that an independent Scotland will immediately be booted out of the European Union because the Spanish won’t like us.  (This was enthusiastically reported by right-wing newspapers who normally hate the EU and normally portray the Spanish as being the sort of workshy, subsidy-dependent southern Europeans who symbolise everything that’s rotten in the organisation.  But I suppose the moment they slag off the idea of an independent Scotland, they become wise, good Spaniards.)  It’s even been reported that in an independent Scotland, people will – horror! – no longer be able to see their favourite television programmes, like Coronation Street and Doctor Who.  (This came as a shock to me, as I’ve seen Doctor Who on TV in places as far afield as Romania and Thailand.  But maybe Romania and Thailand would be beacons of wealth and culture compared to the hellhole that an independent Scotland would be.)


I’m sure that as the referendum draws nearer, the warnings will become even direr.  How can we be sure that in an independent Scotland the crops won’t wither in the fields, the children won’t starve on the streets and Arthur’s Seat won’t erupt and bury Edinburgh in lava?  Meanwhile, any half-wit who voices an anti-independence opinion will be treated in the newspapers as having uttered an unassailable truth.  Boris Johnson only has to announce that during the night he had a dream in which he saw an independent Scotland visited by a Biblical plague of boils; and the Scottish Daily Mail will no doubt report it with the headline: EXPERT CASTS DOUBT ON HEALTH CARE IN INDEPENDENT SCOTLAND.


What these doomy warnings are doing, in fact, is tapping into and exploiting the well-observed, well-recorded and well-discussed phenomenon of the ‘Scottish cringe’: an age-old inferiority complex among Scottish people that has them believe their country isn’t just rubbish, it’s at least fifty shades of rubbish.  And I have to admit there are a few pieces of evidence to support the notion that Scotland is a mighty embarrassment.


Politically, there was the fiasco of the Scottish Parliament building, which was constructed between 1999 and 2004.  Originally supposed to cost £109 million, it ended up with a price tag of £414 million, nearly three times as much, which caused much gnashing of teeth and cries of “Can’t we do anything right?”  Meanwhile, in the sporting world, there are the Scottish national football team’s woeful attempts to make an impression on the World Cup competition, dating back to Ally Macleod’s squad in the 1978 tournament in Argentina – Ally and co went with high expectations and then were humiliated by the humble likes of Peru and Iran.  (Scotland did manage a 1-1 draw with the latter, but it was only thanks to an own goal by Iranian centre-back Andranik Eskandarian.)  On the media front, the fact that Scotland’s most famous newspaper is the Sunday Post, a publication seemingly unaware that society has developed beyond 1934, surely induces cringes.  And you only have to mention the words ‘Scottish cuisine’ to an outsider for that outsider to sneer and respond: ‘Deep-fried Mars Bar!’  And the Scottish entertainment scene has been rife with figures who’ve made Scots want to moan in despair and bury their heads under the nearest cushion, including Sir Harry Lauder, Andy Stewart, Lulu, the Bay City Rollers, Sheena Easton, Wet Wet Wet, Ian and wee Janette Krankie…  But I can’t go on.  My hands are shaking and tears are rolling down my face.


For me, however, there is one Scottish embarrassment that looms far larger than all the others.  It is monstrous in size, is fixed permanently in stone, has survived for nearly two hundred years and stands in plain view of many parts of the Scottish capital.  I’m talking about the National Monument, which occupies a prime position on Calton Hill in central Edinburgh.  Ostensibly built to honour the Scottish soldiers and sailors who’d died in the Napoleonic Wars from 1803 to 1815, this was clearly also a vanity project for Scotland generally and for Edinburgh in particular.  The fact that it was modelled on the Parthenon in Athens suggests that the capital was in the middle of an early rebranding exercise.  No longer was it content to be seen as the crowded, smoky, sewage-splattered and stinky ‘Auld Reekie’ of yore.  Rather, it was going for the more cosmopolitan title of ‘the Athens of the North’.


To be fair, Scotland and Edinburgh had reason to feel good about themselves at the time.  Following some rocky experiences in the late 17th century / early 18th century, including the failed Scottish attempt to establish a colony at Darien in central America (which would be the country’s biggest disaster on Latin American soil until Ally Macleod’s World Cup campaign) and 1707’s Union of Parliament, when Robert Burns would have you believe the Scots were ‘bought and sold for English gold’, the later 18th century saw an unexpected Scottish renaissance.  Suddenly many areas of science, art, economics and philosophy were being heavily influenced by brainy Scots such as Robert Adam, Thomas Carlyle, Adam Ferguson, David Hume, Lord Monboddo, Henry Raeburn, Thomas Reid, Sir Walter Scott and Adam Smith.  Meanwhile, Edinburgh had seen the development of its New Town, which today surely ranks as the most gorgeous and extensive district of Georgian architecture in Britain.


When you approach the National Monument on Calton Hill, you see eight Grecian columns standing along its front, two more columns standing at either side… and that’s it.  The structure doesn’t have a back.  It’s truncated, incomplete, unfinished.  Yes, work on the National Monument came to a halt in 1829 because the project ran out of money – and the part of it that was left standing was soon dubbed ‘Scotland’s disgrace’.  To me, it has the effect of symbolising a nation’s neurosis.  Scotland, this laughably half-built, faux-Greek monument seems to warn, don’t get ideas above your station.  Don’t get too big for your britches.  Ken your place.  Don’t think you’re good because, in truth, you’re a bit rubbish.  Someone – possibly Tom Stoppard – made a famous jibe about Edinburgh not being so much ‘the Athens of the North’ as it is ‘the Reykjavik of the South’, but as far as I know Reykjavik doesn’t have an architectural symbol of incompetence on the same, hulking scale as this on display in its town centre.


There are lots of cool things to see up on Calton Hill, such as the City Observatory, the Donald Stewart Monument, the Nelson Monument and a rather natty cannon whose barrel is pointed in the direction of Princes Street.  Sometimes I wish somebody would turn that cannon around, though, and use it to lob a few shells in the direction of the National Monument, Scotland’s disgrace, and reduce the bloody thing to rubble.  Then the Scots could get on with the job of building a better country for themselves (inside or outside the United Kingdom) whilst being prey to fewer doubts about their own worth and abilities.



Growing old and sensible




Last night, at one point, I found myself in an interminable-seeming queue for the gents’ toilet at the Picturehouse concert hall on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road.  Stretching ahead of me and stretching back behind me was a long line of punk rockers.  Their average age was about fifty years old and their average weight was about sixteen stones, which meant that for once I was one of the younger and lighter people on the premises.  To the right of this queue as it wound its way back from the urinals-and-toilets area was a row of pristine-looking wash-hand basins.  Contemplating them, one grizzled old punk in front of me sighed and said:


“If this wus thirty year ago, we wouldnae be lined up here.  We’d aw just be pishin’ in they sinks!”  Around him, there were melancholic murmurs of agreement.


For a moment, it flashed across my mind to shout, “F**k middle age!  F**k respectability!  F**k the queue!  Let’s go and urinate in those sinks like we would have done when we were young and wild!” and then, unzipping my fly, to lead a charge at the wash-hand basins.  But I didn’t.  Instead, I waited another five minutes and finally got my turn at a urinal.


The occasion was a gig by old punk rock band The Damned.  And the evening’s support band, it turned out, was none other than The Ruts.  Well, they call themselves The Ruts DC these days – they have two of the surviving members of the original Ruts on board, plus the excellent singer Molara, who was once with the dub-reggae ensemble Zion Train.  (The Ruts DC were delighted, incidentally, that the house was already full when they came on stage for their support slot.  I suppose no punk in Edinburgh wanted to miss the opportunity of hearing them perform Babylon’s Burning, a song as epochal in its way as The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks.)


These days The Damned line-up includes two of the band’s most famous members, the Gothic-Teddy-Boy-like Dave Vanian and the eccentric red-bereted Captain Sensible.  Actually, I was terrified that they would allow the Captain to perform a few of his solo, novelty-pop numbers from the early 1980s, which were much loved by ten-year-old kids and old grannies but which annoyed everyone else.  (These included Happy Talk and Wot?, which had the simple but nagging lyric, “He said captain, I said wot? / He said captain, I said wot? / He said captain, I said wot? / He said captain, I said wot do ya want?”  I tried this lyric out on an American friend and even she recognised it.  So in its day it was obviously powerful enough to cross the Atlantic Ocean.)  Thankfully, though, they didn’t let the Captain off his leash.


However, during the first part of their set, The Damned did play some stuff from their ‘whimsical Goth’ phase of the 1980s, none of which I’d ever liked much.  But later, happily, they played material off their first few albums like Damned, Damned, Damned and Machine Gun Etiquette in the late 1970s, including the punk classic New Rose, whose unlikely admirers include Guns n’ Roses.  (Axl, Slash and co did a cover of it on their 1993 album The Spaghetti Incident.)  This led to much dancing and jumping around by the audience – which, because of their average age being about fifty, and their average age being about sixteen stones, and their average alcohol intake for the evening being about a dozen pints, led in turn to the generation of a lot of fart gas.  A Celine Dion concert it was not.  And thank God for that.


At the very end, Captain Sensible punched a hand in the air and yelled at the audience, “Do the right thing – vote for Scottish independence next year!”  If I was Alex Salmond, I would waste no time in sticking the Captain’s face on a poster and emblazoning it with the slogan: “Vote Yes.  It’s the SENSIBLE thing to do.”


They call it stormy Monday (but Thursday’s just as bad)


The early hours of Thursday morning saw our area – well, most of the United Kingdom, in fact – take a battering from a storm whose winds were reportedly moving in excess of 100 miles an hour in parts of Scotland.  (However, because the damage was mainly confined to Scotland, northern Wales and parts of the English coast in Lincolnshire and East Anglia, this storm got less intensive and less fevered coverage from the media than the storm that blasted southern England in late October.)


The storm brought down three trees on and around my Dad’s farm, including a fir tree that crashed out of the farmstead’s shelter belt and landed just short of my sister’s glasshouse; and a venerable ash that snapped at its trunk, fell across the road yards from the entrance to our lane and also scythed away a telephone line.  As well as being cut off from the local town (a large bush got blown onto the road on the other side of our lane-entrance, so we couldn’t go that way either) and being deprived of our landline, we found ourselves without a signal on our mobile phones.  So for a little while at least, we were completely isolated.



Then in the eerie calm that followed the storm, I noticed a mysterious bank of thick white fog drift remorseless along the valley towards us, smothering everything in its path…  But hold on, I’m sorry, I only imagined that last bit.  That was actually a detail from Stephen King’s The Mist.


Books and films: True Grit


(c) Bloomsbury


Such is the cultural heft of the 1969 Western movie True Grit, for which John Wayne won his only Best Actor Oscar playing the irascible, overweight and eye-patched US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, that until a few years ago I didn’t even know it was based on a novel written by Charles Portis and published in 1968.  It was only when the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, were about to release their own version of True Grit in 2011, with Jeff Bridges as Cogburn, that I read a preview of the film and saw Portis’s novel mentioned for the first time.


I recently read the novel and I thought I’d devote a blog-entry to comparing it with its two film adaptations.  Needless-to-say, if you haven’t yet read the novel or seen the Coen brothers’ film, or if you’re one of the four people on the planet who haven’t seen the John Wayne film and don’t know its dialogue off by heart (“I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!”), I should warn you that there are spoilers ahead.


To cut to the chase: True Grit-the-novel begins brilliantly.  “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.  I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Worth, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.”


The narrator of True Grit is Maddie Ross, who is looking back on her youthful adventures from the vantage point of middle age.  She goes on to describe those adventures in the same, mannered – she writes her words in their entirety, for example, and doesn’t use contractions like ‘I’ll’ or ‘didn’t’ – but wonderfully direct prose.  Portis’s use of a simple Southern female to tell his story has led some to compare True Grit with Huckleberry Finn.  However, as has been pointed out by Donna Tartt, who wrote the introduction for the edition of True Grit that I read, there’s a big difference between Maddie and the narrator of Mark Twain’s classic 1884 novel.  “Where Huck is barefoot and ‘uncivilised’, living happily in his hogshead barrel,” notes Tartt, “Maddie is a pure product of civilisation as a Sunday school teacher in nineteenth-century Arkansas might define it: she is a strait-laced Presbyterian, prim as a poker… tidy, industrious, frugal, with a head for figures and a shrewd business sense.”  Indeed, it isn’t difficult to see Maddie Ross’s influence on one of the most memorable of Donna Tartt’s own characters, the juvenile would-be detective Harriet Cleve in her 2002 novel The Little Friend.


Thanks to Maddie’s combination of precociousness and strait-lacedness, sparks soon fly as she allies herself with two men in the quest to hunt Tom Chaney down.  Firstly, she hires Marshall Rooster Cogburn to do the job, using money she’s acquired from some skilful haggling in Fort Worth following her father’s murder: she manages to sell four Texas mustang ponies, which her father had just bought from a trader called Colonel Stonehill, back to Stonehill.  (Later, she buys one of the ponies, called Little Blackie, back again from the understandably bamboozled Stonehill.)  Cogburn has many bad habits, including a weakness for the bottle, which Maddie doesn’t approve of.  When he offers her a spoonful of the hard stuff to drink, she snaps, “I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains.”


Then at the lodging house she’s staying at in Fort Worth, Maddie encounters a young and conceited Texan Ranger called LaBoeuf, who’s hunting Chaney for a murder he’d committed previously in Waco, Texas.  Maddie is wise to LaBoeuf’s conceit immediately and is unhappy about the idea of him taking Chaney back to stand trial in Texas – she’s determined to have him hang in Fort Worth, the scene of her father’s murder – and tells him so, much to his displeasure.  LaBoeuf growls, “Earlier tonight I gave some thought to stealing a kiss from you, though you are very young, and sick and unattractive to boot, but now I am of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.”  To which Maddie retorts brilliantly, “One would be as unpleasant as the other.”  (It seems icky that thirty-year-old LaBoeuf would consider ‘stealing a kiss’ from fourteen-year-old Maddie.  Mind you, by nineteenth-century standards, I suppose this wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows.)


(c) Paramount


In the 1969 film, Maddie is less central to the plot and she’s also played by Kim Darby, who was in her early twenties at the time.  These things remove much of the humour from the situation – no longer are two rough, tough grown men being bossed around by a pushy and prudish girl in her early teens.  Because of Darby’s maturity, Maddie seems much more compatible with LaBoeuf (who’s played by country singer Glen Campbell) and as the film progresses there’s a whiff of romance between the two of them.  Furthermore, there are times when John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn seems almost like a father-figure to them both.


Nonetheless, the 1969 True Grit remains an amusing film.  With Maddie portrayed in more conventional terms, there’s more focus on Cogburn himself – and of course Wayne, who’d thought the film’s script was one of the best he’d ever read, seized the opportunity and played the marshal as an entertainingly rambunctious, almost Falstaffian figure.  I know serious film-buffs are sniffy about Wayne winning an Oscar for the role and dismiss it as a long-time service award rather than as recognition of specific acting ability, but to be fair, Wayne’s turn as Rooster Cogburn has stayed in the popular consciousness for longer than many other Oscar-winning performances from the time.  (Nowadays, for instance, who really remembers Cliff Robertson in the previous year’s Charly?)


In 2011, the Coen brothers returned to the novel’s framing device and to the concept of Maddie being little more than a child.  As well as recapturing the wry humour of the novel, this approach puts Maddie centre-stage and pushes Cogburn a little to the side – as played by Jeff Bridges, he’s a gruffer and more ambiguous figure than Wayne’s version.  LaBoeuf, who’s played by Matt Damon, is side-lined even more.  Damon’s portrayal of the ranger is pretty low-key anyway, and for some reason the Coens have him abandon Maddie and Rooster twice during the film – neither of these departures happened in the novel – which further lessens the character’s impact.  With Hailee Steinfeld (thirteen years old at the time of filming) playing Maddie, the character’s solemn and priggish voice that was so memorable in Portis’s book comes across strongly.


However, I would have liked it if the Coens had included a few more of Maddie’s quaint, religious pronouncements.  “…(A)ll cats are wicked, though often useful,” she says at one point in the novel.  “Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces?  Some preachers will say, well, this is superstitious ‘claptrap’.  My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33.”  Elsewhere, she describes Woodrow Wilson as “the greatest Presbyterian gentleman of the age” and she reprimands the breakaway Cumberland Presbyterian Church by saying, “Read I Corinthians 6: 13 and II Timothy 1: 9, 10.  Also I Peter1: 2, 19, 20 and Romans 11: 7.  There you have it.  It was good for Paul and Silas and it is good enough for me.  It is good enough for you too.”


The novel sees Maddie, Cogburn and LaBoeuf set off into Indian Territory, where Chaney has fallen in with a band of desperadoes led by ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper.  At first, neither man is enamoured with Maddie’s presence.  Only gradually does she earn their respect and acceptance.  Cogburn sides with her when LaBoeuf, in a fit of impatience, starts beating her with a switch: “Rooster pulled his cedar-handled revolver and cocked it with his thumb and threw down on LaBoeuf.  He said, ‘It will be the biggest mistake you ever made, you Texas brush-popper.’”  Later, it’s LaBoeuf’s turn to support Maddie against Cogburn, who proposes leaving her at J.J. McAlester’s store, a rare safe haven in the territory: “LaBoeuf said, ‘There is something in what she says, Cogburn.  I think she has done fine myself.  She has won her spurs, so to speak.  That is just my personal opinion.’”


The 1969 and 2011 films follow the novel fairly faithfully during this section, although as I’ve said, the Coen brothers have the threesome separate for a time.  Also, they insert some characteristically perverse stuff about a hanging corpse and an enigmatic rider wearing a bearskin.  It’s as if the brothers decided they had to make the story a little more Coen-esque, so that it would appeal to their normal audiences.  Both films are similar in how they show events at a dugout where Cogburn captures Quincy and Moon, two associates of the Ned Pepper gang.  In order to stop the weak-willed Moon from blabbing to Cogburn about the gang’s movements, Quincy grabs a knife and whacks the fingers off one of his hands (“which flew up before my eyes like chips from a log”).  In the 1969 movie, the unfortunate Moon is played by the great Dennis Hopper.  In the 2011 movie, he’s played by the currently ubiquitous Domhnall Gleason.


(c) Paramount 


Close to the book too is how both films depict the climactic action sequence where Cogburn squares up to the Pepper gang:


“Rooster said, ‘I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned, or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience!  Which will you have?’

“Lucky Ned Pepper laughed.  He said, ‘I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!’

“Rooster said, ‘Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!’ and he took the reins in his teeth and pulled the other saddle revolver and drove his spurs into the flanks of his strong horse Bo and charged directly at the bandits.”


In fact, I have seen one film critic – clearly ignorant of the book’s existence – complain that the Coen brothers’ True Grit was too similar to the John Wayne version, citing this scene as an example.  As might be expected from the Coens, the confrontation between Cogburn and the Pepper gang is better staged in their film.  However, in the 1969 film, which was directed by the workmanlike and unshowy Henry Hathaway, the scene contains more of an emotional charge – no doubt because, over the years, it’s become one of the key sequences in John Wayne’s cinematic oeuvre.


Subsequently, Tom Chaney batters LaBoeuf insensible with a rock and, though Maddie manages to shoot him, he knocks her into a deep, rattlesnake-infested pit.  Rooster finally rescues her, but not before a snake bites her, and he embarks on a desperate race to get her back to civilisation before the poison kills her – riding her luckless horse, Little Blackie, to death in the process.  In the novel and in the Coens’ film, LaBoeuf survives his injury but is, temporarily, left behind in Indian Territory.  In the 1969 film, the blow from Chaney’s rock is enough to kill LaBoeuf.  Neither film quite does justice to the claustrophobic horrors that Maddie experiences in the pit, which Portis devotes ten pages of his novel to describing.  The Coen brothers are, however, brutal in showing the sacrifice made by Little Blackie.


The novel ends a quarter-century after those events with Maddie as a one-armed middle-aged woman – to save her, a doctor had to amputate her snake-bitten arm – travelling to a Wild West show where, she’s discovered, an elderly Rooster Cogburn is performing.  But she arrives too late.  After having a conversation with the former outlaws, now show performers, Cole Younger and Frank James (“Keep your seat, trash!” she snorts contemptuously at James), she learns that Cogburn died a few days earlier.  All she can do is have his remains dug up and then re-buried at her family plot in Arkansas, with a $65 marble headstone commemorating him as “a resolute officer of Parker’s court”.  The 2011 film stays true to this wistful ending, which symbolises how, by the start of the 20th century, the old Wild West had been tamed and domesticated.  However, it’s a tad more positive, because it has Cogburn writing to Maddie to inform her of his participation in the Wild West show.  In the book, there’s no hint that Cogburn even remembers her, and she only hears about him being in the show after her brother sees it mentioned in a newspaper advertisement.


Although there are other westerns where John Wayne played a character who died at the end, symbolising the passing of the Wild West – John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), for instance, or Don Siegel’s The Shootist (1976) – the 1969 True Grit goes for a more upbeat ending.  Not only does Maddie remain in one piece (we last see her with the bitten arm in a sling), but there’s a final scene where she’s reunited with Rooster Cogburn at her murdered father’s graveside.  That said, I find this version of True Grit sad in its own way.  This is because of the death of LaBoeuf, who’s a more likeable and heroic character here and, indeed, had seemed likely to end up romantically linked with Maddie.  In fact, as a kid, when I first saw the film on TV, I was quite upset at Glen Campbell’s unexpected demise near the end.


I like both cinematic versions of True Grit.  I appreciate the Coen brothers’ film because it captures much of the sombre but quirkily amusing tone of the source material, and I enjoy the John Wayne film because of its straightforward, old-fashioned entertainment value.  But to experience the truest True Grit, you need to read the book by Charles Portis.