Haughtiness and naughtiness


(c) Washington Post


January is drawing to a close and the dust finally seems to be settling on the month’s number-one salacious news story, i.e. that French President Francois Hollande has been cheating on his partner of a half-dozen years, Valerie Trierweiler.  For the last two years, it’s transpired, he’s enjoyed furtive ‘soirees’ in the company of actress Julie Gayet.  A few days ago Hollande issued a statement saying it was now all over between him and Ms Trierweiler.  Presumably, he’ll now be devoting his ‘amour’ to Julie Gayet alone, and doing so in a more open manner than he’d done previously, when he would sneak off from the Elysée Palace and visit her on a motorbike, his visage concealed under a motorcyclist’s helmet.  Cue the inevitable tittering in the British media about ‘Francois’ and his ‘helmet’.


So the media, at last, seems to be moving on to other tittle-tattle.  That’s the British media I’m talking about, not the French one.  Indeed, I suspect the Anglo-Saxon press has had its knickers in much more of a twist about Hollande’s infidelity than its Gallic counterpart.


Actually, it’s been embarrassing to see British newspapers wallow in the supposed scandal that’s befallen the French presidency.  They’ve wallowed metaphorically, of course, although I’m sure there are plenty of British journalists who’d happily wallow in a wheelie-bin of real garbage in the hope of locating used condoms, stained underwear or some other evidence of celebrity misbehaviour.  Their prurience is in contrast to the ‘sang-froid’ that many members of the French public have displayed regarding the shenanigans in their president’s personal life.  Indeed, over the years, I’ve met a number of French people who’ve told me, in a tone of haughty indifference, that they don’t care what improprieties their politicians get up to in their spare time, sexually, financially or otherwise.  All that matters to them is that those politicians do a decent job of running the country.


There’s much to be said for this ‘laissez faire’ attitude.  During World War II, Winston Churchill had a fondness for alcohol that some would consider a major character failing; but thanks to the account that Churchill gave of himself as Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, it would seem churlish to criticise him for being a pisshead.  And Bill Clinton may have done the dirty with at least one of his White House interns but, unlike his clean-living and God-fearing successor, he managed to avoid starting an illegal war that cost trillions of dollars and resulted in the deaths of (according to most estimates) between 100,000 and 200,000 civilians.


I generally don’t give a damn what naughtiness politicians indulge in during their private lives, then, but I think it’s fair to expose and pour scorn on them if they’ve devoted their time in office to lecturing us on how we should behave.  For example, I think it was reasonable for the press to declare open season on Iris ‘Mrs’ Robinson, who was a Northern Ireland Assembly member, wife of Northern Ireland’s First Minister and someone who was never shy about denouncing homosexuality as being ungodly, when she got herself embroiled a few years ago in an extra-marital affair with a 19-year-old.  And when it emerged that former British Prime Minister John Major, who during his premiership had launched a campaign called Back to Basics to encourage greater public morality, had once enjoyed a secret affair with the silky seductive siren that was Edwina Currie, I reckon he deserved all the ridicule he got.


Incidentally, apart from inherent prurience, I suspect another reason why the British media has made so much about the Hollande fiasco is due to a deep-seated insecurity experienced by the British whenever they contemplate things French.  Or maybe more accurately, an insecurity felt by the English, as I don’t think the same Franco-obsession exists among the Northern Irish, Welsh or Scots.  (Indeed, a French visitor north of the border will, sooner or later, be bored rigid by some local havering on about the Auld Alliance, that glorious period in French history when they were lucky enough to have Scotland as a military partner.)


In some sections of English opinion, there seems to be irritation at the fact that France, no matter how serious its economic problems, and no matter how much embarrassment is caused by its philandering president, still does certain things better than dear old Blighty.  France has better cuisine (obviously); a better sense of style, which translates into better-dressed citizens; a more highly-rated health service; a functioning film industry; and cities and countryside that attract more tourists.  It also has a military that is still capable of staging an intervention in another country (e.g. Mali).  Over the next few days we’ll find out if the British military is capable of staging an intervention in Somerset.


And all this is despite the fact that France is, by the standards of our beloved Daily Mail, a ‘socialistic’ country – horror of horrors!  Of course, many of the right-wing columnists, commentators and polemicists in the British media, who constantly poo-poo the French way of doing things as not being ‘capitalist’ enough, pack their bags every summer and head for the rural south of France.  If a properly Anglo-Saxon capitalist outfit like Sainsbury or Tesco opened a branch in one those picturesque French villages where they hole up for the summer, and put out of business the pretty little boulangeries, charcuteries, fromageries, poissonneries and magasins de fruits et légumes from which they buy their local produce, I’m sure there’d be no end to their moaning and complaining.


DUP – Determined to be Upset Party


(c) Reduced Shakespeare Company


A comedian – it may have been the great Dave Allen, about whom I wrote a few entries ago – once told a joke about somebody dying and going to heaven, where he was shown around by St Peter.  Passing through the heavenly throngs, St Peter pointed out a group of people who were Jews, a group who were Hindus, and also Buddhists, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Episcopalians, Methodists, etc.  Then the newcomer saw a high wall and asked what was on its other side.


“The Roman Catholics,” explained St Peter.  “It’s so they think they have the place to themselves.”


I hope that if heaven exists, God has also seen fit to build a smaller enclosure to house the members of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, which was founded by and had as its moderator for 57 years one Reverend Ian Richard Kyle Paisley – so that they think they have the place to themselves too.  Otherwise, folk in heaven might have to spend all eternity listening to Paisley raging about them letting in ‘heathens’, ‘pagans’ and ‘idolatrous’ Catholics.  Folk in Northern Ireland, after all, have had to listen to Paisley fulminating for most of his 87 (and counting) years against this, that and everything else, and that’s been painful enough.


This week the Reduced Shakespeare Company was supposed to stage two performances of its play The Bible: the Complete Word of God (Abridged) at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland.  Now, however, the Newtownabbey performances of the play, which reviewers have described as being a bit silly but certainly not blasphemous and which hasn’t attracted a single complaint at any of the other 42 venues on its current UK tour, have been cancelled.  This was thanks to pressure put on the local borough council’s artistic board by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – another prominent body in Northern Ireland set up by Paisley.  Indeed, it shares much of its membership with the Free Presbyterian Church.  The Belfast Telegraph reported the cancellation with the headline BIBLE SPOOF PLAY BAN MAKES NORTHERN IRELAND A LAUGHING STOCK.  That’s a pretty international laughing stock, by the way.  The ban has been reported in journals as distant as the New York Times.


It’s depressing but I suppose it isn’t surprising.  The DUP / Free Presbyterians in Northern Ireland have always been quick to mobilise, rush out, picket and shout down anything that offends their pronounced senses of morality and holiness.  In the mid-1970s, I remember seeing crowds of them on the TV news demonstrating outside a Belfast theatre that’d dared to mount a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, the satanic musical show that’d been authored by the Antichrist himself, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Then in 1982 somebody tried to open an Amsterdam-style sex shop in Belfast, which had them protesting on the streets again.  (I suppose to the DUP / Free Presbyterian mind-set, Holland hasn’t exported anything of value since King William of Orange in the late 17th century.)  That year, incidentally, saw approximately 110 people die because of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  No wonder at the time of the sex shop furore someone wrote to one of the local newspapers and politely inquired what the problem was with people wanting to ‘make love, not war.’


In the Bible Jesus famously said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone” (John 8:7).  So I assume those DUP members who’ve cast metaphorical stones at musicals, sex-shops and satirical plays over the years, being well-versed in the teachings of their Saviour, are devoid of sin themselves.  That presumably includes the party’s leader, the Northern Irish First Minister Peter Robinson.  That presumably also includes Robinson’s wife Iris, who has served as a DUP councillor, a DUP mayor and, from 1998 to 2009, a DUP member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.  In fact, Iris Robinson has declared that “the government has the responsibility to uphold God’s laws,” and has been quick to condemn unbiblical activities such as homosexuality.


Oddly though, Iris’s own holiness wasn’t enough to prevent her, back in 2008 when she was in her late-fifties, getting embroiled in an extra-marital affair with a 19-year-old youth and in a financial scandal.  This was an unwise move for a member of an organisation as sanctimonious as the DUP, and indeed the laughing stock it made of the DUP at the time was 100 times greater than the laughing stock that its members made of Northern Ireland last week with the Reduced Shakespeare Company farrago.


Of course, having an extra-marital affair with a man 40 years her junior was also an unwise move for someone whose title happened to be ‘Mrs’ and whose surname happened to be ‘Robinson’.  And now here’s a totally unrelated youtube video.



A rude end to rood screens



One of my favourite parts of England is East Anglia.  Too far north to be part of the London commuter belt, and removed from the main transport routes between north and south (e.g. the East Coast rail line running through Peterborough), the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk often seem to exist out-of-sight, out-of-mind for the rest of the UK.  But they are choc-a-bloc with delightful things.


Sutton has its tracts of ‘Constable Country’ and the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial ground, while Norfolk has the Broads in its east, the Fens in its west and the greatly underrated city of Norwich.  Both counties’ coasts are dotted with hamlets, villages and towns that, in their different ways, are picturesque and often spookily atmospheric: Felixstowe Ferry, Orford, Aldeburgh, Dunwich, Happisburgh, Wells-next-the-Sea.  (Parts of that coast, alas, are disappearing or in danger of disappearing due to coastal erosion.)  Also, as you wander about the countryside, you quickly realise that there is a bewildering array of small but gorgeous churches tucked away in the region’s rural — often remote — parishes.


East Anglia’s little country churches are also of historic value, maybe no more so than for their rood screens.  These are the ornate and painted partitions that in late medieval times separated the nave from the chancel, forming a symbolic barrier between the public area of the church, used by the congregation, and the clerical area of it, used by the priest.  The rood screens in East Anglia’s churches were usually made out of oak in the 15th and early 16th centuries, often had images of saints, kings and Christ’s disciples painted on their panels, and could stand three or four metres high.  Estimated to number about 400, these rood screens somehow survived the destruction wrought both by the Reformation and by the English Civil War.


The rood screen in the photographs stands inside St Mary Church in Worstead, which is an uncommonly large church by East Anglian standards and which I understand dates back to the late 14th century.



It was a shock, then, to read an article in the Guardian at the end of last month that claimed many of East Anglia’s rood screens are under threat.  Half of them are apparently in a ‘serious’ condition.  Not surprisingly in an area like East Anglia, which at times can seem pretty waterlogged, damp is partly to blame.  Sudden shifts in temperature, with church heating systems being switched on and off to accommodate congregations, don’t help.  Other culprits include ‘fungal attacks’, ‘bat faeces’ and ‘death-watch beetles’, and unwitting damage caused by church staff, worshippers and workmen who often don’t realise the value of the screens.  Meanwhile, because congregations at many of these churches are shrinking, it is becoming harder to raise funds locally to carry out much-needed repairs to the buildings and their contents.


There is now a project underway, with the involvement of the Church of England and the Hamilton Kerr Institute, aimed at conserving the region’s rood screens.  However, its current funds — £40,000 — are a drop in the ocean compared with what is needed.  I’m afraid it doesn’t bode well for the future of these 400 little-known, but historically and culturally precious, pieces of Britain’s national heritage.




25 Scots words that must not die


This evening is Burns Night, marking the 255th anniversary of the birth of Alloway ploughman-poet Robert Burns.  During the past few days, no doubt, children in schools the length and breadth of Scotland have stood in front of their classmates and teachers reciting Burns’ poems.  Those poems, of course, were written in Scots; so this must be the only time in the year when kids can come out with certain Scots-language words in the classroom without their teachers correcting them: “Actually, that’s not what we say in proper English…”


However, it’s not teachers’ disapproval that looks likely to do for the Scots language – and it has been classified as a language, a separate one from ‘standard’ English, by organisations like the EU and linguistic websites like Ethnologue (http://www.ethnologue.com/).  It’s more probable that the death-blow will be delivered by television, exposing Scottish kids to a non-stop diet of London-based soap operas where manically-depressed, faux-Cockney, shaven-headed petty criminals shout at their family members and tell them to ‘shaddup’.


Maybe a decade or two from now, everyone north of the border will be talking, if not in Eastenders-style Mockney, then in a bland, soulless ‘Estuary English’.  That’s the glottal-stop-ridden vernacular that is sometimes adopted by wealthy politicians during public speeches – Tony Blair, for example, when he was attempting to sound what Nu-Labour strategists thought was ‘street’; or George Osborne, when he wants to show that despite his inherited millions he can speak oik, just like 99.9 percent of the British electorate do.


Personally, I love listening to and reading Scots.  Here are 25 of my favourite Scots words, which I would be very sad to see slip into linguistic extinction.  Most of the definitions given come from my heavily-used copy of the Collins Pocket Scots Dictionary.


Bairn (n) – a baby or young child.  Actually, the other night, I was watching an episode of Star Trek – the original series – and I heard Scottie lament, after Mr Spock had burned out his engines in some ill-advised space manoeuvre, “Och, ma poor wee bairns!”  So I guess this Scots word is safe until the 23rd century at least.  Also, ‘the Bairns’ is the nickname of Falkirk Football Club, so it shouldn’t be dying out in Falkirk anytime soon.  As you head towards Glasgow, though, I think more folk refer to their young offspring as ‘weans’.


From startrek,com


Bampot (n) – a foolish, stupid or crazy person.  In the 1970s, this word became the height of cool among me and my mates when we saw Big Banana Feet, the documentary about Billy Connolly doing a stand-up tour of Ireland, and we heard Connolly respond to a heckler with the gruff putdown, “F**king bampot.”


Boak (v / n) – to vomit / vomit, or something unpleasant enough to make you want to vomit.  One of those Scots words that convey their meaning with a near-onomatopoeic brilliance.  For example: “Hae ye seen the new Richard Curtis film?”  “Aye.  It wis a load o’ boak.”  In his sort-of-stream-of-consciousness novel 1982 Janine, Alasdair Gray represents the main character throwing up simply by printing the word BOAK across the page in huge letters.


Bowffin (adj) – smelling strongly and unpleasantly.  Once upon a time, ‘mingin’ was the favoured Scots adjective for ‘smelly’.  Now, however, ‘mingin’ seems to have packed its bags, left home and become a standard UK-wide slang word – with a slight change of meaning, so that it denotes ugliness instead.  (“See that Miley Cyrus?  She’s a right minger.”)  Thus, it has fallen upon the alternative Scots adjective ‘bowffin’ to describe the odour of such things as manure, sewage, rotten eggs, mouldy cheese, old socks, certain species of orchids, on-heat male goats, hippies, etc.


Carnaptious (adj) – grumpy, bad-tempered or irritable, as in “Thon Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight is a carnaptious auld bugger.”  This is another Scots word that somehow feels like it’s onomatopoeic even though it isn’t.


Corbie (n) – a crow or raven.  The knowledgeable Australian musician / singer / writer Nick Cave uses this word at the beginning of his gothic novel And the Ass Saw the Angel, which has a couple of ‘sly corbies’ circling in the sky above the dying hero.


From salon.com


Cowpit (adj) – overturned, fallen-over.  Often used to describe sheep when they fall onto their backs, can’t get up again and run the risk of breaking their spines.  Around where I live, there’s a story of a young farmer who was about to get married and, just before his stag party in Edinburgh, was collected at his farmhouse by a coach-load of his mates.  As the coach was driving away from the farm, someone on board spotted a ‘cowpit ewe’ in one of the fields.  Jocularly, the young farmer told the coach-driver to manoeuvre the vehicle off the road, into the field and across to the spot where the unfortunate beast was on its back, which he did.  The young farmer got out and put the cowpit ewe on its feet again; but meanwhile all the other sheep in the field, seeing the coach and not knowing the difference between it and a tractor carrying a load of hay, flocked around it expecting to be fed.  That left the stag-party and their transport marooned amidst a sea of woolly white fleeces.


Dreich (adj) – dreary or tedious, especially in regard to wet, dismal weather.  A Presbyterian-sounding adjective that, needless to say, is heavily used in Scotland.


Haver (v) – to talk nonsense.  This is word is essential for understanding the end of the first verse of the Proclaimers’ song 500 Miles, which goes: “And if I haver, yeah, I know I’m gonnae be, I’m gonnae be the man who’s havering to you.”


Haud yer wheesht! (exclamation) – be quiet!  Incidentally, Haud Yer Wheesht was also the name of a rather good folk band that operated in Edinburgh in the late 1990s, headed by Jimmy the Bagpiper who used to busk around St Giles’ Cathedral.  (If you were familiar with Edinburgh at the time, he was the one who dressed up like Mel Gibson in Braveheart.)


Hochmagandy (n) – a jocular or poetic word for sexual intercourse, for recreation, not procreation, between people who are not married to each other.  Unsurprisingly, Robert Burns was familiar with this saucy noun, as indicated by the final lines of his poem The Holy Fair:


‘There’s some are fou o’ love divine,

There’s some are fou o’ brandy,

An’ mony jobs that day begin,

May end in hochmagandy…’


Hoolet (n) – an owl.  This charming Scots word, like a number of others, is derived from the French language, where the word is ‘hulotte’.  (A historical example of Scots-borrowing-from-French is ‘gardyloo!’  This was the cry given by people in the densely built-up tenements of 18th century Edinburgh when they emptied their buckets out of their windows.  This supposedly comes from the French, ‘Gardez l’eau!’ which means, ‘Watch out, water!’  Though in the Edinburgh context a more accurate meaning might have been, ‘Watch oot or ye’ll get pish an’ shite dumped aw ower yer heid!’)


Jobbie (n) – a turd.  A word much loved by Billy Connolly, as in his routine about the mechanism that expels faecal matter from underneath airplane toilets, the ‘jobbie-wheecher’.  (‘Wheech’ – to remove something quickly and suddenly.)


(c) Daily Telegraph


Jouk (v) – to duck or dodge.  A nice story I’ve heard is that this word found its way to the American south.  There, a ‘juke joint’ became a roughhouse dancing venue where people had to keep jouking this way and that to avoid punches, bottles, etc., thrown on the dance floor.  In turn, this led to the machines that played records of the music you heard at such places being called jukeboxes.


Keek (v) – to peep or glance at something.  The derivative ‘keeker’ refers not, as you might expect, to a peeping Tom, but to a black eye.


Lum (n) – a chimney.  A while back, the Guardian reviewed a collection of short stories by Alasdair Gray and the reviewer complained about the number of typos in the book.  He cited as an example ‘Edinburgh lums’, which he assumed was a misprint of ‘Edinburgh slums’.  But no, Gray was actually referring to the smoky chimneys of the Scottish capital.


Midden (n) – a dunghill.  A word often employed by Scottish parents while they complain about the condition of their teenage kids’ bedrooms.  Also, at one point, the celebrated British sci-fi comic 2000 AD featured a character who was a futuristic Scottish bounty hunter with a gruesomely mutated visage: his name was Middenface McNulty.


From forbiddenplanet.co.uk


Neb (n) – a nose, beak or projecting point.  Once upon a time, ladies of a certain age had to put up with uncomplimentary remarks about ‘nebs’ whenever they stuck their Barry Manilow records on the household stereo.


Nippie sweetie (n) – an irritable sharp-tongued person.  This is usually applied to the female of the species, and currently Scotland’s leading example of a nippie sweetie is the Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.  Actually, in a recent televised debate between Sturgeon and Alastair Carmichael, the Secretary of State for Scotland, Carmichael discovered that she wasn’t particularly sweet and she delivered considerably more than a nip.


Numpty (n) – a stupid person.  To me, though, a numpty is more than that – it’s a preposterous, pompous person who is also stupid.  In In the Loop, the movie spin-off from the satirical TV show The Thick of It, the preposterous, pompous politician played by Tom Hollander becomes a laughing stock when the wall of his constituency office collapses.  Jamie MacDonald, the ferocious Motherwell-born spin doctor played by Paul Higgins, taunts him about ‘Wallgate’ by calling him ‘Humpty Numpty’.


(c) BBC


Pisht (adj) – drunk.  Just as the Eskimos are said to have a hundred words for snow, there must be at least a hundred words in Scots for being inebriated.  (See also ‘arsed’, ‘bevied’, ‘bleezin’, ‘blootered’, ‘buckled’, ‘fou’, ‘gubbered’, ‘hingin’, ‘minced’, ‘mingin’, ‘miraculous’, ‘miracked’, ‘mortal’, ‘reekin’, ‘reelin’, ‘steamboats’, ‘steamin’, ‘stocious’, ‘wellied’, etc.)  Which I suppose is a tragic reflection on the state of the Scottish psyche.  Now excuse me while I pour myself another dram.


Scunnered (adj) – sickened or disgusted.  During the 1980s and 1990s, this word was commonly used in Scotland on the mornings following general elections, when it became clear that a majority of people in Scotland had voted for the Labour Party and a majority of people in the south of England had voted for the Conservatives.  Guess who ended up ruling Scotland each time?


Smirr (n) – a drizzly rain falling in small drops.  A sad, ghostly word that perfectly describes the sad, ghostly semi-rain that seems to envelop the Scottish landscape… well, 365 days of the year.


Stramash (n) – a disorderly commotion or argument.  A word popularised by the Scottish TV commentator Arthur Montford, he of the extravagantly checked jackets, who would rarely let a football match go by without referring to some sort of ‘stramash’ breaking out in the penalty box.


From scottishleague.net


Widdershins (adv) – anti-clockwise.  I like this word because of its spooky connotations.  In olden times, to perform something ‘widdershins’ was to do it in the opposite way from how it was naturally done, which was to invite bad luck.  This gave the word occult overtones too.


Very soon I will print a list of 25 more Scots words that must not die.


The butcher boy


From pulsemedia.org


My last post was about a gruesome figure from recent British political history, Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher.  So I apologise for writing about another such figure in this post.  However, I feel obliged to comment on the news story earlier this week about a London restaurant worker called Twiggy Garcia.  One evening Garcia noticed that a certain Tony Blair had just stepped into his place of employment – Tramshed, a trendy and no doubt costly eatery in Shoreditch – and decided on the spur of the moment to carry out a citizen’s arrest on the former Labour Party prime minister.


Garcia did this because he considered Blair to be a war criminal, on account of his role in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its subsequent occupation.  The invasion was launched in order to depose Saddam Hussein who, it was claimed, possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction.  It transpired, though, that these WMDs didn’t actually exist and it became obvious that Blair and his invasion partner George W. Bush had spun a web of lies beforehand to make people believe that they did.  By the end of the conflict, though, it wasn’t just the WMDs that didn’t exist.  According to the Associated Press, approximately 110,000 Iraqi civilians up until 2009 (600,000 up until 2006 if you believe the Lancet) had stopped existing too, thanks to George and Tony’s actions.


Indeed, a decade after the American-led, British-backed invasion and occupation of Iraq, the country remains a violent basket case.  On Tuesday this week, at the same time that I heard about Blair’s meal being disrupted in the Tramshed Restaurant, I read a newspaper article reporting the deaths of 28 people in a series of bomb-blasts in Baghdad.  The same article said that fighters linked to al-Qaeda are currently entrenched in Fallujah and one official warned that they “possess enough heavy weapons to storm into Baghdad.”


George Bush once donned a flak jacket, posed on board an American aircraft carrier and boasted that the ‘mission’ in Iraq was ‘accomplished’.  That seems a very long time ago now.  Mind you, through the dubious involvement in the supposed reconstruction of Iraq by outfits like Halliburton, the debacle succeeded in lining Dick Cheney’s pockets very nicely, which I suppose was the real point of it.


Of course, the Iraq War put some coinage into Tony Blair’s pockets too.  Thanks to his support for one of the most right-wing and incompetent presidents in American history, the ex-PM is now revered in Republican circles and he makes more than a few bob on the USA’s public speaking and lecturing circuit.  (He’s also profited from dealings with the South Korean oil firm UI Energy Corporation, dealings that may also have involved Iraq: http://www.sundaytimes.lk/100328/International/int_02.html.)  I suppose his continuing popularity in America reduces his pain at being less admired in other parts of the world.  For instance, I worked in India during the worst phase of the ‘official’ Iraq War – Abu Ghraib and all that – and whenever I read the Indian English-language newspapers, his name seldom appeared in a sentence without being accompanied by the words ‘poodle’ or ‘lapdog’.


But the fact that everything that happened in Iraq was a reprehensible failure – morally, diplomatically, even in terms of making ground against Osamu Bin Laden and co in the supposed War on Terror – has never dented Blair’s belief that he did the proper thing.  He was right and those millions of people who came out on British streets at the time to protest against the invasion were wrong.  I suppose this was because Blair regards himself as a good Christian.  With God on his side, he reasoned, his decision to back Bush was divinely sanctioned.  (Bush, of course, professed to be a Christian too, although one couldn’t imagine the gimlet-eyed draft-dodger being as zealous about it as Blair.)  Actually, Blair’s take on Christianity puts me in mind of something said by the late William S. Burroughs in his spoken lyrics for the song Words of Advice for Young People: “If you’re doing business with a religious sonofabitch, get it in writing.  His word isn’t worth shit, not with the good Lord telling him how to f**k you on the deal.”


It would be nice to report that following Twiggy Garcia’s citizen’s arrest, Blair is now in a cell at Shoreditch Police Station and preparations are being made to fly him out to The Hague, where he will stand trial for crimes against humanity on the same spot that was recently occupied by Liberia’s Charles Taylor.  Alas, that hasn’t happened.  Blair first tried to argue with Garcia, asking, “Shouldn’t you be worried about Syria?”  Apparently, two wrong wars of mass slaughter make one right war of mass slaughter.  Then someone in Blair’s party fetched his plainclothes bodyguards from another part of the restaurant and Garcia had to make a run for it.  His employment at Tramshed seems to have ended there and then, although if I was the manager I’d offer him his job back, with a pay increase.  He’s certainly done wonders for the venue’s publicity.


Over the years, I’ve heard people admit grudgingly of Margaret Thatcher: “At least you knew where you stood with her.  We hated her and she hated us.”  In that regard, Blair, who ended his premiership with his hands drenched in Iraqi blood, was even worse.  He was as vile as his handbag-wielding predecessor but, unlike her, he also tried to be ingratiating.  He sported a sickeningly big smile and made out that he wanted to be everyone’s pal.  And he headed a political party that claimed to have some conscience, principles and scruples, the supposed antithesis of Thatcher and her cynical gang.  For that reason, I hope that when Tony Blair shuffles off this mortal coil (or someone pushes him off it), the celebratory street parties and bonfires will be much bigger, brighter and noisier than they were for Thatcher’s passing.


Here’s what the Independent said about the Tramshed incident: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/tony-blair-subjected-to-humiliating-citizens-arrest-at-tramshed-restaurant-shoreditch-9073064.html.  And if you’re interested in carrying out a citizen’s arrest of Tony Blair, here’s a website for it: http://www.arrestblair.org/.


When writers had Thatcher for dinner


From conservativehome.com


In a recent post I mentioned a cabinet paper from 1984 that came to light recently and revealed that at the time of the miners’ strike – surprise! – Margaret Thatcher’s government secretly planned to close down 75 British coal mines.  This was about 55 more than the number they publicly declared they wanted closed.  It reminds me of another Thatcher-related story that received no coverage at the time but that was recently given a public airing.


Late in 1982, Britain’s right-wing and supposedly iron-plated lady Prime Minister was riding high in the polls thanks to her victory in the Falklands War earlier that year.  She still, however, hadn’t won the support of much of the country’s artistic and academic intelligentsia.  One evening that autumn, a dinner was organised at the house of historian Hugh Thomas in Ladbroke Grove where Mrs Thatcher would meet and dine with a selection of the country’s leading literary lights.  It was hoped that this meeting would help her win over more of Britain’s creative elite.  (Later in her reign, you got the impression that Thatcher simply gave up trying.  Perhaps she believed that the British population had become so uncultured and coarse in their tastes that it didn’t make a blind bit of difference to her re-election chances what those arty types thought of her.)


Last month the Observer Magazine published a short but amusing account of this dinner, written by Nigel Farndale, who’d interviewed the evening’s survivors – ‘survivors’ seems an apt word somehow.  Among the attendees were novelists Anthony Powell, V.S. Naipaul and Dan Jacobson, poets Philip Larkin, Stephen Spender and Al Alvarez, playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, critic Sir V.S. Pritchett, philosopher Sir Isiah Berlin, historian Sir J.H. Plumb and Anthony Quinton, who was president of Oxford University’s Trinity College.  An unexpected addition to the guest list was Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s great novelist and its future presidential candidate – how Peruvians must have wished later they’d voted for him and not for the ultra-corrupt Alberto Fujimori – who I suppose just happened to be in town at the time.  His fame had evidently not preceded him, since Farndale reports that one guest referred to him as ‘some Panamanian novelist.’


Somebody who might have been expected to be invited, but wasn’t, was celebrated novelist Sir Kingsley Amis.  Amis had now entered his dotage and had already professed his admiration for Mrs Thatcher (for the sake of Amis’s reputation I would like to think those two things were causally connected) so it was thought his presence that night was unnecessary – Mrs T had no need to preach to the converted.  However, Farndale quotes some correspondence that passed between Amis and Philip Larkin afterwards.  Larkin had filled Amis in on the details of the evening.  Writing back, Amis referred to ‘H-F D’ being “down at the Jewish end of the table”.  H-F D stood for ‘Horse-Faced Dwarf’, which was Amis and Larkin’s unedifying nickname for Anthony Powell.  Amis also bitched about Al Alvarez, saying that he “(m)ight have known that Al, lately as lefty as they come, would get his foot in there.  It’ll be Lord Alvarez before we know it.”


In a different set of correspondence, with later-Poet-Laureate Andrew Motion, Larkin described the Thatcher dinner as being “pretty grisly.  Even now I shudder and moan involuntarily.”  Elsewhere in Farndale’s piece, though, there are suggestions that Larkin didn’t find his encounter with Mrs Thatcher as grisly as he made out to Motion.  Indeed, he may have been shuddering and moaning with pleasure rather than dismay.  Talking about the Prime Minister in a letter to Julian Barnes, Larkin supposedly havered about kissing “the ground she treads”, whilst in another letter to the historian Robert Conquest he raved: “What a superb creature she is – right and beautiful – few prime ministers are either.”  One only hopes that Larkin kept his opinions about Mrs Thatcher’s rightness, beauty and overall superb-ness to himself when he returned home, which was ‘up north’ in Hull.


(c) The Daily Telegraph


One person who found himself in unexpected agreement with Larkin regarding the glamour of Mrs T – I use the word ‘glamour’ in its conventional sense, meaning ‘allure’ or ‘glitz’, although its original Scottish meaning, which is ‘a spell or enchantment cast by a witch’, might be more appropriate – was left-leaning Al Alvarez.  He told Farndale: “I hate to say it, but she had good skin and a good figure and I found her rather attractive.  She also had this dazzling aura of power around her.”  Just before you question Alvarez’s sanity, I should say that he added this qualification: “But that may be because being a writer is a bit like being a lighthouse-keeper: you don’t get out much.”


Something that the dinner’s attendees seemed to be in agreement about was Thatcher’s lack of humour.  Larkin observed to Amis that, “I noticed she didn’t laugh much, or make jokes.”  Alvarez actually tried to make a joke to her.  He quipped before the Iron Lady that because of his Spanish-sounding name he’d had to keep his head down since the Falklands.  In reaction, “(h)er face froze and she turned away.”


Actually, this brings to mind some comments made recently by the playwright Alan Bennett, who famously loathed the sight and sound of Thatcher and was never going to be in contention for the guest list that night.  “What also galls,” wrote Bennett in his 2013 diary, “is the notion that Tory MPs throw in almost as an afterthought, namely that her lack of a sense of humour was just a minor failing, of no more significance than being colour-blind, say, or mildly short-sighted.  In fact to have no sense of humour is to be a seriously flawed human being.  It’s not a minor shortcoming; it shuts you off from humanity.  Mrs Thatcher was a mirthless bully…”


What other nuggets of information are contained in Farndale’s piece?  Well, Anthony Powell, who was so cruelly derided behind his back by Larkin and Amis, thought that the red wine served that night was ‘filth’.  Tom Stoppard’s main memory of the evening was not of meeting Thatcher but of meeting Larkin, about whom he was apparently star-struck.  Al Alvarez got seated next to V.S. Naipaul, who spent the meal grilling him about how much he got paid by the New Yorker and if he could get some pieces published in it.  And Alvarez suspected that, really, Thatcher didn’t know who most of her fellow diners were.  “Dick Francis was more her speed.”


(c) The Daily Telegraph


For the full account of that night when Philip Larkin drooled over his political heroine, Al Alvarez felt disturbingly attracted to her, V.S. Naipaul talked New Yorker fees, Mario Vargas Llosa was mistaken for a Panamanian and Margaret Thatcher probably wasn’t sure what was going on, here’s a link to Nigel Farndale’s feature: http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2013/dec/07/dinner-with-margaret-thatcher-literary.


Oz — more magic than wizardry?


(c) MGM


A while back I read an interview with Kenneth Anger in the Guardian.  Now in his eighties, Anger is best-known as the director of the classic occult movie Lucifer Rising (1972) and the author of those two tale-telling, scandal-mongering books Hollywood Babylon (1965) and Hollywood Babylon II (1982).  He’s also an admirer of magician, writer and mountaineer Aleister Crowley, who during the first half of the 20th century founded the esoteric religion of Thelema and enjoyed notoriety in the British press as the Wickedest Man in the World.  During the Guardian interview, Anger mentioned L. Frank Baum, the American writer of the much-loved children’s book The Wizard of Oz and its sequels.  “Baum,” claimed Anger, “was a secret occultist and the Oz books are full of secret little jokes for people that understand magic.”


Jings, I thought.  Could The Wizard of Oz – the book and the celebrated 1939 film version with Judy Garland – really be a hotbed of occult themes and images?  Could those generations of kids who thrilled to the adventures of Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion have been secretly subjected to the ‘magick’ that Aleister Crowley spent his life pursuing and practising?  So to find out if anybody else shared Anger’s opinion of Baum, I had a hunt around the Internet.


Well, I found a couple of websites that would have you believe that The Wizard of Oz is the work of the Devil.  These sites were written, needless to say, by the sort of American religious-right fruitcakes who’d say similar things about the books of J.K. Rowling, alleging that Harry Potter is the Antichrist, Hermione Granger is the Whore of Babylon and Ron Weasley is, well… the Great Ginger-Headed Beast that the Book of Revelation prophesised will rise out of the sea shortly before the Day of Judgement.  And no doubt those same fruitcakes would warn you that if your kids play their Judas Priest albums backwards, they’ll hear the voice of Satan urging them to vote Democrat.


However, I did find a non-hysterical, informative and detailed piece on the Vigilant Citizen site (http://vigilantcitizen.com/moviesandtv/the-occult-roots-of-the-wizard-of-oz/), which claims L. Frank Baum was a member of the Theosophical Society.  According to my much-consulted copy of The Element Encyclopaedia of Secret Societies by John Michael Greer, the society was “(t)he most influential force in the great renaissance of occultism in the late nineteenth century” and was “founded in New York City in 1875 by the colourful Russian occultist and adventuress Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, her American promoter Colonel Henry S. Alcott and a handful of other students of the occult.”


The Vigilant Citizen piece details Theosophy’s three objectives as being to “form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour,” to “encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy and science”, and to “study the unexplained laws of nature and powers latent in man”.  That all seems very worthy and reasonable, but when you get around to exploring their theories of reincarnation, which involve the human soul being reborn in seven different “root-races” in seven different “globes” and which refer to fabled lost continents like Hyperborea, Lemuria and Atlantis, things start to sound a bit doolally.  (Any remaining Theosophists out there shouldn’t take special offence at that, though – I think all religions are doolally.)


Among the features of The Wizard of Oz that the Vigilant Citizen article claims can be traced back to Baum’s familiarity with Theosophy are the following:


The yellow brick road.  Uncannily similar to the concept of the Golden Path in Buddhism, the yellow brick road along which Dorothy and co spend much of the book and the film travelling is representative of the route the soul must take to achieve Illumination.


Spirals.  It’s a violent, powerful spiral of wind that transports Dorothy and her house from Kansas to Oz.  In Munchkin-land, the start of the yellow brick road unwinds out of another spiral.  These spirals can be seen as representing the cycles of karma, the evolving self and the soul as it works its way up from the material world to the spiritual one.


(c) MGM 


The silver shoes.  Dorothy’s footwear was famously a pair of ruby slippers in the 1939 movie, chosen because the filmmakers felt their redness would complement the yellowness of the yellow brick road.  In Baum’s original book, however, the shoes were made of silver – supposedly a reference to the silver cord that is said to connect a person’s physical body with their astral one.


The Wizard.  A scary, blustering being that, it transpires, is a façade whose smoke and mirrors conceal a cheat and a fake, the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz has been identified with the bullying, bow-down-and-worship-me-or-else God of Christianity, Judaism and other conventional, organised religions.  He’s not interested in the personal enlightenment of his followers.  Instead, He wants only their deference and obedience.


Toto.  Dorothy’s faithful little dog has a knack for doing the right thing at the right moment.   For example, he barks at the phony Wizard hiding behind his curtain, and later he springs out of the Wizard’s balloon – causing Dorothy to follow – before it takes off for Kansas.  As such, he can be seen as Dorothy’s intuition or ‘inner voice’, which sees through artifice, as represented by the Wizard.  Meanwhile, the evil that is represented by the Wicked Witch of the West tries on two occasions to imprison Toto.  Both times, however, he manages to escape.  In other words, one’s intuition can’t be locked away.


The Witches.  The set-up in Oz can be interpreted as two contrasting axes – an East-West axis, which is ruled by two evil witches and represents the material word; and bisecting that a North-South axis, ruled by two good witches and representing the spiritual one.


Of course, even if the above things are true, it doesn’t mean that The Wizard of Oz should be treated as a piece of propaganda by the Theosophical Society and not as what it really is – an imaginative work of entertainment.  If such ideas were important to Baum, it’s natural that, consciously or unconsciously, they should make their way from his head down to the page – just as Masonic symbols and imagery are said to crop up from time to time in the work of Alphonse Mucha who, when he wasn’t painting, was busy founding Czech Freemasonry and leading its Supreme Council.  But those influences make absolutely no difference to one’s enjoyment of Baum’s or Mucha’s output.


To draw on another comparison from the world of children’s literature – I enjoyed reading C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books while I was a kid at primary school, but I read them with absolutely no idea that they contained Christian themes.  Indeed, I didn’t see Lewis’s Christian overtones until a Religious Education teacher at secondary school pointed out how in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Aslan had been crucified and had then risen from the dead.


The possibility that these themes lurk within The Wizard of Oz do, however, seem to give it an exoticness, an extra-special flavour.  Perhaps that’s why the film version has attracted more than its share of urban myths over the years – for example, the story that a stage-hand hung himself during filming and his body can be glimpsed dangling in the forest beside the yellow brick road; or that if you start watching the film at the same moment that you start playing the Pink Floyd album The Dark Side of the Moon, the film and the album will display a startling degree of synchronicity (Dorothy’s house rising within the whirlwind at the same time that the orgasmic backing vocals start for The Great Gig in the Sky, etc.).


Of course, The Wizard of Oz-the-movie has become a staple of TV schedules at Christmas-time and the image of Judy Garland and friends skipping their way along the yellow brick road seems as festive now as ivy, mistletoe or Santa Claus.  In fact, Christmas as we know it today is not really that Christian — it’s as much a hotch-potch of things borrowed from pagan religious festivals such as the Germanic Yule and the Roman Saturnalia.  So I rather like the idea that there’s a little bit of Christmas, as embodied in The Wizard of Oz, that Theosophists too can proudly point to and claim as theirs.


God’s own comedian


(c) BBC


Nearly a decade after his death, Irishman Dave Allen – who was known to many British TV viewers as ‘the comedian with half-a-finger’, although Allen once pointed out that he was actually ‘the comedian with nine-and-a-half-fingers’ – seems to be getting some much-deserved, if belated, acclaim.


On New Year’s Eve, Channel 5 ran a countdown of the 50 greatest stand-up comedians as voted for by the public.  Allen ended up at number 6, within spitting distance of the winner, Billy Connolly.  That’s a considerable improvement on a similar survey of the 100 greatest stand-ups done by Channel 4 seven years ago, when Allen reached only number 74.


Furthermore, on January 2nd, BBC2 showed a repeat of a documentary about Allen called God’s Own Comedian, which was originally broadcast on April 29th last year.  This was followed by a compilation programme of his best jokes and sketches; and then by an episode from one of those old documentary series that Allen presented where he would track down and interview eccentrics, oddballs and people who generally lived their lives not giving a toss about what other people thought of them.  As God’s Own Comedian observed, Allen’s documentaries, though they aren’t much remembered today, created a blueprint for later programme-makers like Louis Theroux.  Unlike Theroux’s trouble-seeking, if-I-give-them-enough-rope-they’ll-hang-themselves approach, however, Allen was genuinely interested in and respectful of his subjects’ eccentricities.


During the 1970s, when I was a kid living in Northern Ireland and when Allen’s show Dave Allen At Large was at the height of its popularity on BBC1, he was the undisputed King of Comedy for me.  I didn’t always understand the jokes and stories he told his studio audience – though my parents invariably guffawed at them – but I loved it when the glass of whisky he sipped from at the side of his chair reached a low level and he said, “It’s time for some sketches.”  (After they’d shown the sketches and the programme returned to Allen in the studio, the whisky glass would be full again.)  Those sketches were packed with slapstick and surreal absurdity and were perfect fodder for a ten-year-old.


Needless-to-say, when I look back at the show, I realise the sketches have weathered the passage of time least well.  What seems timeless now are the sections where Allen simply sat and chatted to his audience, marvelling at life’s ridiculousness and telling jokes, anecdotes and yarns – something that tapped into a tradition of story-telling he was familiar with from his boyhood in Firhouse, Dublin, where his father worked as general manager of the Irish Times.


Allen’s formative years were schizophrenic ones.  From all accounts, he had a loving and cultured family at home, but he got his schooling from a succession of priests and nuns who had no compunction about beating their young charges and threatening them with eternal hellfire.  “People used to think of the nice, sweet little ladies,” he once said of those nuns.  “They used to knock the f**k out of you, in the most cruel way that they could.  They’d find bits of your body that were vulnerable to intense pain…  The priests were the same.”  It’s fair to say that during his professional career Allen got his revenge on the Catholic clergy who’d persecuted him in his schooldays, both through his verbal routines in the studio and through his sketches, which provided a seemingly inexhaustible supply of gags about priests, nuns, monks, altar boys, bishops and occasionally the Pope himself.


(c) Daily Express


Taking pops at organised religion and at any kind of authority – Allen was no fan of politicians either – was brave for a British stand-up comedian in the 1970s, when the safe targets were considered to be mothers-in-law and ‘wimin’ generally, and blacks, Pakistanis, homosexuals and indeed, Irish people.  However, in the history of British comedy, Allen wasn’t just important for his anti-authoritarian streak.  Although some of his material consisted of traditionally-structured jokes and punch-lines, some of it too was based on his observations of everyday life and its absurdities.  In fact, he was doing observational humour long before the Alternative Comedy boom of the 1980s turned such humour into a stand-up staple.


Allen’s mocking of Catholicism earned him a TV ban in the Irish Republic.  This made me feel almost privileged to be living in Northern Ireland, where I was able to watch his show on the BBC.  Also, I felt privileged to be a Northern Irish Protestant, so that I could laugh at all those gags about the Pope doing stripteases or performing somersaults down the aisles of Vatican chapels, bishops lusting after sexy nuns, priests sprinkling holy water over their ironing, altar boys breaking wind, confession boxes turning into dodgem cars, etc., without suffering Catholic guilt and fearing I’d be damned to eternal hellfire.  Though in the interests of religious equality I should say that I remember him cracking a couple of jokes about the Reverend Ian Paisley too.


Predictably, Allen also earned the ire of clean-up-TV campaigner Mrs Mary Whitehouse, head of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, Britain’s equivalent of the Moral Majority.  She once described one of Allen’s sketches, involving a post-coital conversation between a husband and wife, as ‘offensive, indecent and embarrassing’.  Incidentally, when I looked Mrs Whitehouse up on Wikipedia recently, I noticed that in 1977 her organisation gave an award for ‘wholesome family entertainment’ to Jimmy Savile.


God’s Own Comedian mentioned too that Allen received death-threats from the Provisional IRA, although Danny Morrison, the former IRA man and editor of the Republican News, has claimed that Dave Allen at Large was actually a big hit with his old terrorist colleagues, especially when they were incarcerated.  “Dave Allen was a major hit with Republican prisoners.  We all loved his show.  We particularly loved his anti-clerical material.  You have to remember that Dave Allen was a subversive in the Seventies.  He was anti-establishment, and you couldn’t get more anti-establishment than us, so we identified with him.”  So it sounds like during the 1970s the inmates of the Republican section of Long Kesh were laughing at those stripping and somersaulting Popes, lusty bishops, sexy nuns, comical priests, farting altar boys, bumping confession boxes, etc., as heartily as us Protestants were.  (http://www.herald.ie/news/ira-didnt-threaten-to-kill-dave-allen-we-were-fans-and-watched-in-prison-29259370.html.)


Dave Allen should have thrived during the 1980s.  After all, this was when a younger generation of comics made British comedy less about traditional joke-telling and more about lampooning authority and observing life’s absurdities – stuff Allen had been doing for years.  But his TV appearances became less frequent.  He did, however, enjoy acclaim doing one-man comedy shows in London’s West End.  I heard people claim at the time that Allen was such a genius he went onstage each evening without any script and simply talked about whatever came into his head.  From what was said in God’s Own Comedian, however, things weren’t quite so free-form.  Allen worked with scriptwriters and those writers sat in the front row of the audience holding up cards with key-words written on them, to keep his mind running in the right directions, if not exactly on track.


Dave Allen made his final TV series, of purely stand-up material, in the early 1990s.  I know some fans of his shows twenty years earlier who felt uncomfortable with these later performances.  Allen, now noticeably greyer, saggier and wrinklier, sounded a lot more acerbic than he had when he’d been perched on that 1970s chair with his whisky-glass, his slapstick sketches and his congenial Irish charm.  The routines were more observational than ever but were invested now with an old man’s cantankerousness, with Allen venting his spleen against monosyllabic teenagers, supermarket queues, dog-lovers, retirement and the aging process generally.  Allen climaxed one of his tirades with the F-word, which was still a big no-no on British television at the time – “We spend our lives by the clock.  We get up by the clock, eat and sleep by the clock, go to work by the clock, get up again by the clock, go to work again by the clock.  And then we retire.  And what do they give us? A f**king clock.”  As a result, questions were raised in the House of Commons.


And that was pretty much it for Allen’s public appearances until his death in 2005.  His later low profile was due partly to ill-health and partly to his desire for a quiet and stress-free retirement.  Incidentally, he managed to take to his grave the truth about his missing half-finger.  Over the years he’d teased reporters, interviewers and audiences with tall tales about that finger but what’d really happened to it was veiled in mystery.  He once told Clive James, for instance, that his brother had knocked him on the jaw while he had the finger in his mouth, causing him to chomp it off.  And I seem to recall him telling a journalist for Loaded magazine that it’d been devoured by his own arsehole one night when that particular orifice was feeling hungry.


Here’s a link to God’s Own Comedian: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nznZL6i9_co.  And here is some Youtube footage of Allen, who described himself as a ‘practising atheist’, subjecting the Book of Genesis to his own, inimitable scrutiny.



Making it look easy: book review / Walking the Dog by Bernard Mac Laverty


(c) Penguin Books


Belfast-born Bernard Mac Laverty makes writing short stories, and writing generally, look easy – which is a measure of how good he is.  I’ve tried writing short stories myself and I know that it isn’t easy.


Furthermore, Mac Laverty writes in a clear, simple prose, shorn of adjectives, adverbs and big words, which looks especially easy to do but – again, I’ve tried – it isn’t.  In fact, the plainer you try to make your writing, the trickier the act of writing becomes.  Mac Laverty once justified his approach by likening writing styles to glass.  The fancier and more ornate the prose, the more it resembles stained glass – gorgeous to look at, but you can’t actually see through it.  And just as it’s difficult to see what’s on the other side of a stained-glass window, it’s difficult to perceive an author’s meaning when he or she shows off by writing in a decorative style.


As such, he can be compared with the maestro of sparse, no-frills writing, Ernest Hemmingway.  But while Hemmingway showed off in other ways, by concentrating on hard-bitten, macho characters who were meant to be projections of himself – hunters, soldiers, matadors and self-absorbed, self-sufficient drifters – Mac Laverty deals with the ordinary sort of men, and women, whom you pass every day on the street.  Mac Laverty’s characters are as small as Hemmingway’s characters are big, and they’re all the better for that.


The fourth of Mac Laverty’s short-story collections, Walking the Dog was first published in 1994 and reading it now the stories seem further back in time than 20 years ago.  There’s an absence of smart-phones, laptops, the Internet and social media – for instance, Gillian, the unhappy Scottish teenager in The Grandmaster, the collection’s fourth story, would nowadays be venting her misery by posting heavily on Facebook (or Instagram or WhatsApp or wherever it is that teenagers post now to avoid the prying eyes of their parents).  Also, the stories set in Northern Ireland were written just before the Peace Process gathered a head of steam and the Troubles came to an official end, though not to an absolute one; and you feel like you’re reading some of these works, if not through the prism of history, at least from a vantage point a few steps away in history.


In any case, there are some excellent stories here.  The title one, Walking the Dog, gets things off to a cracking start.  Set during the worst of the Troubles, it’s the tale of a man innocuously walking his dog one evening who gets seized by a pair of gunmen intent on shooting a member of the other community as some tit-for-tat reprisal.  The problem for the man is that it isn’t clear whether his abductors are Catholic or Protestant terrorists.  The problem for the terrorists is that they find it difficult to establish whether their captive is a Catholic or a Protestant – he has a neutral-sounding name, John Shields, and is insistent about his atheism.  (“I’ll ask you again.  Are you a Protestant or a Roman Catholic?”  “I’m…  I don’t believe in any of that crap.  I suppose I’m nothing.”)  Its final sentence links the events to the story’s most neglected character – the dog – and allows Mac Laverty to make a sly observation that highlights the idiocy of the situation.


Also set in Northern Ireland is The Wake House, in which a Roman Catholic mother, worried about being seen to do the respectable thing (Northern Ireland has a lot of mothers like that), forces her son to attend a wake being held for a recently-deceased Protestant neighbour.  Since the neighbour spent his life behaving like a drunken and sectarian arsehole, the son is not enthusiastic about going.  (“Look, why are we doing this?” said Dermot…  “Respect.  Respect for the dead,” she said.  “You’d no respect for him when he was alive.”)


Lacking that story’s grim humour, and generating an atmosphere that’s merely grim, is A Silent Retreat, which takes place before the Troubles kicked off in the late 1960s.  It’s about a Catholic schoolboy with plans to enter the priesthood who accidentally strikes up an acquaintanceship – friendship is too optimistic a word for it – with a young B-Specials officer on guard-duty at the jail beyond his school’s playing fields.  The B-Specials, to quote their Wikipedia description, were a ‘quasi-military reserve police force in Northern Ireland… almost exclusively Protestant… disbanded in May 1970.”  The schoolboy’s education (from priests) has made him certain of the existence of God  and his zeal to justify that existence ultimately rubs the B-Special up the wrong way — he prides himself on his own lack of education (“I left school at fourteen and it was the wisest move I ever made”), earthiness and cynicism.  The story ends with the schoolboy retreating while the B-Special points a Sten gun at him and shouts all-too-prophetically, “F**k the future.”


Mac Laverty is also good at getting inside the heads of his female characters although, interestingly, the two examples of that here, At the Beach and The Grandmaster, have those characters coming to some sort of understanding of their own natures whilst on holiday in Spain – it’s as if being out of their normal, drab Irish / Scottish environments and being in a warmer, brighter Mediterranean one gives them a Shirley Valentine-type release.  Both stories are smarter than Shirley Valentine, though.  At the Beach sympathetically conveys the aspirations and frustrations of a middle-aged Irishwoman while she stays in a picturesque Spanish resort and is encumbered by a middle-aged husband who, while he isn’t a bad person, is exasperatingly juvenile with his prurient sexual obsessions and drinking binges.


The Grandmaster explores the relationship between a mother and daughter on holiday in another Spanish resort.  Their relationship is strained because of the mother’s estrangement from her husband and the strain reaches breaking point when the daughter gets involved in a chess competition held at their hotel – chess was one of her father’s passions and something he trained her to be good at.  The story also shows Mac Laverty’s skill at not directly telling his readers much.  Rather, the background information gets gradually sketched in via the dialogue.


And this talent for conveying rather than telling is shown beautifully in Compensations, the story of two boys left in the care of their grandparents while their parents undertake a mysterious trip to Lourdes.  The adults aren’t saying anything, of course, but what’s discreetly being said and what’s discreetly going on around the boys gradually inform us that their father is dying of cancer.


If I have a criticism to make of this collection, it concerns the flash-fiction pieces that are printed in italics and alternate with the longer stories.  Each piece occupies one or two pages – the shortest is four lines long – and, inevitably, most of them feel insubstantial.  They come across like filler tracks on a music album — performing the function, say, of Rip This Joint and Ventilator Blues on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, whiling away a bit of time between the band getting on with bona fide classics like Torn and Frayed and Sweet Virginia.  In total, these vignettes add up to 19 pages, and I would have preferred it if Mac Laverty had devoted that space instead to an additional longer story.


But that’s a minor reservation.  Generally, this collection shows one of Ireland’s foremost short-story writers – he writes novels too, I know, but I prefer his shorter fiction – at the peak of his powers.  As you get drawn into and seduced by the stories in Walking the Dog, for a little while each one really will feel like your best friend.


Scary telly – ten favourites


As promised in my previous blog-entry, here are my ten favourite memories of the golden age of scary British TV – back in the 1970s and early 1980s, a period when UK programme-makers seemed to have no compunctions about frightening audiences.


Journey to the Unknown (1969 – Matakitas is Coming)

At the end of the 1960s, Hammer Films – Britain’s premier studio specialising in horror films – tried its hand at television.  The resulting series, an anthology one called Journey to the Unknown, differed from the studio’s usual output in that it eschewed gothic costume-dramas like their Dracula and Frankenstein movies and placed its stories in contemporary settings.  The show was short-lived and variable in quality but, when it was repeated on late-night TV during the 1970s, it impressed me with this instalment about a woman (played by Psycho’s Vera Miles) doing research in an old labyrinthine library about a serial killer who operated during the 1920s.  As night falls, she inadvertently gets locked inside the library and, as she tries to escape, she discovers that, somehow, the city outside has shifted four decades back in time to the 1920s.  And worse, she isn’t actually alone inside the library…


Journey to the Unknown also sticks in my mind because of its opening credits sequence, whose images were set in a deserted, night-time fairground and accompanied by a haunting, whistled theme-tune composed by Harry Robinson.


The Stone Tape (1972)

The output of Manx writer Nigel Kneale could easily provide material for a top ten of scary TV moments in itself, from his Quatermass serials in the 1950s through to the adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black that he did for ITV in 1989 (two decades before Hammer Films got their hands on the property).  The Stone Tape is perhaps his most unnerving work.  An example of Kneale’s fondness for blending science-fiction elements with the supernatural, it’s the story of a team of scientists with hi-tech monitoring equipment investigating an old, supposedly haunted house that has the psychic memory of some hideous, malevolent thing imprinted in its stonework.  This one-off play is in fact an early exploration of the ‘residual haunting’ theory – that ghosts are echoes or recordings of past events somehow stored in their physical surroundings – and so influential was it that the theory is now sometimes called the ‘Stone Tape theory’.  The play was directed by Peter Sasdy, who was responsible for several of Hammer’s better later horror films, and among its cast was the distinguished Scottish actor Iain Cuthbertson, who will appear again in this list.


Doctor Who (1976 – The Seeds of Doom)

There are two things that Doctor Who has always done well – mass killing and body horror.  The Tom Baker-era story The Seeds of Doom – which is about alien seed-pods that germinate, infect human beings and transform them into grotesque, meat-eating plant-monsters – has both things in spades.  One pod becomes the possession of an insane millionaire plant-lover called Harrison Chase – played by the underrated British character actor Tony Beckley – and he gets it to germinate, using one of his own employees, a luckless botanist called Arnold Keeler, as bait.  Episode 4 of this serial, wherein Chase chains the slowly-transforming Keeler to a bed, ignoring his pleas for help and trying to speed up the metamorphosis by feeding him pieces of raw meat, was the stuff of nightmares when I was 11.


(c) BBC


A Ghost Story for Christmas (1976 – The Signalman)

Unlike other instalments of A Ghost Story for Christmas, this was based not on a story by M.R. James but on one by Charles Dickens and it is perhaps the fondest-remembered of the lot.  Dripping with oppressive atmosphere – most of the action is set in a remote, lonely signal-box, located at the bottom of a deep cutting and before the mouth of a tunnel – it features Denholm Elliot as a harassed signalman, convinced that (a) he occasionally sees a spectral figure wailing and gesticulating in front of the tunnel and (b) whenever that figure appears, it is the harbinger of a deadly accident about to happen on the line.  Particularly spooky is the ghostly vibration that emanates from the signal-box’s bell, as a forewarning that the ghost is about to manifest.  The script was by Andrew Davies, who later become British television’s leading adaptor of classic literature.  And Denholm Elliot ended up doing a lot of this stuff.


Beasts (1976 – After Barty’s Party)

By the mid-1970s Nigel Kneale had become disillusioned with the BBC and turned to rival channel ITV, for whom he would pen the final Quatermass serial in 1980 and The Woman in Black in 1989.  Before those, however, came a short anthology series called Beasts in 1976.  No doubt the ITV programmers expected an old-fashioned horror show that was packed with monsters – but what they got from Kneale was entirely different, a series of plays called Beasts that paradoxically didn’t contain any beasts (or at least, didn’t show them).  Kneale described the episode After Barty’s Party, about a middle-class couple whose home is invaded by a swarm of noisy, hungry but never-seen rats, as an attempt to remake Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds “without the birds”.  Its low-key, leave-everything-to-the-imagination approach, with the rats represented only by sound effects, didn’t exactly scare me as a youngster but it certainly unsettled me.  And it has stuck in my head ever since.


Supernatural (1977 – Countess Iliona / The Werewolf Reunion)

From its foreboding church-organ music, to the images of stone gargoyles that adorned its credits sequence, to its premise – people try to gain membership of a decadent Victorian society called the Club of the Damned by telling them stories based on their terrifying real-life experiences – to the fruity acting by guest stars such as Jeremy Brett and Denholm Elliot (again), Supernatural was as gothic a show as you could ever expect to get on TV.  Slow-moving, extremely stagey and resolutely keeping most of its horrors off-screen and in the viewers’ imagination, it’s the sort of show that would never be made today.  Indeed, I don’t think it’s been repeated since the 1970s.


The Supernatural story that scared me most when I was a kid was the two-parter Countess Iliona / The Werewolf Reunion.  This stars Billie Whitelaw (then wife of the show’s writer Robert Mueller) as a woman who during her youth was used and abused by a series of powerful men and eventually, to spare them embarrassment, ‘married off’ to a brutal aristocrat living in a remote mountain castle.  After the aristocrat dies mysteriously, she invites those former beaus who’d mistreated her – played by Edward Hardwicke, John Fraser, Charles Kay and the great Ian Hendry – out to her castle.  What they don’t know is that the aristocratic husband didn’t really die, but got infected with something that leaves him hairy and bloodthirsty when there’s a full moon.  And his wife now plans to use him, like a deadly attack dog, to right a few wrongs.  We never see the werewolf or the havoc it wreaks but the final scene, where the shadow of something advances on the final, quaking victim, is chillingly effective.


Children of the Stones (1977)

It wasn’t just the adult TV schedules that were awash with scares during the 1970s.  BBC and ITV programmers also crammed them into the children’s schedules as well, with shows like Sky and The Changes – both of which were ostensibly science fiction, but being a sensitive child I found them supremely creepy – and the anthology show Shadows.  But The Children of the Stones is regarded as the scariest British kids’ show of the lot.  It’s fashionable now to describe it as a children’s version of The Wicker Man, but with a story incorporating a megalithic stone circle, a druidic cult of brainwashed villagers, ‘time rifts’ and an attempt to harness the power of a black hole, it was rather trippier than Peter Schaffer’s celebrated horror movie.  People remember it for its spooky atmosphere, its distinguished cast (Gareth Thomas, the ubiquitous Iain Cuthbertson and the wonderful Freddie Jones) and, most of all, its music, which involved weirdly chanting voices swirling in and out of audibility.  In fact, so disturbing was that music that I’m sure the show had given many kids nightmares even before they’d finished watching its opening credits.



Tales of the Unexpected (1980 – Royal Jelly)

Tales of the Unexpected, which for its first couple of seasons drew its stories from the works of Roald Dahl, was the most famous anthology series of the time, although I wasn’t a big fan of it.  Too often I found it stagy and cheap-looking.  Its budget seemed to be mostly spent on its casts, which were genuinely impressive, ranging from big British names like Michael Hordern, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, John Mills, Derek Jacobi, Robert Morley, Anthony Quayle, Anna Massey and Denholm Elliot (him again) to big international ones like Joseph Cotton, Rod Taylor, Eli Wallach, Telly Savalas, Jennifer Connelly, George Peppard, Brad Dourif, Sondra Locke and Frank Sinatra – that’s Frank Sinatra Junior, admittedly.


However, the episode Royal Jelly, based on the Dahl short story of the same name, was memorably freaky, thanks largely to a performance by Timothy West as an aging beekeeper who consumes vast quantities of royal jelly in order to make himself virile and able to impregnate his young wife (played by Susan George).  It has the unedifying side-effect of turning West into a hairy human bee who goes ‘Bzzz-hzzz-hzzz!’ whilst chuckling about how clever he’s been.


The Hammer House of Horror (1980 – The House that Bled to Death)

At the beginning of the 1980s, with the British film industry all but extinct, Hammer Films turned its attention to television again and has a second go at mounting a horror anthology series.  The result, The Hammer House of Horror, was as variable as its predecessor, Journey to the Unknown, but the best episodes have lingered in people’s memories ever since.  (The series started off being sexually and bloodily explicit by TV standards of the time, but the producers toned the sex and violence down when they realised that a good part of the audience they were attracting was made up of children.  It didn’t occur to them that the sex and bloodshed was probably why so many kids were tuning in.)  And Denholm Elliot – yes! – appeared in one of the stories.


 (c) Hammer Films


The episode The House that Bled to Death was inspired by the allegedly true-life, much-disputed events of the Amityville haunting in the USA.  It has a young family moving into a house that was the scene of a gruesome murder and engineering a series of fake supernatural happenings to make it look like the house is haunted.  Then, colluding with their estate agent, they become millionaires by publishing a bestselling book about their experiences – though things don’t go quite as they’d planned.  A scene where a pipe bursts in a living-room ceiling and, instead of spewing water, spews blood down onto a group of children enjoying a birthday party provided The Hammer House of Horror with its most notorious moment.


The Nightmare Man (1981)

The four-part serial The Nightmare Man was a collaboration between Robert Holmes and Douglas Camfield, who these days are regarded as the greatest writer and director respectively to have worked on the original series of Doctor Who.  Based on a novel by David Wiltshire, it was set on a Scottish island where locals and tourists are gorily falling victim to a mysterious thing and it had a wonderful cast – James Warwick, Celia Imre, Tom Watson, Maurice Roeves and James Cosmo.  However, it was cheap (it was actually filmed in Cornwall, not in Scotland at all) and I suspect that if I saw it now it would look very dated.  Even at the time, the final episode with its denouement about what was really happening, involving a Cold War plot and a malfunctioning cyborg, struck me as a big anti-climax.  But for me in my impressionable youth, during those earlier episodes where animalistic sound effects and Camfield’s subjective camera represent the monster as it stalks unseen through swirling island fog, the show was perfect.


As I said previously, the British TV ghost-and-horror craze was over by the early 1980s.  Suddenly, this sort of show stopped being made.  Maybe it was a coincidence, but the disappearance of the genre from British screens coincided with a broadcast of a TV play that, although it wasn’t about the supernatural or the conventionally macabre, managed to be the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen on television.  1984’s Threads, written by Barry Hines (of Kes fame) and directed by Mick Jackson, shows what happens in Sheffield when nuclear war breaks out between the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries.  A nuclear strike on the city and its immediate aftermath are depicted with a series of unforgettable images – a woman wetting herself on a street when she sees a mushroom cloud rising above the rooftops, milk bottles melting on a doorstep, a charred cyclist on a blackened bicycle entangled in the branches of a burning bush, a gagged patient screaming mutely on a table in an anaesthetic-free hospital while surgeons saw off his leg, blood running down that hospital’s steps – and Hines and Jackson don’t flinch either in showing what comes later, with the advent of a nuclear winter and Britain’s descent into dystopian hell.


After the very credible horrors that were presented by Threads, I’m afraid, no amount of TV ghosts or monsters were ever going to frighten me in the same way again.  So maybe it was just as well that the golden age of scary British television ended there.