Fergusson’s Tea Rooms and the Empire Bar

 

 

There is a stereotype about Edinburgh – commonly held by people in other parts of Scotland – which depicts the city as a well-heeled and snooty place, populated by florid-faced middle-aged men who wear Harris Tweed, smell of port and sit in their studies in the evenings writing indignant letters to The Scotsman newspaper complaining about the threats posed to respectable Presbyterian Scottish society by wind-turbines, gay marriage, devil-worship and Alex Salmond (in ascending levels of evilness); also populated by sour-faced middle-aged ladies who wear big hats, smell of sherry and spend all their time plotting their next shopping expeditions to Jenners Department Store on Princes Street; and populated too by clean-cut young men and women with side-partings, white teeth and names like ‘Alastair’ and ‘Aileen’ who don their waxed barber jackets on autumnal Saturday afternoons and go to cheer Heriot’s or Watsonians at the ‘rugger’.

 

Many a Glaswegian person has dismissed Edinburgh contemptuously as being “aw fur coats an’ nae knickers” and boasted that there’s “mair life at a Glasgow funeral than at an Edinburgh weddin’.”  Meanwhile, so snobby are the accents supposed to be in Morningside, the most famously snobby of all Edinburgh’s districts, that it’s said that folk there “think ‘sex’ is somethin’ ye deliver the coal in.”

 

But like many a stereotype, this one is – largely – untrue.  Edinburgh has a sizeable working class population too and this population is celebrated by one of my favourite museums in the city, The People’s Story on the Royal Mile.  The museum is housed inside the Canongate Tolbooth, which from its construction in 1591 until 1848 served as a courthouse and prison, as well as a meeting-place for discussing the affairs of the surrounding Canongate parish.  Because of its significance for the neighbourhood, the front wall of the building bears a memorial to ‘the men of the old burgh of the Canongate who nobly sacrificed their lives in the cause of their country and freedom in the Great War 1914-1918.’  The building was re-opened as a museum in 1954 and following a year’s renovation it re-opened again in 1989 in its current incarnation as The People’s Story.

 

 

The museum is dedicated to the ordinary folk who lived and worked in Edinburgh’s population over the centuries – folk who, because of their ordinariness, tend not to figure much in conventional (Michael Gove-approved) history books or, for that matter, in most museums.  Their recollections about daily life form a big part of the exhibits, as do wall-displays, recreated settings, dressed-up dummies, work-tools, furniture, signs and banners.  In the section of the museum devoted to the traditional trades, I particularly like this display about Edinburgh’s once-extensive brewing industry.  There was a time, well within living memory, when the city’s air seemed suffused with the smell of hops – indeed, I only have to smell hops today and the first thing that enters my head are memories of visiting Edinburgh when I was a teenager.

 

 

Meanwhile, the first time I went into The People’s Story, I honestly thought for a moment that this plaque for the Edinburgh Lodge Office of the Plumbing Trades Union, hanging on a corridor wall, was connected with the little closet door underneath – that the lodge office was behind the door, which was only a few feet high.  Which would have made the members of the Plumbing Trades Union a strange, Hobbit-like collection of people indeed.

 

 

My favourite part of the museum is the room on the top floor, whose theme is the leisure-pursuits of Edinburgh’s ordinary citizens, both younger and older.  There are dummies of three New Romantic-like posers that the information-panel says are representative of the youths who’d hang out at the now-defunct Odeon Cinema on Clerk Street in 1989; though I have to say that I lived around the corner from that cinema in 1989, went to it many times and never saw anyone there dressed like that.  Meanwhile, the leisure-culture of a slightly older generation, from the 1970s, is represented by a durable punk rocker slouched nonchalantly in a corner.  That dummy has now, in 2014, weathered the second wave and third wave of punk rock music as well.  No doubt he’ll weather the fourth, fifth and sixth waves too before they change him.

 

 

In the room’s corner, meanwhile, are recreations of the Empire Bar and Fergusson’s Tea Rooms on Potterow.  Drinking in the bar, explains the panel, are Alex Fraser and Sandy Watt, who are eagerly anticipating the Hearts-Hibernian match being held in the quarter final of the Scottish Cup that afternoon – which is ‘Saturday, March 4th, 1933’.  And on the taped soundtrack that accompanies the display, one of them – I can’t remember if it’s Alex or Sandy – is also moaning about his wife, who won’t allow a drop of alcohol in the house.  At the same time their wives, Lizzie and Elsie, are ensconced in the tea room, which, before it became acceptable for females to drink in pubs, was the social venue of choice for any Scotswoman with the slightest pretension to gentility.

 

 

(In his 1935 travel book Scottish Journey, the Orcadian writer and poet Edwin Muir wrote: “The effect that these places are designed to produce is one of luxury, and the more select of them strive for an impression of adroitly muffled silence, silence being in an industrial civilisation, which is the noisiest known form of civilisation, the supreme evidence of luxury because the most difficult thing to achieve.”  However, he also made this unexpected observation about the Scottish tea room: “Nowhere that I have been is one so bathed and steeped and rolled about in floating sexual desire.”)

 

I find it reassuring that every time I’ve gone into The People’s Museum over the years, Alex and Sandy are still there, drinking pints and playing dominoes, as are Lizzie and Elsie, contemplating the scones and triangular-cut sandwiches on their plates; and the four are discussing exactly the same things they’ve discussed since 1989.  They’ve become so familiar to me that they almost seem like old friends.

 

There are still a few old-style pubs around, thankfully, but the tea-room seems to be something that’s vanished from daily Scottish life.  Or so you think, until you leave The People’s Story and walk a little further down the Royal Mile and encounter the prim and ornate premises of Clarinda’s Tea Room – no doubt offering its patrons the luxury of silence and, perhaps, a titillating chance to be “bathed and steeped and rolled about in floating sexual desire.”

 

 

My personal British bucket list

 

From enchantedlearning.com

 

Regular readers will know that, as the referendum on Scottish independence in September draws near, Blood and Porridge is leaning towards a yes-to-independence vote.  (This is largely due to a succession of great – I use that adjective ironically – political minds from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties urging Scots to vote no-to-independence.  If creeps, windbags and knuckle-draggers like George Osborne, George Robertson and Ian Davidson tell you to do one thing, it’s surely sensible to do the opposite.)  However, there’s still a part of my identity that considers itself ‘British’.  And if that sounds like a contradiction, I would direct you to an article that a while ago Edinburgh author Irvine Welsh wrote about this subject for the website Bella Caledonia:

 

http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2013/01/10/irvine-welsh-on-scottish-independence-and-british-unity/

 

In his article, Welsh argues that Scottish independence would allow the Scots to get on with running their country free from the hindrances and injustices (real or imagined) that they see as emanating from Westminster under the current system.  They could also get on with being happy geographical citizens of Britain, or the British Isles, or the British and Irish Isles, and with being good neighbours to the peoples who share the island, or islands, with them.  It’s similar, Welsh says, to how you can be Swedish, Danish or Norwegian and still be a proud Scandinavian and participate in the Nordic Council.  (In fact, there’s a body called the British-Irish Council, which has summits twice a year and has a membership comprised of British Prime Minister, the Republic of Ireland’s Taoiseach, the First Ministers of the devolved parliaments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and the Chief Ministers of the Guernsey, Jersey and Isle of Man governments – but as the council exists outside the ‘Westminster Bubble’, it’s entirely ignored by the London-centric British media.)  Welsh even sees no reason why an independent Scotland shouldn’t continue to have Scottish athletes competing within the British team at the Olympics.

 

Anyway, the British part of me was interested to see in a newspaper last weekend an article about a ‘Great British bucket list’ – i.e. a list of fifty British-related activities that everyone should attempt to do before they die.  The list was compiled by the search engine Ask Jeeves and it consisted of the fifty most common ideas that came up in a survey of 1000 British adults:

 

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/10774840/The-Great-British-Bucket-List-fish-and-chips-and-a-picnic.html

 

I have to say, though, that I was disappointed when I read through the Great British bucket list.  Some of the British things-to-do-before-you-die seemed depressingly lame: “Eat fish and chips on a seaside pier…  Go on a historic London pub tour…  Watch a box-set of Only Fools and Horses.”  Some other things seemed to involve cheesy tourist-tat Britain at its worst: “Attend first day of a Harrods sale…  See Oxford Street Christmas lights in London…  See the trooping of the colour.”  At least one thing was not such much a thing-to-do-before-you-die as a thing-to-do-to-make-yourself-die: “Be at a recording of The X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent.”  However, it at least gave me the idea of compiling my own bucket-list of things to do before you die, based on my experiences of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

 

Here, then, are thirty (I couldn’t think of fifty) things I would urge you to do, while you still draw breath, in the four nations that – currently – make up the United Kingdom.  As this is my list, the activities are heavily biased towards walking, cycling and pub-crawling.  Also, I’m afraid I don’t know Wales and parts of Northern and Midland England very well, so those places are under-represented or not represented at all – my apologies to any Welsh people, Northern people and Midland people out there.

 

(c) BBC

 

Pay a visit to one of the UK’s cosy little arthouse cinemas – for example, Cinema City in Norwich, or the Tyneside in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, or the Cameo in Edinburgh – and watch a film you wouldn’t normally see in a multiplex.  Have a pint while you’re on the premises too.

 

Visit the scenic island of Barra in the south-western Outer Hebrides and go for a walk along its main road.  Keep walking along that road and you’ll eventually end up where you started from.  If you fly in, you’ll land on the only airport runway in the world that gets washed every day – for it’s actually a beach called An Traigh Mhor.

 

Attend a Borders sevens-a-side rugby tournament.  Melrose Sevens is the most famous one but any of them is worth attending.  I’ll use that as an excuse to plug this year’s Peebles Sevens on April 27th:

 

http://www.kingsofthesevens.net/sevenstournament.asp?town=Peebles

 

Attend a gig at Brixton Academy – preferably a drunken, raucous one.  Primal Scream are always a good bet.

 

After an evening out in Glasgow, eat a chicken tikka masala – the UK’s favourite spicy dish – at an Indian curry house.  Chicken tikka masala, as any good pub-bore will tell you, was quite possibly not invented in India at all, but in the Shish Mahal restaurant in Gibson Street in Glasgow.

 

From sv.wikipedia.org

 

Pay a visit to the Chinese New Year festivities at one of the country’s several Chinatowns, which range in area from the reasonably big (in London) to the tiny (in Newcastle).

 

Take a stroll through Constable Country along the Essex / Suffolk border, taking in such places as Capel St Mary, Dedham and Flatford.

 

Go for a tramp around Dartmoor – and keep tramping until you encounter some wild Dartmoor ponies.

 

Don some black clothes and swig a pint of cider in the Devonshire Arms (alright, I know it’s now called the Hobgoblin, but to everyone who goes there it’s still the Devonshire, or more popularly still, the Dev), the greatest Goth-metal pub in Camden, in London and possibly in the UK.

 

Enjoy a pub-crawl among the countless temporary bars that spring up in and around the venues for the Edinburgh Festival and then disappear again after enjoying a mayfly-like existence of a couple of weeks.  You can, of course, attend a few shows while you’re at it.  You can even, if you’re feeling ironic and post-modern, attend the Edinburgh Military Tattoo as well.

 

Hike up the Eildon Hills, the trio of peaks that provide the Scottish Borders with their most famous landmark.  Watch out for the Eildon Tree, where medieval bard and seer Thomas the Rhymer is said to have encountered the Queen of Fairyland and acquired his powers of prophecy.  And don’t forget to visit Melrose Abbey, either before you go up or after you come down.

 

Set aside any prejudices you might have about Freemasonry and visit the Freemasons’ Museum in London – preferably while a tour of the premises is taking place, so that you get a chance to view the design and symbolism of the most remarkable Art Deco building in London.

 

Drink a pint outside Newcastle’s Free Trade pub, located on a rise above where the River Ouseburn joins the River Tyne.  The elevation allows you to look up the Tyne and over Newcastle’s famous bridges, and it’s one of the best views in northern England.

 

Take a picture of yourself draped over one of the volcanic slabs at Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim, like one of those worryingly young and worryingly naked models pictured on the cover of the Led Zeppelin album, Houses of the Holy.

 

(c) Atlantic Records

 

Drive through Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands on a misty day.  Keep your eyes open for the Skyfall Estate, the home of James Bond’s parents, which might just appear through the murk.

 

Play a round of golf at St Andrews.  If you’re an inverted snob, you can thumb your nose at the town’s Royal and Ancient Golf Club and play mini-golf instead.  (That’s what I did.)

 

Take a stroll along the top of one of the remaining sections of Hadrian’s Wall.

 

Ride a bicycle along the A686 east of Penrith, up the Hartside Pass to a height of 1904 feet.  It’s gruelling but you’ll feel a sense of achievement when you reach the top.  Then you can luxuriate in the gradual descent on the other side, all the way to Alston, the highest market town in England.

 

Follow in George Orwell’s footsteps and go hoppicking in Kent.  Although nowadays it might all be mechanised and you can’t go hop-picking in Kent.

 

Visit that wonderful little museum in London, John Soanes’ House, and make sure you’re in the picture gallery at a time when an attendant pulls back the hinged walls and reveals a hidden cache of paintings by William Hogarth.

 

Go to Land’s End in the middle of winter, when it’s rainy, windy and desolate and there’s nobody else there.

 

Go perch-fishing on Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.

 

Have a look around Aberdeen’s Marischal College, the second-largest granite building in the world.  It was rumoured that Adolf Hitler admired it more than any other British building and planned to move into it once he’d invaded and conquered the UK.  But that was just an urban myth started by some naughty Aberdeen University students.

 

Connect with your inner socialist and attend the yearly Miners’ Gala in Durham.

 

Visit Nottingham’s Newstead Abbey, which was the home of the young Lord Byron, Britain’s greatest romantic poet.  It even has a dress-up-as-Byron corner where you can don a big baggy white shirt and then inspect yourself in a mirror to make sure you look suitably Byronic.

 

 

Taking a walk along the North Norfolk coast – preferably along a route that takes in the eerily desolate salt marshes west of Wells-next-the-Sea.

 

Have a wander around Roslyn Chapel, south of Edinburgh, and see how many pagan green men you can count carved on its walls.

 

Admire the streetmurals in Belfast, surely the UK’s largest (and most contentious) open-air art gallery (http://www.belfast-murals.co.uk/).

 

Get on the Metro in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on a Saturday morning and nip along to Tynemouth Station, where you can check out the antiques, crafts and curios market that every week is arranged across the platforms there.

 

Take a trek along the top of the historic York City Wall, the biggest defensive wall still standing around the centre of a British city or town.  And feel free to drop in on any pubs you see along the way.

 

The American school-kids’ guide to Europe

 

Whilst taking a ramble around the Internet recently, I happened across a site where someone had posted the results of a Geography test at a school in the United States.  The school-kids had been given a map of Europe showing the borders of the countries but with the countries’ names blanked out.  They were asked to write the right names in the right countries.

 

Predictably, the way that the tasks were completed tells us some interesting things.  It tells us about those American kids’ grasp of the geography of the wider world – not very good in some cases.  It also gives insight into how certain countries are perceived culturally in the Land of the Free.  I’ve reproduced a few of those completed maps below.  Among my favourite details are…

 

…How one kid labelled the Scandinavian countries ‘hot blonde people’ and thought that ‘French people’ lived in France – ‘probably’.

 

…How another kid was unable to identify Holland, but managed to write ‘pot’ within the country’s borders.

 

…How someone called Northern Ireland the Shire.  Presumably that’s J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire in Middle-Earth.  (This makes me wonder if the place’s inhabitants ask each other the question, “Are you a Catholic Hobbit or a Protestant Hobbit?”)  This kid also thought that Belgium was Euro-Disney, described Portugal as ‘West Spain’ and described Scandinavia as ‘The Northlands’.

 

…How the various countries making up the British (and Irish) Isles seemed synonymous with various cultural figures and phenomena: U2, Sean Connery, Braveheart, Mr Darcy, Doctor Who, Harry Potter and another Harry, the singer in One Direction.  (I know David Cameron and other politicians lately have been extolling the importance of ‘soft power’ for Britain, but if the most powerful thing in a country’s arsenal is Harry Styles…  Well, it’s not quite as impressive as, say, Vladimir Putin having control over Europe’s gas supplies.)

 

It’s easy to scoff, but I actually thought that some of those kids’ answers were quite good.  The kids’ situation should be emphasised – they live, after all, in a different continent on the far side of a very big ocean.  And it made me wonder how a typical bunch of British youngsters (or British adults, for that matter) would fare if they were made to do the same task.  The British are supposed to be Europeans, but their ignorance of Europe is well-known.  And with opinion polls for the forthcoming European Parliamentary elections putting support for Nigel Farage and his Little Englander UKIP party as high as 27%, the ignorance becomes disdain in some quarters.

 

I managed to fill out the map correctly, but I had to do much of it through a process of deduction.  And besides, I have an advantage – I’ve travelled in a lot of those places.

 

All from www.buzzfeed.com

 

87 years of sagacity

 

(c) New York Times

 

The fiction of Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died last week at the age of 87, evoked a sense of time and place with great vividness and clarity.  It seems appropriate, then, that I can clearly recall when and where I was while I read much of it.

 

His 1985 novel Love in the Time of Cholera I read during a winter at the start of the 1990s, while I was working at a Japanese senior high school in rural Hokkaido, the northernmost and coldest major island in the Japanese archipelago.  I remember immersing myself in the book between classes at my desk in the school staffroom, only breaking my reading occasionally to glance out of the nearby window, beyond which there was a desolate white expanse of snowdrifts and falling snowflakes.  So the contrast between the book’s setting – a ‘steamy and sleepy’ port-town in Colombia – and my setting could not have felt weirder.

 

I was still in Japan five years later when I read his 1955 short-story collection Leaf Storm, though I’d moved to Hokkaido’s main city of Sapporo by then.  During that period I was on a fitness kick and, for a while, Leaf Storm was the book I read to stop myself getting bored while I plodded along on the stair-master and treadmill in the Renaissance Fitness Club, a block down the street from my apartment.  I remember the atmosphere of those stories being particularly damp and sticky, but perhaps that was less to do with the humidity of their Latin American setting and more to do with the sweat that was gushing off me at the time.

 

And I read 1975’s The Autumn of the Patriarch a year later, while I was on a holiday in Thailand.  I read most of it in one day.  It was a day when the Thais were commemorating a member of their royal family who’d recently died and all the bars, restaurants, cafes and shops were shut in her honour.  So I read Garcia Marquez’s strange little novel about a brutal right-wing South American dictator – its pages of prose seemingly not containing a single full-stop – whilst sitting with an empty stomach and dry throat on a park bench in Bangkok.

 

I don’t, however, remember where I was when I read his 1981 book Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which was a fictionalised reconstruction of a murder that’d happened in real life.  At the same time, I’ve never been able to shake off the memory of the book’s most graphic detail – the stench of faeces exuding from a stab-wound in the belly of the victim.

 

I have to confess that I’ve never read his most famous novel, 1967’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.  I did acquire the book but it managed to migrate to a cardboard box in my Dad’s attic – like many of my possessions – before I had time to read it.

 

Garcia Marquez was a man with a left-wing viewpoint and he was particularly incensed at how the democratically elected and socialistic president of Chile, Salvador Allende, was overthrown in a military coup by General Augusto Pinochet.  Needless to say, Pinochet did this with logistical support from the CIA and intellectual encouragement from Milton Friedman and his groupies at the University of Chicago’s School of Economics.  The coup, which took place on September 11th, 1973, was followed by a killing spree that left 3,200 people either dead or disappeared – many of the victims executed inside the two main football stadiums in Santiago, the Chile Stadium and the National Stadium.  Thus, the date 9/11 has a different, but equally dark, significance at either end of the American continents.

 

Garcia Marquez vowed, in fact, to stop writing for as long as Pinochet was in power, but when it became clear that the old tyrant was going to last longer than people had predicted – eventually, his dictatorship survived for 17 years – the writer, thankfully, reneged on his vow.  “What I was doing was allowing Pinochet to stop me from writing,” he noted later, “which means I had submitted to voluntary censorship.”  (Margaret Thatcher, incidentally, considered Pinochet a good friend of hers.  She also thought Jimmy Savile was the bees’ knees, so the woman really knew how to pick them.)

 

Here is a link to an article that Garcia Marquez wrote about the horrors that befell Chile in 1973, which was reprinted in the New Statesman last year – the 40th year since the coup – and then reprinted again in the Guardian after his death last week:

 

http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2013/04/why-allende-had-die

 

Recent British horror movies… 2

 

(c) Sterling Pictures

 

A while ago I posted an entry in which I gave my thoughts about some recent, or recent-ish, British horror films: Elfie Hopkins, Community, Sawney – Flesh of Man, Before Dawn and Tony.  Here are my thoughts about a few more.

 

I tuned into the movie Stalker late one evening on the Horror Channel, wondering if in a fit of eccentricity ‘the UK’s first channel dedicated to the dark side of cinema and television’ had decided to broadcast Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi / art-house masterpiece from 1979.  Alas, this was a different Stalker – it was a British horror movie from 2011 directed by Martin Kemp.  Yes, that’s the Martin Kemp, who was a key member of Spandau Ballet, which in turn was a key band in the New Romantic movement that invaded the charts when I was in my mid-teens and nearly made me give up on music forever.  However, whilst reviewing this 2011 Stalker, I’ll refrain from making jokes about Martin Kemp having past form in generating horror.  Though I have to say that whenever I hear a few bars of True, my blood still turns to ice.

 

Stalker is pretty ho-hum.  It’s about a novelist suffering from writer’s block whose agent sends her on a retreat to a country mansion in an effort to get her creative juices flowing again.  The retreat package includes having a Personal Assistant to see to her every need.  But it transpires that this PA has writing ambitions of her own and also has a major screw loose – she imprisons the novelist, takes over the writing of her next book and murders anyone who interferes or distracts her.  There’s a twist to the tale that’ll only surprise somebody who’s never seen a horror film before.  Indeed, Kemp has such little faith in the twist that, rather than unveil it at the film’s climax, he has a secondary character give it away in conversation a few scenes before that climax arrives.

 

(c) Black & Blue Films 

 

Stalker is oddly old-fashioned.  It recalls those little psychological thrillers like Paranoiac and Fear in the Night that Hammer Films used to crank out when they weren’t making full-blown gothic monster movies, although Kemp predictably makes one concession to modernity, which is to up the amount of bloodletting.  But his cast is pleasant enough.  It includes Billy Murray from the TV police-soap opera The Bill, Colin Salmon from the Pierce Brosnan James Bond movies, and – yes! – Linda Hayden, who played the villainess in legendary British ‘folk horror’ movie Blood on Satan’s Claw back in 1970.

 

Most modern horror filmmakers seem to have little interest in characterisation, which is a pity because I think good characterisation is vital for the genre.  If you can identify with and root for the characters, the threats to their safety that inevitably arise in a horror film seem all the more visceral.  Last year’s The World’s End – third in the so-called ‘Cornetto Trilogy’ of movies directed by Edgar Wright, starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and comprised too of 2004’s Shaun of the Dead and 2007’s Hot Fuzz – has as its main character a forty-something loser who dresses in black, obsesses about indie and Goth bands that were big a quarter-century earlier, likes nothing better than getting blasted out of his mind during massive pub crawls and embarrasses his old school friends who’ve moved on from such stuff and settled into respectable, middle-class jobs.  Plenty that I can identify with, in other words.

 

(c) Working Title 

 

This character, played by Simon Pegg, tracks down four old schoolmates and begs, goads and bullies them into returning to their hometown and restaging an epic pub crawl that they originally attempted as teenagers after their final day of school.  The crawl involves downing a pint in each of twelve local pubs, although their 18-year-old selves didn’t make it to the final pub on the itinerary, the appropriately-titled World’s End.  Pegg is determined to do all twelve this time around.  His bemused ex-schoolmates are played by Paddy Considine, Eddie Marson, Martin Freeman and the inevitable Nick Frost.

 

Whilst doing their 2013 pub crawl, they gradually realise that during the two decades since they left the town an alien invasion has been subtly underway, which has resulted in most of the town’s inhabitants being replaced by blue-blooded androids.  This discovery, however, doesn’t convince Pegg that abandoning the pub crawl is a good idea.

 

Actually, I wasn’t looking forward to the alien invasion and blue-blooded androids stuff because, during its first, non-fantastical half-hour, The World’s End is an amusing, if melancholic, meditation on how people and places change and on the folly of revisiting the past.  Bravely, Pegg shows the neurosis that underlies his character’s ridiculousness while Frost, Considine and Marson give engaging performances as his reluctant but good-hearted mates tagging along with him.  If Freeman is less successful, it’s because the script gives him the most two-dimensional character to work with.

 

But the revelation of the alien invasion, when it appears, fits in nicely with the themes already established in The World’s End.  Pegg and co. have discovered that their hometown has become a bland conglomeration of chain stores and fast food outlets, indistinguishable from any other town in Britain, while most of the twelve pubs have been bought up by a Wetherspoon-type franchise and have had all individuality sucked out of them.  The aliens are doing the same thing but on a bigger scale.  They’re an intergalactic operation who acquire planets and cleanse them of all their nasty, rough and unhygienic bits by replacing troublesome inhabitants with placid android replicas.  Well-intentioned though these aliens are, they usually end up replacing everyone.  (Their androids, like the café lattes you get in Starbucks, are a bit crap – so that when things kick off, even the mild-mannered Eddie Marson has no problem smashing their artificial faces in.)  Indeed, The World’s End hangs together better than its predecessor, Hot Fuzz, which was a sometimes-uncomfortable mixture of a serial-killer horror film and a spoof of American crime / cop blockbusters.

 

Another reason why I liked The World’s End was its musical soundtrack, which was obviously put together by someone with a love for the indie music scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the period when the movie’s characters were young.  It includes the Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, Charlatans, Suede, Sundays, Inspiral Carpets, Teenage Fanclub and the long-forgotten Soup Dragons.  The film’s climax makes clever use of Primal Scream’s Loaded and the Sisters of Mercy’s This Corrosion – both songs actually contribute something to the plot.

 

All in all, then, The World’s End is a film I’ll happily raise my pint glass to.

 

(c) Sterling Pictures

 

In its heyday between the 1950s and 1970s, the British horror industry occasionally produced an item that, while it had the exploitative elements of a typical horror film, also said some stark things about the state of the human soul and / or human society; and it was prepared to rub the audience’s faces in sordidness to make its points.  I’m thinking of Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General in 1968 or Pete Walker’s House of Whipcord in 1973.  You could also add to this group Sam Peckinpah’s notorious 1972 effort Straw Dogs, which was filmed in Britain and featured a mainly British cast.  This tradition continues in the 2013 movie The Seasoning House, directed by Paul Hyett, which uses as its setting the 1990s conflict in the Balkans.

 

The film tells the story of a deaf-mute girl called Angel, played by Rosie Day, who first sees her family murdered by a fascist militia led by Sean Pertwee.  She then falls into the clutches of a gangster, played by Kevin Howarth, who runs a brothel frequented by soldiers and low-life and staffed by female war-victims whom he keeps shot up on heroin and tied to their beds.  (Both Pertwee and Howarth are veterans of the New Wave of British Horror Movies that’s gone on since the 1990s.  Pertwee’s CV includes Event Horizon, Dog Soldiers, Wilderness, When Evil Calls and Doomsday while Howarth has appeared in Razorblade Smile, The Ghost of Greville Lodge, The Last Horror Movie and Cold and Dark.)  Showing a sliver of mercy towards Angel, Howarth doesn’t force her into prostitution but makes her his silent housekeeper.  Her duties include emptying slop-buckets and administering heroin to the brothel’s inmates.

 

Initially, Angel shuffles through her daily routine in a state of near-catatonia, but gradually her circumstances change and she becomes more proactive.  She discovers a system of shafts and crawlspaces in the building that allows her, secretly, to bypass its locked doors and move from room to room.  She befriends one of Howarth’s prisoners, a girl who knows sign language and can communicate with her.  And finally, Pertwee’s militia rolls up at the front door, looking for an evening’s diversion.  When Pertwee’s most brutish soldier kills her friend in a spasm of lust / violence, Angel grabs a knife and takes to the shafts and crawlspaces on a revenge mission and things get very bloody.

 

The Seasoning House is about war’s dehumanising effects and there’s barely anyone here who isn’t dehumanised.  Traumatised, broken and heroin-addled, the women who finish up in Howarth’s ghastly establishment are reduced to horizontal slabs of meat, while the men have become monsters for whom getting sexual pleasure and inflicting pain are indistinguishable.  Pertwee and Howarth’s characters possess some intelligence and refinement but have abandoned their moral compasses in order to profit from the horrors around them.  Only Angel retains her humanity.  Ironically, that’s because her deafness and muteness, and her reliance on sign language, seem to distance her from ordinary humanity and shield her from the insanity that’s engulfed it.

 

Like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, The Seasoning House can be accused of making an exploitation movie out of a deadly-serious subject – in Tarantino’s case it’s slavery while in Hyett’s it’s the sexual exploitation of women during wartime.  But whereas Django Unchained is shot with Tarantino’s usual directorial flamboyance and suffused with his usual black humour, The Seasoning House is unshowily (though solidly) directed and is thoroughly grim.  If you’re going to use a topic as upsetting as this as raw material for what’s essentially a revenge melodrama, you might as well do it this way.

 

The Seasoning House offers no moral uplift or feeling of being entertained.  It only left me with an exhausted sense of achievement that I’d have felt if I’d made it to the end of a gruelling assault course.  But it is well-made (even if the final ten minutes unnecessarily casts up some wild coincidences that you get only in horror films).  And I’m sure it will remain in my memory long after crud like Stalker, Elfie Hopkins and Sawney – Flesh of Man have faded from it.

 

Expect yet another post about recent British horror movies shortly.

 

Support your local record shop

 

I suppose I should feel heartened that someone, somewhere, with power and influence has decided to make today, April 19th, World Record Store Day.  (http://www.recordstoreday.co.uk/)  But I don’t.  I feel depressed.  The fact that it’s now necessary to have a day on the calendar designated to remind people to make use of the last remaining record shops in their neighbourhoods suggests that people aren’t doing what they should be doing with those record shops, i.e. going into them and spending money in them every normal day.

 

This was underlined to me when I visited Edinburgh a few afternoons ago and discovered that a favourite old record shop of mine, Avalanche Records, which once traded on Cockburn Street and more lately traded in the Grassmarket, has now closed down.  Though this wasn’t a big surprise – a year ago Avalanche’s owner, Kevin Buckle, admitted he was on the point of shutting; but, when word came through of the bankruptcy of the British high street’s last remaining big-chain music retailer, HMV, he decided to keep the premises open for a few more months to see if business would pick up in the wake of HMV’s demise.

 

I’ve heard rumours that Avalanche may enjoy a sort of afterlife as (1) an occasional market stall, and (2) an online record trader.  It seems ironic that Avalanche (and a few other former record shops I know) should wind up as an online operation, as it was the buying and selling of music on the Internet that no doubt contributed massively to their misfortunes in the first place.

 

Anyhow, I will take this opportunity to plug two more of Edinburgh’s record shops that thankfully remain on the go – that ever-reliable second-hand trader at 62 South Clerk’s Street, Hog’s Head Records, and that lovely vendor of folk, world, blues and country music on the Mound, Coda Music.

 

 

People whinge about the disappearance of record shops, but it’s like everything else in the business world – if you don’t use them, you’ll lose them.  (I always find it ironic that so many people lament about the closure of traditional family-run shops on the country’s high streets, yet those same people unthinkingly do all their shopping in edge-of-town supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury.)  So, readers of Blood and Porridge, if you feel strongly about this, get along to Hog’s Head Records, Coda Music and all the other surviving record stores and use, use, use them.

 

Nosferatu in North Africa

 

When I first moved to Tunisia in 2010, the country was under the heel of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  However, just three months after my arrival, the Arab Spring was triggered in a truly unforeseen manner, by the self-immolation of a poor street trader called Mohamed Bouazizi, outraged at the brutal and off-hand way he’d been treated by Ben Ali’s police.  There ensued a month of chain-reaction protests that climaxed with Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and a squad of her family members fleeing the country for Saudi Arabia.

 

Ben Ali seemed to be everywhere during my first few months in Tunisia – his last few months in Tunisia, as it turned out.  From roadside and street-side billboards and from framed portraits on the walls of public offices and private businesses, his visage beamed down at me.  He was supposedly long in the tooth by then and many Tunisians whispered that, physically, he was ailing badly and was kept near-comatose on medication administered by his wife.  (This situation suited the Lady Macbeth-like Leila Trabelsi nicely.  She was reckoned to be the one calling the shots anyway – and most of those shots seemed to involve money being siphoned out of the Tunisian economy and into the pockets of her mafia-like relatives.)  What made those ubiquitous portraits of Ben Ali grotesque were the efforts that’d obviously been made to keep the old fellow young-looking.  His hair seemed to have been pickled in Grecian 2000 and his features were caked in make-up.

 

He put me in mind of a certain movie-star, though probably not the movie-star that his hair stylists and make-up artists had been hoping for.  I took one look at him and thought of Bela Lugosi, playing the title role in the 1930 Universal Studios production of Dracula.  Which I suppose for the long-suffering Tunisians was appropriate, considering what a bunch of bloodsuckers he and his in-laws were.

 

From aswat.com

(c) Universal 

 

Anyway, I’ve just spent a month in Algeria, where I felt a strange sense of déjà-vu harking back to those early days in Tunisia.  An election was coming up (and was held two days ago, on Thursday, April 17th), and the current incumbent in the presidency, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was running for an unprecedented fourth term – he was only supposed to stay in office for two terms but in 2008 he changed the constitutional rules to prolong his presidential tenure.  I heard familiar-sounding mutterings about corruption, ruling cliques and rigged election-results.  The fact that the 77-year-old Bouteflika was wheelchair-bound following a recent stroke did not inspire faith in the country’s political future, either.

 

That said, I’d be surprised if the Arab Spring, which claimed Ben Ali as its original victim, made a belated appearance in Algeria.  During the 1990s the country witnessed a civil war between Islamist militants and the army that left 100,000 people dead.  Seeing the potential arise for a similar, devastating militants-versus-military conflict in Egypt, the biggest and powerful country to have experienced the Arab Spring, must seem to Algerians like a reminder of a hideous nightmare.

 

And yes, it felt like Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s face was everywhere in Algiers too.  And again, whenever I saw his ravaged features on billboards and in framed pictures, I found myself thinking of another actor in a well-known drama about vampires.  This time, this particular North African Arab leader made me think of the elderly James Mason, playing the villainous Mr Straker in the 1979 TV-miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling vampire novel, Salem’s Lot.  Here are pictures of the two old fellows – can you tell which one is Abdelaziz and which one is James, aka Mr Straker?

 

From la-croix.com

(c) CBS

 

However, at this point, experts on Stephen King’s fiction will no doubt interject and point out that in Salem’s Lot Mr Straker was not actually a vampire.  He was the evil human familiar of the even-more-evil vampire mastermind Mr Barlow, who eventually vampirised the whole population of the town of the title.  In the TV miniseries, Mr Barlow was depicted as a sinister, skeletal-faced, bald-headed creature and was played by the strikingly-featured character actor Reggie Nalder.

 

Actually, Mr Barlow in Salem’s-Lot-the-TV-show reminded me of a politician too, though not a North African Arab one.  I always thought he was a dead ringer for the sinister, skeletal-faced and bald-headed Norman Tebbit, who was Margaret Thatcher’s take-no-prisoners Secretary of State for Employment and who once, notoriously, instructed the United Kingdom’s unemployed to get on their bicycles and to keep pedalling until they found work.

 

From cash4chaos.com

From eyevee.wordpress.com

 

Wes Anderson in non-annoying film shock

 

(c) American Empirical Pictures

 

I haven’t seen every film in the canon of American director Wes Anderson, but from the ones I have seen – The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited – I can firmly say I’m not a fan of his work.  I know there are critics out there who rave about him, but I’ve found his films annoyingly twee and whimsical, offering quirks and eccentricities aplenty but offering very little of substance.  (The Darjeeling Limited, set in a version of India that only ever existed in the imaginations of Hollywood scriptwriters and of psychedelically hallucinating hippy backpackers, is probably the biggest culprit.)

 

Anderson, I suspect, would like to establish himself as the Robert Altman of the 21st century.  Like Altman did, he imbues his films with his own leftfield sensibilities and he likes to draw on his own repertoire of actors and actresses – with Altman it was people like Shelley Duvall, Michael Murphy, Sally Kellerman, Elliot Gould and Keith Carradine, with Anderson it’s Bill Murray, Adrien Brophy, Anjelica Huston, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson.  But whereas I thought Altman deserved all the praise he got for movies like M*A*S*H*, McCabe and Mrs Miller, Nashville, The Player and Short Cuts, Anderson’s films – or at least, the trio that I’ve seen – have just left me cold.

 

Until now, at least.  For I have just been to see Anderson’s new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and thought it rather glorious.  Finally, I can understand why some critics make such a fuss about him.

 

What makes the difference this time?  Well, it helps that the setting of The Grand Budapest Hotel is so obviously a fairy-tale one.  Most of the action takes place in a grand and luxurious old hotel in the mountains of some Ruritanian Never-Never-Land in the Europe of the 1930s.  Even the Nazis, when they show up, aren’t really Nazis – they’re scowly uniformed fellows with coal-scuttle helmets and an angular symbol that just happens to look a bit like a swastika.  That there’s barely a realistic bone in the film’s body suits Anderson’s style perfectly.  Adding to the fairy-tale aura is the framing technique used for the film’s narrative – it isn’t just told as a flashback, but as a flashback within another flashback.  If this makes the film sound convoluted, don’t worry – it isn’t.  (For a really flashback-heavy movie, incidentally, you should check out Michael Curtiz’s 1944 production with Humphrey Bogart, Passage to Marseilles, which at one point contains a flashback-within-a-flashback-within-a-flashback-within-a-flashback.)

 

The other factor that helps The Grand Budapest Hotel and gives its plot some genuine ballast – as opposed to in other Anderson films, which have felt so frivolous to me they’ve seemed ready to float away – is a central performance by Ralph Fiennes.  Playing the hotel’s concierge, Fiennes is in nearly every scene and he’s masterful.  Velvet-toned, unflappable and oozing charm from his every pore, he’s as suave and facilitating as Jeeves-the-butler in P.G. Wodehouse’s stories.  He exists, like the hotel itself, to satisfy every wish and whim of his aristocratic and well-heeled guests, a mission he carries out with a single-minded zeal – indeed, so seriously does he take his hotel duties that we see him at a lectern in the staff’s quarters each evening, sermonising with a similar seriousness at his colleagues about their duties.  And like anyone in a smart uniform working in the reception area of a fancy hotel, he’s probably more snobbish than even the wealthiest clients who strut in through the doors – I’ve worked in hotels, including two in the Swiss Alps, and I know what the culture is like.

 

On the other hand, though, Fiennes has an eye slyly open for the main chance.  With the whims of the rich and elderly female guests, he’s probably more accommodating than decency would permit; and it’s no surprise that when one of them passes away, a venerable widow (played by Tilda Swinton) whom he’s ‘serviced’ during her past 17 seasons of visiting the hotel, she leaves him in her will a fabulously expensive painting.  Fiennes promptly squirrels off this painting (leaving in its place what looks like one of those pieces of frilly-laced porn painted by notorious turn-of-the-century Austrian artist Franz Von Bayros), much to the disgust of Swinton’s offspring.  Led by a Dick Dastardly-moustached Adrien Brophy, they frame Fiennes for their mother’s murder but, of course, no prison can hold Fiennes for long – not when Fiennes’ wheedling charm works as well on the hardened prisoners (who include a bald-headed, tattooed and nearly unrecognisable Harvey Keitel) as it does on the aristocrats who frequent the Grand Budapest.

 

It’s really no more than a caper movie, although Fiennes and Anderson carry things off with such aplomb that you don’t quite realise that until a few hours later, after the film’s comfortable, warm, muzzy glow has faded a little.  Anderson sets up and orchestrates each scene with an artistry that’s worthy of Peter Greenaway and he takes a Terry Gilliam-esque delight in showing the art-deco and slightly steampunk-like mechanisms that provide the setting with its infrastructure – the trams, cable cars, funicular railways, elevators and dumb waiters.  It’s fun too to note the various cinematic references made in The Grand Budapest Hotel.  There’s a bit of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, even of Peter Hunt’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  There might even be homage paid to David Cronenberg’s The Fly, because there’s a brief but gruesome scene where Jeff Goldblum says goodbye – again – to some of his bodily appendages.  But maybe I’m reading too much into it.

 

So well done, Wes – you’ve finally made a film that I liked.  In fact, I enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel so much that I don’t mind you making your next five movies as smug and annoying as your old ones.

 

Boyd and Bond: book review / Solo, by William Boyd

 

(c) Jonathan Cape

 

Before I begin this review of Solo, the new James Bond novel written – with the blessing of Ian Fleming’s estate – by William Boyd, I should say that I like Boyd.  Alright, I haven’t actually read any of his other books, but I’m familiar with some of his screen-work and I’ve read some of his journalism.  He comes across as a decent and sensible type, the sort of bloke whom you’d be happy to sit down and drink a pint with.  This is more than can be said for a few of his contemporaries, who come across as the sort of smug, self-satisfied gits you’d probably find yourself punching before you got halfway through that pint.  I won’t mention any names but I’m sure you know who I mean.  (Okay, I will mention names: Salman Rushdie, A.N. Wilson and Martin bloody Amis.)

 

Also, I feel a slight kinship with Boyd, as both of us have connections with the fine Scottish Borders town of Peebles.  According to an introduction he once wrote for an edition of Alasdair Gray’s landmark novel Lanark, Boyd worked in his youth as a kitchen-porter in the Tontine Hotel on Peebles High Street.  When he travelled to his workplace from his parents’ house, which was three miles along the road from Peebles, he would sometimes get a lift from Stephanie Wolfe-Murray, who would soon set up the now-legendary Scottish publishing house Canongate Books (responsible for publishing Lanark in 1981).

 

Like Boyd, I spent time in Peebles’ hotel trade too.  In my mid-teens I worked as a dishwasher, assistant gardener and general dogsbody at the Venlaw Castle Hotel, which overlooks Peebles on the side of Venlaw Hill.  I used to cycle to work and my journey would take me through a neighbourhood called Dalatho Crescent – which in those days was regarded as The Bronx of Peebles.  (It feels more respectable these days, though maybe that’s only because I’m bigger now.)  Some of the kids who mooched around Dalatho Crescent took a dislike to me, for some reason, and would yell abuse every day as I cycled past.  So while William Boyd got to travel to his job at the Tontine Hotel in the company of the founder of the most important publisher in modern Scottish literature, I travelled to my job at the Venlaw Castle Hotel with street urchins yelling after me, “F**k off, ye f**kin’ wanker, ye!”  I guess that’s where Boyd’s fortunes and my fortunes diverged.

 

I also consider Boyd an excellent choice to write a James Bond novel, as he and Ian Fleming’s super-spy have a few things in common.  There’s the shared Scottish background for a start – according to Fleming’s later books, Bond’s father was Scottish (although his mother was Swiss).  That might be why in Solo, at one point, Boyd describes Bond convalescing at a special military installation south of Edinburgh, which I suspect is actually Glencorse Barracks near Penicuik.  Boyd also has him dining in an oyster restaurant just off Edinburgh’s Princes Street, which is surely the Café Royal.

 

And Boyd, like Bond, spent time being ‘anglicised’ at a posh private school in Scotland.  Boyd attended Gordonstoun in the Scottish Highlands – an experience that inspired him to write the 1983 TV film Good and Bad at Games, an indictment of the bullying that goes on in British boarding schools – while Bond was sent to Fettes Academy in Edinburgh.  Little mention was made of Fettes in Fleming’s original novels, but in Solo Bond is reminded of his alma mater when he accidentally bumps into a former schoolmate – an event that, it must be said, he isn’t thrilled about.

 

Incidentally, during his screenwriting career, Boyd has also worked with three of the actors who’ve played Bond in the ultra-profitable movie franchise that’s been with us since the early 1960s: Pierce Brosnan in 1990’s Mister Johnson, Daniel Craig in 1999’s The Trench and gruff old Sean Connery himself in the 1994 adaptation of his novel A Good Man in Africa.

 

But having said all that, I now must admit that I was a little disappointed in Solo.  Boyd has evidently put a lot of care into the book, but ultimately I couldn’t escape the feeling that what I was reading was just a clever facsimile of an Ian Fleming James Bond novel.  Clever, yes; but a facsimile nonetheless.

 

I’ll start, though, with what Boyd gets right.  He sticks to the timeframe that Fleming established for Bond’s life in the original books, meaning that Bond was born in 1924 and saw military service during World War II – indeed, among Solo’s more effective moments are those where Bond reminisces about his first experience of killing, which happened when, serving as a lieutenant in 1944, he stumbled across a trio of German soldiers in the grounds of a Normandy chateau.  Solo is set at the end of the 1960s, just after the first moon landing, which puts Bond in his mid-forties.  (Actually, at the beginning of Fleming’s early-1950s novel Moonraker, it’s mentioned that 45 is the age at which Bond can expect to retire from MI6, but in Solo thoughts of retirement never enter his head.  We can only assume that he’s already navigated his mid-life crisis and found a second wind.)  M, who in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1963 was commenting darkly about ‘the beatnik problem’, seems surprisingly unperturbed by the hippy movement and the Summer of Love.

 

Keeping true to the spirit of Fleming, Boyd makes Bond very particular about what he eats, drinks, wears and drives.  On page 7 he orders a breakfast of ‘four eggs, scrambled, and half a dozen rashers of unsmoked back bacon, well done, on the side’, while eleven pages later he’s test-driving a four-wheel-drive Jensen FF, the smell of whose leather upholstery ‘worked on him like an aphrodisiac.’  Later, Boyd even gives us 007’s personal formula for making a perfect salad dressing – a recipe I shall certainly file away, alongside Keith Richards’ recipe for bangers and mash.

 

I also like the fact that Bond’s main love interest in this novel, Bryce Fitzjohn, is an actress whose screen name is Astrid Ostergard and whose speciality is gothic horror movies with titles like Vampiria, Queen of Darkness.  The company that employs her, we learn, is called Amerdon Studios – which is obviously a fictional version of the real-life Hammer Films, whose horror movies were at the height of their popularity in the late 1960s.  It’s a nice touch, especially considering how the cinematic overlap between Bond girls and Hammer starlets has been a large one – off the top of my head, I can think of Ursula Andress, Honor Blackman, Martine Beswick, Joanna Lumley, Julie Ege, Jenny Hanley, Anoushka Hempel, Valerie Leon and Caroline Munro, who’ve been both.

 

Alas, Solo lacks fizz in other departments.  The initial setting for the action is a war-torn African republic called Zanzarim, whose government is trying to bring to heel a breakaway (and oil-rich) province called Dahum in its south.  This is promising enough and Boyd – who was born in Ghana – shows a convincing eye for detail.  It feels like a cop-out, though, that he has to use an imaginary African country as his setting, rather than use a real one.  Worse, later on, Boyd relocates the action to Washington DC, which just isn’t interesting enough to be an effective setting – especially as Bond seems to spend a long time staking out a boring-sounding office plaza: ‘Three six-storey glass and concrete office blocks… a large granite-paved public space… stone benches and a generous planting of assorted saplings…  An oval pool with a fountain and a plinth-mounted piece of modern sculpture.’  The mansion house that appears in the book’s climax is disappointingly generic as well.

 

Solo also disappoints with its depiction of the villains – a mysterious multimillionaire called Hulbert Linck and a war-disfigured mercenary called Kobus Breed.  Linck isn’t in the book long enough to make any impression.  Breed gets more to do, but is portrayed as a fairly straightforward psychotic thug – his calling card is to hang up the corpses of his victims with hooks through their jaws – with few quirks or eccentricities to engage the reader’s interest.  That said, I like how Boyd uses Breed’s possible presence to give the book its melancholic ending.

 

And there’s something else lacking, although I can’t quite put my finger on it.  Perhaps it’s the fact that in 2014 nobody can ever quite write a Bond novel in the way that Fleming did – because in our more politically correct times, nobody can invest Bond with quite the same amount of snobbishness, and sexism, and general un-PC-ness, which Fleming did between the 1940s and 1960s.  Sure, Boyd attempts to connect Bond with his dark side a few times.  We see him viciously taking out his frustrations on a trio of young Washington DC muggers who get more than they bargained for when they attempt to rob him, and having a disturbingly voyeuristic snoop around Bryce’s London home just after he’s met her, and confessing late in the book that he feels ‘a little astonished at his own savagery’.  Yet Boyd’s Bond, like all the attempted recreations of Bond in the 21st century, feels a shade too nice.

 

The book has its good points, then, but at the end of the day I can only judge Solo to be, well, so-so.  Despite his talents and despite the fact that he obviously tackled the job conscientiously, William Boyd doesn’t quite have Ian Fleming’s ability to write a Bond novel with the requisite polish and sparkle.

 

But then, who does?

 

Algiers’ Bardot Museum

 

 

Although it has hardly anything in it at the moment, the Bardo Museum in Algiers is well worth visiting.  Once an immaculate Turkish-style villa that was built in the 18th century, the Bardot has, since its founding in 1930, exhibited artefacts with a mainly prehistoric and ethnographic theme.  However, recently, it spent half-a-dozen years closed down while it underwent a refurbishment costing to the tune of 19 million euros.  Now it’s open again, but those opulent Turkish-villa rooms have yet to be decked out with furniture and exhibits.

 

But guess what?  It’s still lovely.

 

 

You can wander around its empty but gorgeous rooms imagining that the place has been put on the property market and you’re, say, Roman Abramovich inspecting it with an eye to purchasing it and making it your North African / Mediterranean holiday home.  The doors and entrances and the tile-work on the floor and walls are exquisitely decorative.

 

 

Entry is free of charge and, for most of the time that I was there, I had the place to myself.  If I’d had a longer sojourn in Algiers, I would definitely have made a return visit, brought along a book, sat down in one of those charming courtyards and started reading.