While browsing through the BBC’s online news magazine the other day, I happened across the following article about the nuisance increasingly posed by hyenas in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Apparently, the spotted, scavenging and sometimes predatory beasties are crossing the city boundaries and venturing into the city’s night-time streets, just as foxes once did when they were colonising the urban spaces of London. The difference between hyenas and foxes, however, is that the former have jaws powerful enough to splinter bones – and they aren’t terribly particular about what they bite hold of.
Actually, the article didn’t come as a big surprise to me. I worked in Ethiopia from 1999 to 2001 with the organisation Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and from time to time I heard scary tales about hapless drunkards in the capital city who, on their way home, had keeled over and passed out and then woken up later to find themselves minus a hand or a foot or even an arm or a leg. (In the most extreme versions of these stories, they didn’t wake up at all because they’d become minus a head.) At the time, though, I suspected these were urban myths, perhaps told as warnings against the evils of consuming copious amounts of beer, tej and arake and enjoying the company of saucy bar-girls in the drinking holes of Addis. From the information in the BBC article, however, it seems that the hyenas are no longer an urban myth, if they ever were one. They’re now presenting a real threat to Addis Ababa’s population of rough-sleeping beggars and homeless people (as well as, presumably, to its drunkards.)
Reading the BBC article made me remember one of my most interesting experiences in Ethiopia. This happened when, in the company of some friends, I visited the city of Harar in the country’s east. There we encountered the Hyena Man.
For my money, Harar is – or at least was, because I went there in 2001 and a lot can change in a dozen years – the pleasantest and most interesting city in Ethiopia, pleasant and interesting though some other Ethiopian cities are too. Harar is the geographical centre for Ethiopia’s Muslim population and it’s ranked by many as the fourth holiest city in the Islamic world, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Indeed, the square mile of Harar’s old city – a labyrinth of alleys and passageways ringed by a medieval wall – is said to contain about a hundred mosques. (I heard conflicting figures about the number of mosques there and it seemed that nobody had ever managed to do a final, authoritative count of them all.) An extensive modern district has sprung up on the western side of the old walled city but, when I visited, there wasn’t much standing on its eastern side. When you walked along the outside of the eastern section of the wall, there were places where you had unobstructed views across fields of sorghum.
Harar has several good markets and museums and inside the old city it boasts a couple of historical landmarks. These include an ornate, rather oriental-looking mansion that was allegedly inhabited by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud when he lived in Ethiopia during the 1880s – the trades by which Rimbaud supported himself there included gun-running, coffee and photography – and another, now very dilapidated house that was allegedly inhabited by the young Ras Tefari, later to become Emperor Haile Selassie. (I write ‘allegedly’ because the claims about who lived in each house have been disputed.)
Despite its religious significance, I got the impression that the city was, paradoxically, quite the place for living things up. It was well endowed with pubs and restaurants and there was even a brewery on the city’s edge, responsible for producing a lager called Harar and a stout called Hakim. Mind you, when I returned to Ethiopia in 2009, I didn’t see its wares on sale in any of the bars and off-licences, which suggests the brewery may be no more now.
In 2001, however, the city’s most unusual attraction was the Hyena Man, an eccentric – in the Bradt Guidebook to Ethiopia, author Philip Briggs described him as a ‘nutter’ – who after dark each evening ventured out to Harar’s eastern fringes, summoned the hyenas from the neighbouring countryside and hand-fed them pieces of meat, not caring if his fingers got close to their toothy and powerful jaws. Over the years, these nocturnal feeding sessions had become a popular tourist draw.
When I first made inquiries in Harar about where and when to see the Hyena Man at work, I was puzzled by the conflicting accounts I got about him. The Hyena Man photographed in the tourist brochures was an old, decrepit-looking fellow. However, when I was in Rimbaud’s House – or as the local street kids call it, Rambo’s House – there were several local paintings on display, including one that depicted the Hyena Man. The young dreadlocked guy in the painting was definitely not the pension-age guy in the tourist-brochure photos. I could only surmise that once upon a time, like Santa Claus, there’d been one original Hyena Man. Nowadays, just as the forces of commerce have necessitated the existence of lots of Santa Clauses, in department stores and elsewhere, so the Harar tourist industry has encouraged than one person to play the role of Hyena Man.
We finally got instructions about where to see a (if not the) Hyena Man and one evening, as the sun sank behind the western side of the old city, we headed along a series of tracks and through a warren of rickety wooden houses on Harar’s easternmost edge. At a spot where the last houses gave way to fields, we found the young dreadlocked Hyena Man who’d featured in the painting in Rimbaud’s House. He had an assistant with him, who was busy cutting up joints of meat with long, lethal-looking knives. Around the site, meanwhile, huddled a crowd of onlookers. Also present were several big four-wheel-drive vehicles that, presumably had ferried groups of Western tourists along from their hotels. (In Harar you can book holiday packages whose itineraries include an expedition to see the Hyena Man.) Thanks to the headlights shining from those vehicles, hyenas could be seen slinking in from the darkness that shrouded the fields. Their eyes glinted eerily in the light before their bodies became visible as anything other than black silhouettes.
I’d seen hyenas from a distance before and assumed they were little more than big, wild dogs. What surprised me seeing them up-close while the Hyena Man fed them was how un-canine they looked. They seemed more like bears – rather skinny bears, admittedly, but strangely ursine nonetheless. While they were out in the darkness, and as they emerged into view in the vehicle headlights, they emitted yowling sounds that were so eerie they defy onomatopoeic transcription.
The scene was not high on drama, although the audible crunching of bones as the hyenas chomped on the meat was memorable, as was a moment when the Hyena Man held a fragment of meat in his mouth and a hyena came and bit the other end of it. (Looking at the pictures that appeared when I typed ‘Hyena Man of Harar’ into Google Images recently, I noticed several photographs of people who were clearly Western tourists performing the same meat-in-mouth feat with hyenas at the feeding site. I hope the insurance in their holiday-package contracts covered them for getting their faces bitten off.)
We had arrived late during the Hyena Man’s performance, so that it finished about 15 minutes later. After that, the Hyena Man and his assistant went around the crowd of spectators collecting payment. They demanded the full viewing fee from my friends and I, although we’d seen only part of their show. A young Englishman in our group took umbrage at this and insisted on arguing with them until they lowered the fee. I have nothing but admiration for the English sense of fair play that will make a young man dig in his heels, stand up for his rights and argue the toss with a pair of guys who are carrying an alarming array of long, sharp meat-cutting knives.
Unfortunately my camera equipment that night was primitive and non-digital and the photographs I took of the Hyena Man and his hyenas were poor in quality. So here is a picture of a Hyena Man (not the guy whom I saw) I’ve filched from the Lonely Planet website. Well, over the years, I’ve spent a fortune on the products of Lonely Planet’s publishing empire, so it’s about time I took something back from them.
The British have a reputation for devoting much of their conversation to the topic of the weather. However, during the past two months, any foreigner tuning into a British satellite news outlet like Sky or the BBC must have wondered if this weather obsession had completely taken over every human brain on the island of Britain.
Forget Syria, forget Egypt, forget Ukraine, forget Venezuela – all the British media seems to have talked about lately are these fronts of bad weather that have spiralled relentlessly into the country from the southwest, bringing endless rain and gale-force winds, cutting Cornwall off from England (or as one patriotic Cornishman wrote in the Guardian, cutting England off from Cornwall) and making places like the Somerset Levels resemble the set of Kevin Costner’s Waterworld.
Meanwhile, a procession of British politicians like David Cameron, Ed Milliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farrage have donned wellies and barber jackets and helicoptered into the flood-stricken areas of the country, where they’ve talked in concerned tones to the TV cameras whilst watery expanses that were once fields and gardens ripple in the wind behind them. (Any local people wanting to grab these politicians and hold their heads under the water until they stop struggling have been kept back, discreetly, out of view of the cameras.)
On my Dad’s farm, where I’ve spent the past couple of months, flooding hasn’t been so much of a problem but the wind has caused great damage. Before last weekend, it’d blown down four trees on the farm, including two in the farmstead’s shelter belt, which, sporting a few bald spots now, is beginning to look rather ravaged. Then on Sunday morning, yet another gale brought down a humongous trebled-trunked beech tree growing on the edge of a burn. It crashed across the neighbouring road – cutting us off for much of the day from the local town, Peebles – with its mass of branches ending up in the garden of a cottage on the road’s far side.
The field behind the burn, which once belonged to the local council and was then sold to another party, is currently being dug up in preparation for the building of ‘an exclusive development of three-to-five bedroomed homes’. Graciously, my Dad declined to blame the builders for cutting through the tree’s root system on the other side of the fence, de-anchoring it and causing it to topple in the strong wind. He’s of the opinion, instead, that the bank it was growing in had become so soggy with incessant rain that the roots could no long hold the soil firmly.
Mind you, those builders have caused plenty of havoc elsewhere. The surfacing of grey grit and gravel that’s been laid down across the site gets carried out onto the road on the wheels of vehicles, where it’s slathered all over the tarmac. As a result, there are times when that road looks like a medieval cart-track.
Meanwhile, the road is being pounded by the big trucks that remove excavated soil from the site. There’s a stretch of it that’s become a common passing place for incoming and outgoing trucks, and the vehicles are wrecking the ditches there as they crush in against the road-edges. On one side, in fact, the ditch and fence is in the middle of collapsing into one of my Dad’s fields.
It’s a shame because the road is popular with a lot of local people and visitors – dog-walkers, joggers, ramblers, horse-riders and cyclists. But somebody’s making money out of the project. So that must make it okay, then.
Apologies to regular readers who’ve tuned into this blog recently expecting to find me musing about my usual topics (James Bond, obscure British horror movies, graveyards in Edinburgh) and found me instead ranting and raving about the debate currently going on in Scotland about whether or not the country should vote for independence in the referendum being held this September. My apologies, but some of the arguments flying around in this debate have been so stupid, and some of the personalities voicing those arguments have been so annoying, that I cannot help but rant, rave, wave my fists in the air and generally do a good impersonation of Rab C. Nesbitt.
Yesterday saw David Cameron gather together the UK cabinet and take them to Aberdeen. The last time Aberdeen experienced such an event was in 1921, in the days of Lloyd George. There Cameron insisted that the North Sea oil industry would be in much safer hands if Scotland voted to remain in the United Kingdom. So let’s get this straight. A UK Tory prime minister telling the Scots that the North Sea oil industry is best run from London? That would be laughable if it wasn’t so – as recent history has shown – tragic.
Last month it was announced that a fund set up by the Norwegians at the start of their North Sea oil extraction programme had now become worth the equivalent of 100,000 pounds for every man, woman and child in Norway. (Two days ago, meanwhile, it was announced in Scotland’s Sunday Herald newspaper that the biggest food bank in Glasgow had run out of food.)
What happened to Britain’s North Sea oil profits under the last Tory regime is a story of criminal waste, on an epic scale. Whether you look at it from a Scottish or from a British point of view, the Tories squandered it during the 1980s and 1990s. They used the money to fund their reshaping of the UK economy – the dismantling of traditional industries in the country’s hinterlands and the shifting of hundreds of thousands of former workers onto benefits. It also went towards the creation of a brave new world of banking and financial services centred on the City of London, many of whose main players would wreck the British economy in 2008 through their corruption, greed and stupidity. (Of course, as the bill for what happened in 2008 is being paid for, it’s the people stuck in that benefits culture that the Tories propagated a generation or two ago who are suffering under austerity measures. When did a dodgy banker last lose all his income and have to depend on a food bank?)
In the early 1980s, I remember the Scottish Nationalists launching a poster campaign depicting Margaret Thatcher as a vampire but with oil, not blood, trickling down her chin and sporting the slogan, ‘No wonder she’s laughing, she’s got Scotland’s oil’. The campaign was much criticised for being crude and nasty (which it was, to vampires at least), but it was, essentially, true.
Not that the Labour party has been much better. During the days of Jim Callaghan’s Labour government in the late 1970s, a senior cabinet minister proposed the setting up of an oil fund along the lines of what the Norwegians were doing. But the proposal was rejected. As the journalist Andy Beckett noted in his book When the Lights Went Out – What Really Happened to Britain in the Seventies, “(i)nstead, the great North Sea windfall would continue to be treated as an ordinary source of Whitehall revenue and swallowed up by the day-to-day needs of hungry governments. Not for quite a time… would it be obvious that this had not been a wise strategy. In 2008, the economist John Hawksworth of the accountants PriceWaterhouseCoopers calculated that, had Britain’s tax revenues from North Sea gas and oil been invested rather than spent, they would now be worth £450 billion, and would give the British government control of one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds.” The minister who pitched this idea for a British oil fund was the Secretary of State for Energy, Tony Benn – a man now synonymous in the London political and media establishments with the ‘loony’ left.
But to return to my original point – having a British Tory prime minister lecture the Scots about how to run the North Sea oil industry is like having Hannibal Lecter give a talk to the National Union of Census Takers about how to cook liver.
(c) Huffington Post
Yesterday, I posted comments similar to what I’ve written above on an online newspaper thread and got several angry responses. One line of response was that the Scots could hardly belly-ache about what’d happened to North Sea oil revenues when two of their biggest banks, Halifax Bank of Scotland and the Royal Bank of Scotland, had been instrumental through their mismanagement in necessitating the great banking bail-out of 2008. To that I can only say that both had been tainted by the deregulated insanity that the Tories let loose in the City of London in the 1980s and 1990s. As a long-term customer of the Bank of Scotland, I know that when it merged with England’s Halifax Building Society and became HBOS it seemed to transform overnight from being a rather stolid outfit to being a recklessly corporate one.
And if the Scottish banks were responsible for a lot of the damage in 2008, I think this reflects the fact that Scottish banks have traditionally been a large part of the British banking sector – banking being a rare example of relative English-Scottish parity since the Act of Union in 1707. Historically, banking seemed something that the Scots were particularly skilled at – it was a Scotsman, William Paterson, who helped found the Bank of England in 1694. Mind you, thanks to Fred ‘the Shred’ Goodwin, that reputation for Scottish banking excellence is now well and truly dead.
I also had replies claiming that London’s financial sector, fashioned indirectly by North Sea oil revenues, is a legacy of 1980s / 1990s Conservative rule that Britain can still be proud of. Despite what happened in 2008, one person claimed, it remains immensely powerful and important and outstrips anything that, say, Germany’s financial sector is capable of. Well, overall, Germany’s economy is still bigger than Britain’s and it’s more healthily balanced. Its traditional manufacturing industries were allowed to evolve too over the past 30 years, rather than being knocked on the head. (I remember walking along a street in Berlin a few years ago and seeing a huge queue of excited Germans standing outside a car showroom. They were queuing to have their photos taken, proudly, beside the latest model to have been unveiled by BMW.)
I have no doubt, though, that London will continue to grow and become even more of a shining financial citadel than it is now – certainly with the likes of Boris Johnson around to defend it against allegations of impropriety and wheeling-dealing. Mind you, I suspect the growing disparity between it and the rest of the country will eventually inflict more disunity on the United Kingdom than any amount of campaigning by Scotland’s pro-independence movement. People in the North East of England, for example, were no doubt miffed at the release of figures about transport spending in Britain in 2011. According to these, £5 was spent on the average North-Easterner – compared with £2731 spent per head of population in London (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-16235349).
Lately I’ve read a few novels in which aspiring writers struggle against poverty, hunger, the incomprehension of their peers and the scorn of their social betters while they try to make a name for themselves – most notably, Archie Hind’s The Dear Green Place and Jack London’s Martin Eden. I’ve just finished reading George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, published in 1936, which was before Orwell became known as 20th-century British literature’s political novelist par excellence. I had no idea of what it was about when I started reading it, but it proved to be another example of this ‘struggling writer’ sub-genre. It recounts the fortunes, or misfortunes, of a young man called Gordon Comstock who, fancying himself as a poet, packs in a well-paid job in an advertising agency in favour of working in a series of impoverished and progressively seedier bookshops so that he’s free to ‘follow his muse’.
Orwell’s pre-World War II attempts at writing fiction have been neglected in favour of the socially-aware non-fiction he wrote, from first-hand experience, during the same period: Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier and so on. People have told me that this fiction is rather dull and not particularly good, but I found Keep the Aspidistra Flying to be, mostly, a pleasant surprise. It’s far from uplifting, and for most of the time its hero is a Grade-A plonker, but if you like atmosphere – atmosphere that really gets under your skin, so that you can feel and taste the grey fustiness of the setting – this book is actually quite decent.
Gordon is already on the slide professionally when the novel opens. He’s working in McKechie’s Bookshop, where “(e)ight hundred strong, the novels lined the room on three sides and ceiling-high, row upon row of gaudy oblong backs, as though the walls had been built of many-coloured bricks laid upright. They were arranged alphabetically. Arlen, Burroughs, Deeping, Dell, Frankau, Galworthy, Gibbs, Priestly, Sapper, Walpole… all that soggy, half-baked trash massed together in one place. Pudding, suet pudding. Eight hundred slabs of pudding, walling him in – a vault of puddingstone.” He’s already quit the advertising agency and his only link with his former workplace is an ex-colleague called Rosemary, with whom he is enjoying a rather fragile and tense romance.
For accommodation, he’s ensconced in the house of Mrs Wisbeach, who specialises in ‘single gentlemen’ and offers “(b)ed-sitting rooms, with gaslight laid on… baths extra… and meals in the tomb-dark dining room with the phalanx of clotted sauce-bottles in the middle of the table.” Everywhere in the establishment are the aspidistras of the book’s title: “on the sideboard, on the floor, on ‘occasional’ tables: in the window there was a sort of florist’s stand of them, blocking out the light. In the half-darkness, with aspidistras all around you, you had the feeling of being in some sunless aquarium amid the dreary foliage of water-flowers.” The neighbourhood contrives “to keep up a kind of mingy, lower-middle-class decency”, but it’s plain that the frustrated and temperamental Gordon is struggling to maintain his grip on even this rung of the social ladder.
Orwell’s physical descriptions of Gordon – “aged twenty-nine and already rather moth-eaten… a small frail figure, with delicate bones and fretful movements. His coat was out at elbow in the right sleeve and its middle button was missing; his ready-made flannel trousers were stained and shapeless… his shoes needed re-soling…” – make him reminiscent of a more famous character whom Orwell would invent a decade later, the gaunt, ravaged Winston Smith of 1984. Indeed, there are moments when Orwell describes Gordon longing for the advent of cataclysmic war – “(t)he humming of the aeroplanes and the crash of the bombs” – that, according to 1984’s mythology, will lead to the creation of its totalitarian, dystopian hellhole of a society. For Gordon, such a war will at least wipe away the seedy, humdrum and maddeningly prissy world he currently inhabits.
Mentally, meanwhile, he’s a cauldron of bitterness. As well as raging against the banality of the era’s popular literature, written by the likes of Hugh Walpole and J.B. Priestly, he’s tortured by the knowledge that, as an aspiring poet, he faces a massive handicap – he doesn’t have money. Indeed, the necessity of being wealthy in order to lead an artistic lifestyle is a theme that runs through the book. In the very first chapter Gordon laments to himself, “It was the lack of money, simply the lack of money, that robbed him of the power to ‘write’. He clung to that as an article of faith. Money, money, all is money! Could you write even a penny novelette without money to put heart in you? Invention, energy, wit, style, charm – they’ve all got to be paid for in hard cash.”
Later, Orwell describes Gordon’s reaction to a rejection letter from a magazine called the Primrose: “He thought of the people who wrote for the Primrose; a coterie of moneyed highbrows – those sleek young animals who suck in money and culture with their mother’s milk… Why be so bloody mealy-mouthed about it? Why not say outright, ‘We don’t want your bloody poems. We only take poems from chaps we were at Cambridge with. You proletarians keep your distance’?”
And later again he complains to his friend Ravelston, who is a well-off fellow for whom “(e)ight hundred pounds a year was a minimum living wage” and who can afford to run a literary magazine called Antichrist, which is “Socialist in a vehement but ill-defined way” – about his lot: “It’s the bloody, sneaking, squalid business of it. Living alone for weeks on end because when you’ve no money you’ve no friends. Calling yourself a writer and never even producing anything because you’re always too washed out to write. It’s a sort of filthy sub-world one lives in. A sort of spiritual sewer.”
These observations about money and art are undoubtedly true, but having Gordon continually obsess about them doesn’t make him a sympathetic character. Indeed, he’s so antagonistic to his friends and disdainful of their advice and offers of assistance that it’s difficult to understand why the harassed Rosemary and the good-natured Ravelston – who, thanks to his own moneyed circumstances, can’t really understand Gordon but who certainly wishes to help him – can bear to put up with him.
What distinguishes the book, though, is Orwell’s descriptions – his eye for sordid detail honed, of course, by his work on the likes of Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier – of the damp, draughty, dusty and decrepit world that Gordon inhabits. The descriptions become more grimly vivid as the book progresses and Gordon loses his job at McKechie’s and his room at Mrs Wisbeach’s. He ends up working at a two-penny library, “one of those cheap and evil little libraries (‘mushroom libraries’, they are called) which are springing up all over London and are deliberately aimed at the uneducated… The shelves were already marked off into sections – ‘Sex’, ‘Crime’, ‘Wild West’, and so forth.” Gordon fares no better on the accommodation front. His new lodgings are “a filthy kip… eight shillings a week and just under the roof… There was a film of dust on everything. In the fender there was always a greasy frying-pan and a couple of plates with the remnants of fried eggs. One night the bugs came out of one of the cracks and marched across the ceiling two by two.”
Unlike The Dear Green Place and Martin Eden, however, Gordon isn’t simply a member of the labouring classes who has the temerity to try to break into the rich man’s world of literature. He wasn’t quite born into poverty. “The Comstocks belonged to the most dismal of all classes, the middle-middle class, the landless gentry. In their miserable poverty they had not even the snobbish consolation of regarding themselves as an ‘old’ family fallen on evil days, for they were not an ‘old’ family at all, merely one of those families that rose on the wave of Victorian prosperity and then sank again faster than the wave itself.”
What little money remained in the family was blown on Gordon as a boy: “Since the Comstocks were genteel as well as shabby, it was considered necessary to waste huge sums on Gordon’s ‘education’” – and after Gordon walks out of his advertising job to work on his poetry, he has to rely on his sister Julia, his one surviving close relative, for loans of money. Overworked, thin, already grey and doomed to spinsterhood, Julia has seen her family sacrifice her own life-chances in order to pay for Gordon’s schooling: “With the strange idealistic snobbishness of the middle classes, they were willing to go to the workhouse sooner than let Gordon leave school before the statutory age of eighteen.”
As Keep the Aspidistra Flying nears its conclusion, we find ourselves wondering which of three possible outcomes will take place. Will Gordon get his breakthrough and find some sort of fame and fortune as a poet? Or will Rosemary persuade him to return to the advertising agency, where he can have financial security, if not spiritual fulfilment, as a writer of slogans like ‘QT Sauce Keeps Hubby Smiling’ and ‘Are you a Highbrow? Dandruff is the Reason’? Or the squalor of his situation finally kill him? Depending on your point of view, the ending that Orwell finally opts for is either happy or tragic.
Interestingly – and sadly – Gordon’s sour musings about the necessity of wealth for artistic endeavour still seem pertinent today, probably more pertinent than they’ve been for a number of decades. We’re living, after all, in an era where young people, if they want to make a career out of doing something artistic or creative, need to have parents who know the right people and have plenty of money in their bank accounts. This is especially true of our modern intern culture, where youngsters are forced to work long-term, unpaid, in the hope of eventually getting a ‘foot in the door’ of a desirable (often creative) profession. If their families can’t afford to support them while they work as interns, well, they’re screwed. By a coincidence, I was halfway through Keep the Aspidistra Flying when I happened across this feature, about the same topic, in the Observer:
Incidentally, I’d heard that Orwell had disliked the Scots – though hopefully his dislike softened towards the end of his life, when he found himself living on the island of Jura and working on 1984 – but I was surprised by the animosity towards them that’s displayed in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Orwell writes about his hero’s name thus: “The ‘Gordon’ part of it was Scotch, of course. The prevalence of such names nowadays is merely a part of the Scotchification of England that has been going on these last fifty years.” The tone is reminiscent of a modern-day Daily Telegraph columnist grousing about how ‘Mohamed’ has become the most popular name for British boys, which of course is symptomatic of the ‘Islamification’ of Britain.
The owner of the first bookshop Gordon works in, Mr McKechie, “wasn’t a bad old stick. He was a Scotchman, of course, but Scottish is as Scottish does.” In that bookshop, Gordon notices the Collected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson lying on the floor, and he kicks “Stevenson’s buckram backside. Art there, old false-penny. You’re cold meat, if ever Scotchman was.” And on board a tram he finds himself “wedged against a small dirty Scotchman who read the football finals and oozed beer.”
Given his prejudice against all thing Scottish, or ‘Scotch’, I wonder how Orwell would have felt about the Scottish Book Trust’s list of 100 best Scottish Books of all time, which it announced on World Book Day in 2005. 1984 was included on that list, its Scottishness justified by the fact that it’d been written in Scotland. Its inclusion must have sent poor Orwell spinning in his grave.
Although 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is perhaps my favourite James Bond movie, until recently I hadn’t read the Bond novel of the same title, written by Ian Fleming and published in 1963. This was despite the fact that I’d read most of the other Bond books decades ago when I was a kid. Some of those novels, in fact, I read before I’d ever seen a Bond film.
Now that I’ve finally got around to reading OHMSS, as I will abbreviate its title, and taken another look at the film version on DVD, how do the two measure up? (If you aren’t familiar with the storylines of the book and film, I should warn that this blog-entry will be chock-full of spoilers.)
OHMSS was the tenth of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels and he wrote it in early 1962 at Goldeneye, his estate in Jamaica. Nearby, meanwhile, Jamaican locations were being used for the filming of the very first Bond movie, Dr No. Thus, James Bond was undergoing a metamorphosis – from a literary phenomenon into something bigger, a franchise incorporating large-scale movie-making and merchandising whose central character would be an icon of 1960s pop culture. Though the novels were (refined) examples of pulp fiction, Fleming – who was methodical about his research – did at least try to give them a veneer of believability. With each successive film, however, Bond seemed to drift further from the realm of possibility and into that of outright fantasy.
OHMSS feels like a different sort of James Bond book, but in fact it goes in the opposite direction from that in which the films would go. It makes Bond more believable as a character, not less so. It’s ostensibly about the first face-to-face encounter between Bond and his arch-enemy Ernst Stavros Blofeld, who is head of the secretive and deadly crime syndicate SPECTRE. But OHMSS also explores Bond’s emotional side and highlights his vulnerability.
Key to this is OHMSS’s sub-plot about the romance between Bond and Contessa Theresa ‘Tracy’ di Vicenzo, a woman whose father, Marc-Ange Draco, runs a crime syndicate too, the Unione Corse of Corsica. At the novel’s end, with Blofeld seemingly vanquished, Bond and Tracy get married – only for Blofeld to make a sudden reappearance in the final pages, spraying their bridal car with bullets, killing Tracy and leaving Bond as a babbling wreck. As a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement noted at the time, this Bond was “somehow gentler, more sentimental, less dirty.”
When Cubby Broccoli and Albert Saltzman got around to filming OHMSS six years later, five Bond books had been turned into movies and the continuities of those books and films were already hopelessly at odds. In the books, Blofeld had made a ‘backstage’ appearance in OHMSS’s immediate predecessor, Thunderball. In OHMSS’s successor, You Only Live Twice, Bond and he have a second and final meeting – it’s the grim tale of the traumatised Bond hunting down and getting his revenge on Blofeld, much of it taking place on a bizarre ‘island of death’ off the Japanese mainland whose deadly fauna and volcanic discharges attract a steady stream of visitors, wanting to commit suicide. In the Bond movie-world, though, Blofeld had featured in the backgrounds of From Russia with Love (1963) and Thunderball (1966) and then played a leading role in the film immediately before OHMSS, 1967’s You Only Live Twice – yes, the title that came after it in the book series. As a result, there isn’t much grimness in You Only Live Twice-the-movie. It’s a jolly science-fictional romp involving stolen spaceships, a secret base disguised as a Japanese volcano and Donald Pleasance playing Blofeld with a white jumpsuit, severe facial scar and fluffy white cat. The film is a cartoonish thing compared with the book because, as far as the films are concerned, the murder of Bond’s wife hadn’t happened yet.
When OHMSS began filming, the filmmakers – Broccoli and Saltzman, scriptwriter Richard Maibaum and director Peter Hunt, who’d worked as a film editor and second-unit director on the previous five movies – made the brave decision to follow Fleming’s book closely, right up to the tragic denouement. So keen was Hunt to be faithful to the book that supposedly he carried a copy of it around the set, its pages marked with his own annotations.
At the start of OHMSS-the-book, it seems like business as usual for Bond. As with the previous novels, he’s a sophisticated, money-is-no-object consumer of the sort of food, drink, cigars, clothes and cars that most of Fleming’s post-war, austerity-Britain readers could only dream about. Although Fleming writes early on that “James Bond was not a gourmet. In England he lived on grilled sole, oeufs cocotte and cold roast beef with potato salad,” a page later we hear him bitching about the quality of a meal he’s just had in a French eatery, about “…the fly-walk of the Paté Maison (sent back for a new slice) and a Poularde à la crème that was the only genuine antique in the place. Bond had moodily washed down this sleazy provender with a bottle of instant Pouilly Fuissé and was finally insulted the next morning by a bill for the meal in excess of five pounds.”
However, the tone soon changes. Bond’s in France at the tail end of a mission to locate Blofeld, an interminable and fruitless mission that’s pissed him off to the point where he’s ready to hand in his resignation to M, and he crosses paths with the troubled but imperious Tracy. In a pricey hotel-cum-casino she commands him: “Take off those clothes. Make love to me. You are handsome and strong. I want to remember what it can be like. Do anything you like. And tell me what you like and what you would like from me. Be rough with me. Treat me like the lowest whore in creation. Forget everything else. No questions. Take me.”
Later, on the coast, Bond intervenes to prevent Tracy from committing suicide and the two of them fall into the clutches of some heavies who turn out to work for Tracy’s father, Draco, godfather of the Unione Corse. Draco is delighted with Bond taking a protective interest in his daughter and urges him to marry her – offering a dowry of one million pounds as a sweetener. Bond declines the marriage offer but agrees to continue romancing Tracy, if it’ll help her mental state. He also manages to coax some information out of his would-be father-in-law regarding Blofeld’s whereabouts. The super-villain, it transpires, is hiding out in Switzerland.
The same events occur in the film version, although in a different order. First, Bond saves Tracy from drowning herself, then he gets to know her intimately. Also, the action takes place not in France, but in Portugal – Peter Hunt felt that by this time cinema-goers were over-familiar with the French coast. Just before the credits kick in (and we get to hear John Barry’s instrumental OHMSS theme, regarded by many as the best Bond tune of the lot), there’s also some breaking of the fourth wall as Bond turns towards the camera and quips, “This never happened to the other fellow.” For yes, this movie features a brand new James Bond. Gone is the hairy Edinburgh brawn, slurring Caledonian brogue and insouciant Scottish scowl of Sean Connery – who by then, apparently, couldn’t even bring himself to exchange words with Cubby Broccoli – and in his place is the inexperienced Australian actor George Lazenby.
Actually, such a novice was Lazenby at the time that the only thing he was known for was appearing in a TV commercial for Fry’s Chocolate Cream. I’ve heard a story that Broccoli saw him a barber’s shop, liked the ‘cut of his jib’ and picked him on the spot. However, interviewed on the making-of documentary that accompanies OHMSS on my DVD, Lazenby claims that he already had an audition for Bond lined up. He went to that barber’s because he knew that Connery had used it in the past and he thought it was his best bet for getting a ‘Bondian’ haircut. The establishment was used by other people associated with the Bond movies and Broccoli happened to be there when Lazenby walked in.
In contrast with the inexperienced Lazenby, the actress playing Tracy in the movie was already a star – Diana Rigg, who’d made a name for herself playing Emma Peel in the gloriously baroque 1960s TV show The Avengers. Ironically, for a film series that’s often accused of de-humanising the books and emphasising big, dumb spectacle at the expense of characterisation, Tracy is a more fleshed-out character in the film than in Fleming’s novel. She’s given more to do and, played by Rigg, she has a sparkle that’s missing in the rather aloof, ambiguous character that Fleming sketches. Tales about how Lazenby and Rigg didn’t get on during the shoot are legion – most notably about Rigg munching garlic prior to the filming of scenes where Bond and Tracy kiss. Director Hunt has disputed these claims, although I’ve seen at least one interview with Rigg where her comments about Lazenby are uncomplimentary.
Both the book and film show Bond getting an unexpected lead about where to find Blofeld in Switzerland – the College of Arms in London has had dealings with his adversary, who wants them to prove that he is heir to the aristocratic title of ‘Compte Balthazar de Bleuchamp’. This allows Bond to adopt the guise of Sir Hilary Bray, a College of Arms genealogist, and travel to Blofeld’s hideout, a mysterious medical clinic perched on top of the Piz Gloria in the Swiss Alps, where he promises to do some research in support of Blofeld’s claim to the title.
In the novel Fleming devotes a lot of time to the College of Arms, whose work clearly interests him. It also allows him to explore the theme of snobbery. As Sable Basilisk, a genealogy expert interviewed by Bond, comments: “I’ve seen hundreds of smart people from the City, industry, politics – famous people I’ve been quite frightened to meet when they walked into the room. But when it comes to snobbery, to buying respectability so to speak, whether it’s the title they’re going to choose or just a coat of arms to hang over their fireplaces in Surbiton, they dwindle and dwindle in front of you… until they’re no more than homunculi.” It’s satisfying that Blofeld’s snobbery is the weakness that allows Bond to ensnare him. Mind you, some would say this is a bit rich coming from Fleming, considering that his Bond novels, with their suave, sophisticated, well-travelled and well-heeled hero, have often been accused of snobbery themselves.
It’s also during this stage of the book we learn some things about Bond’s family. I’d thought Fleming didn’t provide this information until the next book, You Only Live Twice, but I was wrong. For example, he’s informed by the College of Arms that his family motto – and coincidentally a title for a Pierce Brosnan Bond movie 30 years later – is ‘the world is not enough’, of which he says, “It is an excellent motto which I shall certainly adopt.” And we learn that his father was a Scotsman who “came from the Highlands, from near Glencoe” (a detail that was honoured by the latest Daniel Craig Bond movie, Skyfall), while his mother was a Swiss woman.
Not that Fleming is particularly complimentary about his parents’ nationalities. Another genealogist, Griffin Or, says of the Scots in olden times: “In those days, I am forced to admit that our cousins across the border were little more than savages… Very pleasant savages, of course, very brave and all that… More useful with the sword than with the pen.” Of his mum’s side, meanwhile, Bond snorts that ”(m)oney is the religion of Switzerland.” (M replies to this: “I don’t need a lecture on the qualities of the Swiss, thank you, 007. At least they keep their trains clean and cope with the beatnik problem…” If M reckoned there was a problem with the beatniks, God knows how he felt in the late 1960s when the hippies appeared.)
Fleming gave Bond a partly Scottish parentage because, it’s said, he was impressed with the job that Connery did of portraying his super-spy when Dr No was filmed in Jamaica in 1962. Dr No’s influence is detectable elsewhere. In Blofeld’s Alpine base, which in the book is a ski resort as well as a clinic – in the film it’s only the latter – a character points out to Bond a certain lady among the fashionable skiers: “And that beautiful girl with the long fair hair at the big table, that is Ursula Andress, the film star.” Andress, of course, was Connery’s co-star in Dr No and has a place in cinematic history as the first major Bond girl.
Bond duly goes to the Piz Gloria, pretending to be Sir Hilary Bray – and here the film glaringly contradicts the continuity established by its predecessor. At the climax of You Only Live Twice-the-movie Bond and Blofeld have a face-to-face confrontation, but in OHMSS Blofeld doesn’t recognise Bond at all. Actually, Bond might be forgiven for not recognising Blofeld either, for Broccoli and Salzman decided to recast the role of Blofeld too. Not only do we have Sean Connery replaced by George Lazenby in OHMSS, but we have the goblin-like Donald Pleasance replaced by the bigger and more physical Telly Savalas. To be honest, Savalas is a shade too thuggish-looking for the role, but he’s believable when doing the strenuous outdoors things required by the script later on, such as leading a ski-group in pursuit of Bond and wrestling with him during a breakneck bobsleigh ride. Much as I like Donald Pleasance, I couldn’t imagine the silken-voiced, creepy-but-gentlemanly English character actor on a bobsleigh.
What’s officially going on in Blofeld’s clinic, Bond discovers, is that a group of young female patients are receiving treatment for food allergies. What’s unofficially happening is that Blofeld is brainwashing them whilst simultaneously developing various destructive bacteriological agents in his laboratories. The brainwashed ladies are to become his ‘angels of death’ and, when they return home, they’ll release those agents to decimate livestock and crops. Blofeld finds out who Bond really is but the secret agent manages to grab a pair of skis and stages an epic night-time escape from Piz Gloria. Blofeld’s henchmen pursue, but Tracy turns up in time to rescue him. Afterwards, he links up with Draco again and he persuades him to launch an audacious attack on Piz Gloria using helicopters and his Unione Corse men. Blofeld’s plans go up in smoke, although Blofeld himself escapes – despite Bond’s best efforts – using a bobsleigh. Mission accomplished, Bond proceeds to marry Tracy, and things hurry to their tragic conclusion with Blofeld making an unexpected appearance during their honeymoon.
Both the book and film proceed along similar lines here, although it’s interesting to see how certain elements in the 1969 film are pumped up from what Fleming put in his 1963 book. In 1963, Blofeld was content to wage bacteriological warfare against Britain and Ireland, devastating their wheat, chickens, beef, potatoes, etc. By 1969, Blofeld has widened his horizons – it’s the whole world’s food supply he wants to decimate. Accordingly, the ‘angels of death’ undergo an upgrade too. In the novel they’re a prim, middle-class, goody-two-shoes bunch, all from the British Isles. Rather disdainfully, Bond reflects: “The girls all seemed to share a certain basic girl guidish simplicity of manners and language, the sort of girls who, in an English pub, you would find sitting demurely with a boyfriend sipping a Babysham, puffing rather clumsily at a cigarette and occasionally saying, ‘Pardon’. Good girls who, if you made a pass at them, would say, ‘Please don’t spoil it all’, ‘Men only want one thing’, or, huffily, ‘Please take your hand away’.” One of them even takes umbrage when Bond jokingly likens them to the girls in the St Trinian’s films: “Those awful girls! How could you ever say such a thing!”
In the film, the angels come from all over the world and they’re way more glamorous. Indeed, a good number of the actresses went on to brighten up my spotty adolescence during the 1970s with appearances in various cult (and sometimes shit) films and TV shows. There’s Angela Scoular, who also starred in an ‘unofficial’ Bond movie, the dreadful, zany swinging-1960s comedy CasinoRoyale, in 1967; Norwegian actress Julie Ege, who turned up in a couple of 1970s Hammer horror films; Catherine Schell, who’d be a regular in Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi series Space 1999; Jenny Hanley and Anouska Hempel, both of whom appeared in Hammer’s ultra-tacky Scars of Dracula; and the legendary Joanna Lumley. In the late 1970s, of course, Lumley would play Purdey in the revival of The Avengers, The New Avengers. In fact, you could argue that OHMSS-the-move features three Avengers actresses. In addition to Rigg and Lumley, the face of Honor Blackman – who played Cathy Gale in The Avengers and Pussy Galore in 1964’s Goldfinger – is shown fleetingly during the credits sequence.
Nobly, mindful of Bond’s relationship with Tracy, Fleming has his hero seduce just one of the girls – something he does purely in the line of duty. The filmmakers are less inhibited and for a little while on Piz Gloria Lazenby behaves like a fox in a chicken coop, shagging left, right and centre. The movie also plays up the humour of the situation. Sir Hilary Bray is supposed to be Scottish, so Bond dons full Highland dress before going to dinner with his hosts and their supposed patients. Yes, after having a Scotsman play Bond for five films, Broccoli and Saltzman wait until he’s played by an Australian before they pop him into a kilt. This enables the Angela Scoular character to write her room number on the inside of Bond’s thigh, using her lipstick, under the table — a manoeuvre that prompts Bond to comment, “I feel a slight stiffness coming on… in the shoulder.” If the dialogue for this Bond movie sounds sharper than usual, it’s probably because Simon Raven, the famously dissolute English author, was hired to write it.
When Bond escapes from Piz Gloria, Peter Hunt and his crew predictably pump up the action scenes well beyond what was in the book, but I’m not complaining. Even 45 years later, the scenes where Lazenby skis, runs, drives and fights for his life are very impressive and Hunt makes good use of his experience as a film editor – the action has a frenetic quality that, viewed now in the era of the Bourne movies, seems far ahead of its time. Similarly expanded is the climactic assault on Piz Gloria mounted by Bond, Draco and his gang. In the book it comes across as a brief ‘smash-and-grab’ raid but in the film it’s a full-on battle, complete with grenades, flame-throwers and flying bottles of acid. Rarely has the pulse quickened as much as it does when Monty Berman’s James Bond theme kicks in in the midst of the mayhem here.
One change made to the plot by the filmmakers that I think improves on the book is Tracy being captured by Blofeld. In Fleming’s original, after Tracy come to Bond’s aid, she disappears into the background again. In the movie, Blofeld triggers an avalanche that leaves Tracy unconscious and at his mercy, and Bond missing, presumed dead. When Bond, who of course isn’t dead at all, goes to Draco for help, the Corsican mafia boss has a very real reason for giving him help – his daughter’s life is at stake. (It also allows Peter Hunt to show Savalas flirting, with an obviously menacing undercurrent, with Rigg at his mountaintop HQ. Again, I don’t think poor old Donald Pleasance could have done the flirting bit very convincingly.)
Fleming depicts Bond and Tracy’s wedding as brief and low-key, but again the film makes it a big, opulent affair. M, Q and Miss Moneypenny (who for obvious reasons is rather tearful) are in attendance, as are Draco’s henchmen, many of whom spent the early part of the film getting beaten up by Bond. However, both the book and the film converge for the ending, which is as melancholy and understated as it is shocking. No other Bond movie has ended like this one. Indeed, it’s annoying that the filmmakers saw fit to follow this with 1971’s Diamonds are Forever, which gets Bond’s revenge on Blofeld out of the way in its first ten minutes, and then becomes a big, lazy, jokey and ludicrous Bond epic that would be the blueprint for Bond films later in the 1970s after Roger Moore had inherited the role. (For a spiritual sequel to OHMSS, I think you have to look to the gritty Timothy Dalton Bond movie Licensed to Kill in 1989.)
OHMSS-the-film received some unfavourable reviews and made less money than its predecessors, and for years it was regarded as the runt of the 1960s-Bond-film litter. Most, if not all, of the animosity towards the film was because in it George Lazenby played Bond for the first and only time. (For Diamonds are Forever, Broccoli managed to patch things up with the truculent Connery and got him back into the role.) Lazenby certainly isn’t a great actor, but I would argue that because this is a very different sort of Bond movie, one where Bond appears vulnerable and wounded, the awkward and uncertain Lazenby actually fits the film – he’s believable in terms of what the character has to go through. I couldn’t imagine ‘Big Sean’ swaggering through the movie in his usual manner and it having quite the same emotional impact.
Happily, though, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has been re-evaluated and today is regarded as one of the best of the film series. In fact, when 007 Magazine ran a poll in 2012, it was voted the greatest James Bond film ever – showing that among diehard Bond fans, at least, it’s the all-time favourite. And much of the film’s success is due to the fact that, no matter what innovations were brought to the table by the talented Peter Hunt and his crew, it owes a great deal to the original novel by Ian Fleming.
A week, it’s commonly said, is a long time in politics. This has felt especially true with recent events in the build-up to the referendum on Scottish independence, which is being held this September. Last week, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech in London and did his best to impersonate Hugh Grant, who played the cuddly fictional prime minister in the Richard Curtis movie Love, Actually. Cameron assured Scots that everybody in England, and Wales, and Northern Ireland loved them and begged them not to vote for independence and break up the big happy family that is the UK. Please don’t go, he practically sang, we love you so. He even told people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to text or email relatives and friends in Scotland, to urge them not to betray the great British love-in by voting ‘yes’. (By the way, everyone I know who lives in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – I’m still waiting to hear from you.)
But this week – ironically one day before St Valentine’s Day – Cameron’s chancellor George Osborne gave a speech in Edinburgh and suddenly love was no longer in the air. Instead, stark, blunt threats were the order of the day. Osborne warned that if Scots voted for independence, there’d be no prospect of the remainder of the UK agreeing to a currency union with Scotland. Having a currency union, whereby an independent Scotland would continue to use the British pound even if it meant the new country ceded a degree of fiscal control to London, was the Scottish National Party’s preferred policy. It was also the policy recommended for an independent Scotland by Alistair Darling, who was chancellor in the last Labour government and is coincidentally the head of the anti-independence Better Together campaign. Although having separate currencies on the island of Britain would damage the remaining UK as much as it would an independent Scotland – the cost to the UK balance of payments could be billions of pounds – Osborne made it plain that he was willing to cut off his nose to spite his face (or cut off his Union Jack-painted face to spite his wayward tartan nose) in order to stall an independent Scotland’s economy.
So within a couple of days the attitude of the Conservative government at Westminster towards its Scottish subjects has veered from being lovey-dovey to being shrill, wide-eyed and threatening. Such extreme mood-swings are not characteristic of Hugh Grant in Love, Actually at all. They’re more like the behaviour of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. No wonder some people in Scotland want to vote for independence. Who’d want to stay in a union with a government of bunny-boilers?
(c) The Spectator
The currency issue has dominated the mainstream Scottish media this week. That was predictable since none of the owners of the daily Scottish newspapers are actually based in Scotland and any sympathy for the SNP or for the cause of independence that appears in their pages is fleeting, to say the least. So Osborne’s refusal to entertain the idea of a currency union became A GREAT BIG SCARY STORY INDEED. None of the newspapers forecast that people in an independent Scotland would be reduced to using pebbles, seashells and coloured beads as currency, though I’m sure a couple of them (the Scottish Daily Mail, the Scottish Daily Express) came close.
I’ve worked and travelled in many countries and, from my experiences, the currency issue is not the be-all-and-end-all as Osborne and his admirers in the Scottish press would have us believe. Currency is a tool that enables people to keep the wheels of commerce turning and get on with their lives and it’s amazing how adaptable they can be. I spent two years, for example, living in a country a very long way from Europe where the euro was everyday currency. Also, folk in the Republic of Ireland used their Irish version of the pound, the punt, for decades – and during my childhood in 1970s Northern Ireland, I remember southern Irish money being used north of the border alongside our official ‘British’ pounds and pence. Frankly, an independent Scotland could use whatever currency it wanted and plenty of studies, conducted by bodies on both the right and the left of the political spectrum, have concluded that there’s no reason why the place shouldn’t thrive anyway. But with Osborne expressing his willingness to stick up currency barriers between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK, he’s made administrative hassle in the movement of business, wealth, goods and people around these islands a real possibility.
What annoys me most about Osborne’s speech, though, is how Ed Balls, Labour’s shadow chancellor, immediately gave it his full backing. If Labour were in power in Westminster, he said, they’d refuse a currency union with an independent Scotland too. George Osborne, who is a millionaire thanks to his inherited wealth, is a prominent member of a regime that has necessitated the return of food-banks to Britain as a measure to save families from going hungry, and allowed utility companies to turn their customers into virtual serfs, and threatened half the public libraries in Newcastle-upon-Tyne with closure, and introduced the Bedroom Tax – a tax that even the ultra-cautious wee middle-class Edinburgh rag The Scotsman has described as ‘Dickensian’. And so on, and so forth. Yet Ed Balls is more than happy to hold Osborne’s posh Tory coat for him while he bludgeons the Scots with threats about what might happen if they dare to exercise their democratic rights and vote for more autonomy.
(The Liberal Democrats have also given Osborne’s speech their backing, though what they think is irrelevant. They cut their own throats by entering a coalition government with the Tories back in 2010 and will probably be extinct after the next general election.)
For the record, I doubt that the Scots will vote for independence later this year. (That’s despite recent opinion polls showing an increase in support for the ‘yes’ option – something that no doubt prompted Osborne to issue his threat this week.) To make a rash generalisation, the Scots are a careful, slightly pessimistic and not terribly confident lot and the anti-independence campaign, via the newspapers, has exploited these insecurities by banging on relentlessly about all the terrible things that might happen if they were stupid enough to vote for political autonomy – companies would relocate to England, prices would soar, pension plans would collapse, they’d be kicked out the European Union, they’d be threatened by terrorists, television in an independent Scotland would be rubbish because Scottish creativity is rubbish. (That last argument was articulated both by the former Labour MP Brian Wilson and by the former Liberal Party leader David Steel, who nowadays calls himself Lord Steel of Aikwood.) The currency scare has been the latest in a long line of scare stories designed to convince people that, unless they want their children to grow up in a Caledonian equivalent of Albania, circa 1970, they should vote ‘no’. Sadly, it’s an approach that I think will work this time.
I say ‘this time’ because my opinion is that in the long run Scotland will become independent, perhaps one or two generations from now. I think it will parallel what happened with the creation of a devolved Scottish parliament in the 20th century – a referendum on Scottish devolution in 1979 was a failure (although a narrow majority of Scots did vote for devolution, they didn’t get it thanks to the insertion of a sneaky last-minute qualification in the voting rules), but the Scots voted for it emphatically and overwhelmingly in 1997. Scottish independence will eventually come, I suspect, because a couple of decades from now the United Kingdom will be an even less attractive place to be than it is now. It wouldn’t surprise me if 2030 or 2040 sees the UK outside the European Union and outside the EU’s rules about minimum pay, working conditions and human rights, operating as a sort of giant, deregulated, offshore sweatshop-cum-McDonald’s branch that Rupert Murdoch, Nigel Farrage and the Daily Mail would have wet dreams about. Also, thanks to the rise of the Internet and the decline of traditional newspapers, the flow of information will be less controlled than it is at the moment. There will certainly be fewer old-style newspapers in Scotland to put a Unionist spin on things. (The Scotsman, for instance, is on its last legs at the moment.)
What worries me, though, is that following the 2014 referendum Scotland will be a demoralised and dissatisfied place for a long time. People who voted ‘yes’ will be angry at how the debate was distorted by the political, business and media establishments – indeed, I suspect that this week’s events, with the Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats aligning themselves to deny any prospect of a currency union happening, will become as notorious as the backroom politicking that cheated the Scots out of getting devolution in 1979 even though they’d voted for it. Meanwhile, those people who voted ‘no’, and who consider themselves to be both ‘British’ and ‘Scottish’ simultaneously, are unlikely to feel brilliant, either. By then the ‘Scottish’ part of their identity will have been subjected to two years of drip-drip-drip claims by unionist politicians and newspapers about how rubbish they are. Even if you don’t particularly want to be independent, it can’t do much for your self-esteem to be continually told you’re incapable of being independent.
Furthermore, if – as I expect – a majority of Scots vote ‘no’ and the threat of Scottish independence recedes, Scotland will disappear off Westminster’s radar again, with unhappy consequences. After all, following the devolution fiasco of 1979, Margaret Thatcher assumed that the Scots didn’t have the bottle to stand up to London and her incoming Tory government could do whatever they wanted with the place. And we all know what happened to Scotland then.
What’s the most terrifying voice to have ever issued from a cinema or television screen? Could it be the flat, dead tones of actor Douglas Rain, who in 1968 supplied the voice for the quietly murderous computer HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction classic 2001: a Space Odyssey? Or what about the vile, guttural croak that actress Mercedes Cambridge provided for the demon possessing Linda Blair in 1973’s The Exorcist? Fans of the early-noughties BBC TV comedy show The League of Gentlemen might even nominate the hideously rasping voice that comic-actor Reece Shearsmith bestowed on his sinister, black-faced, top-hatted character Papa Lazarou: “You’re my wife now, Da-a-ave!”
Actually, I can think of one voice that’s even more dreadful than those I’ve just mentioned. Here are a few clues to its identity. Bacardi and coke with ice and lemon. Gin and tonic with ice and lemon. Olives. Peanuts. Crisps. A little cheesy pineapple one. A little top-up. A bottle of Beaujolais, put in the fridge. Jeans, with the patches on, and safety pins going right down the sides, and scruffy bottoms, and plumber’s overalls. (“She makes me die, you know.”) Women’s lib and permissiveness and all this wife-swapping business. A little top-up. A silver-plated candelabra. Dennis Roussos records. James Galway records. The complete works of Shakespeare, embossed in gold. A little top-up. A Van Gogh reproduction. (“They called him a post-impressionist, but to my mind he was more of a symbolist… He was a very unstable man. Not only did he cut his ear off and live in a brothel, he also ate paint and he shot himself.”) A picture in the bedroom that’s either erotic or “cheap pornographic trash”. A heart attack. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Cramp.
Yes, the most terrifying voice to have graced a film or TV drama is surely that of Beverley in the Mike Leigh-devised drama Abigail’s Party. Leigh was established as a force in contemporary British culture when a version of Abigail’s Party was broadcast as part of the BBC’s Play for Today series in 1977. Indeed, in a survey of the ‘all-time top 100 British TV programmes’ conducted by the British Film Institute, it was ranked at number 11. Played in the TV version by Alison Steadman – Leigh’s one-time wife – Beverley is equipped with a voice that could be variously described as having the power to curl people’s toes, curdle people’s blood, strip paint or evoke the sound of fingernails being dragged down blackboards. Shrill, bossy, bullying, overbearing, wheedling, ingratiating, rarely pausing to consider if the words it’s giving form to actually make any sense, and never, ever shutting up, Beverley’s voice is a nightmarish thing. Then again, it’s the perfect accompaniment for the nightmarish cocktail party that she holds in her house as a refuge for the local adults while, elsewhere in their neighbourhood, 15-year-old Abigail throws a noisier and more boisterous – but possibly more civilised – party for her teenage mates.
Not that Beverley’s guests do anything to improve the tone of the proceedings. There’s the naïve, gawky and gormless nurse Angie and her sullen, tensed-up husband Tony, a man who gives the impression he could explode into a violent rage at any moment. There’s the melancholy and moderately posh divorcee Sue, who is Abigail’s mother and who gives the impression she could explode at any moment too, though into floods of tears. And there’s Beverley’s own husband, the diminutive, harassed and overworked Lawrence, who spends the party locked in a battle-of-wits with Beverley. Lawrence keeps losing that battle because of his wife’s Tiger Tank-like resolve and her complete lack of self-awareness. However, he does manage to bring the party to an unexpected close when, during a final bluster of impotent fury, he suffers a coronary and expires on the living room floor.
I saw Abigail’s Party on television when it was broadcast in 1977 and, at the age of twelve years old, I found it very disturbing – more disturbing than the horror films I was starting to watch on late-night TV. As a boy I’d assumed that all adults were civil, sensible and reasonable; so it unsettled me to see a bunch of them displaying the same bitching, bullying and petty-minded behaviour that I sometimes saw in my school playground. In fact, Beverley’s machinations and manipulations during the party were so obvious that even I could see through them, and it troubled me that the other adults seemed to be falling for them.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine came across a second-hand DVD of the 1977 TV Abigail’s Party on sale in a charity shop and I thought it’d be interesting to see how it holds up nearly four decades later. Viewing it again, what I found interesting was how direct and straightforward it still seems. The only element of the play I notice today that I didn’t pick up on as a kid is a bit where Tony and Lawrence leave Beverley’s party and go to check on Abigail’s party – for some unexplained reason Tony comes back later than Lawrence does and his manner is sheepish, suggesting that he might have got up to something untoward with Abigail’s teenage guests. That’s the only thing that went over my 12-year-old head in 1977.
With everything else, Leigh is upfront. The pretensions, tastelessness, hypocrisy and social embarrassments are there for audiences, young, middle-aged and old alike, to laugh at or cringe at without having to do much reading between the lines. Interestingly, the horrors of Abigail’s Party are something that Leigh chose not to inflict on audiences again, at least not so heavily. (His 1993 movie Naked is gruelling, admittedly, but in a different way.) Mike Leigh films such as Life is Sweet, Secrets and Lies and Another Year are gentler, tempered by having characters who show at least some degree of self-awareness.
In my memories of Abigail’s Party, the play’s one chink of light seemed to be the fate of Angie. After being depicted throughout as a vacuous numbskull, she suddenly comes into her own at the end when, using her training as a nurse, she takes command of the situation and tries to save the dying Lawrence. But viewing it again, I realised that Leigh denies even Angie a dignified ending. After all her heroic efforts with Lawrence, her leg falls prey to an attack of cramp and she ends up in indecorous agony on her back.
Some people, looking back on Abigail’s Party, have interpreted it as a piece of social history. They see Beverley as being representative of those materialistic nouveau riche southerners who would vote for Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s – money accumulating in their pockets, but vulgar as hell in their tastes. But I think poor old Lawrence represents more the people whom Thatcher thought she was empowering with her right-wing social revolution. He slaves away as an estate agent and Thatcher would surely have approved of his work ethic. But he also sees himself as a connoisseur of respectable, tasteful art – Shakespeare, Van Gogh, Lowry, classical music and Tudor architecture – that the future Prime Minister, the daughter of a respectable middle-class greengrocer, would no doubt have approved of too.
In fact, Thatcher seemed to assume that if the markets were freed up, and money put in the pockets of certain people, not only would those people climb the social ladder, but their tastes, values and morality would ‘improve’ too. However, this didn’t happen, as all those late-1980s jokes about the vulgarity of ‘Essex Men’ and the ‘Loadsamoney’ culture indicated. Lawrence was what Margaret Thatcher expected. Beverley was what she got.
Meanwhile, I wonder what Leigh wanted to symbolise with Abigail in the late 1970s. We never actually see her, but from the adults’ description of her she’s clearly a punk. (Mind you, apart from a distant snatch of The Jam’s In the City that I think I hear playing at one point, the teenagers’ party doesn’t sound particularly punk-rock or new wave.) Did Leigh intend her to represent a cultural and social revolution by the younger generation, rebelling against the inanities of their parents? Alas, I have no doubt that in 2014 the middle-aged Abigail has shed her plumber’s overalls and colourful-sounding jeans and is hosting cocktail parties that are nearly as painful as the one her mother attended in 1977.
Dutch actor Rutger Hauer celebrated his 70th birthday two weeks ago, on January 23rd, which makes me feel very old indeed. When a figure who seemed only yesterday to be the embodiment of swaggering, superhuman indestructibility – thanks to turns in movies like Blade Runner and The Hitcher – becomes a septuagenarian, you realise you must be advancing significantly in years yourself.
Born in Breukelen in the Netherlands, Hauer started adult life doing a variety of jobs – as a deck-cleaner on board a freighter, a joiner, an electrician – before he found his way into an experimental drama troupe. He was in his mid-twenties when he came to the attention of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, who would later find infamy in Hollywood as the maker of bludgeoning, blood-soaked science fiction satires like Robocop, TotalRecall and StarshipTroopers and trashy, salacious bonk-busters like BasicInstinct and Showgirls. Verhoeven first cast Hauer in Floris, a popular Dutch TV adventure show set in the Middle Ages and then had him star in a quartet of Dutch movies that he directed.
The first of these, 1973’s Turkish Delight (in Dutch Turks Fruit) features Hauer as a Bohemian sculptor and chronicles the rise, fall and tragic end of his relationship with a well-to-do young woman (Monique van de Ven) whose family disapproves of his lifestyle. At the time of its release, more than three million people went to see it in Dutch cinemas, which constituted more than a quarter of the Dutch population. Indeed, such has been the enduring popularity of Turkish Delight that in 1999 it was named Best Dutch Film of the Century at the Netherlands Film Festival.
Hauer and Verhoeven’s next movie was 1975’s KatieTippel (KeetjeTippel), which is about a 19th-century woman – van de Ven again – and her struggle with poverty and prostitution. Hauer plays the duplicitous banker who begins a relationship with Katie but then abandons her.
(c) Samuel Goldwyn Company
In 1977’s Soldier of Orange (Soldaat van Oranje), Verhoeven casts Hauer alongside another Dutch actor who’d later make a name for himself in Hollywood, Jeroen Krabbé. It tells the story of a group of student friends who react in different ways to World War II – collaborating with, fighting against or imprisoned by the German occupiers of their country. Soldier of Orange is considered another classic of Dutch cinema. In 2010, it was even turned into a musical that employed a cool-sounding ‘Scene-Around’ system whereby the audiences’ seats revolved to face different stages as the show progressed. The set-up was so elaborate that the musical had to be staged inside a former Dutch airbase hangar.
Hauer and Verhoeven’s final collaboration on their native soil was Spetters in 1980. This gave Verhoeven his first major taste of something he’d receive again in Hollywood – controversy. Spetters’ portrayal of homosexuals, Christians, the police and the media upset a lot of people, although one mightn’t have expected such controversy from a film that is ostensibly a coming-of-age story involving, of all things, motor-cross racing.
Inevitably, Hollywood – always on the lookout for European actors to play psychotic scumbag terrorists who speak sinister non-American-accented English – recruited Hauer in 1981 to play the baddie in the Sylvester Stallone action-thriller Nighthawks. I’m no fan of Stallone and his monosyllabic, humour-free acting style, but I quite like this movie thanks to its excellent supporting cast, which in addition to Hauer has Billy Dee Williams, Lindsay Wagner, Indian actress Persis Khambatta and distinguished English actor Nigel Davenport, who unfortunately passed away late last year. But Hauer’s performance in Nighthawks would be overshadowed by the work he did in his next Hollywood film That was Ridley Scott’s science fiction epic Blade Runner, based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, in which Hauer played Roy Batty, leader of the replicants – artificially-engineered and super-strong humanoids to you and me.
BladeRunner is a movie that’s difficult to talk about objectively these days. It’s proved massively influential and its dystopian, rain-drenched metropolis (“Hell after the property developers have moved in,” as one critic described it), flavoured with aesthetics of 1940s film-noir and of modern Tokyo, seems to have turned up again in a thousand science-fiction movies and rock videos made in the decades since. Indeed, it’s said that writer William Gibson, soon to become the leading light in the cyberpunk genre, watched Blade Runner for about 15 minutes and then walked out of the cinema – many of the ideas Gibson had been toying with, which he’d shortly incorporate into his novels like Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, were already up on the screen and he didn’t want to demoralise himself any further. However, for all Blade Runner’s visual impact, Hauer and his fellow cast-members make sure that the human characters (and the artificial human characters) aren’t swamped by the film’s production design.
Played by Hauer, Roy Batty is fascinatingly multi-faceted. By turns he’s brutal, ruthless, terrifyingly physical, animalistic, child-like, icily intellectual, tender, tragic and – when he finally shows mercy to Harrison Ford’s Deckard character and saves him from falling to his doom from the top of a vertiginous skyscraper – noble. In fact, he becomes more sympathetic than Deckard himself, whom we’ve seen blasting down two female replicants, played by Darryl Hannah and Joanna Cassidy, during his work as the blade runner of the title, i.e. a bounty hunter who ‘retires’ rogue replicants. (When Scott finally got to release his Blade Runner: the Director’s Cut in the early 1990s, he gave us clues to suggest that Deckard is not the simple cut-and-dried character he was in the film’s original version.) In Philip K. Dick’s original novel, the replicants have no capacity for human emotions and are presented purely as a threat. In Hampton Fancher and David Peoples’ script for Blade Runner, however, they’re given a pre-programmed four-year lifespan that means their situation has a tragic, almost Milton-esque aspect – they’re not simply running amok but are searching for the corporation head who created them, in the hope that he can extend their lifespans beyond four years.
The film concludes with one of cinema’s great lump-in-throat moments when Hauer, after rescuing Ford, and just before he dies, gives his famous tears-in-the-rain speech – “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.” Hauer improvised the soliloquy himself and no doubt it’s the film clip that’ll be shown on TV news reports on the day that the great Dutchman goes to meet his own maker. But hopefully that won’t happen for a while yet.
(c) Recorded Picture Company
With Blade Runner, unfortunately, Hauer had already hit his peak. Whatever he did afterwards, no matter how good it was, couldn’t help but be slightly anti-climactic. But he certainly got some decent roles over the next few years. In 1983 he appeared with Gene Hackman, Theresa Russell, Mickey Rourke and Joe Pesci in Eureka, directed by the legendary Nicholas Roeg. Dismissed at the time as the weakest of Roeg’s movies, Eureka has more lately been reappraised, positively – Danny Boyle, for instance, has championed it.
The same year, Hauer starred in another underrated film by another legendary director, Sam Peckinpah’s The Osterman Weekend. Based on the novel by Robert Ludlum, it’s a complicated and sometimes uneasy mixture. It combines a conspiracy thriller with a satire of the growing CCTV / surveillance culture that was turning countries into real-life equivalents of George Orwell’s 1984, and Peckinpah also throws in those bloody, slow-motion action sequences that he could have directed in his sleep by then – indeed, this was his final film. Nonetheless, The Osterman Weekend is entertaining and its cast (Hauer, John Hurt, Dennis Hopper, Craig T. Nelson, Meg Foster and Burt Lancaster) is a pleasure. It certainly wasn’t the worst way that Peckinpah could have ended his career.
In 1985, Hauer teamed up with his old colleague Paul Verhoeven for the violent medieval adventure Flesh + Blood, which was supposedly based on unused material from the Dutch TV series Hauer had starred in, Floris. I’ve never seen Floris, but if it resembled the fest of blood, breasts, buttocks and bubonic plague that is Flesh + Blood, it must have been pretty racy for the standards of TV at the time. (Verhoeven also considered Hauer for the lead role in his next, and best, Hollywood film, Robocop, but eventually he opted for Peter Weller.)
(c) Warner Brothers
And in 1985, Hauer appeared with Michelle Pfeiffer in Ladyhawke, which was one of a glut of fantasy movies made during the 1980s – see also Dark Crystal, Dragonslayer, Krull, Legend, Labyrinth and Willow. I’ve always considered Ladyhawke an elegant and charming film, thanks largely to its leads. However, it’s another Hauer movie that’s been unfairly underrated and neglected – perhaps it needed to have David Bowie playing the King of the Goblins to lodge in people’s memories.
The following year, Hauer got his second-most memorable role, as the title character in the horror movie The Hitcher. Wearing a long dark coat and with a Nietzschean gleam in his eye, he plays a mysterious hitchhiking psychopath who stalks the near-empty highways of the American desert and butchers anyone hapless enough to stop and offer him a ride. C. Thomas Howell picks him up early on the film and isn’t too happy when Hauer starts reminiscing about the previous driver to have given him a lift: “…I cut off his legs… and his arms… and his head. And I’m going to do the same to you.” Howell manages to outwit him, but then finds himself embroiled in a desperate cat-and-mouse game with the dark-clad monster.
As a relatively modern country, the USA doesn’t really have any ancient myths for filmmakers to exploit – unless they dig around in the folklore of the Native Americans – but The Hitcher, with its bleak desert vistas and lonely, nocturnal road-scapes, and with a main character who seems almost supernatural in his malevolence and omnipotence, manages to tap into something primordially American. It evokes, for example, the Doors song Riders on the Storm (“There’s a killer on the road…”) I’ve also seen a painting by the artist Peter Booth in a gallery in Australia – another young country of wide open spaces and long, straight highways – that somehow captures the vibe of this particular movie. Here’s the painting. If that central figure doesn’t look like Rutger Hauer, I don’t know what does.
After The Hitcher, alas, the quality of Hauer’s movies nosedived. Many of them went straight to video (or later, straight to DVD), and the best that can be said of them is that some fall into the ‘enjoyably stupid’ category. Definitely in that category is Philip Noyce’s Blind Fury in 1989, in which Hauer plays a former soldier, blinded in battle, who’s learned to use his remaining four senses to become an expert in the martial arts – meaning he’s deadly at wielding a samurai sword but useless at driving a van when trying to escape from the baddies. (Needless to say, Noyce inserts a sequence where the sightless Hauer has indeed to drive a van to escape from the baddies.)
I’m also quite partial to the cheap science fiction actioner Wedlock (1991), in which Hauer plays a convict who escapes from a futuristic prison and sets off to find the villains who’ve double-crossed him. The catch is that the prison inmates are paired off and forced to wear deadly explosive collars that blow up if they pass beyond a certain distance from each other – meaning that Hauer has to escape with his collar-wearing partner (played by Mimi Rogers) and keep her close while they’re subsequently chased by the authorities. (It would make more sense if the convicts’ deadly partner-collars weren’t worn by other convicts but were kept locked up in a vault in the middle of the prison – nobody, surely, would try to escape then.) The film is helped by deliciously villainous performances by Joan Chen, as Hauer’s treacherous ex-wife, and by the great character actor Stephen Tobolowsky, as the slimy prison governor.
While Hauer’s film output stayed mostly below the radar during the 1990s and early 2000s, he was also busy in television, appearing in series and one-off dramas such as Alias, Escape from Sobibor, Fatherland, Hostile Waters, Inside the Third Reich, Merlin and Smallville. He was also, for a while, the face of the advertising campaign for Ireland’s national drink, Guinness stout. He presumably got the job because with his shock of blonde hair and his trademark black clothes he rather resembled a pint of Guinness himself. When I saw Blade Runner: the Director’s Cut in a London cinema in the early 1990s, there was a roar of laughter when one of Hauer’s Guinness adverts popped up on the screen just before the main feature.
But after a decade-and-a-half in the straight-to-DVD wilderness, Hauer’s movie fortunes seemed to improve again. In 2005 he was given villainous roles (though admittedly minor ones) in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Perhaps the fact that both films owe an obvious visual debt to Blade Runner influenced Hauer’s casting. More recently, he appeared in Cyrus Frisch’s experimental movie Dazzle, acclaimed as one of the best Dutch films of 2009. He was also the star of 2011’s Hobo with a Shotgun, the full-length spin-off from one of the fictitious movie trailers in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse project. I haven’t seen Hobo with a Shotgun, but my brother has – he says it’s the worst film he’s ever seen, so it might actually be worth watching.
Recently, Hauer has appeared as Van Helsing in Dracula 3D, an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel by the once-great Italian director Dario Argento. Reviews of Dracula 3D have not been good, to say the least, and it sounds like it’s another nail in the coffin of Argento’s reputation. Come to think of it, Hauer has a poor track record with vampires – he played a rather camp Vampire King in 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a crude and disappointing movie prototype for the much, much better TV series that would appear in the late 1990s. Hopefully he’ll have better luck with the currently-running vampire TV show True Blood, for whose sixth season he has recently signed up.
Away from the film and television cameras, Hauer is a keen environmentalist and he’s been involved in the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. (There’s also a Rutger Hauer Starfish Association, which is not, as you might expect, a group dedicated to conserving starfish, but is in fact an AIDS awareness organisation.) Hauer’s environmental concerns may explain why, the last time I visited his website (http://www.rutgerhauer.org/), there was film footage of penguins on it, cavorting about on the ice.
Then again, they might have been replicant penguins…
A few weeks ago I found myself watching, on TV, the 2010 John Landis-directed movie Burke and Hare. It’s the latest film to tell the story of the notorious murderers who, in the early 19th century, kept the Edinburgh Medical School supplied with cadavers for its dissection tables. The bodies Burke and Hare supplied, of course, were those of people to whom they’d given some assistance in dying. The film is pretty silly and shambolic, although it’s hard to dislike a movie whose cast includes Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Jessica Hynes, Tom Wilkinson, David Hayman, Bill Bailey, Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Jenny Agutter, Sir Christopher Lee, Paul Whitehouse, John Woodvine, Stephen Merchant and – yes! – Ronnie Corbett. What I found distracting about it, though, were the numerous references in the script to Burke and Hare’s base on the street of West Port, which stands south of Edinburgh Castle and west of Edinburgh’s Grassmarket. That’s because when I hear ‘West Port’ I don’t normally think of Burke and Hare. I think of books.
I have fond memories of wandering along West Port and browsing in the second-hand bookshops that seemingly infested the place. These sold everything from creased and dog-eared paperbacks to bespoke volumes that were worth a small fortune (a fortune by my impoverished standards, at least). Today my book collection is packed with items – from the back-catalogues of authors like J.G. Ballard, Anthony Burgess, Angela Carter, William Golding and Graham Greene – that can be traced to Armchair Books, or Main Point Books, or one of the other establishments huddling on the sides of this narrow and slightly winding street.
In recent years, however, West Port has seen redevelopment, including the building of a block containing a Sainsbury’s Local on the site of the much-missed live-music venue Cas Rock. Also, conventional bookshops have been struggling thanks to changed reading habits and to competition from Internet outfits like Amazon and the ever-growing number of charity shops. (Edinburgh’s Nicholson Street / Clerk Street now has shops run by Barnardo’s and Oxfam that are devoted to selling books alone.) So whenever I’ve visited West Port of late, I’ve had the impression that the bookselling scene there is not as healthy as it was and its bookshops have been slowly disappearing. Indeed, a few years ago, I read somewhere that Edinburgh Books (which was then West Port Books) had narrowly escaped being converted into a trendy café.
The other day when I was in Edinburgh, I thought I’d take my camera, have a stroll along West Port and do a count of the bookshops that are still in existence there. As it turned out, I found six shops that were open at the time, on West Port and on the adjoining Bread Street, which connects the neighbourhood with Lothian Road. These were Peter Bell Books, Armchair Books, Edinburgh Books, Main Point Books and Pulp Fiction, plus an antiques / curios shop with a selection of books down in its basement. Peter Bell Books and Armchair Books are currently half-hidden by a giant truss of scaffolding, so the photographs I took of them were less than stunning.
Armchair Books is, for me, the very heart of West Port. A guddle of boxes of super-cheap books on the pavement outside, its walls inside stacked to the ceiling with thousands, if not zillions, of tomes, it is actually two premises – number 72 mostly sells fiction, number 74 next door sells non-fiction. When I visited West Port the other day, I had no intention of purchasing anything. But eventually I couldn’t resist popping into Armchair Books, where I subsequently ended up buying Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia Spring, J.G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company and Anthony Burgess’s The Pianoplayers – such is the spell woven by this Aladdin’s-Cave-for-booklovers. It does seem a bit better organised these days, though. In times past, the supposed alphabetical arrangement of the books’ authors would lead you on a merry dance, back and forth and into all sorts of awkward nooks and crannies. Also, the cranky and entertaining notices that used to be stuck on the walls, in which the management expressed its disdain for health-and-safety inspectors – I assume at some point the council criticised the place, with its vertiginously high shelves, for exposing customers to possible death-by-book-avalanche – have apparently been taken down.
I like to think that West Port is more a state of mind than a geographical locality. Maybe it’s a state of mind that extends eastwards across the Grassmarket and up Victoria Street and Candlemaker Row, for several more bookshops are located there – making that neighbourhood a sort of ‘West Port East’. Up Victoria Street is the Old Town Bookshop, which sells a mixture of modern and antiquarian books, plus historical prints and maps, and which has been operating for 35 years. Lower down the same street is a more recent establishment called the Golden Hare, a rather arty-farty bookstore that also hosts – whoooh! – a ‘poetry-reading circle’. Meanwhile, as you head up Candlemaker Row, you’ll encounter Analogue Books, selling art and design volumes, the durable wee science fiction bookshop Transreal Fiction, and a law bookshop called Avizandum. (‘Avizandum’ is a Scots legal term that refers to the private period of consideration that a judge or court give to a case before pronouncing judgement.)
I should say that not everybody who heads towards West Port is necessarily a mild-mannered, cerebral booklover. Fittingly in a city that was once home to Robert Louis Stevenson, author of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, West Port also has a shady and disreputable side. It is known in some quarters as ‘the Pubic Triangle’ and can claim to have three lap-dancing bars. One of them is called, appropriately, the Burke and Hare. Also, there’s a sex shop called Eros on Bread Street close to Pulp Fiction. Evidence, then, that West Port offers gratification of the flesh as well as gratification of the mind.
218 years after his death, legendary Scottish poet Robert Burns still exerts an influence. An example this week has been the spat between the Glaswegian singer Eddi Reader, regarded by many as the greatest living interpreter of Burns’ songs, and Lord Steel of Aikwood. In his pre-lordship incarnation as plain old David Steel, he was Member of Parliament for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale and leader of the Liberal Party during its alliance with the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s, before the two parties merged to become the Liberal Democrats. After he was ennobled, and after the Scottish Parliament was set up in 1999, he served too as the new parliament’s Presiding Officer.
I suspect that most people today, if they remember Steel at all, will remember him as the hapless little puppet on Spitting Image, being bullied and abused by his bigger and nastier alliance partner, Social Democrats leader Dr David Owen. However, Steel was a cannier political operator than his Spitting Image puppet suggested. I’m sure he’d have been too canny to do what the present Liberal Democrat leadership have done, entering into a governing coalition with the Conservatives – a move so unpopular it looks likely to wipe them out in Britain at the next general election, apart perhaps from a few remote seabird colonies in the northwest Atlantic, where they may still cling to power. Then again, in an Edinburgh council election two years ago, they were outpolled by a penguin, so even that might not happen.
In a debate in the House of Lords about the upcoming Scottish independence referendum and the possibility of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom – the Scottish National Party don’t have any representatives in the House of Lords, and with only representatives from the pro-Union Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties participating, it was a pretty one-sided debate – Lord Steel poo-pooed the idea of an independent Scottish broadcasting corporation, an ‘SBC’, being anywhere near as good as the existing BBC. Why, he said, all an SBC would be capable of doing would be “feeding us a diet of Eddi Reader murdering Burns’ simple melodies.”
This week Eddi Reader hit back at Lord Steel. Writing on a website, she complained that “I just had to scrabble around to find the money to pay an enormous personal tax bill this month… Some of that goes into that guy’s pocket.” She also referred to him as a ‘dishonourable birkie’. A birkie is a Scots word for an arrogant and well-to-do young man – I suppose what today we’d call a Hooray Henry – and that’s hardly a term I’d use for the seventy-something Lord Steel. Though no doubt she was referencing a line in the famous Burns poem / song A Man’s a Man for A’ That: “Ye see thon birkie ca’d a ‘a lord’ / Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that?”
Well, I can’t say Eddi Reader did herself any favours with her appearance on a recent edition of the BBC’s QuestionTime, in which she behaved like a crazed harpy. And I’m no fan of her version of Auld Lang Syne, which I find needlessly drawn out and strangulated. But most of her interpretations of Burns, in my opinion, have been commendable and she’s worked hard to popularise the Alloway bard among modern music audiences. No wonder that the late John Peel would usually give a birl to a few of her renditions during his radio show each Burns Night.
Furthermore, I would hazard a guess and say that even Reader’s take on Auld Lang Syne, caterwauling though it is, is superior to Lord Steel’s one foray into the musical world. Yes, prior to the general election in 1983, Steel saw fit to lend his vocals to a song called I Feel Liberal, Alright, intended to raise his party’s profile among young voters. The song was beyond horrible. At least Steel showed himself to be a little ahead of the curve in trying to appear ‘in with’ and ‘down with’ the kids and their popular music. Later decades would see Tony Blair hobnobbing with Oasis, Gordon Brown professing a love for the Arctic Monkeys and David Cameron making The Killers one of his choices on Desert Island Discs. Aye, right.
I read somewhere that Steel’s missus, Lady Judy Steel of Aikwood, intends to vote ‘yes’ to Scottish independence, even if an independent Scotland means she’ll be a Lady no longer. I just hope that after hearing her husband’s discourteous words about Ms Reader, she walloped him over the head with a rolling pin – or with a more Burnsian, thick, wooden spurtle – when he arrived home from the House of Lords.
Incidentally, I have tried to treat the Scottish referendum debate – with all its claims and accusations, and counter-claims and counter-accusations – with a level-headed, objective detachment, but that debate in the House of Lords did make my blood boil. It boiled particularly when Lord Lang of Monkton got up and declared that the creation of an independent Scotland would ‘dishonour’ the memories of all those Scottish soldiers who died fighting for Britain during various wars.
I’m sure that over the centuries British propagandists told those soldiers – sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly – that if they made the ultimate sacrifice, they’d at least be fighting for freedom, the highest cause. But Lang’s concept of ‘freedom’ is apparently not one that includes the freedom of a group of people to vote for political autonomy.
Once upon a time Lord Lang was Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Scotland under John Major’s Conservative government in the 1990s – a less-than-democratic period when the Conservatives had just ten MPs out of a Scottish total of 72 and Lang had to run the place like a colonial governor. I remember when there were peaceful demonstrations in Glasgow and Edinburgh calling for (a degree of) Scottish home rule, Lang described the demonstrations as being ‘a nonsense’ organised by ‘headless chickens’. (For the record, I was one of those headless chickens, back in my relatively un-grey, un-wrinkled and un-cynical youth in 1992.) When a devolved Scottish Parliament finally was established at the end of the decade, under a Labour government, the number of Scottish Conservative MPs had been reduced to zero. The irony is that the handful of Conservative politicians who got elected to the new parliament, under proportional representation, was the only thing keeping Lang’s party alive in Scotland as it entered the 21st century.
Lang no doubt wanted to stir things up in this, the 100th anniversary-year of the start of World War I, when about 100,000 Scottish soldiers died in what was essentially a face-off between Imperial powers, orchestrated by jackasses like Field Marshal Douglas Haig. To use the famous phrase coined by the late historian Alan Clark, who as one of Lang’s old Conservative Party comrades was no left-wing revisionist, those Scottish soldiers were some of the ‘lions led by donkeys’. I would like to think that an independent Scotland would still honour the men, but not honour the cause.
Sadly, nobody in the House of Lords saw fit to take Lang to task for the offensive stupidity of what he’d said — nobody from the Labour side and nobody from the Liberal Democrat side. Quite the reverse. Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke, who was formerly Helen Liddle and was Secretary of State for Scotland for two years during Tony Blair’s Labour government, praised Lang as a ‘noble lord’ and gave the proceedings the air of a gruesome, ermine-clad love-in. In addition to Lord Lang of Monkton, Lord Steel of Aikwood and Lady Liddell of Coatdyke, the debate’s participants included Baron McConnell of Glenscorrodale, who used to be Jack McConnell, First Minister of Scotland from 2001 to 2007, and who presumably was given a title in recognition of his services to bad kilts; and Lord Freddy of Kreuger – or as his mum used to call him, Michael Forsyth.
Whatever the pros and cons of Scottish independence, surely the prospect of Scotland being able to uncouple itself from the gravy train of Grade-A numpties that is the House of Lords must be a major incentive to vote ‘yes’. In fact, looking at them all, another Burnsian turn of phrase comes to mind: a parcel o’ rogues.
Here, if you can bear it, is a chance to hear a little bit of I Feel Liberal, Alright.
GLOSSARY (My vocabulary tends to turn Scottish when I’m riled)
Eejit – idiot.
Birl – spin.
Spurtle – a kitchen utensil used for stirring things, like a wooden spoon but without a spoonhead.