I’ve started so I’ll (probably) finish


When I start reading a book, I’m usually able to soldier on and finish it, no matter how structurally complex, linguistically dense or just plain long the book might be.  In fact, I pride myself on this ability.  It’s served me well.  There may have been moments when I thought I was floundering in the middle of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, or Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, or Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility quartet, or pretty much anything by Malcolm Lowry, but I felt intellectually and spiritually enhanced after I’d knuckled down and made it to the end.


There are, however, books out there that’ve defeated even me.  There aren’t many of them, only a handful, but they exist – books that, sooner or later, made me throw up my hands in despair and exclaim, “What’s the f**king point?”  Just before I went off and spent my time more profitably reading something by Alastair Maclean.


Here are four titles that I especially remember in this category – four allegedly great books that I had to leave unfinished.


(c) Jonathan Cape


Daniel Martin by John Fowles (1977).  I’m generally a big fan of Fowles’ work.  I really like The Collector, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Ebony Tower and A Maggot, and even though I found The Magus a bit iffy, it was still interesting enough for me to read it through.  But with Daniel Martin, the most autobiographical of his books, I threw in the towel at about page 600, with a hundred more pages to go.  I’d had enough.  I couldn’t take any more.


Actually, the scenes from Daniel’s youth, set against the backdrop of the English countryside during World War II, are engrossing.  But the contemporary stuff – an unengaging soap opera where posh Oxford-educated people try to sort out their relationships, involving a mishmash of themes that include art, politics and Egyptian archaeology – slowly ground me down with its contrived-ness and tedium.  In an obituary for Fowles published in the Observer in 2005, Robert McCrum noted that “(i)t was the American literary press that saluted Daniel Martin; the English critics who murdered it.”  I’m afraid I’m firmly in agreement with those on the European side of the Atlantic.


(c) George Allen & Unwin


The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954-55).  When I was a teenager I had The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King contained within the covers of one weighty volume that ran to 1000-odd pages.  I stumbled through about 800 pages of it.  Sometimes I left it aside for months on end and when I returned I had to reread long tracts of it to remind myself what was going on.  Eventually, I abandoned it forever at the bit where Frodo and Sam blunder into the lair of Shelob, the giant spider.  I think I persevered with the Lord of the Rings trilogy for so long because a lot of people I knew at school kept telling me how good it was – though in hindsight, most of them were people who didn’t seem to have read any other books in their lives.


What defeated me was a combination of Tolkien’s plodding writing style and the dullness of many of the characters, especially the Hobbits of the Shire.  In fact, those Hobbits seemed annoyingly bland in a nicey-nicey, respectable middle-class, doff-your-hat-to-your-betters-and-keep-your-head-down way that suggested that if the Shire had had its own newspapers, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express would have dominated the market.


No wonder the fantasy author Michael Moorcock has written sourly of Lord of the Rings: “If the Shire is a suburban garden, Sauron and his henchmen are that old bourgeois bugaboo, the Mob – mindless football supporters throwing their beer bottles over the fence, the worst aspects of modern urban society represented as the whole by a fearful, backward-yearning class for whom ‘good taste’ is synonymous with ‘restraint’… and ‘civilised’ behaviour means ‘conventional behaviour in all circumstances’.”  Here’s a link to the full essay by Moorcock:




So I’m afraid, Frodo, for me you never got to complete your quest.  You only got as far as Shelob’s lair, where you ended up as giant-spider-food.  Sorry!


(c) Viking Press


The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (1988).  I didn’t get far into this one.  I thought the opening episode, in which the two protagonists Farishta and Chamcha are thrown out of an airplane as it explodes over the English Channel, was so pretentious and poorly-written that it gave me an aversion to the reading the rest of the book.  I remember seeing the phrase ‘like titbits of cigar’ used to describe how the two men fell from the fragmenting fuselage and thinking how bad it was.  If the manuscript hadn’t borne Rushdie’s already-prestigious name, I’m sure it would never have escaped from the publishing company’s slush pile.


I read a little more of The Satanic Verses and admittedly it got better – the description of Bollywood was quite engaging.  But my interest had been fatally weakened by that shit opening.  I was preparing to move to another country at the time and, unfinished, the book got stashed away in a box with some things I wasn’t taking with me.  I’ve never felt the urge to dig it out since.


Actually, with hindsight, I suppose Rushdie’s life afterwards might have been easier if everyone else in the world had read only the first 50 pages of The Satanic Verses, as I had.


(c) Penguin


Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1759-1767).  Or to give it its full rambling title, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.  And ramble it does, although of course that’s the whole joke of the book.  Tristram himself doesn’t actually emerge from his mother’s womb until Volume III, but by that point I’d already abandoned ship.  I know I was meant to be enjoying the eccentricities and buffoonery of Uncle Toby, Trim, Doctor Slop, Parson Yorick and co. and revelling in how the narrative flew off on a wild tangent every couple of pages, but I wasn’t.  The humour missed my wavelength entirely.


That said, I do think 2006’s A Cock and Bull Story, the metatextually-playful film adaptation adaption of Tristram Shandy directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, is pretty good.


Here’s a link to another article by Robert McCrum, in which he suggests ten titles that are the world’s hardest books to finish:






(c) Huffington Post


I don’t know which news item today is more depressing.  News that Glasgow School of Art’s A-listed and much-loved Mackintosh Building, designed by and named after the great Scottish artist and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, went up in flames yesterday.  Or news that the right-wing, anti-EU and anti-immigrant United Kingdom Independence Party managed to win 155 seats in the English council elections two days ago, giving it a real chance of winning parliamentary seats at the next general election and making it officially, in the words of many political pundits, ‘the fourth force in British politics’.


I’ll talk about the second news story.  What I found revealing about the UKIP phenomenon was a TV interview that appeared yesterday on youtube, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7lPcJ7uscs.  The interview is with a guy called Darren, from Walsall in the West Midlands, and he explains to the interviewer why he’s just voted for UKIP.  Well, he tries to explain.  This is what he says:


“The reason why I voted for UKIP was cos, like, we’ve had Labour, we’ve had Conservative, we’ve had the Liberal Democrats.  We want a new party, we want somebody who’s going to send a voice, especially in Europe, especially on immigration, especially round here cos we have different people coming in, taking our jobs and just working for the minimum wage.  Okay, we’ve lived here nearly all our lives and we’ve (inaudible), we’ve had to step up the ladder and we’ve had to work, go to college, earn all our wages and everything else, and they just cut from underneath you, especially, like, the immigrants are coming in, like the Poles and the Ukraines and everything else from the new European countries who are coming in.  Really, you want to get out of the EEC and fight for our own and be a better Great Britain again, like before it was, before it was, before it was everything else, cos Great Britain was all over the world then.”


I’m sure that Darren is a decent enough bloke but, once you’ve deciphered what he said, it seems a bit rich that he complains about immigrants ‘coming in’ and then concludes with a nod to the glory days of the British Empire, when ‘Great Britain was all over the world’ – i.e. going into other countries and presumably taking all their jobs.  It’s also ironic that the interviewer (although you can’t see her in the interview-clip on youtube) is a young woman of Asian descent.  Darren doesn’t say anything about this, but maybe he resents her sort coming in and taking all the TV interviewing jobs.  Maybe he could have been a TV interviewer if British people had really ‘fought for our own.’


From the look and sound of him, Darren probably hasn’t had many educational or professional opportunities in life and he must be pretty near the bottom of the social pile.  So it’s sad that he and many people like him feel compelled to vote UKIP when, plainly, UKIP is the sort of right-wing party that’d happily screw folk in their position big-time if they ever got to power.  They might give Darren and his ilk someone to blame for their problems, and give them a sense that they’re showing a middle-finger to a callous, uncaring establishment.  But UKIP aren’t on their side.  No way are UKIP on their side.


I’ve been reading the party’s manifesto from the last general election and it doesn’t give the impression that by voting for them you’ll be sticking it to The Man.  Quite the reverse.  It kicks off by declaring that ‘Britain’s economy is being suffocated by high taxation, excessive EU regulation, overgenerous welfare and punitive bureaucracy.’  It proposes a flat tax of 31% for everyone earning above £11,500 a year, argues that ‘there is no alternative to major cuts in government spending’, envisages two million people being squeezed out of jobs in ‘Education, Health and Public Administration’ so that the public sector is scaled back to a 1997 level, and of course vows to ‘(s)crap up to 120,000 EU directives and regulations that impact on the UK economy,’ presumably including all the ones relating to working conditions, environmental standards and health and safety.  (Amusingly, one of the few examples given of what they’d chop is this one: ‘In particular, UKIP would repeal the forthcoming AIFM Directive that threatens hedge funds in the City of London.’  Which is a good indication of whose side they’re on really.)


Yes, it sounds like the sort of scenario that Milton Friedman must have had wet dreams about.  And in countries where such policies have been implemented – often totalitarian countries where the public can’t express opposition to them – the number of people living in poverty has usually skyrocketed.


At the same time, it’s a document suffused with Lewis Carroll-type absurdity.  You’ll find all the usual guff you’d expect from UKIP – about banning schools from using ‘global warming propaganda such as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth’, allowing teachers to ‘impose proper discipline on pupils’, safeguarding ‘British weights and measures (the pint, the mile, etc.) which have been undermined by the EU’, scrapping political correctness, abolishing the Human Rights Act, and so on and so forth – but look carefully and you’ll find a few pledges that are oddly at variance with the ‘cut, cut, cut’ mantra I’ve described in the previous paragraph.  There’s talk of making sure the NHS can ‘continue to deliver care free at the point of delivery on the basis of need, not ability to pay,’ bringing back ‘free eye-tests and dental check-ups for all UK citizens’, bringing back student grants and spending a whopping ‘extra 40% on defence annually’.  How on earth, one wonders, are they going to pay for these health, education and defence goodies when there’s so much economic pain and paring-to-the-bone going on elsewhere?


To be fair to UKIP’s pint-swilling, mule-faced leader Nigel Farage, he did admit back in January that he thought the 2010 manifesto was rubbish: “I didn’t read it.  It was drivel…  We have put that behind us and moved onto a professional footing.”  Mind you, he did stick his name on it at the time.  And I’ve had a look at a UKIP document that was circulated before the recent elections and they’re still banging on about reducing regulations on employers and implementing the sort of flat tax that’d bring relieved smiles to the faces of Gary Barlow and Jimmy Carr.


Meanwhile, one place in England where UKIP noticeably didn’t do well the other day was London.  In an interview on BBC’s Radio 4, the party’s communities spokesperson Suzanne Evans gave this assessment of why UKIP failed to appeal to Londoners even as it was winning support from people elsewhere in England.  “(W)e do have,” she said, “a more media-savvy, well-educated population in London.”


Too well-educated to vote for UKIP?  Oops.  Freudian slip.


(c) New Statesman


Great unappreciated films: Juggernaut


(c) United Artists


At a loose end a few Sunday afternoons ago, I sat down on the sofa and on a satellite movie channel watched 1974’s The Towering Inferno for the first time in years.  For people my age, the 1970s were synonymous with big glossy disaster movies in which top Hollywood stars were threatened by (and often succumbed to) death by earthquake, avalanche, tidal wave, meteor or crashing airplane.  The Towering Inferno, in which 294 guests celebrating the opening of the world’s tallest building at a reception on its top-floor promenade room are endangered when a massive fire erupts 54 floors below them, is commonly seen as the daddy of all disaster movies.  For me and no doubt for millions of my contemporaries, the title of the film conjures up happy childhood memories of sitting in grubby 1970s cinemas, munching popcorn and enjoying the spectacle of Richard Chamberlain, Robert Wagner, Robert Vaughan, Jennifer Jones, etc. being incinerated or plunging 135 storeys to their doom.


Alas, seen in the cold light of 2014, The Towering Inferno doesn’t live up to those happy memories.  Steve McQueen and Paul Newman are great in it, just by being themselves, but otherwise it’s a big, absurd and rather dull soap opera.  The characters are mainly a bunch of obnoxious, ultra-rich bastards swanning around that promenade room in tuxedoes and evening gowns, getting their champagne poured by deferential waiters (probably working below the minimum wage and on zero-hour contracts), whilst listening to some musical flunky tinkling on the ivories of a grand piano and a chanteuse warbling We May Never Love Like This Again, the blandest power ballad in the history of the cinema.  You really want the flames to rush up the building and singe their smug arses.  And to make things worse, O.J. Simpson is in it.  And to make things even worse, George Kennedy isn’t in it.


Indeed, I suspect that, seen today, nearly all those big-budget 1970s disaster movies – Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure and so on – would seem like a load of tosh.  However, I can safely say that there’s one 1970s disaster movie that was great then and is still great now.  It made little impact at the time and has been unjustly neglected since, no doubt because it eschewed the big dumb spectacle of those aforementioned Hollywood epics in favour of such unsexy things as character development and claustrophobic tension.  However, those qualities are what make it seem so good now.  It’s a British movie, but one made by an immensely talented American director, Richard Lester.  It is… Juggernaut.


Released in 1974, the year of The Towering Inferno, the plot of Juggernaut is simple.  A cruise liner called SS Britannic is crossing the Atlantic with 1200 passengers on board when the shipping firm that owns it receives a telephone call from someone calling himself ‘Juggernaut’.  He informs them that a half-dozen bombs have been secretly stowed on board the Britannic and these will shortly explode unless a ransom is paid.  Unfortunately, the firm is heavily subsidised by the British government, which means they call the shots – and the political powers-that-be make it clear that no ransom will be paid because their policy is not to negotiate with terrorists.  Even more unfortunately, the Britannic is currently beset by stormy weather, which makes it impossible to evacuate the passengers and crew.


So you have a ship, filled with people who can’t be taken off it, and you also have a bunch of bombs on board that will very likely explode because the nutcase who planted them there isn’t going to receive his ransom money.  Who ya gonna call?


Richard Harris!


Richard Harris?  With all respect to Harris, the legendary Irish actor doesn’t immediately strike me as the actor you’d cast in the role of a bomb disposal expert who gets parachuted aboard a cruise liner to defuse six bombs while 1200 lives are at stake.  It’s fair to say that at the time Harris had a bit of a reputation as a booze-hound.  In fact, in the 1970s, he was putting away as much as two-and-a-half bottles of vodka a day, which would suggest he’s the very last person you’d want attempting to dismantle a large explosive device in your vicinity.


(c) United Artists 


Nonetheless, Harris it is.  He plays Lieutenant Commander Fallon, head of a Royal Navy team of bomb disposal men whom the government sends to the Britannic to foil the mad bomber’s plans.  Incidentally, Harris’s number two, Braddock, is played by 1960s heartthrob David Hemmings.  Harris and Hemmings had previously worked together in Camelot, the 1968 musical about King Arthur, and despite Harris punching Hemmings at a party and splitting his lip, the two of them became good mates.  Indeed, Hemmings once managed to dissuade an inebriated Harris from jumping off the balcony of his Hollywood Hills apartment into the swimming pool below by pointing out, tactfully, that the swimming pool didn’t have any water in it.


While Harris, Hemmings and their men grapple with the bombs on the Britannic, the police back in Britain try to identify Juggernaut by interviewing all the known bomb experts who have the technical ability to mount such an operation.  (I won’t say who plays Juggernaut, but anyone with a knowledge of shifty, twitchy and sweaty 1970s British character actors should be able to guess immediately who it is.)  Leading the investigation is Superintendent John McLeod, played by a disconcertingly young-looking Anthony Hopkins, who has a personal stake in its outcome – because his wife and children happen to be passengers on board the Britannic at the moment.


And that’s about it.  The film follows both the hunt for Juggernaut on dry land and the increasingly desperate attempts of Harris and his team on the ship to disarm the bombs – which have also been booby-trapped to deter attempts to tinker with them – and it focuses too on an array of passengers and crew-members as they try to deal with the crisis unfolding around them.  A couple of bombs explode prematurely, and certain people die, but the ship just about manages to stay afloat.  However, can the three Hs – Harris, Hemmings and Hopkins – thwart Juggernaut before the majority of the bombs go off and blow the Britannic out of the water?


It’s fair to say that by the mid-1970s director Richard Lester was at the height of his powers.  In the 1960s he’d achieved fame directing the Beatles movies and he’d also made 1969’s surreal, post-apocalyptic black comedy The Bed-Sitting Room, which is surely one of the weirdest things in the history of British cinema.  Just before Juggernaut he’d completed The Three and The Four Musketeers, a pair of films that are the wittiest, best-cast and most entertaining of the many cinematic versions of the novel by Alexandre Dumas père.  He was also starting work on a version of another popular and much-filmed tale, Robin Hood.  Released in 1976, Lester’s bitter-sweet film about an older and disillusioned Robin Hood, Robin and Marion, which starred Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn, got indifferent reviews at the time but is now seen as a minor classic.


Lester was drafted in as director of Juggernaut at short notice – two other directors, Bryan Forbes and Don Medford, had been involved in the project but had quit.  His participation was contingent on the script being rewritten.  From all accounts, the original script for Juggernaut, by writer / producer Richard Alan Simmons, was pretty generic disaster-movie stuff.  Luckily, the rewrite was done by the distinguished north-of-England playwright and screenwriter Alan Plater, who at that point was most famous for working on the BBC’s seminal police series Z-Cars and its spinoff Softly Softly.  No doubt Plater contributed much of the quirkiness, eccentricity, grim humour and general beleaguered, keep-calm-and-carry-on sense of Britishness that make Juggernaut so pleasantly distinctive.


(c) United Artists


Also distinctive were the conditions under which Lester shot the film.  A real 25,000-ton cruise ship was used, one that’d been owned by a German shipping company and called the TS Hamburg, but that’d recently been sold to the Soviet Union and renamed the SS Maxim Gorki.  To make some extra money, the Soviets rented it out to the filmmakers for two-and-a-half weeks just before it went into proper service again, carrying passengers.  Lester and his team set sail for the North Atlantic looking for the right weather conditions to go with the script – conditions so stormy that it’d be impossible to deploy lifeboats and evacuate the ship.  “We found only two days’ bad weather out of sixteen,” said Lester in an interview on the website www.parallax-view.org in 2002, “but we had our own cast, crew and extras all on board. We were served by lovely ladies from Odessa—endless supplies of vodka, seven-course meals—and we made the poor captain’s eyes water as we asked him to do things with his ship which I’m sure are against every code of ethics on the sea.”


Among those un-seamanlike things was the filming of a scene where an explosion blew off one of the ship’s funnels.  Aware that the Soviet captain would probably draw the line at that, Lester sneakily waited until the ship got back to port.  In an interview in the Guardian in 1999, Lester recalled, “You’re not allowed to bring dynamite aboard a commercial liner, but we did and we didn’t say anything.  On the last day of shooting, just as we were about to get back to Southampton, our producer got one of the world’s first digital watches and had it inscribed with, ‘To Captain Alexandrov Dondua with the grateful thanks from the cast and crew of Juggernaut’.  And we had a presentation ceremony, got all the senior (crew) on the bridge, and just as he was handing it over at precisely 10.00 a.m. – BOOM! – we blew up the funnel with four cameras on it and a helicopter up above.  By that time it was too late and we docked at 11.30.”


Considering the ingenuity Lester and his film crew had to deploy on board the Maxim Gorki, I feel churlish for pointing out that the storm scenes are not always convincing.  For example, during an early sequence where Harris’s team parachute into the sea around the liner and the sailors try to fish them out before they drown, the ship’s deck doesn’t seem to be pitching around as violently as the waves are rising and falling.  However, these inconsistencies in the film’s editing are easily overlooked because the viewer is so engaged with the characters and story.


And the characters are engaging.  Harris plays Fallon as a weary, dishevelled but lovable warrior-poet, musing philosophically while he pokes and probes at the bombs – my favourite utterance in Juggernaut is probably Harris’s despairing line, “Remember what the goldfish said?  ‘There must be a god!  I mean, who else changes the water?’”  However, he also isn’t averse to sinking a bottle of whisky when Things Go Wrong.  No doubt the brave, poetic and boozy persona Harris projects here is the persona he attempted to project in real life.


Also good is Roy Kinnear, the roly-poly English actor who was a regular in Richard Lester’s movies.  He plays the ship’s entertainment officer, who has the unenviable job of keeping the passengers’ spirits up when at any moment they could be blown up.  Kinnear isn’t very good at it – the fancy-dress party he organises sees one person appear dressed as the Grim Reaper and carrying a round black object with BOMB written on it.  Late on, however, in a generous moment in Plater’s script, a glamorous American passenger played by Shirley Knight thanks the harassed Kinnear for his efforts by inviting him onto the ship’s ballroom floor for a dance.


Even actor Clifton James – best-known for playing the loud, dumb, redneck Louisiana police officer Sheriff J.W. Pepper in two Roger Moore James Bond movies, Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) – plays someone who’s more interesting than you’d initially expect.  His character Corrigan, another passenger, seems set up to be a stereotypical gormless American tourist, but he gets some of the sharpest dialogue and shows there’s more to him than meets the eye.  Early on, when the ship’s crew are trying to keep the existence of the bombs a secret, he memorably tells the third officer: “Buddy, I am by profession a politician, the mayor of a rather large city as a matter of fact.  In my line of work, you have to be able to lie with remarkable precision.  You also have to know how to recognise a lie when it bites you in the ass…  And I have just been bitten.”  (Admirably straight-faced, the third officer replies, “I’ll convey your complaint to the captain, sir.”)


I also like how Lester and Plater populate the film with incidents, characters and half-seen story threads that don’t necessarily relate to the main plot but that suggest there really is a bigger world out there, beyond the perimeters of the film, getting on with its own business.  There are the kids who get shooed away from Hopkins’ police car and nonchalantly flick V-signs at him as they walk off; the minor character played by Ben Aris who’s seen pacing obsessively about the deck, though why he does so is never explained; the steward played by Roshan Seth (later to play Nehru in Richard Attenburgh’s 1982 Oscar-winner Gandhi), whose accent switches from clichéd Hollywood Indian when he’s with the passengers to broad Cockney when he isn’t; and the scenes involving the family of Nicholas Porter, played by another disconcertingly young-looking actor, Ian Holm, who runs the shipping company but has to do what the government tells him.


(c) United Artists


There are also glimpses of a brief, half-hearted and ultimately bitter affair that Knight has with the Britannic’s captain, who’s played by none other than the great Egyptian actor, Omar Sharif.  Near the end, while passengers and crew are preparing to enter a sea that most of them are unlikely to survive, Kinnear glumly tells Knight that it could be worse: “Well, there are no icebergs.”  Spying Sharif on the bridge, Knight replies, “Correction.”


At the same time, Juggernaut is nail-biting as a thriller and the scenes where Harris and Hemmings work on the bombs are as tense as anything else filmed in the 1970s.  The two men banter away affably, even though they know that at any moment they could be blown to pieces, which somehow makes the tension even more intolerable.  “May you inherit the earth,” says Harris beatifically at one point.  “Yeah,” replies Hemmings, “six feet of it, I think.”


Finally, there’s something undeniably melancholic about the film.  On one level, it feels like a paean to Britain in the twilight years of its history – and certainly by 1974, following the Oil Crisis, the era when the country had been a world power felt a long time ago indeed.  Britain, it seemed, had nothing left, save for its sense of humour and eccentricity (which of course are well represented in Juggernaut).  It’s easy to see the film’s setting as a metaphor for the state of the nation – here’s a ship called the Britannic, adrift at sea, threatened by dangers outside and inside.  And the bloke at the helm is actually an Arab…


Juggernaut is also sad in retrospect because it’s one of the last chances to see its three main actors at their youthful peak.  Afterwards, Hopkins’ career would be steady but unspectacular until, of course, he achieved Hollywood stardom with The Silence of the Lambs (1989) – not as a leading man, though, but as everyone’s favourite middle-aged cannibal, Hannibal Lector.  Hemmings became a director, of TV shows and minor films.  When he did make the occasional film appearance in later life, he looked shockingly bloated, with eyebrows that seemed the size of tarantulas.


And as for Harris – well, he’d eventually stage a comeback, in Jim Sheridan’s The Field (1990) and Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven (1992), and he returned to making big movies like Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (1999) and the first two Harry Potter films.  But for a decade-and-a-half after Juggernaut, his acting career would be in freefall, his movie CV blotted by some god-awful pieces of rubbish.  When I see him in the very last scene of Juggernaut, treating his psychic wounds with a big glass of whisky on the Britannic’s deck, I wonder if he suspected what was in store for him when he got back to dry land – The Cassandra Crossing (1976), Orca Killer Whale (1977), Golden Rendezvous (1977), Tarzan the Ape Man (1981).  From a film about bombs to a string of films that were bombs.


Strange places in the Scottish Borders 6: Merlin’s Grave


The most famous magician in British folklore is Merlin, the wise, mysterious figure who supposedly advised King Arthur during his campaigns against the invading Anglo-Saxons.  In most people’s minds, the Arthurian legends are most closely associated with Cornwall and Wales, although I have a French friend who never tires of reminding me that some of the tales have also been linked to la Petite Bretagne, i.e. Britany in modern-day France.


However, there are some who’ve tried to claim Arthur and Merlin for Scotland too.  As evidence of Arthur’s Scottishness, for instance, they’ve cited the commonness of ‘Arthur’ in Scotland’s place-names, such as Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, Ben Arthur near Dumbarton and Arthur’s Oven near Stirling.  And for Merlin, they often repeat the story that the magician’s grave is located at the little village of Drumelzier in the Scottish Borders, along the Tweed Valley southwest of Peebles.  Supposedly, the grave is a short distance beyond Drumelzier Kirk, next to where Powsail Burn (also known as Drumelzier Burn) flows into the River Tweed.



How could Merlin have ended up in the Borders?  According to my much-consulted 1973 edition of the Reader’s Digest’s Encyclopaedia of Folklore, Myths and Legends of Great Britain, Merlin raised an army of pagan warriors and led them into battle against the Christian community of Strathclyde.  The pagan campaign ended disastrously.  Merlin’s army was slaughtered and Merlin himself – driven insane by grief and guilt – spent the rest of his life living as a hermit in the forests of southern Scotland.


In his 2002 book The Borders Alastair Moffat disputes these details, saying that the Christians were from York and the pagans led by King Gwenddolau of Carlisle, while Merlin was a bard rather than a warrior.  However, the result was the same – Merlin went mad and took refuge in the Borders forests.  (Moffat has also devoted an entire book, Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms, published in 1999, to arguing that Arthur’s seat of power was in the Scottish Borders, but I haven’t yet got around to reading it.)


Apparently, Merlin didn’t remain a pagan until the end of his life.  Legend says that shortly before his death Saint Kentigern converted him to Christianity.  The conversion took place at Altarstone Farm, near the village of Stobo, a few miles up the road from Drumelzier.  Today it is commemorated in Stobo Kirk by a picture in a stained glass window showing Merlin kneeling before the saint.  Here’s a picture of that window, and one of the picturesque Stobo Kirk itself.



To anyone who encountered him during his crazed wanderings, Merlin would make contradictory prophecies about his own death.  Sometimes he predicted that he would die by falling over a cliff.  At other times he said his death would be the result of hanging.  At other times again he said it would be caused by drowning.  In fact, his eventual death combined all three of these prophecies.  One day he was attacked by local shepherds and fell down a bank of the River Tweed onto some stakes that were holding salmon-nets.  Impaled on those stakes and hanging helplessly upside down, the river-water covered his head and he drowned.  Hence, all three deaths he’d prophesised for himself, by falling, hanging and drowning, came true.


There is another prophecy connected with Merlin at Drumelzier.  According to a couplet:


When Tweed and Powsail meet at Merlin’s Grave,

Scotland and England shall one monarch have.


Supposedly, this prophecy was realised in 1603.  Queen Elizabeth I of England died childless and without any immediate heirs, so her second cousin, King James VI of Scotland, was made monarch of both countries.  On the day of the Union of Crowns the Tweed is said to have burst its banks.  Its waters mingled with those of Powsail Burn at the site of Merlin’s grave.  (There is disagreement about who made this prophecy – some attribute it to the 13th century philosopher, alchemist, astronomer and astrologer Michael Scot, while others say it originated with the mystical seer and poet Thomas the Rhymer, also believed to have lived in the 13th century.)


Today, the alleged site of the grave is marked by a thorn tree.  The easiest way to reach it is to follow Powsail Burn as it flows away from Drumelzier.  Approaching the village from the north on the B712, the first thing you encounter is a bridge across the burn.  A track runs alongside the burn from an entrance on the right just before the bridge.  You should walk along this track and, when the burn veers away leftwards from it, climb over a fence and continue following the burn through a sheep-field.  There’s a second fence to negotiate just before it joins the Tweed and near to the confluence the thorn tree stands within a little fenced enclosure.



At the base of the thorn tree is a plaque explaining that the original tree marking the alleged grave-site was swept away by a flood in 1928.  The current one was planted in 1996.  Actually, the ground here looks like it could be flooded regularly, which rather removes the sting from the old prophecy about Scotland and England having one monarch when ‘Tweed and Powsail meet at Merlin’s grave’.  Obviously the waters of the two rivers have mingled here on many occasions, not just in 1603.



Drumelzier Kirk, which is at the end of a short road branching off to the right of the B712 after the bridge,  is no longer a fully functioning church and opens only for occasional services.  However, it’s worth having a look at.  Externally at least, the kirk-building has seen better days, but there are some interesting details in the kirkyard.



While I was researching this entry, I came across some other interesting lore about Drumelzier.  For instance, in her 1985 book Albion: A Guide to Legendary Britain, Jennifer Westwood relates a tale about the wife of a local baron.  While her husband was away fighting in the Crusades, she went for a walk along the River Tweed one day and was accosted and impregnated by a ‘river spirit’.  The offspring of this unholy coupling, a boy, grew up to become the next Baron of Drumelzier.  Because of his strange conception on the banks of the river, people there gave their local aristocrat the nickname of ‘Tweedie’.


Meanwhile, in his 1989 book Scottish Kirkyards, Dane Love mentions the ancient fire-worshipping ceremony of Beltane, which was “one of the longest surviving pagan services… from the Gaelic Bealltainn, held on the first day of May.”  Folk in Drumelzier seemed especially enamoured with the custom of Beltane, which didn’t go down well with the Christian authorities.  “(E)ven as late as 1598,” writes Love, “on the first day of May the parishioners of Drumelzier in Peeblesshire built bonfires on the summits of local hills – for which they were called to the kirk session and put on trial.”


I very much doubt that the remains of British legend’s number-one magician really repose under that thorn tree at Drumelzier.   But the claim sits comfortably alongside the other Celtic-flavoured stories told about the place.


Peebles’ holiest relic


Certain towns and cities in the world can boast of having ancient and holy relics.  In the Christian world, for example, Sienna has the mummified head of Saint Catherine in its Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico, Paris has what is alleged to be the crown of thorns worn by Christ at his crucifixion in its Notre Dame Cathedral and, in Rome’s Basilica di Santa Croce, you can see part of the index finger of Saint Thomas – the finger that, as a sceptical disciple, he poked into the wound in the side of the resurrected Christ to check if it was real.  Some places have relics so special that they are said to have healing or protective powers – Naples, for instance, is lucky enough to have in its city cathedral the dried blood of St Januarius, which protects it from disasters like earthquakes and plagues.


However, my hometown of Peebles contains surely the most powerful holy relic of all.  Because in the public bar of the Crown Hotel on Peebles High Street you’ll find the armchair of Oliver Reed.



This hallowed item of furniture, on which the legendary hell-raising star of movies such as Hannibal Brooks, Women in Love, The Devils, Tommy and The Three and Four Musketeers once rested his butt, is rumoured to have healing powers too.  A pilgrim who reposes against its upholstery will, with time, be cured of certain pernicious ailments.  He or she will be cured of sobriety, for instance.  And common sense.  And dignity.


The story behind the chair is that, in the middle of the 1990s, Oliver Reed found himself staying in Peebles whilst doing some location filming for a Scottish movie called The Bruce – a quick and cheap cash-in on Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, which had cleaned up recently at the box office.  I’ve never seen The Bruce, but from all accounts it’s terrible.  Reed being Reed, of course, he soon managed to sniff out the pub in town containing the biggest number of what are euphemistically known as ‘local characters’, which was the Crown’s public bar.  He then set up camp there for several days, much to the joy of the Scottish tabloid press.  At one point, the Scottish edition of the Sun published on its front page a photo of an inebriated Reed passed out against the inside of the Crown’s entrance door, while someone outside tried to push his way in.  (No doubt he was thinking, “What the hell’s blocking the door…?  Oh…  It’s Oliver Reed.”)  For some reason Reed was clutching a toy sheep at the time so the Sun’s headline was, inevitably, SHAME ON EWE.


During his sojourn in the Crown, Reed complained to the hotel owner Peter Cassidy about the hardness of his seats and then thrust a bundle of notes into the hand of a regular called Davie Lees and ordered him to go to the local furniture store, the Castle Warehouse, and buy the pub a properly upholstered, properly comfortable armchair.  Davie obliged, and the armchair now resides against a back wall of the public bar, under a framed photo of a well-refreshed Reed posing with Cassidy outside the hotel.


Reed departed for the great pub in the sky back in 1999, when he expired during the filming of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in Malta.  He keeled over and breathed his last in, appropriately enough, a Valetta bar called the Pub, after he’d taken on a squad of British sailors in a series of drinking and arm-wrestling contests.  However, I have a feeling that the great man’s psychic residue lives on in that armchair in the Crown.


Just a few days ago, I’d arranged to meet my Dad for a meal in the Crown’s restaurant.  As the Oliver Reed armchair is aligned with the pub’s front door, I sat down in it so that I could watch the door and spot my Dad as soon as he walked in.


Immediately after sitting down, I found myself possessed by strange urges – to drink 104 pints in one sitting and then climb up the nearest chimneystack naked whilst roaring, “I’m Santa Claus!”; to indulge in a nude fireside wrestling match with Alan Bates; to vomit over Steve McQueen; to smuggle an elephant over the Alps; to take the local rugby club on a drinking spree and then organise a naked cross-country run with them through the surrounding moonlit fields; to film a Musketeers movie and stab several stunt-swordsmen during the fight scenes; to insult Jack Nicholson about his height, Richard Harris about his toupee and Raquel Welch about the thickness of her ankles; to arrive drunk at Galway Airport lying on the baggage conveyor; to chase ace snooker player Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins around a house with an axe; and to get a bird-claw tattoo done on my willie, which I’d subsequently threaten to whip out in front of the cameras every time I did a TV chat-show interview.


But then my Dad came into the hotel, I rose from the seat and the strange spell was broken.  So instead I ordered a half-pint of lager shandy and a plate of supreme-of-chicken with honey-and-mustard sauce, and later washed everything down with a nice cup of coffee.  And then went home to my bed.


(c) 20th Century Fox


Farewell, Alien’s dad


From www.museumssyndicate.com


In 1979 a surprising thing happened.  A movie was released called Alien, which was about an alien, which unlike practically every other alien that’d appeared in a movie until then really looked alien.


Pre-1979 science fiction cinema had served up some memorable beasties, of course, including the scaly clawed man-fish in The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and the bulging-brained mutant in This Island Earth (1955), but watching them even as a child, I could never quite escape the suspicion that if you inspected these creature’s spines you’d discover a zipper; and if you pulled down that zipper, their exterior – a monster suit – would drop away and reveal inside a Hollywood stuntman.


The thing in Alien didn’t give that impression because it was so nightmarishly bizarre.  Its body was a ribbed and ridged structure that seemingly combined a dinosaur skeleton with a samurai warrior’s armour.  Its tail tapered to a swishing lash and its veins pulsed with yellow acidic blood.  Its head was a truly grotesque item, long, phallic and eyeless, and endowed with a succession of mantrap-like fangs on the ends of a succession of tongues that emerged, Russian doll-style, out of one another.  And it drooled slime.  Its design was created by Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger – who, unfortunately, died three days ago after falling down some stairs at his home in Zurich.


Dan O’Bannon, who’d penned the original script for Alien, was a fan of Giger’s artwork.  With its disturbing organic / mechanical imagery, it seemed to fuse the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Francis Bacon with the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft, but in a science-fictional way that made it seem prescient of what was approaching as humanity became evermore reliant on, addicted to and integrated with technology.  O’Bannon showed some of Giger’s work to the project’s director, Ridley Scott.  A figure in one of Giger’s designs, Necronom IV, caught Scott’s eye and during the film’s production it evolved into the alien that we’re familiar with today.


In fact, we’re rather too familiar with that alien today.  It’s become an enduring part of popular culture, featured in numerous spin-offs – not just in the film sequels, whose quality gradually decreased and eventually saw poor old Giger’s alien having pro-wrestling-like scraps with the creatures from the Predator movies, but also in graphic novels, computer games and other media in the wider Alien franchise.  Its appearance has also been copied and mocked in countless rip-offs and parodies.  And while the alien was cheapened by over-exposure, Giger himself was never able to make the same impact again.  It must have been galling for him to find himself working on the design for the 1995 movie Species, which was clearly an an inferior cash-in on the film he’d contributed so much to a decade-and-a-half earlier.  Mind you, it got even worse — a year later, he worked on something called Killer Condom.


As well as designing movies, he produced artwork for rock musicians.  He was responsible for the Penis Landscape poster that was given out with the Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist LP in 1986.  The poster was an arresting one – literally so, because it resulted in the Dead Kennedys’ frontman, Jello Biafra, being brought to court accused of corrupting minors.  Prior to that, in 1981, he’d also painted the cover of Koo Koo, a solo album by Debbie Harry, which showed Ms Harry’s face being pierced by four long horizontal skewers.  Two years later, she starred in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, a film that – with its images of human flesh mutating to incorporate video and military technology – is much informed by Giger’s aesthetics.


(c) Chrysalis 


In the 1949 film classic The Third Man, Orson Welles famously observes: “in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland, they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace.  And what did that produce?  The cuckoo clock.”  Well, those 500 years of Swiss democracy and peace managed to produce H.R. Giger too.  Alas, the next logical Swiss invention – a cuckoo clock that on the hour opened its doors and released, not a cuckoo, but a phallic skeletal creature snarling with a series of fanged mouths and and spurting slime and acidic blood – never materialised.


Cinematic heroes 7: James Cosmo


(c) Paramount


I’ll make no bones about it.  I love James Cosmo, the Scottish character actor who on the 24th of this month will turn 66 – though he’s been a fixture of films and TV shows for so long you could be forgiven for thinking he’s much older.


These days the hulking, craggy and formidable Cosmo – whose visage is usually bedecked with a beard, moustache and long tresses of hair that on anyone else would suggest ‘ageing hippy’, but that on him suggest ‘someone you really don’t want to mess with’ – seems most familiar when he’s clad in armour and wielding a broadsword.  He’s carved a profitable niche for himself playing characters in movies and TV shows set in the ancient world, the Middle Ages and medieval fantasy lands, such as Braveheart (1995), Ivanhoe (1997), Cleopatra (1999), Troy (2004), The Lost Legion (2007) and Game of Thrones (2011-2013).  However, Cosmo, who was born in Clydebank and attended the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and the Bristol Old Vic Drama School, worked long and hard on television before he cornered the market for playing grizzled bear-like warriors in historical and fantasy epics.


He earned his acting spurs during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in a long line of TV shows and TV plays.  The better-known titles he appeared in include Doctor Finlay’s Casebook, Softly Softly, UFO, The Persuaders, Doomwatch, Sutherland’s Law, Ouiller, Warship, George and Mildred, The Sweeney, The Onedin Line, The Professionals, Strangers, Minder and Fairly Secret Army.  The most distinguished TV productions from this time to feature Cosmo were probably Nigel Kneale’s haunted-house-cum-sci-fi-horror-story The Stone Tape (1972) – its influence is detectable in many films and TV shows made since then, including the recent acclaimed British horror movie The Borderlands – and the 1974 Play for Today adaptation of John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, the most important piece of political theatre to surface in Scotland during the 1970s.


I was in my mid-teens when I started to notice Cosmo as an actor.  He played a villain in an episode of The Hammer House of Horror (1980), which climaxed with him driving a cleaver into the skull of the fragrant Julia Foster, something that must have shocked those viewers who remembered her from the wholesome 1968 musical with Tommy Steele, Half a Sixpence.  That grisly scene made a big impression on me, although nothing compared to the impression it obviously made on Julia Foster.  He also appeared in 1981’s The Nightmare Man, a cheap but creepy BBC mini-series scripted by the great TV writer Robert Holmes about a mysterious killer stalking a fogbound Scottish island.  The Nightmare Man saw Cosmo in good company, as the cast also included Celia Imrie, James Warwick, Tom Watson and the equally craggy and durable Scottish character actor, Maurice Roeves.


(c) BBC


By the late 1980s Cosmo was becoming the go-to guy if you needed an imposing Scottish hard man in your production.  For example, he appeared in Brond, a 1987 Channel 4 adaptation of the novel by Frederick Lindsay, a rather trippy thriller set in Glasgow and involving conspiracies and terrorism.  It tells the story of a hapless innocent, played by a very young John Hannah, who falls under the influence of the mysterious and sinister Brond of the title and ends up being accused of carrying out a political assassination.  Brond is played by the portly and menacing Stratford Johns, although Cosmo is no less intimidating as Primo, the silent, lethal hulk who acts as Brond’s henchman.  Two years later Cosmo had a similar role in the glossy Glasgow-set BBC thriller The Justice Game, in which this time he terrorised Dennis Lawson – who played Wedge Antilles in the original Star Wars trilogy and is the real-life uncle of wee Ewan McGregor.


Meanwhile, in 1986, Cosmo had appeared in Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander, the fantasy movie about immortal beings feuding throughout human historyHe plays a member of the MacLeod clan in the medieval Scottish Highlands and he helps Christopher Lambert to escape when their superstitious fellow clansmen get alarmed about how, within hours, Lambert’s battle-wounds seem to miraculously heal themselves.  Not only does Lambert turn out to be one of the immortals but he’s also the world’s most French-sounding Scotsman.  Later in the movie he encounters Sean Connery, who’s another immortal and also the world’s most Scottish-sounding Spaniard.  (The scene where Lambert explains to Connery what a haggis is has to be heard to be believed.)  Totally scatty, but loveable, I suspect Highlander was the movie that helped Cosmo secure the sweaty, muddy sword-and-sandals roles he became well-known for in the 1990s and 2000s.


(c) Cannon Films


The key sword-and-sandals role for Cosmo arrived in 1995 when he played Campbell, father of William Wallace’s best friend Hamish in the Mel Gibson-directed, Mel Gibson-starring Braveheart.  Hamish is played by the huge, ursine Brendan Gleeson, who later found fame in Michael McDonagh’s glorious 2008 comedy-thriller In Bruges and in the Harry Potter movies, where he played Mad-Eye Moody.  If anyone is even huger and more ursine-looking than Gleeson is and could convincingly play his dad, it’s Cosmo.  (In reality, the two actors are only seven years apart in age.)


As we approach the referendum on Scottish independence being held this September, it’s difficult to talk objectively about Braveheart.  With the political debate intensifying, the film is often held up as representing everything that’s ugly about Scottish nationalism.  Every day on online forums and in the letters pages of the Scottish press, supporters of independence are accused of being lunatics who plaster their faces in woad, charge along muddy fields screaming “Freedom!” and generally believe that everything in Gibson’s film is historical fact.  Of course, historically, Braveheart is nonsense.  It’s also anti-English to a degree that wouldn’t be acceptable against any other ethnic, national or cultural group in a Hollywood movie.  (Gibson subsequently showed himself to have form in that regard.)  But in the film’s defence I’ll say that the battle scenes, for their time, were excellent.  And the supporting cast that Gibson assembled – Cosmo, Gleeson, David O’Hara, Patrick McGoohan, Sophie Marceau, Catherine McCormack, Angus McFadyen, Ian Bannen – is excellent too.


As Campbell Senior, Cosmo comes across as a near-unstoppable force of nature.  He gets skewered with an arrow at the initial uprising in Lanark but ignores that and carries on fighting; he gets his hand chopped off at the Battle of Stirling but ignores that and carries on fighting too.  Even when someone embeds an axe in his stomach at the Battle of Falkirk, he keeps going long enough to deliver a moving farewell speech to Gleeson.


For the record, James Cosmo supports independence for Scotland.  Indeed, if Scotland’s electorate consisted only of craggy hard-men Scottish character actors, Alex Salmond would have the ‘yes’ vote in the bag – Brian Cox, Peter Mullen, David Hayman and Ken Stott are backing independence as well.


A year later Cosmo appeared in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, the movie that gave the world an equally potent image of Scotland, if a rather different one from that presented by Braveheart.  In fact, Trainspotting is the modern-urban-Scottish-junkie yin to Braveheart’s heroic-medieval-Scottish-warrior yang.  In Trainspotting, he plays another dad, this time of Ewan McGregor’s Renton character, a junkie so desperate for his next fix that he’ll crawl into the shit-encrusted bowl of the Worst Toilet in Scotland to get it.


(c) HBO


After Braveheart, Cosmo was kept busy with sword-wielding roles, something that’s continued up to his recent run in Game of Thrones.  However, he’s also become something of a fixture in recent British and Irish horror / thriller movies – he’s appeared in Urban Ghost Story (1998), Outcast (2009), Citadel (2012) and The Glass Man (2011).  That last movie features him alongside the actor and magician Andy Nyman and Neve Campbell, star of the Scream movies.  The Glass Man got good reviews when it was shown at film festivals but mystifyingly it’s never been released in Britain, not even on DVD.  (According to the blog of the movie critic M.J. Simpson, it’s now available on DVD in, strangely enough, Argentina.)  The trailer can be viewed on youtube, though.  Cosmo looks as menacing as ever in it, but it’s rather disconcerting to hear him talking with a Cockney accent.


(c) Spotlight Pictures


Unexpectedly, Cosmo has a further speciality, which is for playing Santa Claus.  According to his IMDb profile he’s now filled the furry boots of Saint Nick on three different occasions, most famously in the 2005 Disney version of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.


Though he’s well into his seventh decade, James Cosmo looks as daunting as ever.  His visage, bulk and general demeanour suggest a man to whom you definitely don’t want to show any disrespect.  And if you are foolhardy enough to be disrespectful, he’ll probably kebab you on a long rusty medieval pike and simultaneously slash your throat with a sgian dubh.  That’s the sort of guy I’d like to be when I become eligible for my bus-pass.


Recent British horror movies… 3


(c) Rook Films 


Here’s the final part of my round-up of recent British horror movies.


Actually, I suppose I shouldn’t mention Black Death in this round-up since (a) it was released in 2010 and isn’t really that recent; and (b) it was made with German money, filmed in Germany and used a largely German crew, so it’s only part-British at best.  However, it is set in medieval England, has a mainly British (and Irish) cast and was directed by Christopher Smith, who’s been a leading light in the New Wave of British Horror Movies that’s been in progress since the late 1990s.  Smith’s other films include 2004’s Creep (which I hated) and 2006’s Severance (which I enjoyed).  Indeed, two actors who were in Severance, Andy Nyman and Tim McInnery, appear here alongside Sean Bean, John Lynch and the venerable, but mighty, character actor David Warner.


Bean plays the head of a group of church-employed warriors who, during the worst days of the Black Death, are sent to investigate a remote village that’s escaped being stricken by the plague – because, according to rumours, its inhabitants have abandoned God and struck a deal with sinister, ancient, pagan deities.  After trekking across a dangerous, plague-ravaged landscape, Bean and his grizzled followers arrive at the mysteriously tranquil village in question and suddenly the film turns Wicker Man-ish.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.  There’s even a scene where the Christian warriors find the village’s church, abandoned and cobwebbed, and Bean sets the cross back on the altar table – just as Edward Woodward did in the ruined church in The Wicker Man.  It has to be said, though, that with his steely glare, gritted teeth and big sword, Bean is a hell of a lot better prepared to face a village of pagans than Edward Woodward was.


(c) Egoli Tossell Film


I liked Black Death a lot, partly because of its cast – Lynch is especially good as the weariest, wisest and most humane of the warriors – and partly because, while it gives you some engaging characters to root for, it’s unflattering about their religious loyalties.  This is a ‘no-one wins’ film where fanatical Christianity is no more attractive than fanatical Paganism.  Indeed, Smith deserves kudos for filming a particularly dark ending that echoes Nietzsche’s warning about he who fights monsters being in danger of becoming a monster himself.


Unfortunately, Black Death opened and closed without making much of a ripple and it seems to have stalled Smith’s directing career – the last I heard, he was working on something called Get Santa.  Which is a shame, as the movie is zillion times better than Season of the Witch, the similarly-themed (but much more expensive) shambles with Nicholas Cage and Ron Pearlman that was released around the same time.


A few years ago it looked like the modern British horror-movie boom would fizzle out in a welter of asinine and loutish horror-comedy films aimed at the sort of blokes who watch Top Gear and read Loaded magazine – dross like 2008’s Lesbian Vampire Killers (James Corden and Matthew Horne head into the remote British countryside on a male-bonding trip and have hilarious sexist hijinks with a horde of Sapphic lady vampires) and the following year’s Doghouse (Danny Dyer and Noel Clarke head into the remote British countryside on a male-bonding trip and have hilarious sexist hijinks with a horde of raunchy lady zombies).  Despite this development, though, the boom has survived.  However, some dyed-in-the-wool fans may now fear there’s been another troubling development that could kill it off for good.  Yes, recently, British horror films have started to get serious.  To get pretentious.  To get – ugh! – arty.


Yes, they may wonder, could anything be worse than having a clutch of new British horror films that don’t follow the normal route, going straight to DVD and getting an airing on the Horror Channel – but that instead enjoy a run on the arthouse-cinema circuit?  For this happened last year with Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England and Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio.


I’m being facetious because I liked A Field in England and Berberian Sound Studio.  However, both films have been derided by some traditional-minded horror fans.  For instance, the film critic in the British horror-fiction magazine Black Static made no secret of his contempt for Field (and for Wheatley’s films in general) while Studio was lambasted on the popular horror-movie website Bloody Disgusting.


(c) Rook Films


A Field in England stars Reece Shearsmith and Michael Smiley, a duo who have form in recent British horror films.  (Both of them appeared in The World’s End, Shaun of the Dead and John Landis’s 2010 retelling of Burke and Hare.  Shearsmith has also been in The Cottage and, obviously, The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse, while Smiley turned up in The Outpost and Wheatley’s excellent Kill List.)  It has a handful of exhausted and befuddled soldiers in a battle during the English Civil War escape the carnage by forcing their way through a huge hedge on the battleground’s edge.  Emerging on the hedge’s other side, they find themselves in a deserted, overgrown and seemingly endless field where (a) they manage to conjure a sorcerer – Smiley – out of nowhere by pulling on a mysterious rope; (b) they spend a lot of time digging a hole; and (c) they ingest some magic mushrooms, leading to kaleidoscopic hallucinations that’d look very hippy-ish and 1960s-esque if they weren’t in monochrome – for Wheatley has filmed the whole movie in black and white.


Although I hardly had a clue what was going on, I found A Field in England oddly engaging.  There’s a particularly impressive scene involving Shearsmith’s character that’s so unsettling it’s worthy of a David Lynch movie.  Clearly, a gap existed in British cinema for a weird, hallucinogenic, black-and-white, English Civil War-set film involving fields, hedges, sorcerers and digging holes.  And I’m actually glad that Wheatley made an effort to fill that gap.


(c) Film 4


Things get weird and hallucinogenic towards the end of Berberian Sound Studio too, although for most of its running time it has something approaching a coherent structure.  On one level it’s a docu-drama about how a sound-effects man (played by the wonderful character actor Toby Jones, who’s the son of another wonderful character actor, Freddie Jones) goes about the business of creating the screaming, gurgling, bludgeoning, slashing and splattering noises required for a horror film, in this case a typically gaudy, violent and misogynist 1970s Italian one called The Equestrian Vortex.


On another level it’s a character study and a tale of culture clashes, as Jones, an Englishman who’s shy and quiet almost to the point of social awkwardness, finds himself working in an Italian film studio where the atmosphere is the opposite of his buttoned-up restraint.  The Italian filmmakers are slaves to their passions, their carnal ones as well as their creative ones – the Italian starlets working in the studio are as disposable in their employers’ sex lives as the characters they play are disposable in The Equestrian Vortex’s brutal script.  Meanwhile, that most un-English of things, a big crucifix, hangs on the studio wall.


All Jones really wants to do, it transpires, is makes soundtracks of birdsongs, raindrops and rustling breezes for documentary films about woodland areas in the Home Counties of England – we see a clip of one and it looks really boring.  It’s a mystery, then, why he took on this bizarre assignment in Italy.  And it’s hardly surprising that he starts to crack up, which is presumably why the film takes a severe leftfield turn towards the end.


I sort of wish it hadn’t taken that leftfield turn, as up until then I’d enjoyed the film’s two strands – the informative stuff about how a horror-movie sound-effects studio works and the character / culture-clash stuff involving the timid Jones.  But there was enough enjoyment in the movie as a whole for me to give it my approval.


One nice thing about A Field in England and Berberian Sound System is that, for all their pretentions, they’re made by people who have an obvious knowledge and love of horror films of the past.  Field owes a great deal to a certain sub-genre of British horror movie set in the 17th century, where men would wear wigs, cloaks, stockings and buckled shoes, tramp through muddy rural backwaters and address one another in phlegmy voices as ‘Master Gower’ and ‘Mistress Vespers’ and ‘Squire Middleton’.  The most famous examples are Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General and Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw, which were made respectively in 1968 and 1970 by the studio Tigon Films.


Studio pays homage to the Italian giallo movies of the 1970s, whose two most famous practitioners were the directors Mario Bava and Dario Argento and whose basic plot was succinctly described by Christopher Fowler in his recent book Film Freak: “a black-gloved killer would murder several busty, semi-clad victims in inventive, colourful ways before being unmasked as an outside suspect who had been traumatised as a child.”  Often designed, lit and filmed with stunning flamboyance, often equipped with baroque synthesiser scores – most famously by the German progressive-rock band Goblin – and often sexist to a jaw-dropping degree, there’s been nothing quite like them before or since.  Thank God, feminists would say.  The Equestrian Vortex, the film being made in Studio, is an imaginary production but at one point director Peter Strickland allows us to see its credits scene and hear its theme music and, doing so, he provides us with a loving pastiche of the giallo sub-genre.  Here’s a link to it, at youtube:




Does this mean, though, that forty years from now, British arthouse directors will be making movies that pay homage to a certain horror-film sub-genre that was once popular in Britain at the end of the noughties – one in which James Corden and Danny Dyer would head into the remote British countryside on a male-bonding trip and have hilarious sexist hijinks with a horde of saucy lady werewolves?  Somehow, I doubt it.


(c) Film 4


The dark end of Peebles



I recently read a collection of supernatural short stories by Charles Dickens.  I found the collection a mixed bag, with several stories suffering from a surfeit of humour and / or sentimentality to the point where they aren’t creepy or even slightly unsettling.  (Humour and sentimentality, I have to say, are two things that put me off much of Dickens’ fiction.)  However, there are other stories that work.  A Confession Found in a Prison at the Time of Charles II, for example, is a variation on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, though instead of an old man being murdered it’s – more disturbingly – a child.  The Ghost in the Bride’s Chamber uses the clever idea that the ghost, of an aged murderer, is replicated according to the hour of the day – at two o’clock in the haunted house in question you’ll encounter two mysterious old men, at three o’clock you’ll encounter three of them, and so on.


And then, of course, there’s The Signalman.


The Signalman, in which the titular character is tormented by a spectral figure whose appearances at a remote stretch of railway line are invariably followed by tragic rail accidents, has none of Dickens’ comic / sentimental shtick.  It’s told in a straightforward manner and is deadly serious.  No doubt Dickens wrote the story with such earnestness because the subject matter was no laughing matter for him.  On 9th June, 1865, he’d been a passenger on a train involved in the Staplehurst rail disaster.  Ten people were killed and for hours during its aftermath Dickens tended to and comforted the injured.  Writing The Signalman may have been his attempt to exorcise the trauma he experienced that day.


(c) Alma Classics 


The story feels very familiar now, thanks to the famous BBC dramatization of it broadcast at Christmas-time in 1976.  Scripted by Andrew Davies and starring Denholm Elliot, the TV version of The Signalman is regarded as the greatest of the BBC’s traditional festive ghost stories.  Indeed, it’s interesting to read Dickens’ original story and compare it with its TV adaptation.  For the most part the latter is fairly faithful to the former, although the second railway accident foretold by the spectre’s appearance is more spectacular in the TV play – it has a young bride plunging to her death from the door of a carriage, before the signalman’s eyes.  In the story, he simply tells the narrator that a “beautiful young lady had died instantaneously in one of the compartments”.  Also, the signalman in the story – “a dark, sallow man, with a dark beard and rather heavy eyebrows” – is an earthier and more hirsute figure than the clean-shaven, well-groomed Elliot.


One aspect of the story that the TV adaptation captures very well is the grim, claustrophobic setting: “The cutting was extremely deep, and unusually precipitate.  It was made through a clammy stone that became oozier and wetter as I went down…  His post was in as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw.  On either side, a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky – the perspective one way, only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction, terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing and forbidding air.  So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot that it had an earthy deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it that it struck chill to me, as I had left the natural world.”


Actually, the setting in The Signalman reminded me a little of a place close to where I live, in the Scottish Borders town of Peebles.  Still visible west of Peebles are remnants of a railway line that was constructed between 1858 and 1864 and linked Peebles – from a station called Peebles West – with the village of Broughton, the town of Biggar and finally the village of Symington, just south of Carstairs Junction on the Glasgow-to-England line still in operation today.


Most of the Peebles-to-Symington line had disappeared even before Dr Richard Beeching published his notorious report in 1963, which led to the axing of some 5000 miles of track from the British rail network (and coincidentally left the Scottish Borders as the only region in mainland Britain without a single railway station on its soil).  The Peebles-to-Biggar section of the line was phased out in 1950 and 1954, with the last Biggar-to-Symington section disappearing post-Beeching in 1966.



What remains now at the Peebles end of the route is several miles of footpath, which follow the old railway track, and a lovely stone viaduct standing over the River Tweed just beyond Neidpath Castle.  Once you cross the viaduct to the southern side of the Tweed, the old track leads you into a cutting in the hillside of South Park Wood and then to the mouth of a tunnel.  I’ve read somewhere that the tunnel was used a ‘refuge’ during World War II and have even heard claims that the Royal Train was stored inside it.


Although on a good day the view from the viaduct along the Tweed Valley is gorgeous, the atmosphere changes as you enter the cutting and approach the tunnel.  It always feels damp and clammy there, the ground black and squelchy, a constant drip-drip-drip of water in the background.  The stone walls on either side of the tunnel-entrance have thick green fleeces of moss and the entrance itself seems to be permanently in shadow.  While it’s not the hellhole that Dickens describes in The Signalman, the place definitely feels a little sinister.



There used to be a wooden door sealing off the disused tunnel but that has disappeared.  Because the tunnel supposedly has a bend in the middle, when you peer in you can’t see any light at the far end of it.  After a few muddy yards everything seems to vanish in a mass of thick, dripping darkness.  It isn’t unusual to find those first few yards inside the tunnel littered with bottles and beer-cans, which suggests it’s become a popular party-site for foolhardy teenagers, the sort who’ve never seen a horror movie before.


A friend told me a little while ago that it’s possible to walk right through the tunnel now and emerge on the other side of the hill, a little way up from where Peebles West railway station used to be.  Maybe I will attempt to do that one day, with a powerful torch, lots of spare batteries and a pair of strong, dry walking boots.  But I’ll wait until the memories of Charles Dickens’ The Signalman fade a little.


He’s behind you!


From new168.co.uk


For the record, I think Alex Salmond – Scotland’s portly and garrulous First Minister and leader of the independence-seeking Scottish National Party – should apologise for a comment he made in a recent interview for GQ Magazine.  During the interview he said he ‘admired’ certain aspects of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, though he qualified that by saying that many of the Russian leader’s policies he didn’t agree with.


I have no doubt that Putin has qualities that all politicians are envious of – for one thing, his ability as a tactician, which seemingly has the West dancing on a string over the current crisis in Ukraine – but ‘admire’ was hardly an appropriate verb to employ.  Certainly not for a creature like the ruthless, shark-eyed Putin who, even before you consider his impact on other countries, has made life miserable within Russian borders for ethnic minorities, homosexuals, dissidents and so on.


Salmond, I believe, should say sorry and explain that – not for the first time, incidentally – his mouth had got a little way ahead of his brain.  That he’d expressed himself inappropriately: inappropriately to the point of causing offence.


If he apologised at some length and with some sincerity, he could also highlight the difference in political cultures between Holyrood, in Edinburgh, and Westminster, in London.  At Westminster the other week, David Cameron’s culture secretary Maria Miller gave an apology for irregularities in her expenses that was so perfunctory and cynical that it provoked an outcry and led to her losing her job.  Salmond would also show a circumspect and self-critical side of his nature that might actually boost his standing.  There’s been a lot of talk lately about how his macho, take-no-prisoners style of politics is off-putting to female voters.


He could even take the opportunity to condemn any leader who invades, or threatens to invade, another country for strategic, economic or ideological gain.  No doubt this would have the Labour Members of the Scottish Parliament squirming in their seats, considering how 11 years ago their past leader, one Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, did just that in cahoots with George W. Bush and as a result, according to the Lancet, had by July 2006 contributed to the deaths of 655,000 Iraqis.


However, Salmond hasn’t apologised and probably won’t apologise.  This disappoints me but hardly surprises me.   For a start, apologies are not his style.  Also, many of the criticisms levelled at Salmond have come from the UK’s political establishment – the other day, for example, Lord Paddy Ashdown, who once led the Liberal Democrat party, lambasted him for siding with the ‘big and powerful’ rather than with the ‘threatened and oppressed’ – and Salmond no doubt believes that these criticisms are laced with hypocrisy.  After all, at different times in the past, the UK political establishment have tried to court Putin when it suited them.


Indeed, Britain and other Western powers have to shoulder much of the blame for what is happening now with Russia and Ukraine.  Back in the early 1990s – which was Ashdown’s political heyday – the G7 and the IMF didn’t attempt to shape a post-communist Russia with a genuine system of social democracy.   Instead, they happily encouraged Boris Yeltsin (a man who in 1993 used troops to attack his own parliament) to lift price controls, impose free-trade policies, slash welfare spending and do a fast-track privatisation of the country’s thousands of state companies.  This left Russia with what Naomi Klein described in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine as ‘casino capitalism’, a system autocratic in political character but a free-for-all economically.  Thanks to this, Klein noted, a quarter of Russians were living in ‘desperate’ poverty by the mid-1990s.  At the same time it created the culture of super-rich oligarchs and paved the way for Vladimir Putin.  The G7 and IMF, to use Ashdown’s words, sided with the ‘big and powerful’ rather than with the ‘threatened and oppressed’.  For all that Western governments complain about Putin today, they shouldn’t forget the inconvenient truth that they helped to create him.  He’s their own Frankenstein’s monster.


Also, I suspect Salmond doesn’t want to set a precedent.  By apologising for the Putin comment, he’d then be under pressure to apologise for some utterance or other every week between now and the Scottish independence referendum in September.  He has few friends in the mainstream Scottish and British media and he knows journalists are scrutinising his every word in the hope of finding ammunition to use against him and against the independence cause, of which he’s supposedly the figurehead.


Indeed, the Scotsman has tried to stir front-page controversy with another remark Salmond made during the same interview, concerning Scotland’s tricky cultural and psychological relationship with alcohol — he used the expression ‘a nation of drunks’.  Funnily enough, a claim made a while back by Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont that Scots are ‘not genetically programmed’ to make political decisions caused no outcry at all in the press.  (Both Salmond’s and Lamont’s words have, I’m sure, been quoted out of context.  But in the interests of balance…)


What irritates me is not that the mainstream media is determined to play the man, Salmond, rather than play the ball, the Yes campaign for the upcoming independence referendum.  It doesn’t surprise me that the media is desperate to discredit a personality rather than engage with an argument and defeat it with superior arguments.  Playing the man, not the ball, is what politicians and political journalists do, unfortunately.


However, the hysterical right-wing middle-class tabloids that populate Scotland’s newspaper racks, such as the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Scotsman, have become so obsessed with Salmond that they haven’t realised the ball isn’t even at his feet.  Salmond isn’t the Yes campaign.  The Scottish National Party isn’t the Yes campaign either – it’s just one component of it.


The chairman of the Yes campaign is Dennis Canavan, who as a distinguished old-school Labour politician was once MP for Falkirk.  After years of service, Canavan was forced out of the Labour Party because the Tony Blair clique running the party at the time found him too much off-message.  (His replacement as Labour MP for Falkirk was the thuggish Eric Joyce, whose violent, drunken shenanigans in the Houses of Parliament led to public disgrace.  It also triggered a murky chain of events involving the trade union Unite that led to an industrial stand-off at the nearby Grangemouth Oil Refinery and almost caused the refinery’s closure.)  Canavan is practically ignored while the media strives to portray the independence cause as being all about Salmond, Salmond, Salmond.  I have to say that one of the biggest culprits is the London-centric BBC, whose political correspondents seem to be genuinely ignorant of Canavan’s existence and genuinely believe that Salmond heads the Yes campaign.


(c) The Herald 


In addition, the Yes campaign also includes the Scottish Green Party and various socialist groupings, plus independence-supporting factions from the Scottish Labour Party and Liberal Democrat Party.  There are even right-wingers like the historian Michael Fry who believe that the only way for the Scottish Conservative Party to crawl back from its current position, which is at death’s door, and renew itself is to sever its ties with London and promote itself as a new party within an independent Scotland.  Also under the Yes banner are non-political groups like Business for Scotland and the cultural movement the National Collective, plus a lot of people who see themselves as having no political affiliations at all.  Again, though, the mainstream media would have you believe that these many groups and individuals are but tiny particles making up the dark political miasma that is Alex Salmond.


Finally, the identification of all things independence-related with Salmond is annoying on a further level.  It assumes that people in Scotland are incapable of reasoning and making decisions for themselves.  (Which, actually, was what Johann Lamont seemed to say in her ‘not genetically programmed’ comment.)  Forget individual thought – the part of the population that’s countenancing voting for independence, pushing towards 40% according to recent opinion polls, has been seduced by that great evil mastermind, Alex Salmond.  Apparently, everything had been hunky-dory since the Union of the English and Scottish parliaments in 1707, before he oozed along and started brainwashing people with his separatist cant.


The Scottish and British media love a good pantomime villain and for them Salmond fits the role.  Conveniently, it also allows them not to focus on the fact that a great many people see reasonable, logical and principled reasons for voting Yes in September.  But then, that’s what most mainstream media coverage of the referendum debate has been so far – a pantomime.


Having said all that, I don’t think it would do Alex Salmond any harm if for once he could squeeze the word ‘sorry’ out of his gob.


PS.  Two days after writing this post, I got a chance to read the GQ interview that had caused all the kerfuffle.  It’s available at http://wingsoverscotland.com/the-talk-of-the-town/.  It was the interviewer, not Salmond, who used the verb ‘admire’ in relation to Putin.  (Q: “Admire him?”  A: “Certain aspects.”)  That interviewer, by the way, was Alastair Campbell, Director of Communications and Strategy to Tony Blair and supposedly the inspiration for the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker in the satirical TV show The Thick of It.  Evidence again of the old saying, “He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon.”