Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 1


In Britain in the 1970s the authorities pulled no punches when it came to public safety.  On television, the commercial breaks were saturated with Public Information Films – PIFs – warning of the many and varied threats to our wellbeing that lurked everywhere in daily life: car accidents, fires, drowning, electrocution, child molesters.  Some PIFs were surprisingly graphic and upsetting, including – especially – the ones that promoted children’s safety, and the TV schedulers had no qualms about showing them during the breaks between children’s programmes in the late afternoons.  Thus, one moment you could be watching an innocuous, dopy kids’ cartoon and the next moment watching a couple of hapless children get drowned in a quarry-pool, or boy get reduced to a cinder whilst trying to retrieve his Frisbee from an electrical substation.  The Frisbee kid’s name was Jimmy.  I know this because the PIF ends with his sister screaming “JIM-MEEEE!” while the little tyke explodes in flames.


Another Jimmy presented a series of 1970s PIFs devoted to car safety and the importance of wearing your seatbelt.  This Jimmy was DJ and ‘entertainer’ Jimmy Savile, later to become a knight and a confidante of Margaret Thatcher, and later still, after his death, to be revealed as an abuser of children, adults and dead bodies on an industrial scale.  They should have made a series of PIFs warning about him.  “Ladies…” he says creepily in one PIF while a woman is shown smashing through a windscreen.  “For some of you, the face you start out with in the morning won’t be the same face you end up with by the evening.”


Kids in the 1970s weren’t just subjected to graphic PIFs during TV commercial breaks.  They also had to watch longer versions of them during ‘guidance’ periods at school.  Most notorious of these was the 1977 short film The Finishing Line, which was based on the fantasy premise of a school sports day being held beside a railway line and all its sporting events being inspired by the stupid, dangerous things that children do around railway tracks and trains.  One event, for example, involves a race where teams of kids run into a tunnel.  There’s a train rushing through the tunnel, of course, and they end up being killed or mangled by it.


In our cossetted and politically correct world today, where so much fuss is made about respecting the sensibilities of children, it seems strange that kids were once subjected to material like this.  The ‘tough love’ exhibited in these PIFs, where it was assumed that by traumatising your audience you’d encourage them to take better care of themselves, seems very unfashionable now.


Anyway, a while back, I was walking along the sea near to my apartment in Colombo when I saw something that reminded me of those old British Public Information Films.  It reminded me of their grim this-is-what-will-happen-to-you-if-you-don’t-listen-to-us spirit and of The Finishing Line in particular.  Twin railway tracks run along the coast here and the side of the tracks is punctuated, at regular intervals, by signs saying BEWARE OF TRAINS.  The signs are also adorned with a charming picture of a pair of torn-off limbs – legs, I think – strewn across some railway sleepers, while a very dead-looking guy lies on the ground a few yards away.  I bet his name was Jimmy.  And when the train struck him, his sister, standing watching nearby, screamed, “JIM-MEEEE!”



This, of course, was too good for me not to take a photograph of it.  Oddly, just as I’d fished my camera out of my bag and pointed it at one of these signs, a train suddenly hurtled past behind it.  This made me jump because, somehow, I hadn’t seen or heard the thing as it’d approached.  Which I guess underlined the point of having gruesome signs there, warning people to be careful.



Hello, Colombo



For the past few weeks I’ve been living in Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka.  The temperature has simmered in the low thirties and the humidity-percentage hovered in the high seventies since I arrived, making this one of the sweatiest and stickiest places I’ve been in.  However, this is alleviated slightly by the location of my apartment, which is two minutes’ walk from the sea.  The coastal Marine Drive, where you’re often massaged by a breeze coming in over the waves, is probably the least brutal thoroughfare in Colombo to walk on during the heat and humidity of midday.


My Colombo neighbourhood, Wellawatta, supposedly goes by the nickname of ‘Little Jaffna’ on account of the large population of Hindu and Christian Tamils living here, in addition to Buddhist Sinhalese and Muslim ‘Moors’.  Among its landscapes of houses, apartment-blocks, shops, cafes, restaurants, offices, construction sites, canals, gardens and clusters of palm trees – home to skinny Sri Lankan crows and diminutive Sri Lankan squirrels – you’ll find a fascinating sprinkling of Hindu and Buddhist temples, mosques, churches, convents and street-side shrines containing Buddha, or Ganesh, or Jesus.  When I’ve penetrated into the district’s lanes and alleyways, I’ve even seen an occasional, presumably-sacred cow nosing around.


Where I’m living is also within walking distance of two small beaches, both on the other side of the coastal railway line and both sheltering below breakwaters where the Kirillapone Canal and Dehiwala Canal enter the sea.  Neither beach is too tidy and I certainly wouldn’t like to immerse myself in the seawater there, but if you sit and relax with a beer and squint a little, so that the sand becomes a soothingly-indistinct yellow blur, they’re scenic enough.  Meanwhile, the seafront along Marine Drive is a curious combination of the old, antiquated, dilapidated and at times downright decrepit and the brand and boldly new (in the form of glassy multi-storey tourist hotels like Global Towers and the Ozo).  No doubt, with time, the new will completely displace the old – though hopefully that won’t happen before the end of my time here.



Expect more blog-entries about Colombo and Sri Lanka in the weeks, months and – possibly – years to come.


Cinematic heroes 8: Robert Morley




Portly, jowly, invariably cast as a member of the aristocracy and / or the establishment in one of its many guises, Robert Morley was an actor who seemed to appear fully-formed at the start of his screen career, in 1938, and then for the next fifty years seemed to stay the same.  His characters displayed a multitude of vices – snobbery, pomposity, cowardice, greed, deviousness, disdain for something or other – but they usually fell into the ‘loveable rogue’ category and only rarely were they completely unlikeable.  Morley, in effect, spent his career essaying posher, more refined versions of William Shakespeare’s Falstaff.


Born in Wiltshire in 1908, the son of a British army major, the young Morley had a miserable school life at Wellington College, a boarding school in Berkshire that then specialised in educating the offspring of army officers.  “Show me the man who has enjoyed his schooldays,” he said famously, “and I will show you a bully and a bore.”  After Morley had become a star, headmaster after headmaster at Wellington tried, unsuccessfully, to get in touch with him to, presumably, exploit his connection with the school.  Morley declared that “the only reason for me visiting Wellington would be to burn it down.”  Morley would no doubt be pleased to know that today on the school’s website it mentions “Peter Snow, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, Rory Bremner, Will Young, Sebastian Faulkes, James Hunt and the Right Reverend Richard Harries” as famous old-boys but makes a point of not mentioning him.


After a stint as a beer salesman, Morley enlisted in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and made his stage debut in 1928 in Doctor Syn.  I assume this was a theatrical version of Russell Thorndyke’s story of 18th-century smugglers, Doctor Syn: A Tale of Romney Marsh, which, later, was filmed both by Disney (with Patrick McGoohan) and by Hammer Films (with Peter Cushing).  Morley’s second role involved more 18th-century swashbuckling, for in 1929 he played a pirate in a production of Treasure Island.  Over the next decade he worked his way up through the theatre world and even, in 1935, co-managed a repertory company on the Cornish coast with another actor, Peter Bull, with whom he would later appear in a few films.


Morley’s big break came in 1938 when he played the title role of Oscar Wilde at Fulton Theatre in New York.  His performance was acclaimed and won him an invitation to Hollywood, where he played Louis XIV in a lavish MGM production, Marie Antoinette – a performance that was good enough to earn him an Oscar nomination.  The rest was history.  With his plentiful bulk, his unruly eyebrows and his plummy voice, Morley was an unmistakeable and much-loved presence in British and international cinema for the next half-century – though as he modestly claimed, “I don’t work.  I merely inflict myself on the public.”


I won’t go through the landmarks of Morley’s film career here – Major Barbara (1941), The African Queen (1951), Beat the Devil (1953), Beau Brummell (1954) and, recreating the character he’d played onstage twenty years earlier, Oscar Wilde (1960).  Nor will I go into his extensive theatrical career, which continued up to 1980 with a performance in Alan Bennett’s The Old Country.  Rather, I’ll simply discuss a half-dozen films I saw as a kid, in which Morley made a hefty, roly-poly-shaped impression on my consciousness.


(c) ABPC / Warner Pathe


The Young Ones (1961).  Before British rock-and-roll music grew some balls, the clean-cut Cliff Richard ruled the nation’s airwaves and, inevitably, played the lead in a series of innocuous teen-orientated musicals that included this, Summer Holiday (1963) and Wonderful Life (1964).  The Young Ones sees Cliff and his squeaky-clean gang battling to save their beloved youth club from an unscrupulous property developer, who also happens to be Cliff’s dad and is played by Morley.  Needless to say, Morley gets all the best lines.  “I don’t approve of youth clubs, you know,” he says at one point.  “They’re just places where they can go and plot some more mischief.”  And later he tells a delegation of kids, “Have you got a contract?  An agreement?  A lease?  You certainly have no claim except on the kindness of the owner.  Unfortunately, I am a brute!”


Considering what a sanctimonious, self-righteous pain-in-the-neck Cliff has become in the decades since I saw The Young Ones, I suspect if I watched the film again today, I’d find myself wholeheartedly backing Morley and his plan to bulldozer Cliff’s youth club into the dirt.  But I’m sure the sequence where The Shadows play The Savage is still good.


(c) Hammer


The Old Dark House (1963).  A remake of 1932’s grotesque, atmospheric horror / black-comedy movie directed by James Whale and based on J.B. Priestley’s novel Benighted, The Old Dark House was the first and only collaboration between Britain’s celebrated horror-movie studio Hammer Films and the American producer, director and showman William Castle – Castle’s films were distinguished by their outrageous marketing gimmicks, such as the promise of a $1000 insurance payment for the family of any customer who died of fright during Macabre (1958), puppet skeletons flying around inside cinemas during The House on Haunted Hill (1959), cinema seats wired up to cause vibrations during The Tingler (1959) and the distribution of ‘ghost viewer’ glasses during 13 Ghosts (1960).  However, The Old Dark House is remarkably anodyne by the standards of both Hammer and Castle.  Not only does it bear little resemblance to the 1932 film, but it’s a generic horror-comedy in which a group of eccentrics in a rambling old mansion are killed off one-by-one, Agatha Christie-style.  British cinema produced a few of these films during the period – see also What a Carve-Up! (1961) and The Horror of It All (1963).


If nothing else, The Old Dark House has a decent cast.  To play the hero, William Castle brought in the serviceable American actor Tom Poston, who according to his Wikipedia entry had, by the time of his death in 2007, appeared in more US TV sitcoms than any other performer.  Meanwhile, the British cast consists of some marvellously oddball character actors.  Morley plays Roderick Femm, head of the family, and also on board are Joyce Grenfell, Mervyn Johns, Morley’s old repertory partner Peter Bull and the splendidly vampish and husky-voiced Fenella Fielding.  Morley survives until near the end, when he’s blasted away by a booby trap rigged in his collection of antique rifles.  Watching this film as a boy, I was delighted when Poston’s apparent love-interest during the film, the demure and blonde Janette Scott, turns out to be the evil psychotic killer and is subsequently blown to pieces; so that Poston ends up with Fenella Fielding instead.  Hurrah!


The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (1965).  Narrated by Morley and directed by the incomparable Chuck Jones, The Dot and the Line is a short MGM cartoon that inhabits a universe similar to the one in Edwin Abbot’s 1888 geometrical fantasy novel FlatlandThe Dot and the Line tells the story of “a sensible straight line who was hopelessly in love with a dot.”  Alas, the dot has no time for the staid-seeming line and prefers to hang out with an irresponsible, beatnik-like squiggle, and the line has to figure out a way of winning her heart.  Ingenious, delightful and helped immeasurably by Morley’s fruity tones, The Dot and the Line was good enough to win an Academy Award for Animated Short Film.  The final punchline is worth waiting for too.  (View it here on youtube:


 (c) Preben-Philipsen / Rialto Films


The Trygon Factor (1966).  Based on a story by Edgar Wallace, an author who in his heyday could boast that a quarter of all books being read in England at the time had been written by him, but who is almost completely forgotten today – Stephen King, take note – The Trygon Factor is a bizarre crime / black-comedy movie.  It has Morley involved with a criminal gang operating at a stately house that is also home to a convent.  Yes, as Stewart Granger, playing an investigating officer from Scotland Yard, finds out, both the aristos and the nuns are secretly ruthless criminals and they’re planning a major heist at a London bank.


If this all sounds very camp, it is.  But what took me aback when I saw The Trygon Factor as a kid was how vicious it is too.  The detective who precedes Granger in the investigation gets drowned in a baptismal font.  During the heist the gang casually murder all the bank staff and customers who are witnesses to the crime, and then the gang start to turn on each other.  A bunch of them are gassed to death whilst riding in the back of a van, which feels like something that could have happened at a Nazi death camp.  (The film was a British-German co-production but the German backers apparently didn’t find this sequence troubling.)  Back at the mansion, German actor and comedian Eddi Arent is stuck in a coffin and dumped in an underground river, while Morley ends up being strangled.  Mind you, he gets off lightly compared to what happens to villainess Susan Hampshire, whose head gets a crucible of molten gold poured over it.


(c) J. Arthur Rank


When Eight Bells Toll (1971).  Adventure writer Alastair Maclean was perhaps the Edgar Wallace of a later generation.  His novels seemed to be everywhere in the 1960s and 1970s, but you barely hear a whisper about them or their author today.  During the 1970s, a succession of Maclean novels were made into movies, generally pretty ropy ones. When Eight Bell Toll, though hardly spectacular, is the one I like best.  Maclean wrote the script and managed to retain some of the witty dialogue from his original 1965 novel; and the film, which is about the hijacking and robbing of ships in the Irish Sea, benefits greatly from being shot around the Scottish Highlands and Islands.  (The locations included Tobermory, Duart Castle, Grass Point, Staffa and Dervaig.)


I also like the film’s cast.  Anthony Hopkins plays the agent who’s sent to investigate the mysterious nautical goings-on – he’s a dark and moody character, perhaps reflecting Hopkins’ unease at playing an out-and-out action hero, but I like that because it makes the film feel slightly less conventional.  And Morley is great as Sir Arthur Arnford-Jones, Hopkins’ boss, a pompous and cowardly character who’s less than pleased when, later in the film, he has to join Hopkins on his dangerous investigations.  “Boats would be wonderful,” he laments at one point, green-faced.  “If only one didn’t have to go to sea in them.”


(c) United Artists


Theatre of Blood (1972).  Regarded by many as the greatest horror-comedy movie ever made in Britain, Theatre of Blood features Vincent Price as a mad, and pretty bad, Shakespearean actor who decides to murder the leading theatre critics in London who in the past had ridiculed his performances.  For inspiration for his murder methods, he draws on various gory killings found in Shakespeare’s plays.  Morley plays Meredith Merridew, the campest of the critics, an owner of a pair of annoying poodles and also an enthusiastic gourmet.  “They’re not going to start killing critics for giving bad notices, are they?” he exclaims when it becomes clear what Price is up to.


Price eventually infiltrates Merridew’s home disguised as a master chef and force-feeds the hapless critic to death with a giant pie – one that he’s cooked using the two poodles as ingredients.  The murder is based on a scene in Titus Andronicus where Tamora, Queen of the Goths, is fed a pie that unbeknownst to her contains the ground-up remains of her sons Chiron and Demetrius.   It is, however, from Romeo and Juliet that Price quotes while doing the nefarious deed: “Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death / Gorged with the dearest morsel of the earth / Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open / And, in despite, I’ll cram thee with more food!”


(c) MGM / United Artists


The Human Factor (1979).  Directed by Otto Preminger, scripted by Tom Stoppard and based on the book of the same name by Graham Greene – in fact, it’s possibly Greene’s last great novel – The Human Factor is a surprisingly stodgy and disappointing film.  However, it does feature a good supporting performance by Morley as Doctor Percival, who’s tasked with identifying, and eliminating, a mole in the British Secret Service’s Africa office who’s been leaking information to the Soviets.  Convinced that the culprit is the unconventional and disrespectful Davis (Derek Jacobi) and not the quiet, sober family man Castle (Nicol Williamson), Percival takes action against Davis using a toxin developed from some decaying groundnuts.  But the mole is, in fact, Castle, and when Davis dies suddenly and mysteriously he realises his own life is in danger.  Ruthless, devious, over-sure of himself and – as we see during a visit to a strip-club – horribly lecherous, Percival is perhaps the most chilling of all the establishment figures that Morley played.


Morley gave his final performance in 1989 and died three years later at the age of 84 – a respectable innings, especially for someone who during his life had carried as much weight as he had.  Seen now, some of his films might appear dated, and even back in their day a number of them weren’t particularly high-quality anyway.  No matter how dodgy the material, though, Morley’s films always become gloriously entertaining for as a long as he’s onscreen.  And in my book, the ability to elevate the mediocre to the sublime is a sign of a truly great actor.


(c) J. Arthur Rank


Politicians, study your history!


(c) Daily Telegraph


My apologies for posting yet another item about Scottish politics.  It’s not as if I want to, especially at the moment when I’ve just moved from one country to another country and am trying to settle into a new environment and culture.  (More about that in blog-posts to come.)


However, just when I think I’ve got the subject out of my system for a while, something else Scottish-politics-related comes along and bites me on the bum, and I have no option to give that bite a long blog-posting scratch.  But this will be my last post on the issue for a while.


Four days ago, Johann Lamont, Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie, respective leaders of the Scottish branches of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, who are all campaigning for a ‘no’ vote in the Scottish referendum on independence this September, made a joint declaration promising that their parties would devolve more powers to the Scottish parliament in the event of the referendum result indeed being ‘no’.  In other words, if you want Scotland to have more powers, you don’t have to vote ‘yes’.  Reject independence and something will still come Scotland’s way.  Just what exactly that something is, though, is unclear.  The three unionist parties are offering different packages, under the vague heading of ‘more fiscal responsibility’, and it’s uncertain who’ll be in a position to offer what if the Scots choose to remain in the UK.




Anyone who reads this blog regularly and is familiar with my political views won’t be surprised to hear that I’m sceptical about all this.  I find it hard to believe that if people vote not to assume more powers themselves, Westminster will give them extra powers on top of what they have anyway.  And there’s a precedent for my scepticism.  In 1979, Scotland missed an opportunity to get its own devolved parliament, but Margaret Thatcher had promised people beforehand that if they rejected what was on offer, her party, once it was in power, would deliver a ‘better’ devolution package.  Of course, when Auld Maggie was ensconced in Number 10 Downing Street later on, no such enhanced devolution package materialised – though I suppose over the subsequent years she did devolve certain things to Scotland, such as the right to have your shipbuilding, steel, coal and textile industries crucified and the right to be used as guinea pigs for the Poll Tax.


Incidentally, in the 1979 referendum on the proposed devolved parliament, a narrow majority – 51.6% of votes cast – was in favour of it.  However, thanks to an amendment added to the 1978 Scotland Act by Labour MP George Cunningham, this majority was deemed not enough to have the parliament established.  The ‘yes’ vote had to represent at least 40% of the entire electorate of Scotland, irrespective of whether or not that electorate had voted.  And this blatant bit of result-rigging seems to me a good reason not to trust the Labour Party on constitutional promises either.


However, what I find astonishing is the venue that Lamont, Davidson and Rennie chose for their declaration on Sunday.  They marched a bunch of young people up to the top of Calton Hill in central Edinburgh and got them to pose on the steps of the National Monument, holding up some big, blobby, blue letters that spelt out MORE POWERS FOR SCOTLAND GUARANTEED.


Now I have written before about the National Monument and what it represents in Scotland’s national psyche:


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


“To be fair, Scotland and Edinburgh had reason to feel good about themselves at the time…  (T)he later 18th century saw an unexpected Scottish renaissance.  Suddenly many areas of science, art, economics and philosophy were being heavily influenced by brainy Scots, such as Robert Adam, Thomas Carlyle, Adam Ferguson, David Hume, Lord Monboddo, Henry Raeburn, Thomas Reid, Sir Walter Scott and Adam Smith.  Meanwhile, Edinburgh had seen the development of its New Town, which today surely ranks as the most gorgeous and extensive district of Georgian architecture in Britain.


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


Yes, as the setting for their declaration that people can be confident of a bold new Scotland in the event of a ‘no’ vote, Lamont, Davidson and Rennie picked the landmark that above all other things in Scotland conveys the notion that the country is, actually, a bit shite – the great, grotesque hulk on Calton Hill whose function seems to be to deter Scottish people from feeling confident about themselves.


Even if you strip the thing of its symbolism, nobody can deny the fact that the National Monument is incomplete.  It’s an unfinished journey.  It’s in limbo.  So using it as a backdrop for these new promises, which are supposed to wrap up the constitutional question in Scotland for good, is rather stupid.  By association, the monument suggests that the constitutional question isn’t finished.  It needs more work.  It has further to go.  (Of course, Alex Salmond and co. would argue that the only way the journey can end is at full-blown independence.)


However, I don’t think the unfortunate choice of the National Monument, Scotland’s disgrace, for this particular photo op was deliberate.  I think it just shows that the people working in the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are clueless when it comes to Scottish history.  So in future, people, do some research!




Mind you, an event last Thursday suggests that the Labour Party is particularly weak when it comes to history – modern history as well as the 19th-century stuff.  UK Labour leader Ed Miliband posed for a photo with a free issue of the Sun newspaper, 22,000,000 copies of which were distributed around England to mark the start of the World Cup.  The Sun was keen to get some publicity and Ed was keen to show his support for the England team in the World Cup, and possibly, just possibly, to get the influential Rupert-Murdoch-owned tabloid to view his political party a little more favourably.  However, the moment the picture was snapped, Labour Party MPs and councillors and the Labour Party mayor in Liverpool exploded in anger.


The Sun is about as popular in Liverpool as leprosy and it’s been subject to a boycott there since its coverage of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.  The Sun blamed the deadly crush at Hillsborough football stadium in Sheffield, in which 96 Liverpool fans died, on other, supposedly-drunken, supposedly-violent Liverpool fans.  It also alleged that Liverpudlians had looted and urinated on corpses and attacked police officers, including one who was trying to give a victim the kiss of life.  It has since emerged that then-Sun-editor Kelvin Mackenzie got these false claims from a local Tory MP (who wasn’t even at the match) and from senior South Yorkshire police officers, who had a compelling reason to slander the supporters – it shifted blame away from their own, criminally inadequate handling of the situation.  The Hillsborough Independent Panel concluded at the end of 2012 that the disaster was caused by a ‘lack of police control’ where safety was ‘compromised at every level’.


So what on earth was Ed Miliband thinking when he posed for that photo?  I can only conclude that he wasn’t thinking.  He and his team were genuinely ignorant of the Sun’s history with Liverpool.  And I’m sure it had nothing to do with a calculation that the sensibilities of loyal Labour-supporting Liverpudlians were worth sacrificing in order to curry favour with a powerful international newspaper magnate whose main British newspaper once accused them of being drunken, homicidal, corpse-robbing scumbags.


Myths of the Cybernation


(c) BBC


Recently I wrote about Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s decision to donate a million pounds to Better Together, the group campaigning for a ‘No’ vote in this September’s referendum on Scottish independence.  Since the donation was announced the Scottish media has been full of reports about Rowling receiving abuse online from ‘Cybernats’, the nickname given to pro-independence supporters who take to Internet forums, the Twitter-sphere and the opinion threads of newspaper websites to vociferously air their views.


Last week, Scottish politics was also witness to Lally-gate.  This involved Clare Lally, mother of a disabled child, who contributes to the Scottish Labour Party’s shadow cabinet as a ‘Carers’ Champion’.  There’s been speculation too – incorrect speculation – on pro-Scottish-independence websites that she’s Claire (with an ‘i’) Lally, who’s the daughter of the Labour Party’s former Lord Provost of Glasgow, Pat Lally.  At a recent Better Together campaign-launch, Clare Lally was introduced onstage as an ‘ordinary’ woman who wanted the union between Scotland and England to continue.  She gave a powerful speech arguing that Scotland’s National Health Service, so important for her child’s wellbeing, was better served by Scotland remaining in the UK.


Campbell Gunn, an advisor to Alex Salmond, Scottish National Party leader and most prominent figure in the Yes campaign, subsequently contacted a newspaper and claimed that Better Together was being disingenuous in presenting Clare Lally as an ordinary member of the public.  She was, Gunn said, involved in the Labour Party and also Pat Lally’s daughter.  However, Gunn – who, as a former newspaper editor, should have been more scrupulous about checking his facts – had got this information from a pro-independence website.  He was wrong in identifying Clare Lally as Claire Lally.  Also, the idea that as a Labour activist she isn’t an ‘ordinary’ person is debatable at least.  Does dabbling in politics in your free time, as opposed to being a politician or a paid political campaigner or aide, strip you of your right to call yourself an ordinary citizen?


Once his mistake was pointed out, Gunn apologised to Lally, though she chose not to accept his apology.  Meanwhile, Lally received online abuse from certain Cybernats who were riled by what they’d read about her on the Internet.  This prompted some of the press to allege that Gunn, and by extension Salmond himself, had coordinated a ‘smear’ campaign against Lally.  Looking at the evidence, I can’t see how this is true because Gunn seems only to have reacted to the same online information that the anti-Lally Cybernats reacted to.  There’s no evidence that he organised other people to do anything.  He did brief a newspaper about her, at least partly inaccurately, which he apologised for.


However, late last week the press and many politicians were in uproar.  John McTernan – an advisor and Director of Political Operations to Tony Blair from 2004 to 2007, and later a communications director to Julia Gillard when she was Australian Prime Minister – appeared on a TV current-affairs show and insisted that the online abuse levelled at J.K. Rowling, not just Clare Lally, had been orchestrated by the Scottish National Party too.


Before I write anything further, let me state unequivocally that anyone tweeting or posting online threats or abuse against J.K. Rowling, or Clare Lally, or anybody else, is an arsehole.  I read on the BBC news website yesterday that the police are investigating the abuse against Rowling, and that’s good.  I hope they do the same against anyone who slandered Lally.


However, I would like to discuss certain myths that have appeared about the Cybernat phenomenon and about the Internet’s effect on Scottish politics and on politics generally.  It suits the agenda of most of the mainstream media in Scotland, which is overwhelmingly anti-independence, and it suits most of the main political parties in Britain, in whose interests it is for the Union to continue, that these myths should be accepted as fact.  Here are seven such myths, plus my reasons for believing why they are myths – nothing more.


One.  We were all much nicer before the Internet came along.


Well, that’s ridiculous to anybody who can remember life before the mid-1990s.  Of course people have always gossiped maliciously, name-called, bitched, backstabbed, slandered and assassinated other people’s characters.  It’s been a sad fact of life for as long as human beings have lived in communities.  I come from a small town with about 8000 inhabitants, so I can testify to what happens when folk gather in groups of more than one and the conversation turns to the foibles of their neighbours.  The complication imposed by the Internet – where people gather in virtual communities and chatter scurrilously in threads and forums – is that it creates an online record of what’s been said.  If the poison isn’t spat into the victim’s face but spat behind his or her back, it’s still there for the victim to find.  Or for someone else to bring to the victim’s attention.


By the way, I find it hilarious that the people making some of the most indignant noises about online abuse are the political community, who’ve been maliciously gossiping, name-calling, bitching, backstabbing, slandering and assassinating characters since the days of Machiavelli, if not since long before.  At least, they’re indignant when they think it’s in their interests to be indignant.  It’s particularly ironic that John McTernan has been expressing his indignation so loudly, considering the past form he has in this area.  If you’re to believe a report about his period of employment with Julia Gillard that appeared last year on the Australian ABC news website, “he encouraged Labor staffers to mobilise so-called ‘Twitter armies’ to ridicule the Tony Abbot-led opposition and attack individual Coalition MPs online, which he would later point out to journalists as proof of public opinion.” (  Which makes his outburst last week a bit rich.




Two.  The only abuse online is about Scottish independence.


If you don’t use the Internet that much – and coming from a rural background, I know many people who don’t – and depend on traditional Scottish newspapers for your information, you could be forgiven for assuming this recently.  It’s twaddle, of course.  You only have to read the comments that quickly fasten themselves, like flies to a piece of excrement, to the threads below any political story on a news website to realise this.  In most cases the story has nothing to do with Scotland.  An article the other day on the Guardian online, in which Helena Bonham Carter expressed admiration for David Cameron, attracted some epigrams you wouldn’t repeat in front of your grandmother – one described the Conservative PM as a ‘gammon-faced p***k’.  Meanwhile, any article in the Daily Telegraph or the Spectator that touches on the topics of immigration, multiculturalism or political correctness is guaranteed to cause an outbreak of racist sniping underneath.  I can’t bring myself to look at what readers post on the Daily Mail or Daily Express websites, for fear of losing all faith in humanity.


And this isn’t confined to politics.  Observer columnist Kevin McKenna noted the other day that “(w)hat some of Scotland’s top football writers, such as Graham Spiers and Tom English, have had to endure on Twitter these past few years far eclipses in volume and intensity anything encountered in the referendum campaign.”  (


Three.  The online referendum-campaign abuse all comes from Cybernats.


Here is more misogynistic abuse I’ve seen flying around the Internet during the past week, since news of J.K. Rowling’s donation broke:


“…that bitch…”

“…beat it ya ugly cow…”

“…why don’t you f*** off?  That way you might start being a credit to your country.”

“…up your hairy arse.”

“…does ma tits in, get off the f***ing tv ya slut!”

“…what a bitter wee wummin she is.  Typical… selfish boot.  Begone bitch!”


However, none of these comments were made about Rowling or Lally.  They were directed at Nicola Sturgeon, Alec Salmond’s deputy, by unionists.  It doesn’t surprise me that she gets this abuse, considering that the No campaign has the support of unsavoury outfits like the Scottish Defence League, the British National Party, the Scottish Orange Order and UKIP.  Incidentally, there are vast amounts of abuse online aimed at Salmond himself and I’ve also seen invective against other well-known figures who support independence, such as Pat Kane and Hardeep Singh Kohli.




However, the mainstream Scottish media and pro-Union politicians seem happy to ignore this side of things.  It goes, after all, against the narrative they’ve been pushing in the referendum campaign, i.e. that Scottish cyberspace is infested with nasty Cybernats attacking and bullying nice, peaceful Unionists – and that’s the only online bile there is.


Four.  All the J.K. Rowling abuse came from Cybernats.


No doubt some or a lot of it did, but not all of it.  At the time a leading Scottish Liberal Democrat activist retweeted an offensive anti-Rowling comment and asked, “Is this the sort of Scotland we want?”  If she’d actually checked the tweet, she’d have found that the perpetrator was an Irish guy, with strong Irish republican and pro-Palestinian sympathies, who lives in England.  So her question about Scotland was somewhat redundant.  Also, when the Glasgow tabloid the Daily Record tracked down another person who’d sent offensive tweets about Rowling, he claimed not to have political views one way or the other in the referendum debate and described himself as a ‘wind-up merchant’.  (


So the mainstream media and pro-Union politicians can’t claim that all the anti-Rowling abuse came from SNP and Scottish-independence supporters.  There are plenty of idiots out there, with no interest in politics, who are happy to stir things.  And though I don’t hold political parties in high regard generally, I don’t think they can be held responsible for the ravings of idiots.


Incidentally, as I’ve said before, anti-English sentiment in Scotland isn’t solely the property of people (a minority of people, I’d hope) who support independence.  In my time I’ve met folk with impeccable Labour-supporting or Conservative-supporting credentials, and who’ll surely be voting ‘no’ this September, who didn’t need much encouragement before they went running off at the mouth about ‘them bastard English’.


Five.  Thanks to the Internet, you can no longer have proper democratic discussion.


It’s significant that the man credited with inventing the term ‘Cybernat’ to describe supporters of Scottish independence who are active online is former Labour Party MP / MSP George Foulkes, or Lord Foulkes of Cumnock as he calls himself these days.  He’s precisely the sort of pompous old-school political balloon who isn’t used to having his pronouncements from on-high challenged by the great unwashed, as they are nowadays, instantly, via social media.  Despite the presence of many online basket-cases, I generally find it refreshing that you now have the freedom to, immediately, get back at some self-important politician or political journalist by firing off a tweet, email or thread-comment.  It feels like the Internet brings democracy and political debate a little closer to ‘the people’.  Which is surely a good thing these days when the political culture of Westminster seems so remote from and out-of-touch to ordinary people in all other respects.




For the likes of Lord Foulkes, of course, electronic media’s ability to bring down the barriers between the politicos and the plebs is something to be lamented, not celebrated.  Neither is the new media popular among those traditional disseminators of news and views, the newspapers – who are seeing their readership figures decline precipitously as more people turn to the Internet for information.  So don’t expect this issue to get a fair hearing, either.


Six.  Those Cybernats have poisoned the political debate in Scotland.


The Herald journalist Iain MacWhirter, who had the thankless job of reasoning with John McTernan on TV last week, summed things up.  He likened the Internet to a sewer where you’ll find mindless abuse aimed at anyone and everyone, anything and everything, if you go looking for it.  Unfortunately, the mainstream media only wants to find, and hold up for public scrutiny, examples of the effluent that’s flowing from extremists on the Yes side because that suits their agenda.  A blind eye is turned towards the effluent flowing from extremists on the No side.


But this online crap doesn’t have to intrude on the independence debate.  We can get on with meaningful discussion of the issues, listening only to contributions made by people who have brains.  Indeed, there were good pieces last week by Pat Kane in the Independent and by Mairi McFadyen at the artistic campaign group the National Collective, which responded to J.K. Rowling’s stance with grace and decency, whilst gently disagreeing with some of the points she made about independence.  There was also a thoughtful article, in favour of a Yes vote, by Deborah Orr in the Guardian the other day.  I don’t know if the No side has produced any pieces with a similar eloquence – but I’m sure in the 90-plus days remaining until the referendum, the well-known novelist and No supporter Alan Massie can get off his bum and write a couple.


However, a civilised discussion will be difficult if pro-Union journalists and politicians insist on delving into the Internet sewage pipe in the hope of finding more pieces of tartan excrement that’ll advance their cause and / or advance their careers.  (And meanwhile, those many pieces of Union Jack-patterned excrement bobbing around online will continue to be ignored.)


Seven.  Those Cybernats have whipped up so much hatred in Scotland that we’re all going to die.


This seems to be a theme with Alan Cochrane, the curiously passive-aggressive Scotland correspondent in the Daily Telegraph.  When Cochrane isn’t penning furious pieces about the evils of independence, the SNP, Alex Salmond, etc. while steam pours out of his ears, he affects a piteous tone and laments about how lovely and peaceful Scotland used to be, before this horrible referendum and these horrible Cybernats came along.  Now everyone’s at everyone else’s throats and as a result Scotland is going to be scarred by divisions forever.  Everything about this referendum is so divisive, cry Cochrane and his ilk.  Divisive!


Well, I’ve heard discussions about independence in the street, in the pub, even occasionally in my Dad’s kitchen, but I have yet to see any aggression or violence.  I haven’t even heard anyone raise their voice.  If you really want a political issue that was divisive, to the point where it generated mass violence, you should look back to the miners’ strike or to the poll-tax riot in London – both of which happened during the reign of Margaret Thatcher, the great mother-goddess of the Conservative Party, the Daily Telegraph and Alan Cochrane.  For people who remember those days, this bleating now by unionist journalists and politicians about the divisiveness of the independence debate is so much guff.


Maybe what’s disconcerting for the political and media establishments is the fact that a lot of ordinary people are actually thinking about, talking about, being engaged by the issue.  It looks like the turnout on the referendum day could be astronomical – the highest voting turnout in Britain in decades.  This rather upsets the establishment narrative that nowadays the public aren’t interested in (and / or are too stupid to be interested in) politics.


Meanwhile, a recent article by Alex Massie – son of Alan – in the Spectator made the following point: “If Scotland’s independence campaign is notable for anything it is unusual for being remarkably civilised.  Violence, generally speaking, has no more than 140 characters.  No-one has died.  No-one anticipates, I think, civil unrest regardless of the result in September.”  (  Those politicians, activists, journalists, bloggers and political anoraks who live in an overheated online bubble may not realise this, however.  Perhaps they need to take some time off from their keyboards and get out of their bedrooms.




Barking up the wrong tree


(c) British Lion Films


I’m a big fan of 1973’s classic British horror film The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy, scripted by Anthony Shaffer, and about paganism on a remote (and fictional) Scottish island called Summerisle.  Indeed, I’ve posted about it several times.  For the sake of completeness, I feel I should write something too about its semi-sequel The Wicker Tree, which was also directed by Hardy and appeared two years ago.


I don’t particularly want to, but I feel I should.


For a decade The Wicker Tree was a movie that you occasionally heard rumours about but you wondered if you’d ever actually see.  The film was originally mooted in 2002, with the curious title of The Riding of the Laddie and with Hardy doing both directing and writing duties.  Acting names linked with the project then included Sean Astin, Ewan McGregor, LeAnne Rimes, Vanessa Redgrave and Christopher Lee – Lee, of course, had appeared in The Wicker Man as Lord Summerisle, the charismatic, crafty and decadent aristocrat who orchestrated all those pagan practices on Summerisle, and he’d more recently appeared with Astin and McGregor in the Lord of the Rings and second-cycle Star Wars movies.  No film appeared, but Hardy turned his screenplay into a novel with a different but equally curious title, Cowboys for Christ.


(c) Luath Press


A fresh attempt to get The Riding of the Laddie / Cowboys for Christ before the cameras took place in 2007, but before this, in 2006, there appeared an American remake of the original Wicker Man, directed by Neil LaBute and starring Nicholas Cage and Ellen Burstyn.  Set not on a Scottish island but on an American one, where a matriarchal neo-pagan community keeps its menfolk in shuffling subservience, tends to a giant complex of beehives and will do anything, however horrid, to ensure that its honey-harvest remains healthy, the remake received rotten reviews.  Indeed, it received five nominations at that Oscars-for-terrible-films, the Razzies Awards.


I avoided the thing out of principle, until one day I found myself on a long intercontinental flight and noticed it was offered as an inflight movie.  So I decided to give it a try.  Afterwards, I felt like chucking myself out of the nearest emergency hatch.


There’s many things to hate about The Wicker Man remake, including its lack of humour and its lack of music – the original was very amusing and had a lovely soundtrack of folk songs, compiled, sung and played by the late Paul Giovanni.  But what I found worst about it was the craven way it ducked the Christian-pagan conflict that was central to Anthony Shaffer’s script in 1973.  The original has an uptight Free Presbyterian police sergeant, played by Edward Woodward, searching for a missing girl on Summerisle and seeing the beliefs he’s held unquestioningly for so long treated by the pagan islanders with a mixture of incomprehension, ignorance and ridicule.  The exchanges between Lee and the increasingly-blustering Woodward mock Christian assumptions in a way that you rarely see in a horror movie.  For example: “We’re a deeply religious people.”  “Religious?  With ruined churches, no ministers, no priests?  And children dancing naked!”  “They do love their divinity lessons.”  “But they are… naked!”  “Naturally!  It’s much too dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on!”


The 2006 remake avoids all this and blandly keeps shtum about the religious beliefs, if any, of the investigating police officer.  I presume this was to avoid offending cinema audiences in church-going Middle America.


Meanwhile The Riding of the Laddie / Cowboys for Christ was scheduled to start shooting in 2007, but didn’t, and then again in 2008, but didn’t again.  It was meant to be shot in Dumfries and Galloway in southwest Scotland, which had provided the original Wicker Man with locations such as Creetown, Anwoth, Port Logan, Castle Kennedy and (scene of the unforgettable climax) Burrow Head.  However, the Dumfries and Galloway plans fell through too.


It wasn’t until 2009 that filming actually commenced, close to Edinburgh in the towns of Haddington and Gorebridge and the district of Midlothian.  By this time, the stars originally connected with the film had disappeared, except for Lee, and Lee’s participation in the project was severely curtailed after he hurt himself in a set-accident whilst shooting another film.  For a time, Joan Collins was said to be appearing in the film too, but she didn’t make it into the final cast.


Completed at last, the film – now called The Wicker Tree – was unveiled at a movie festival in 2011, got a very limited release in the USA in 2012 and later that year crept out with barely a whisper on DVD in the UK.  What reviews it received were unenthusiastic and I didn’t feel any urge to spend money on it until a month ago, when I saw a copy of the DVD selling at a discount in HMV.  So now that I’ve watched it, what can I say about The Wicker Tree?


(c) British Lion Films


Well, kudos first of all to Hardy for restoring the Christian-pagan conflict that the re-makers of The Wicker Man brushed under the carpet.  His main characters are a young Texan couple, Beth (Brittania Nichol) and Steve (Henry Garrett), who are serious evangelical Christians.  Not yet married, they wear purity rings, and they perform a gospel / county-and-western singing act.  Hardy tries to make them interesting by giving them backstories – before seeing the light, Beth was a dodgy Lolita-like pop starlet and Steve had a gambling addiction – but both Nichol and Garrett are deficient in acting ability, which creates a vacuum at the film’s core.  (Their inadequacy underlines how great Edward Woodward was when he played the equivalent role in The Wicker Man.)


Beth and Steve’s church in Dallas sends them to Scotland on a mission to convert the ‘heathens’ there.  Presumably by ‘heathens’, they mean ‘atheists’ or ‘members of misguided Christian denominations who’ve got it wrong’, rather than ‘pagans’.  In Scotland, the young twosome get invited to the village of Tressock in the Scottish Borders by the local Laird, Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish), and his wife Delia (Jacqueline Leonard).  The Morrisons are keen that the duo should participate in Tressock’s May Day celebrations, and…  Well, if you’ve seen The Wicker Man, you’ll know where this is heading.  What bothered me was how upfront the Morrisons are about being pagans – proper pagans, not just atheists or whatever.  I’d have thought their openness about worshipping ancient gods would warn Beth and Steve that this is all very fishy and they should be running 500 miles in the opposite direction, but it doesn’t.  The pair of them, one can only conclude, are really stupid.


Also, as Tressock isn’t a distant island like Summerisle, but a village on the Scottish mainland, I’d have expected people in the surrounding, normal villages to start making a connection between Tressock’s odd customs and the way that people are vanishing there every May Day.  Logic, however, is not The Wicker Tree’s strongpoint.


Unfortunately, quite a few things are not the film’s strongpoint.  Whereas the humour in the original film was admirably balanced between wit and bawdiness, here the humour is all over the place.  Some of it fails to be funny at all and there’s at least one scene, involving Jacqueline Leonard, her butler (played by Clive Russell) and a dead pet, which feels like it belongs in another pagan-themed British movie, the 1988 meisterwerk that is Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm.  Now when I’m in the right mood – i.e. after consuming about ten pints of beer – Lair… seems so deliriously bonkers and camp that it’s rather enjoyable.  But I’d have liked a new instalment in The Wicker Man series to be a bit more… you know, dignified.


Elsewhere, things are dropped into the film almost randomly, never developed or never explained.  There’s a nice idea involving a local nuclear power station, run by Morrison, where an accident in the past caused the area to be contaminated and the men to become sterile – hence the community’s interest in those fertility rituals that are part-and-parcel of paganism.  In the original movie, Edward Woodward gradually learns about the parlous state of Summerisle’s agriculture, which explains why the islanders have turned to human sacrifice – desperate situations require desperate remedies.  Indeed, he confronts Christopher Lee with this fact at the film’s climax.  Here though, the nuclear-power-station storyline simply disappears halfway through the film.


On the other hand, the wicker tree of the title turns up near the end without any explanation.  The object looks admirably sinister on the movie poster, but what is it actually for?  What does it symbolise?  Why does it have to be a wicker tree?  One gets the impression that Hardy and his producers decided at the last moment that, in order to attract fans of the original movie, they needed a wicker something.  And a tree it was.  But they didn’t have any time to integrate the thing into the script.


There’s a final disappointment with The Wicker Tree.  Its predecessor took a real delight in exploring paganism and showing how the belief-system had, subtly, permeated every nook and cranny of the outwardly normal-seeming community on Summerisle – down to the sinister human-shaped and animal-shaped confectionary on sale in the local sweetshop.  (Check out this youtube clip at  But The Wicker Tree has no such interest in detail.  Tressock is full of pagans, there’s going to be a sacrifice on May Day, and that’s mostly it.


Actually, because Tressock is supposed to be in the Scottish Borders (where I’m based), I assume Hardy drew some inspiration from the ‘common ridings’ festivals held by the Borders towns during the summer.  As well as commemorating historical events like 1513’s Battle of Flodden, they celebrate an old practice whereby townspeople would ride along the boundaries of the local common lands and guard against encroachment, raids and plunder by lawless brigands.  Hence at the festivals you get masses of people on horseback, in riding gear, trotting through the countryside and splashing through the rivers.  Also, in one festival, the Kelso Civic Week, the principal man is known as the ‘Laddie’.  So I’m guessing this is how Hardy got his original title, The Riding of the Laddie.


And there’s a sequence near the end of the film where Steve – persuaded to become the principal in the Tressock festival – takes part in a traditional event that sees the Laddie pursued by the villagers, on horseback.  This slightly resembles a scene from a proper Borders riding, but in the real thing, although they may look like they’re on a hunt, the riders aren’t chasing anything.


For the record, there’s little, if anything, in the Borders common ridings that can be traced back to paganism.  The equestrian events I’ve just described celebrate a practice that started in the 13th and 14th centuries, long after the worship of Celtic deities had died out.  None of the ridings take place as early as May Day — they only really get going in June.  The Peebles festival, the one I have most experience of, is called the Beltane, which obviously sounds pagan and Celtic, but it was actually inaugurated in 1897 as a way of celebrating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  You’ll see a fair number of men dressed up as women — at the Beltane, for example, in the fancy-dress parade and during the Rugby Club show that’s traditionally performed outside Peebles’ Tontine Hotel — which is certainly something of a pagan trope.  But I very much doubt if any of the participants believe they’re acting in imitation of old pagan fertility rituals.  More likely, they’re just having fun with fishnet stockings, mini-skirts and lots of chest and bum-padding.


(c) British Lion Films


But anyway, back to The Wicker Tree.  For all my criticisms, I did enjoy it considerably more than The Wicker Man remake.  As I said, like the original film, it pitches Christianity against paganism and it attempts to be humorous, though sometimes not successfully.  And like its distinguished predecessor, it draws on folk songs for its musical soundtrack, though inevitably, without Paul Giovanni, the music isn’t quite as good this time around.  And if you can see beyond Nichol and Garrett’s non-acting, the supporting cast is fine.  Graham McTavish is solid as the villainous Lachlan Morrison – McTavish, incidentally, is best known for playing Dwalin, the fearsome Mohican-headed, Glaswegian-accented dwarf in The Hobbit movies – and Clive Russell gives a performance of enjoyable, pantomime-style villainy as Beame, his lumbering manservant.  The injured Christopher Lee, alas, is reduced to a cameo performance.  We catch a glimpse of him in a flashback, appearing to a young Lachlan Morrison and encouraging him to go to the pagan side.  He might be Lord Summerisle but this is never made clear.


The best performance, though, comes from the strikingly-named actress Honeysuckle Weeks, who plays the village’s resident nymphomaniac / temptress.  Her role corresponds to that of Britt Ekland in the original Wicker Man, but Hardy’s script makes her a more nuanced and sympathetic character and Weeks tackles the role so whole-heartedly that she totally eclipses the vapid Nichol.  Particularly good is a dreamy scene where Garrett happens across Weeks while she bathes naked in a country stream, hoping that the river deity will impregnate her.  One only wishes that the film had contained more moments like this.


Also good – in a chilling way – is a scene near the end where Tressock’s population turns on the Christians, chanting a pagan song with the same lyrics that were in a gospel song that the duo, earlier, had sung to those villagers.  As well as being disturbing, this acts as a subtle reminder of Christianity’s predilection for borrowing things from older religions, to make itself more palatable for converts.  Just as you’ll find in old churches carvings and sculptures of things that are recognisably pagan, so Beth and Steve’s Christian song turns out to have a pagan antecedent.  Actually, this scene should have served as the film’s climax, but Hardy insists on following it with further stuff – and the further stuff isn’t as good.


To sum up, then, The Wicker Tree isn’t as bad as The Wicker Man’s American remake, but it’s disappointing nonetheless and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wants their fond memories of the 1973 classic to stay unsullied.


The irony is that the original Wicker Man is now seen as a milestone in a British movie sub-genre that’s been dubbed ‘folk-horror’.  In British folk-horror films, the threat is something that comes from Britain’s own historical or folkloric past – such films don’t rely on monsters imported from continental Europe or from Hollywood, such as vampires, werewolves or zombies.  And just as The Wicker Tree limped out on DVD in 2012, a slew of new British folk-horror movies, made by younger filmmakers and of a higher quality, were also appearing.  I’ll be writing about those films in another post, very soon.


J.K.’s millions


(c) Huffington Post


I like J.K. Rowling, I quite like the Harry Potter books and although I support independence for Scotland I respect her decision, which was plastered all over the British media yesterday, to donate a million pounds of her money to Better Together, the organisation campaigning for a ‘No’ vote in the referendum on Scottish independence being held this September.


Indeed, the only thing that surprises me is that she hadn’t donated to Better Together earlier.  In 2008, she donated another million to the Labour Party, run at the time by her friend and then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, for the reason that she believed Brown had “prioritised and introduced measures that will save as many children as possible from a life lacking in opportunity or choice.”  This didn’t save her from the sneers of the British press – most of which is right-wing, doesn’t like the Labour Party and at the time was dedicated to deriding, ridiculing and tormenting the hapless Brown.  HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF DOWNING STREET was a typical newspaper headline back then.


(c) The Courier 


The press will, I’m sure, be kinder about her donation to Better Together, which is helmed by Brown’s old chancellor Alastair Darling.  (Brown has emerged from the woodwork recently to make some anti-independence noises too, although he has avoided getting closely involved in Better Together, no doubt because of the enmity that exists now between him and Darling.  Actually, Brown seems capable of having a feud with his own shadow these days.)  If there’s one thing it detests more than the Labour Party, it’s all those nationalists, greens, socialists, rogue Scottish Labour / Liberal Democrat / Conservative Party members and politically-unaffiliated people who favour Scottish independence.  Or to give them their collective British-media name, ‘Alex Salmond’.


As I say, I’m happy for Rowling to do whatever she likes with her money, but I’d have expected her – considering the media misrepresentation she’s suffered in the past – to choose her words a little more carefully when she announced her donation.  The English-born but resident-in-Scotland Rowling wrote of “a fringe of nationalists who like to demonise anyone who is not blindly and unquestionably pro-independence and I suspect, notwithstanding the fact that I’ve lived in Scotland for twenty-one years and plan to remain here for the rest of my life, that they might judge me ‘insufficiently’ Scottish to have a valid view…  However, when people try to make this debate about the purity of your lineage, things start getting a little Death Eaterish for my taste.”


She’s saying, then, that after making this donation she expects to get abuse from certain pro-independence Scots who don’t think the referendum is any of her business.*  That’s because she isn’t Scottish — she’s English.  Such people put her in mind of the evil cult of wizards in her Harry Potter novels, led by Lord Voldemort, who promote the purity of the wizard race and despise other breeds like humans (‘muggles’) and half-human / half-wizard people (‘mudbloods’).


Now there are undoubtedly a few racist halfwits in Scotland who want independence because of antipathy towards the English – offensive loudmouths who believe that everything that happened in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart is historical truth.  That said, during my time in Scotland I’ve also met a few offensive, loud-mouthed, English-hating, Braveheart-loving halfwits who supported the Labour or Conservative Parties and this September will be voting ‘No’, just as J.K. Rowling will.  But I’d argue that most Scottish-independence supporters back the cause because, simply, they want to see Scotland run by the people who live there and not have unrepresentative Conservative and Nu-Labour governments foisted upon them from Westminster.  This is a sentiment that has nothing to do with ‘lineage’ or ethnicity or whether you’re Scottish or English.  (There are some 400,000 English people living in Scotland, including Rowling, and they will have the right to vote in September’s referendum – quite properly.)


In fact, during the recent European Elections, while both the Conservative and Labour Parties were warbling about cutting immigration in the hope of extracting some votes from Nigel Farage’s fruitcake United Kingdom Independence Party, the main pro-independence parties in Scotland, the Scottish National Party and the Green Party, were the ones that were unashamedly pro-immigration.  Conversely, those creepy organisations in the UK and Scotland that are heavily into such things as lineage, indigenousness and ethnic and religious purity  – UKIP, the British National Party, the Scottish Defence League and the Scottish Orange Order – all support a ‘No’ vote.


J.K. Rowling said it was a ‘fringe’ of pro-independence supporters who reminded her of Death Eaters, but, given the past rough rides she’s had from the press, she must have suspected that the newspapers were going to have a field day distorting what she said, in order to discredit the Yes campaign.  Indeed, yesterday’s headline on the main web-page of The Independent was J.K. ROWLING CALLS SCOTTISH NATIONALISTS ‘DEATH EATERS’.  Expect to see a slew of newspaper cartoons over the next few days depicting Alex Salmond minus a nose, clad in a black robe and hanging out with a giant white snake à la Lord Voldemort, and the message being driven home that anyone who favours an independent Scotland is a racial-purity fanatic who probably dabbles in the black arts.  It must be true, because J.K. says so.


Actually, I wonder if the author feels comfortable that she’s now aligned herself with the Daily Mail, the Scottish edition of which has been one of the most vitriolic voices against the independence movement.  After all, in September 2013, the Mail published a story where it said Rowling had accused people of ‘stigmatising’ and ‘taunting’ her at a Scottish church where, as a single mother, she’d done a few hours’ filing and typing work each week.  No, Rowling pointed out, she hadn’t said this – she’d written in an article that one woman visiting the church one day had referred to her as ‘the unmarried mother’.  The Mail subsequently apologised to her and paid damages.


Rowling’s dislike of the Daily Mail generally inspired her to make Vernon Dursley, who in the Harry Potter books was the hero’s disagreeable uncle, a Mail reader.  As the journalist Catherine Lockerbie noted, “Harry’s Uncle Vernon is a grotesque philistine of violent tendencies and remarkably little brain.  It is not difficult to guess which newspaper Rowling gives him to read.”


Another newspaper noted for its anti-Scottish-independence line is the Daily Telegraph.  Indeed, its Scotland correspondent Alan Cochrane is so furiously against the idea that at times in his articles he does a convincing impersonation of a man who’s had his brain surgically swapped with the spleen of a rabid dog.  Already the Telegraph has given prominence to the fact that news of Rowling’s donation has prompted some rude things to be said about her on social media.  The Telegraph’s indignation at this is particularly rich, considering that in 2012 the newspaper, and its readers, didn’t react kindly to the publication of J.K. Rowling’s ‘adult’ novel A Casual Vacancy, which was full of class, political and social themes and dared to sound – whisper it – left-wing.  As I wrote a few months afterwards:


“One nasty little Telegraph article, in a bitchy-schoolgirl sort of way, was this one written by Jenny Hyul a couple of months ago to coincide with the release of A Casual Vacancy, the first adult novel by J.K. Rowling, Scotland’s most famous English inhabitant.  It makes various snide comments about Rowling’s middle-class background and wonders why Rowling should have the temerity to attempt to write a novel of gritty social realism…  In the thread at the bottom of the article, of course, Hjul hands over to the inevitable Telegraph trolls, who pour scorn on Rowling for her writing (‘rubbish’), her politics (‘a Marxist’) and her looks (‘Bleurgh’).  Yes, there may be a few anti-English bampots roaming loose in Scotland, but if Ms Rowling has to tolerate dickheads like those in the Telegraph-reading English Home Counties, I can see why the poor woman feels safer north of the border.”


Still, I’m glad that J.K. Rowling has stated her determination to stay in Scotland whatever the result of the referendum.  For the record, I very much doubt that Scotland will win independence this year – the pro-Union political, media and business establishments have spread enough misinformation and negativity to ensure the result goes their way – although I do think it will happen in one or two generations’ time.  Hopefully, the creator of Harry Potter will still be around to see that.  And maybe one day an independent Scotland will appoint Ms Rowling as its National Book Czar, tasked with encouraging Scottish children to do more reading.  Cue a photo op on the steps of Bute House with her and the world’s most venerable national leader, President Irvine Welsh.


(c) Little, Brown


* And indeed, she has received some abuse, including a vicious tweet that seems, bizarrely, to have emanated from a charity organisation in Edinburgh.  Such abuse is abhorrent.  For the sake of balance I should mention that the lottery winners Colin and Chris Weir, who donated a lot of money to the Yes campaign, have also received abuse online, which is abhorrent too.


Storytelling with Rik Mayall


(c) BBC


I’m a difficult person to please when it comes to comedy, so maybe it’s unsurprising that I found the oeuvre of comedian and comic actor Rik Mayall – who died yesterday in London at the age of 56 – a bit hit and miss.  Mayall’s brand of humour combined slapstick, rage, noise, manic-ness, gleeful obnoxiousness, child-like petulance and occasional out-and-out wanker-ness and it didn’t always bring a smile to my face.  I wasn’t much of a fan of the Dangerous Brothers, the double-act he did with Ade Edmondson in the mid-1980s’ TV revue show Saturday Live, or of his TV political satire The New Statesman (which ran from 1987 to 1994) or of his sitcom Bottom (also with Edmondson, from 1991 to 1995).  I even had problems with some of The Young Ones, the original ground-breaking ‘alternative’ sitcom in the early 1980s that made him a household name, although I loved the fact that Rick, the pompous, up-his-own-arse, would-be anarchist-cum-urban-guerrilla character he played, was a massive Cliff Richard fan.


Also, Mayall’s biggest admirers would be hard-pressed to argue that he was well-served by his film career, which saw a lot of stinkers, including Whoops Apocalypse (1986), Drop Dead Fred (1991), Carry On Columbus (1992) and Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis (1997).  In fact, the Rik Mayall film I cherish most, 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, is one in which he had only a tiny role, as the guy playing chess with the great Brian Glover in the Slaughtered Lamb, the Yorkshire Moors pub where the American backpackers take refuge.  Glover later turned up in Bottom as Mr Rottweiler, Mayall and Edmondson’s psychotic next-door neighbour, in one of the few episodes of that show I do find funny.


On the other hand, I liked his turns as the oddball investigative reporter Kevin Turvey in the 1981 BBC Scotland comedy show A Kick up the Eighties, as Rich in Ben Elton’s underrated 1987 sitcom Filthy, Rich and Catflap and as various characters in the long-running Comic Strip Presents series on Channel 4.  And I thought he was brilliant in Blackadder II (1986) and Blackadder Goes Forth (1989) as Flashheart, the man who’s a hero to all the blokes, a sex machine to all the chicks and a preening, obnoxious arse-pipe to anyone with a modicum of common sense.  (As the only character in the show with a modicum of common sense, Blackadder has the lonely experience of seeing Flashheart for what he really is.)  Why Mayall didn’t get the role of the similarly preening and obnoxious Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) – which instead went to Kenneth Brannagh – is a mystery.


Mayall’s finest hour for me, though, was when he turned up on an instalment of the BBC children’s show Jackanory and read George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl.  Jackanory was a show with a premise so radically simple that today it’d be considered insanely minimalist and no TV executive in his or her right mind would ever think of commissioning it.  It had an actor sitting in an armchair and reading a children’s story, or fairy tale, or folk story, to the camera.  There’d be an occasional picture to illustrate the story but nothing else.  No animation, no special effects, no music, no razzmatazz at all – just a voice, a story and a requirement for the young listeners to use their imaginations.*


As it turned out, Mayall and Dahl were a marriage made in heaven.  Mayall’s voice and expression while, for example, he describes George’s revolting grandmother are a joy to behold.  (“She was a selfish, grumpy old woman.  She had pale, brown teeth and a small, puckered-up mouth – like a dog’s bottom.”)  Here’s a youtube clip of Mayall doing Jackanory:



So anyway.  RIP, Rik.


* Having said that, I’ve been babysitting recently for my two young nieces and we’ve watched on CBeebies, the BBC’s channel for little kids, a show called Old Jack’s Boat.  Each episode has a five-minute slot where Old Jack – played by that national treasure, the 85-year-old character actor Bernard Cribbins – sits down and tells a story to the camera.  I suspect that Cribbins, who made quite a few appearances on Jackanory during its run between the 1960s and the 1990s, told the show’s producers that if they wanted him to take part in the show, they had to let him to do some of that old-fashioned traditional storytelling stuff.


Bond in miniature: Octopussy and The Living Daylights


(c) Vintage Books


When, as a boy, I read most of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books, the one I was least enamoured with was For Your Eyes Only.  Actually, FYEO wasn’t a novel but a collection of short stories featuring Bond.  In one of them, Quantum of Solace – which had nothing to do with the 22nd official Bond movie, made with Daniel Craig in 2008 – all 007 did was sit and act as a listener while somebody else narrated a story about a different set of characters.


The problem, I felt, was that Bond was too big for the confines of a short story.  For me at the age of 11, a good Bond story needed a super-villain with a suitably imposing HQ, and a nefarious scheme involving espionage, criminality and / or terrorism, and a love interest, and a number of action set-pieces in which said super-villain tried, unsuccessfully, to bump Bond off.  And of course, with Ian Fleming as writer, there’d also be a wealth of background detail culled from Fleming’s experiences as a globetrotting journalist, naval intelligence officer and bon viveur and from his research – research was something he was scrupulous about.  Obviously, cramming all these things into a short story was not viable.  And the truncated slices of Bondery that appeared in FYEO seemed to me, well, a bit weird.


I recently read a comment made by esteemed poet Philip Larkin about Bond’s suitability for a short-fiction format: “I am not surprised that Fleming preferred to write novels.  James Bond, unlike Sherlock Holmes, does not fit snugly into the short story length: there is something grandiose and intercontinental about his adventures that require elbow room and such examples of the form as we have tend to be eccentric and muted.”  I’m delighted to see a personage like Larkin backing up my thoughts on the subject – great minds think alike and all that.


Larkin, however, wasn’t talking about FYEO but about Fleming’s other collection of James Bond short stories, Octopussy and The Living Daylights, which was published in 1966, two years after Fleming’s death.  This book constitutes Bond’s final appearance in print, as penned by his creator.  It originally consisted of just the two stories mentioned in the title, although subsequent editions beefed it up with the addition of two more, The Property of a Lady and 007 in New York.  Nonetheless, it remains a slim volume.  Even with four stories, it comes to a mere 123 pages.


Since then, of course, Octopussy and The Living Daylights have lent their titles to Bond movies, in 1982 and 1987 respectively.  A film has yet to be made called The Property of a Lady and to be honest I think Adele or even Shirley Bassey would have difficulty wrapping her vocal chords around the title in a Bond-movie theme song.  (“The proper-TEE… of a la-DEE…!”  No, I can’t imagine it.)  Obviously, 007 in New York wouldn’t cut it as a movie title at all.  Mind you, there was a TV movie made in 1976 called Sherlock Holmes in New York starring, God help us, Roger Moore as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-wearing detective, so anything is possible.


Octopussy and The Living Daylights was one of the few Fleming-Bond books I hadn’t read in my boyhood, so when I encountered a copy of it in a bookstore recently I thought I’d give it a shot.  How would I get on with it?  Three-and-a-half decades after I’d read FYEO, would I find the short-story James Bond any more palatable?


The opening story, Octopussy, is the longest one in the collection but Bond is only a secondary character in it.  Rather, the story concerns a Major Dexter Smythe, described acidly by Fleming as “the remains of a once brave and resourceful officer and of a handsome man…”  Now “he was fifty-four, slightly bald and his belly sagged in the Jantzen trunks.  And he had had two coronary thromboses…  But, in his well-chosen clothes, his varicose veins out of sight and his stomach flattened by a discreet support belt behind an immaculate cummerbund, he was still a fine figure of a man at a cocktail party or dinner on the North Shore, and it was a mystery to his friends and neighbours why, in defiance of the two ounces of whisky and ten cigarettes a day to which his doctor had rationed him, he persisted in smoking like a chimney and going to bed drunk, if amiably drunk, every night.”


The North Shore mentioned in that excerpt is the north coast of Jamaica.  During the post-war years Smythe and his wife, now deceased, established themselves there after escaping from hard-pressed, austerity-era Britain: “They were a popular couple and Major Smythe’s war record earned them the entrée to Government House society, after which their life was one endless round of parties, with tennis for Mary and golf (with the Henry Cotton irons!) for Major Smythe.  In the evenings there was bridge for her and the high poker game for him.  Yes, it was paradise all right, while, in their homeland, people munched their spam, fiddled in the black market, cursed the government and suffered the worst winter weather for thirty years.”


Yet this easy, comfortable and enviable life in Jamaica didn’t fall into Smythe’s lap.  Gradually, Fleming enlightens us on how Smythe was able to afford it.  In a back story that has echoes of B. Traven’s 1927 novel and John Huston’s 1948 movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, we learn that in the Austrian Alps at the end of World War II, he stumbled across something immensely valuable that he hoarded for himself.  To do this, however, he had to commit murder.  Octopussy describes what happens when Smythe’s ‘ancient sin’ finally catches up with him.  The bearer of the bad news – that the authorities have found out what he did back in the war and intend to arrest him – is a ‘tall man’ in a ‘dark-blue tropical suit’ with ‘watchful, serious blue-grey eyes’.  It’s Bond – though Bond isn’t just carrying out a professional errand.  Eventually we discover that he has a personal stake in bringing Smythe to justice.


Once you accept that the story is about Smythe rather than Bond, it proceeds very agreeably.  The plump and comical Smythe, who paddles about the reef in front of his villa and rather pathetically talks to the fish that swim there – plus a unfriendly, tentacled mollusc whom he’s christened ‘Octopussy’ – gradually loses our sympathy as Fleming peels back the layers and we discover the cruel, and unnecessary, deed he committed to enrich himself decades earlier.  Bond is hardly a paradigm of virtue but, equipped with a conscience and a rough-and-ready code of ethics, he’s the antithesis of what’s represented by Smythe.  The scene where the flaccid and weak-willed Smythe confesses his crime to Bond is admirably low-key, but Fleming infuses it with a cold, sadistic tension.


The Property of a Lady, on the other hand, is a conventional Bond adventure in miniature.  It has 007 turn the auctioning at Sotheby’s of an artwork designed by Carl Faberge – according to the catalogue, “(a) sphere carved from an extraordinarily large piece of Siberian emerald matrix weighing approximately one thousand three hundred carats” – into a trap to catch the KGB’s director of operations in London.  Also involved is a female Russian double-agent working in the British Secret Service, whom the service is aware of and uses to feed fake information back to Moscow.  To be honest, the plot didn’t make sense to me – I didn’t see how Bond, by snaring London’s top KGB man at Sotheby’s, could avoid alerting Moscow to the fact that British intelligence had cottoned onto the double agent’s existence and were using her for their own ends.


Still, the story is readable and the scenes set in Sotheby’s allow Fleming to show off his knowledge – acquired through research or through personal experience – of the world’s most famous broker in fine art.  When Bond expresses surprise that the auctioneer doesn’t bang his gavel three times and declare, “Going, going, gone,” an expert informs him, “You may still find that operating in the Shires or in Ireland, but it hasn’t been the fashion at London sales rooms since I’ve been attending them.”


(c) Eon Productions


Elements from both Octopussy-the-short-story and The Property of a Lady turn up in Octopussy-the-1982-film, which starred Roger Moore.  In the film, the title character is not an octopus but a beautiful and mysterious woman played by Maud Adams, whose father, it transpires, once received a visit from Bond similar to the visit that Major Smythe received in the original story.  (The revelation that Bond knew her father serves, uncomfortably, to underline the 17-year age-difference between Moore and Adams, especially during the inevitable scene where they go to bed together.  By 1982 Moore was getting a bit long in the tooth and really shouldn’t have been doing love scenes.)  The film also has a proper octopus in it, an unfriendly one, and there’s some business too about a Faberge artwork being auctioned off at Sotheby’s.


However, if you’ve seen Octopussy-the-movie and don’t remember these things, it’s hardly surprising, because scriptwriters Michael G. Wilson, Richard Maibaum and George McDonald Fraser managed to bung everything into it bar the proverbial kitchen sink.  It has a plot involving the explosion of a nuclear warhead in West Germany, and a circus, and an exiled Afghan prince, and feuding Russian generals, and a sidekick called Vijay played by the real-life Indian tennis star Vijay Amritraj, and a Sikh henchman armed with a blunderbuss, and knife-throwing identical twins, and the latest piece of cutting-edge hi-tech equipment developed by Q, which is a hot-air balloon.  It sees Roger Moore disguised as a circus clown, disguised as a gorilla, disguised as a crocodile and pretending to be Tarzan, complete with a Tarzan-esque yodel.  Much of it takes place in a version of India that combines Indiana Jones with Carry On up the Kyber.  (“Sounds familiar!” quips Moore when he hears a snake charmer play a snatch of Monty Berman’s James Bond Theme on his flute.)  Actually, Octopussy is a terrible film.  It truly belongs in the 007 Pit of Shit alongside 1979’s Moonraker and 2002’s Die Another Day.


The third story in the book, The Living Daylights, sees Bond assigned a mission in Berlin.  He has to kill a Soviet sniper whom the KGB have lined up to shoot a defecting scientist while he flees from the east to the west of the city – the story is set shortly before the creation of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie.  Bond has a crisis of conscience when he discovers that the enemy sniper is a woman, an attractive blonde whom he’s seen posing as a member of an orchestra that’s performing on the Communist-Bloc side of town.  This story is incorporated, more or less intact, into the early part of the 1987 movie The Living Daylights, which was the first one to star Timothy Dalton as Bond.  In the film, however, the action is moved to Bratislava, the defector is a KGB officer and his defection is planned to take place during an orchestral performance in a concert hall.


Although the rest of the plot of The Living Daylights-the-film is rather convoluted and unsatisfactory, and there are a few daft moments left over from the previous movies in the series (such as one where Dalton and Maryam D’Abo ride down a mountainside using a cello as a sleigh), at the time it seemed to me a breath of fresh air.  It was an attempt at a slightly more sensible Bond film and it had an actor in the lead role trying to depict Bond as the moody, occasionally conscience-stricken character that Fleming had originally written.  (In fact, when he took on the role, Dalton made a point of reading Fleming’s books.)


(c) Eon Productions 


Alas, Dalton received a rough ride from the critics.  After spending years deriding the Roger Moore-era Bond movies for their campness and silliness, as soon as Dalton appeared those same critics discovered they’d been unconscious Moore-fans all along.  They started moaning about the films becoming too ‘humourless’ and started pining for the good old days when jolly Roger would fight off a giant henchman with steel teeth on top of a cable car with a shaken-not-stirred Vodka Martini and a raised eyebrow, or would escape from the villains in a gondola that cunningly transformed into a nuclear-powered submarine…  Gah!  It just wasn’t fair.


The final story, 007 in New York, is a trifle – Bond is sent to the Big Apple to warn a former Secret Service member that the man she’s cohabiting with is actually a Soviet agent, though he spends most of the story’s eight pages planning the shopping, eating, drinking, clubbing and wenching that he’s going to do while he’s there.  This allows Fleming to show off his knowledge of the city – Bond decides to visit “Hoffritz on Madison Avenue for one of their heavy, toothed Gillette-type razors, so much better than Gillette’s own product, Tripler’s for some of those French golf socks made by Izod, Scribner’s because it was the last great bookshop in New York and because there was a salesman there with a good nose for thrillers, and then to Abercrombie’s to look over the new gadgets…  And then what about the best meal in New York – oyster stew with cream, crackers and Miller High Life at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central?  No, he didn’t want to sit up at a bar…  Yes.  That was it!  The Edwardian Room at the Plaza.  A corner table.”


Fleming was known to have a predilection for sado-masochism, so it’s telling that 007 in New York also sees Bond considering a visit to a bar he’s heard about that “was the rendezvous for sadists and masochists of both sexes.  The uniform was black leather jackets and leather gloves.  If you were a sadist, you wore the gloves under the left shoulder strap.  For the masochists it was the right.”  Bond has an old flame in New York whom he intends to meet up with and enjoy some nightlife with, including the S-&-M-themed nightlife, and it’s here that a tiny sliver of 007 in New York makes it into the movies too.  The old flame’s name is Solange, which is the name of the character played by Caterina Murino in Casino Royale, which saw Daniel Craig’s debut as Bond, in 2006.


The story also had an influence on Solo, the Bond novel recently written by William Boyd.  While Solo includes ‘James Bond’s recipe for salad dressing’, 007 in New York treats us to a recipe for ‘scrambled eggs James Bond’.  I should say, though, that I have my own special recipe for making scrambled eggs and I think it’s way better than Bond’s one.


007 in New York is tied up with a gentle, though unexpected, twist that’s worthy of Somerset Maugham – a writer whom Fleming was a big admirer of.  And that, unfortunately, is it.  Fleming had passed away prior to this collection’s publication and no further Bond material appeared under his name.  Thus, Octopussy and The Living Daylights marked the end of James Bond as a literary phenomenon…  For all of two years, until 1968, when Kingsley Amis published Colonel Sun.


Metal completes its evolution


(c) Banger Productions


In 2005, Canadian filmmaker and musician Sam Dunn made a 96-minute documentary called Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, which as its title suggests was an exploration of heavy metal music.  It examined the music’s roots, its development and its popularisation.  It also examined its diversification into countless sub-genres – into everything from pop metal, glam metal and progressive metal to goth metal, industrial metal and the new wave of British heavy metal; from grunge, hard alternative and nu-metal to original hardcore, grindcore and metalcore; from doom metal, thrash metal and the first wave of black metal to Swedish death metal and Norwegian black metal.  (There’s a difference, you know, and it’s important.)


In addition, Dunn’s documentary didn’t flinch from looking at heavy metal’s propensity for attracting controversy, such as accusations of misogyny and of inciting violence and that parent-bothering fascination that some metal bands have with Auld Nick himself…  Satan!


Packed with interviews with musicians, producers, journalists, sociologists, musicologists and fans, what distinguished Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey from previous documentary and movie treatments of the music like The Decline of Western Civilisation: The Metal Years, Spinal Tap or the Wayne’s World and Bill and Ted films was the fact that it took its subject relatively seriously and dealt with it sympathetically.  (As well as being a dyed-in-the-wool heavy metal fan, Dunn has a Master’s degree in anthropology, for which he wrote a thesis about Guatemalan refugees, so he is well equipped to study the cultures and sub-cultures that this body of music has engendered.)  Any humour or silliness in the documentary tended to come from the interviewees themselves, either intentionally (the always witty Alice Cooper) or unintentionally (the hilariously po-faced, church-burning Norwegian black metal guys).


(c) Seville Pictures 


The only problem with Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey was that its running time of 96 minutes was nowhere near long enough to do justice to its complex and fascinating subject.  In 2011 Dunn tried to rectify this by making, with director and producer Scott McFadyen, an eleven-part TV documentary series called Metal Evolution, which was aired on the music channels MuchMore and VH1 Classic.  This added up to eleven hours-worth of television that allowed Dunn to study the metal world in vastly more detail.  He devoted episodes to the origins of the genre (classical music lovers, be aware that Johann Sebastian Bach and Richard Wagner deserve some of the credit, or blame, depending on your point of view); on its development during the 1970s in the USA and the UK; on the new wave of British heavy metal; and on some of the most prominent sub-genres that have appeared, namely glam metal, thrash metal, grunge, nu-metal, power metal and progressive metal.  There was also an episode dedicated to ‘shock rock’, which is an approach, as opposed to a sound or style — the Grand Guignol / horror-movie theatrics of the likes of Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson and Slipknot, guaranteed to inspire moral panics among generations of parents, politicians and churchmen.


As many fans noted at the time, though, Metal Evolution had one glaring omission.  There was no coverage of the ‘extreme’ metal sub-genres that include death metal, black metal and grindcore – sub-genres that encompass such awesomely sonic and awesomely monikered bands as Cannibal Corpse (from Buffalo), Dying Fetus (from Maryland), Darkthrone (from Kolbotn in Norway), Carcass (from Liverpool), Napalm Death (from Solihull), Cradle of Filth (from Ipswich) and Extreme Noise Terror (also from Ipswich – actually, Ipswich is good at producing extreme metal).  This was due to the networks’ reluctance to deal with the topic – the music and bands involved crossed what they believed was the line between acceptable and unacceptable taste.  However, in April this year, Dunn and McFadyen were able to unveil what has become known as the ‘missing’ twelfth episode of Metal Evolution.  This is devoted to extreme metal, was funded via a crowdsourcing campaign and is now available for viewing, free of charge, at the following address:


I didn’t see Metal Evolution when it was originally broadcast, because at the time I was living in Tunisia – which is a fairly un-metallic country, unless you can make it along to Le Plug bar in La Marsa on a weekend night.  I have, however, watched most of the episodes now after hunting them down on the Internet.  (There are half-a-dozen available on youtube, though with a variety of foreign-language subtitles at the bottom.)  One thing that struck me while watching Metal Evolution was that, for a music characterised by its detractors as being loud, dumb and nasty noise made by loud, dumb and nasty people and consumed by other loud, dumb and nasty people, most of the interviewees were highly eloquent and entertaining.  Among the 300-odd people Dunn interviewed for this project were the aforementioned Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Rob Zombie, Slash, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, Rob Halford of Judas Priest, Scott Ian of Anthrax and the mighty, warty force of nature that is Lemmy of Motorhead.  They’re mainly the charming sort of people you could invite home and introduce to your mum, provided your mum has a high tolerance-level for corpse-style mascara, pentagram tattoos, skull rings, iron crosses and serial-killer masks.




However, it’s impossible to make even a 12-episode heavy metal documentary series that pleases everyone.  Indeed, any heavy metal enthusiast worth his or her salt will probably be grumbling slightly about what is and isn’t covered in the series – since no filmmaker can ever satisfy the completist zeal for detail and accuracy possessed by an ardent fan.


In my case, I’d have liked to see a few things added or done differently.  A little recognition could’ve been given to the role that AC/DC played in popularising heavy metal in the 1970s.  The episode about the new wave of British heavy metal talked about the antagonism that existed between many metal bands of the late 1970s and the punk ones who were then shaking British popular music to its foundations, but something should’ve been said about Motorhead – a band who crossed the great punk-metal divide and were nearly as popular among pogoing Mohican-headed fans as they were among head-banging long-haired ones.  Indeed, Lemmy has often included Sex Pistols and Ramones songs in the band’s sets and was even friends with Sid Vicious.  (He once had the job of task of teaching Sid how to play bass guitar.  Needless to say, he didn’t succeed.)


Furthermore, I think more should’ve been said in the nu-metal episode about this sub-genre’s antecedents – about Walk This Way, the 1987 collaboration between Run DMC and Aerosmith, plus the Beastie Boys, the soundtrack album for the 1993 movie Judgement Night and Ice T’s ground-breaking metal-rap band Body Count.  And it would’ve been nice if the power metal episode had made mention of heavy metal’s most elderly performer – actor Sir Christopher Lee, who’s recorded with Rhapsody of Fire, Manowar and Richie Faulkner of Judas Priest.  (Just the other week, Lee celebrated his 92nd birthday by releasing Metal Robot, an EP of heavy-metal versions of songs from the Don Quixote musical Man of La Mancha.  Bless.)




And I’d have preferred it if Dunn hadn’t interviewed Ted Nugent because, basically, the man is a tosser.


Meanwhile, watching the episode about glam metal, the unspeakable sub-genre of posing, preening, spandex-clad, poodle-haired bands who emerged from Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip in the early 1980s, I couldn’t help wishing that Motley Crue, Quiet Riot, Ratt, Poison, Cinderella, Warrant and the rest of them had been buried forever under a million tons of radioactive sludge.  As Anthrax’s Scott Ian commented during the episode: “We never actually backed going out and beating up people wearing spandex and having big, poofy, hair-sprayed hair… but I certainly never told anyone to not do it.”