On the Delhi Metro


 From delhimetrorail.com


Last month I did some temporary work in Delhi.  This was almost ten years after I’d last been in the Indian capital and while in many ways the city hadn’t changed much – it still seemed as exhilaratingly but exasperatingly hectic, noisy, crowded and colourful as ever – there was one very noticeable alteration.  The Delhi Metro system, which in 2004 had only existed as some big, newly-excavated trenches and mounds of earth, is now in operation and it’s a lot easier to get around the place.  What, then, did I make of my experiences as a subway-traveller in India’s main city?


It certainly looks good.  It’s big, spacious and shiny in a way that puts much of the London Tube to shame.  However, it’s also, inevitably, busy.  There are dense crowds crossing those concourses, ascending and descending those escalators and waiting on those platforms and, especially during the rush hours, getting on and off the trains is not an experience for the faint-hearted.  I remember being on a train one day when we arrived at one of the busiest stops, Central Secretariate.  A guy on board the train had positioned himself in front of the doors, in readiness to get off – but when the doors opened, in surged dozens of bodies and the poor guy was immediately flung back to the other side of the carriage, like somebody swept off a beach by a tsunami.


Actually, struggling – shouldering – my way off a train one particularly busy evening, it occurred to me that my body was aching in ways that it hadn’t ached since the days when I played rugby.


I was also struck by how security-conscious the system was.  In each station you first have to pass through a security check.  Every traveller – and as I said above, there are a lot of travellers – has to dump his or her bags, briefcases, packages, folders, etc. on a conveyor belt at the side that glides through one scanner, before filing through another, bigger scanner and then getting a perfunctory once-over from a security guard with a baton-shaped metal detector.  It’s impressive that they manage to check everyone but the process doesn’t look terribly thorough.  Perhaps that’s why on the trains a recorded voice and a warning-message scrolling along the electronic signboards keep reminding you, “Any unattended or suspicious article, like a briefcase, bag, toy, thermos or transistor, could be a bomb.”  (And I assume it’s for security purposes too that you aren’t allowed to use a camera in the stations or trains, which is why there are no photographs accompanying this post.)


In fact, soldiers with automatic rifles are a common sight on Delhi’s Metro.  Where I normally got off the train in the evenings, at Lajpat Nagar station, I had to walk past a lectern-cum-desk at which a solider sat with a carbine resting on the surface in front of him, barrel pointing out across the concourse.  Each time I walked past him, there came a moment when I sensed that the barrel was aligned exactly with my head.


Appropriately, given the well-publicised reports about sexual assaults in India recently, there are particular security measures laid on for women.  The first carriage of each train is usually designated as the ‘ladies’ carriage’ and it’s a punishable offence for men to attempt to travel in it.  Also, groups of deadly-looking Indian lady soldiers, quite capable of kicking the shit out of any leering male chauvinist, sometimes ride along in that carriage for a few stops, making sure all there is quiet and hassle-free.


Where that ladies’ carriage stops alongside the platforms, there are sometimes signs saying WOMEN ONLY suspended overhead or stuck to the platform-surfaces underfoot.  Just to make it clear whom these signs refer to, they are pink in colour and dotted with flower-shapes.  Because that’s what all ladies like, pinkness and flowers.  Right?


Actually, the people in charge of the Delhi Metro show strong concern about all their passengers’ welfare.  That’s why on the trains you’re bombarded by aural and visual messages, asking you in polite but slightly authoritarian tones to keep clear of the doors when you arrive at a station, to allow people space to get on and off, to avoid sitting on the floors, to avoid playing loud music and to give up give up certain seats to ‘senior citizens’ and ‘the differently abled’.  I have to say that most of these requests – apart from the one asking men to stay out of the ladies’ carriage – are ignored.


You might expect the Metro to have had a devastating effect on the city’s more traditional forms of public transport – i.e. its pedal-powered rickshaws and its motorised auto-rickshaws – but these are still much in evidence because there are swathes of the city that the Metro system doesn’t reach (yet).  You might also expect the presence of this new, extensive and cheap competitor to instil some humbleness, politeness and reasonableness in the heads of Delhi’s auto-rickshaw drivers, but it doesn’t seem to have done so.  I found them a pain to deal with – not interested in going where I needed them to go, and sometimes demanding 20 or 30 rupees more than the fare on the meter.  Their equivalents in Colombo aren’t saints either, but compared to the Delhi drivers they’re much nicer.


It’s self-defeating.  After a few days, I got fed up with their bullshit and subsequently tried to use the Metro as much as I could.  Another customer defects to the opposition…


A sense of entitlement


(c) The Times


When I lived in London in the early 1990s, I used to drink occasionally with a Scotsman who worked for the Labour Party.  In fact, he was an advisor to its then-leader, the late John Smith.  Our relationship was testy and at times gave way to complete fireworks, because my own political sympathies lay with the Scottish National Party.  I recall one time remarking to him that I didn’t understand why the Scottish wing of the Labour Party and the SNP couldn’t cooperate more.  After all, many of their policies were similar.  And didn’t they have a common enemy – the Conservative Party, who were in power at the time?


My Labour Party associate gave me a pitying look and spoke very slowly, as if I was retarded and might not understand his words.  “Look,” he said, “The SNP hate us and we hate them.”  And that, as far as he was concerned, was that.


During the 20 years since, that’s been my main impression of the Labour Party’s raison d’être in Scotland: hating the SNP.  Never mind trying to do anything constructive or innovative.  So long as they’re in a position where they can screech and scream all day long about what an evil bastard Alex Salmond is, they’re happy.  (I’ve just checked out my old Labour associate’s Twitter feed and, sure enough, he’s ranting on it about Salmond: “What nice hotel at taxpayers (sic) expense is Mr Salmond going to be put up in tonite (sic) for.”)


This hatred seems to spring from the other defining characteristic of Scottish Labour: a mighty sense of entitlement.  They see themselves as top dogs in Scotland.  Scotland’s their territory.  Until 2005, Labour returned about 50 out of 72 Scottish MPs to Westminster.  After that total of 72 MPs was reduced to 59, Labour kept the lion’s share of it – they’ve got 41 in the current parliament.  Traditionally, Scottish politicians played a disproportionately large role in the UK-wide party – John Smith, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, John Reid, George Robertson, Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy.  Even that political chameleon Anthony Charles Lynton Blair could claim to be Scottish and make his scaly skin turn tartan (admittedly not very convincingly) by talking about his childhood, which included periods spent in Edinburgh and Stepps, near Glasgow; and about his schooldays at Edinburgh’s prestigious Fettes Academy.


And many a Labour loyalist, having served time at Westminster, has ended up in cosy, comfortable and ermine-clad retirement in the House of Lords.  See the likes of John Reid, George Robertson, Michael Martin and Helen Liddell, lords and ladies to a man and woman.


Yes, I know.  In 1999, during Blair’s premiership, Labour did set up the devolved Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.  But I’m sure it was seen as a means of keeping additional numbers of loyal Scottish Labour Party hacks in lucrative employment and it was designed not to rock the boat in any way for London.  The Scottish parliament was organised so that no party (i.e. the SNP) could ever win an outright majority in it and its ruling executive would always have to be a coalition.  And the biggest party in any coalition, Blair and co assumed, would always be the Scottish Labour Party.


It was a shock for Labour when in 2007 the SNP won the biggest number of seats in the Scottish parliament, eschewed coalitions and ran Scotland for the next four years as a minority administration.  And it was an even bigger shock for them when in 2011 the SNP achieved the impossible and managed to win an overall majority of seats in the parliament.  Hadn’t Labour’s finest minds arranged things so that this would never happen?  This left the SNP free to do whatever they liked, which included holding last month’s referendum on Scottish independence.


Yes, it must be tough for long-time politicians and apparatchiks in the Scottish Labour Party to see Scotland – their stomping ground, their fiefdom, their station of departure for the gravy train that runs all the way to the House of Lords – turn on them, reject them, betray them and climb into bed instead with those evil, conniving bastards in the SNP.  There’s nothing worse than having a sense of entitlement and then not getting what you believe you’re entitled to.


At this point, I should say that there’ve been Labour politicians, north and south of the border, whom I’ve respected.  For example, I had a lot of time for John Smith.  His unexpected death in 1994, which opened the way for Tony Blair, left us with one of the great what-ifs of British politics – what if Smith had lived to become prime minister instead of Blair?  And over the years I’ve also admired Tony Benn, Robin Cook, Dennis Skinner, Tam Dalyell, Dennis Canavan, John McAllion, Ron Brown and even – long ago, before he became a purveyor of putrid piffle – George Galloway.  The problem is, all those guys proved to be too independently-minded and off-message to fit comfortably with a London-based Labour leadership that’s increasingly expected obedience and conformity from its politicians.  One way or another, all of them became isolated.  At best, they were politely ignored.  At worst, they were treated as pariahs.


With the Scottish Labour Party on the winning side and the SNP on the losing side in last month’s independence referendum, Labour should currently be in rude health.  But instead, the weeks since the result have seen the party stricken with divisions, tensions, insecurity and pessimism.


During the referendum campaign, it surely stuck in many Labour supporters’ craws to see their leaders singing from the same hymn-sheet as David Cameron and George Osborne, the hated Bullingdon-Club millionaires of the Tory Party.  And the fact that the areas of Scotland that did vote for independence in the referendum – Dundee, Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire – were supposed to be Labour strongholds can’t have helped party morale either.


Although UK Labour-leader Ed Miliband put his name to a pledge that Scotland would receive more devolved powers in the event of a ‘no’ vote, it’s become clear that Labour is the party least enthusiastic about bestowing new powers – less enthusiastic even than the Tories.  Meanwhile, post-referendum, membership of pro-‘yes’ parties like the SNP and the Scottish Greens has rocketed and, if the opinion polls are to believed, the SNP could take more than a few seats off Labour at the next Westminster election.


Clearly, if Labour is to survive in Scotland, it needs to be a truly Scottish party.  It can’t any longer be tied to and subservient to the Labour Party in London.  It has to be able to devise its own centre-left policies that appeal to a Scottish electorate.  But with Ed Miliband – a leader who genuinely seems not to ‘get’ Scotland – at the London controls, backed by a rabble of Neanderthal old-school Scottish Labour MPs in Westminster who have no wish to cede power to the party north of the border for fear of losing their own status, perks and privileges, that isn’t going to happen.


I’ve just read that Johann Lamont, leader of the Scottish Labour Party for the past three years, has announced her resignation.  According to the BBC news website, she claimed that “the Labour Party must recognise that the Labour Party has to be autonomous and not just a branch office of a party based in London…  We must be allowed to make our own decisions and control our own resources.”


These comments might possibly be the first brave and wise things Ms Lamont has said in what’s been a pretty inept and unimpressive political career.  But it’s worth reminding her that only a month ago, on September 18th, she had a golden opportunity to make the Scottish Labour Party autonomous, and responsible for its own decisions and resources, and not the branch office of a party based in London.  By urging people to vote ‘yes’ in the independence referendum.


Don’t remake it, Pike!


(c) BBC


The other day I read a piece by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian that was ostensibly about Nigel Farage and his daft-but-unpleasant political party, the United Kingdom Independence Party.  However, unexpectedly, Freedland also made some telling comments about the beloved old BBC sitcom Dad’s Army.  Freedland tried to compare Nigel Farage’s situation (in charge of a party of misfits and eccentrics) and his mentality (anti-EU, anti-immigrant, permanently under siege) with those of Captain Mainwaring, the pompous and beleaguered bank manager in Dad’s Army who’s in charge of a platoon of part-time and over-the-hill Home Guardsmen in an English coastal town called Walmington-on-Sea during the bleakest days of World War II – when Hitler’s forces are parked just across the Channel.


Of Dad’s Army itself, Freedland observed: “I have written before of 1940 as the creation myth of modern Britain, that defining moment when the country stood alone to fight Nazi Germany.  What is curious is that for so long this myth was not distilled or advanced through a great monument or ceremony, a symphony or grand sculpture, but through a modest, if brilliant, sitcom about a bunch of old guys huffing and puffing their ways through drills, parades and the occasional false alarm.


“From 1968 to 1977, and through decades of repeats ever since, Dad’s Army became the chief depiction of Britain’s wartime experience…  Britons who would struggle to name a single regiment that fought the decisive battles of that conflict can instantly identify the gentle amateurs of the Home Guard.”


Freedland pointed out that while other countries commemorate World War II more earnestly and lavishly – the USA continues to crank out Hollywood epics about the conflict like Saving Private Ryan (1998), Flags of our Fathers (2006), Inglourious Basterds (2009) and this year’s Fury – the gentle comedy of Dad’s Army seems to have become the UK’s preferred cultural statement about it.  Maybe, he suggested, it’s because the show possesses a very self-depreciating sense of humour; which is also a very British sense of humour.




Freedland may be right.  However, with Dad’s Army, I’ve always been more interested in the things that most people tend to overlook about the show.  Everyone goes on about the characters’ buffoonery and endlessly quote their catchphrases (“Stupid boy!”, “Don’t panic!”, “They don’t like it up them!”, etc.), but there’s much more happening with them beneath the comic surface.  And those characters’ complexity is testimony to the talents of the show’s writers, Jimmy Perry and David Croft.


For all his pomposity, Arthur Lowe’s Captain Mainwaring is someone tormented by a sense of inferiority.  He’s lower-middle class and – with the society around him still strongly class-based – he’s painfully aware of it.  This is underlined by his dealings with the languidly aristocratic Sergeant Wilson, played by John Le Mesurier, who despite being his subordinate in rank manages somehow to undermine him every time he opens his mouth.  (“Do you think that’s wise, sir?”)  And despite Wilson’s obvious problem that he’s much too posh to be a sergeant – “Would you mind awfully falling in, please?” he tells the men – the platoon-members prefer him to the blustering Mainwaring.


Then there’s the issue of Wilson’s relationship with the working-class Mrs Mavis Pike (Janet Davies), whose teenaged son Frank (Ian Lavender) is the only person who’s in the platoon because he’s too young to do military service.  Despite their difference in social class, Wilson lodges with them and is clearly sharing a bed with Mrs Pike – to the scandal of the town – while he maintains a slightly uncomfortable relationship with Frank, who calls him ‘Uncle Arthur’.  Perry and Croft did tell interviewers that, in their minds, Wilson was Frank’s biological father.


While the excitable Corporal Jones, played by Clive Dunn, is the show’s main source of slapstick, there’s actually a lot going on with him too.  He might make a constant fool of himself but, as the local butcher and the man who hands out the meat rations, he wields a lot of power.  He’s also, in his doddery way, something of a ladies’ man — he’s in his element when the housewives of Walmington-on-Sea are in his shop, trying to wheedle some extra meat-cuts out of him.  No wonder that in the show’s final episode in 1977, he ends up marrying the glamorous, if bulky, local widow Mrs Fox (Pamela Clundell).


And there’s the story behind the platoon’s First Aid supervisor and most venerable member, the kindly but slightly befuddled (and beset by bladder problems) Private Godfrey, played by actor and playwright Arnold Ridley.  He’s patronised by the others as an effete softy and the fact that he was a conscientious objector during World War I doesn’t win him any respect either.  It’s later discovered that he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps and won a medal for saving several soldiers’ lives during the Battle of the Somme – something that Godfrey is too modest and gentlemanly to ever talk about.  (In real life, Ridley had fought in the Battle of the Somme and sustained a barrage of injuries, including shrapnel in the legs and a bayonet in the groin.)


I don’t remember there being much depth to the platoon’s resident Scotsman, the dark, sly, conniving, pessimistic and utterly dour Private Fraser who, appropriately enough, works during the day as the town’s undertaker.  But played by the great John Laurie, Frazer has become a cultural stereotype like no other.  Even today, if a Scotsman is out in company in England and says something to the effect that things are not as peachy as everyone thinks they are, the company will instinctively recite Frazer’s catchphrase back at him: “We’re doomed…  All doomed!”


Anyway, Dad’s Army has been in the headlines recently because plans are afoot to remake it as feature film with a big-name British cast in the roles made popular by Lowe, Le Mesurier, Dunn and the others.  Some of that casting makes sense.  It’s a stroke of genius to have Bill Nighy playing Sergeant Wilson and I’m sure Bill Paterson and Daniel Mays could do great things with, respectively, the roles of Private Frazer and the spiv, Private Walker.  However, I suspect that Toby Jones – who’s an actor I greatly admire – is not quite right for the role of Captain Mainwaring and I’m not convinced by the prospect of Sir Tom Courtenay playing Corporal Jones, either.


As for the proposal that Sir Michael Gambon should play the gentle, pacifistic Private Godfrey…  Well, I’m sorry, but when I think of Gambon I picture him as the monstrous gangster in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), stabbing a woman in the face with a fork when she becomes irritating at his restaurant table.  Which isn’t a very Private Godfrey thing to do.


But what worries me much more about this cinematic remake of Dad’s Army is the comedy credentials of the people behind it.  Director Oliver Parker is the man responsible for those dire updates of the St Trinian’s movies made in 2007 and 2009.  Scriptwriter Hamish McColl’s past form hasn’t been any better, as he penned Mr Bean’s Holiday (2007) and Johnny English Reborn (2011), both of which starred Rowan Atkinson, a man who was last funny in 1989’s Blackadder Goes Forth.  Parker also directed the Johnny English movie.


Meanwhile, a synopsis of the film’s plot, which to quote the BBC news website “will see (Catherine) Zeta-Jones play a glamorous journalist sent to report on the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard before MI5 discovers there is a German spy in the fictional British town”, does nothing to persuade me that the film will be anything other than gimmicky, lowest-common-denominator pap.  Actually, it makes my heart sink.


Mind you, I also read recently that a reboot is being planned of another fondly-remembered ensemble-comedy piece, the 1980s Ghostbusters movies.  However, there’s a twist.  This will be a female reboot of Ghostbusters, with actresses in the roles made popular by Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd and company.  So if Dad’s Army has to be remade, why not do it as an all-female version as well?  Why not have women playing those old characters we remember so well and love so much?  Here, then, are my suggestions for the cast of a female Dad’s Army:


Dame Judi Dench as Captain Mainwaring.

Dame Helen Mirren as Sergeant Wilson.

Alison Steadman as Corporal Jones.

Annette Crosby as Private Fraser.

Olivia Coleman as Private Walker.

Juno Temple as Private Pike.

Imelda Stanton as Warden Hodges.

Penelope Wilton as the Vicar.

Kathy Burke as the Verger.

Joanna Lumley as Captain Square.

Miranda Hart as Private Sponge.

Tilda Swinton as the U-Boat skipper.

And of course…  Joan Collins as Private Godfrey.


(c) The Guardian

(c) BBC


Days of Godzilla past


(c) 20th Century Fox


Lately, I found myself on a Qatar Airlines flight – tired, practically brain-dead, but with a neat little inflight entertainment audio / video system installed in the seat-back in front of me.  It seemed a good time to search the system’s cache of recent movie releases and select a couple of big dumb blockbusters that’d pass the time and not tax my weary mind unduly.  I ended up watching X-Men: Days of Future Past, the second prequel to the original trilogy of X-Men movies that appeared between 2000 and 2006 and were based on the Marvel comics; and this year’s remake of Godzilla.  Here’s what I thought of them.


When I heard in 2011 that they were filming a first prequel to the X-Men trilogy, entitled X-Men: First Class, set in the 1960s and featuring Scotsman James McAvoy and Irishman Michael Fassbender in the roles of the saintly Professor Xavier and the villainous Magneto (who’d been played in the original series by Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen), I was apprehensive.  I had bad memories of the last time there’d been a prequel to a successful science-fiction movie trilogy starring a Scotsman and an Irishman.  Yes, Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson and Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace, I’m looking at you.


In fact, I didn’t think X-Men: First Class was bad – it was just slightly disappointing that its story was told in such broad brushstrokes.  Now comes X-Men: Days of Future Past, with a cast that includes McAvoy and Fassbender and Stewart and McKellen.  You see, while most of it is set in 1973, part of it is set in a grim war-torn future, which means we get to see the young non-wrinkly Xavier and Magneto in the 1973 bits and their old wrinkly versions in the future bits.


Actually, watching this movie was weird for me because it was around 1973 that I started reading Marvel’s X-Men comic.  In the 1970s comic I remember Professor Xavier already being old, bald and confined to a wheelchair – i.e. he already looked like Patrick Stewart.  He certainly didn’t look young and funky like James MacAvoy in Future Past.  Meanwhile, the comic’s themes of ostracism, exclusion and racism, in a world where humanity co-exists uneasily with mutants who’ve developed superhuman powers, went completely over my juvenile head.


The movie starts in the future, with a surviving band of mutant superheroes, including Xavier and Magneto in their Stewart and McKellen incarnations (obliged yet again to join forces), making a final stand against an onslaught of destructive super-robots called Sentinels that’ve been programmed to wipe out mutant life-forms.  Indeed, in this apocalyptic future-world, the robots seemed to have done a good job of wiping out ordinary human beings too.  Desperately, Xavier and Magneto send the soul of the spike-fisted and eternally-youthful Wolverine, played as usual by Hugh Jackman, back in time to 1973.  There, in the body of his earlier self, he’ll try to prevent the incident that causes the creation of the Sentinels and begins the chain of events leading to the future war.


Yes, James Cameron ought to have sued the filmmakers for nicking his future-war / time-travel ideas from The Terminator movies.  Then again, Cameron himself was sued by the writer Harlan Ellison, who accused him of nicking his ideas from episodes he’d written for the old Outer Limits TV series.  So who knows where this scenario originally comes from?


Once Wolverine is back in 1973 (or in an exaggerated movie version of it, rife with wide lapels, shoulder-length hair, discotheques, mirror-balls, Vietnam Wars and crooked-looking US presidents), he goes off to enlist the help of the James-MacAvoy-version Xavier and Michael-Fassbender-version Magneto.  This isn’t easy, since (1) Xavier / MacAvoy has become a disillusioned junkie and (2) Magneto / Fassbender has been captured and imprisoned in a concrete cell many floors below the Pentagon.  To spring Magneto from his Pentagon cell, Wolverine assembles a mutant team consisting of the reluctant Xavier, the hairy but brainy Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a nonchalant teenager in a Pink Floyd T-shirt with the power to move faster than lightning.  And it’s here that the movie enjoys its best stretch.


The scenes where the superfast Quicksilver sprints through the Pentagon while bodies, bullets, flying knives and tumbling furniture drift through the air around him in eerie slow-motion are stunning.  Though if everything else is moving so slowly, I can’t figure out why his personal stereo (surely an anachronism in 1973 anyway) continues to play Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle at normal speed.


With Magneto free, Quicksilver disappears from the movie (alas) and the other characters jet off to Paris, where a Vietnam peace summit is about to begin and where the crucial event that’ll lead to the future war is about to happen.  Mystique, the saucy blue-skinned shape-shifting mutant played by Rebecca Romijin in the original trilogy and by Jennifer Lawrence in the prequels, is due to gun down a scientist / business mogul called Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), who’s designed the blueprints for the Sentinels.  Horrified by Trask’s murder, which it interprets as an act of mutant terrorism, the US government will go ahead with Trask’s plans and start manufacturing the Sentinels.


Well, Wolverine and co. manage to stop Mystique from doing the deed but – surprise! – back in the future, nothing changes.  Those pesky Sentinels are still there, besieging the fortress where the pension-age Xavier and Magneto are holed up.  The Beast helpfully explains that although you can go back in time and change one event, the overall flow of time may continue in the same direction.  To emphasise the Beast’s theory, the filmmakers show a famous episode of Star Trek based on the same idea, The City on the Edge of Forever, playing on a TV in the background while he’s speaking.  (Curiously, that episode was written by Harlan Ellison too.)


What follows, with the government and the still-alive Trask going ahead with the Sentinels’ production, Xavier and Wolverine trying to stop them and the Fassbender-version Magneto deciding, as usual, to jump ship and do his own nefarious thing, is a tad mechanical.  However, the likeability of both the characters and the actors manage to hold one’s interest.  There’s even a moment where, thanks to some mind-transfer jiggery-pokery, the young and old Xaviers are able to communicate across time.  Actually, it’s the young and old Magnetos who really need to hold a conference – so that McKellen can tell Fassbender to stop being a dick, get mucked in and help the others.


There’s fun in seeing the retro-looking but unfeasible Sentinels – far beyond the capability of 2014’s technology, let alone 1973’s – being unveiled on the lawn of Richard Nixon’s White House.  If you’ve seen the other X-Men movies, though, it’s best not to think about them too much because there’s a morass of continuity problems.  For instance, I can’t figure out how Patrick Stewart’s Xavier is still alive during the future war, since we saw him vaporised in the third movie, X-Men: Last Stand.  (It was suggested at that movie’s end that he’d transferred his soul into another man’s body, but surely his new body wouldn’t look like Patrick Stewart.)


Future Past also has a moment where an X-shaped beam of white light, with blue edges, is projected onto James McAvoy’s face.  The light resembles a Scottish Saltire and the actor had expressed concern about how stills of this might be used before the Scottish independence referendum.  “There’s an image of me…” he groused, “with basically a Saltire on my face, and I’m like, ‘Oh please, don’t use that for the f**king Yes campaign.”  Well, just for you, James, here’s that image with the Saltire on your fizzog.  Vote yes!  (Next time.)


(c) 20th Century Fox


In 2010, Gareth Edwards directed the low-budget British science-fiction movie Monsters, which was one of the most unexpected cinematic pleasures of recent years.  It’s a ruminative piece wherein two people are forced to traverse an abandoned central-American wilderness that a returning space-probe has inadvertently contaminated with alien life-forms.  In the process, they learn as much about themselves as they do about the weird creatures shimmering through the jungles around them.


I had mixed feelings when I heard that Edwards had departed for Hollywood to helm a big-budget remake of Godzilla, the 1954 Japanese movie that made its titular character, a giant, scaly city-demolishing monster, an icon of popular culture.  I thought it a shame that Edwards couldn’t continue to work in the UK, making small, personal and no doubt interesting movies.  On the other hand, if someone had to make a new version of Godzilla, it might as well be him.


The 1954 movie, directed by Ishiro Honda, was a gloomy parable about the horrors of the atomic bomb – nine years before Godzilla flattened Tokyo, the Japanese had seen that bomb flatten two more of their cities.  But subsequent Godzilla movies lightened up.  Godzilla became Japan’s unofficial champion, battling against other, nastier monsters like Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah whilst wrecking more Japanese cities in the process.  Edwards’ remake tries to have it both ways.  It wants to replicate the sombre tone of the original, but also to have some monstrous adversaries for Godzilla to fight against and more cities – Honolulu, Las Vegas and San Francisco – to level.


The film starts with two giant parasitic creatures called MUTOs being found, in larval form, in the fossilised remains of a vast creature that clearly belongs to the same species as Godzilla.  Years later, the MUTOs emerge from their chrysalises, one of which has ended up in Japan and the other has been transported to the USA, and start destroying everything in their paths.  They aim to meet up, breed and unleash hordes of new MUTOs on humanity.  Then, however, Godzilla emerges from the depths of the Pacific.  He’s a last survivor of an age when such gargantuan creatures overran the earth and, occupying the top of the food-chain, he’s programmed to hunt down, fight and destroy those MUTOs.


The movie’s best scenes are those where Edwards’ talents are most on display.  An early sequence set in a Japanese city that’s been long abandoned, Chernobyl-like, due to a supposed accident at a nearby nuclear power station – the disaster was actually caused by the arrival of one of the MUTOs, which feed on nuclear energy – evokes the strange, crumbling wilderness of Monsters.  There are memorable images later too, such as one involving a burning train and one where a group of marines jump out of a plane and skydive, trailing coloured streams of smoke, into a giant grey cloud of ash and dust below – the cloud marks the spot where Godzilla is slugging it out with the two MUTOs in the middle of San Francisco.


Unfortunately, the film is undone by its disjointed plot.  We have to rely on David Strathairn’s American admiral, whose warships are monitoring the Pacific, to find out what’s going on.  He shouts stuff like, “A MUTO has been spotted here!” and “Godzilla has been sighted heading there!”  And it doesn’t help that the film’s most interesting characters, played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, disappear early on, leaving the less engaging Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the main focus.  Taylor-Johnson’s character displays an unlikely knack for surviving deadly situations.  I counted four seriously life-threatening predicaments that he manages to escape from during the film.  In two of them, he’s the only survivor while everyone else dies.


Fascinatingly, one of the movie’s supporting characters, a scientist (who again exists mainly to shout bits of plot exposition), is played by the English actress Sally Hawkins.  She’s best-known for playing the lead character in Mike Leigh’s 2008 comedy-drama movie Happy-Go-Lucky.  Maybe she could persuade Mike Leigh to direct the sequel to Godzilla.  I’d like to see how Leigh’s celebrated improvisational techniques would work with performers like Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidorah and the Big G. himself.


Anyway, to sum up.  X-Men: Days of Future Past — 7.5 out of 10.  Godzilla — 6 out of 10.


(c) Warner Brothers / Toho


Student politics


(c) BBC


During the run-up to the recent referendum on Scottish independence, those mainstream media outlets against the idea of independence (i.e. all of them except for the Sunday Herald newspaper) liked to sing the praises of Labour Party MP and Shadow Secretary of State for International Development Jim Murphy.  Jim, they’d have you believe, was a heroic street-fighter who wasn’t afraid to take the anti-independence message direct to the people.  He even conducted a speaking tour of Scottish town centres, during which he’d stand up on an Irn Bru crate and argue manfully with his opponents by bellowing at them through an amplified microphone and drowning them out.  More heroically still, Jim incurred some bloody, near-fatal injuries during the heat and violence of the campaign.  Well, in Kirkcaldy, someone chucked an egg at him and splattered the back of his shirt.


I have to say I’d probably have more time for Murphy if I wasn’t aware of his record during the late 1980s and early 1990s, first as a university student and then as a student politician.


According to his Wikipedia entry, Murphy studied Politics and European Law at the University of Strathclyde from 1985 to 1992.  That’s seven years, three more than it normally takes to get a university degree in Scotland, and I strongly suspect that during those seven years, at least part of the time, Murphy’s finances were propped up by student grants.  For yes, in those long-ago days, many UK students were funded or partly funded by a government-approved grant system.  Then from 1992 to 1994 Murphy served as president of the National Union of Students Scotland, and then in 1994 he stepped higher up in the student-politics world and became president of the National Union of Students in its UK-wide form.


During the two years of this latter presidency, Murphy dropped the NUS’s opposition to the abolition of student grants.  This was in defiance of what delegates decided at an NUS special conference in Derby in 1995 – though, oddly enough, it was in line with new Labour Party policy at the time.  (Once Labour came to power under Tony Blair, grants were replaced with student loans for everyone bar the poorest students, and students were required to pay tuition fees of £1000.  By 2004 the fees had been increased to £3000 and by 2012, under the present Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition, they’d been bumped up again to £9000.*)  Meanwhile, in 1997, a year after he’d finished with the NUS, Murphy was elected to the House of Commons as Labour MP for the Scottish constituency of Eastwood.


Now, in my opinion, someone who probably had at least some of his student life financed by government grants was hypocritical in denouncing those grants and doing his bit to get rid of them the moment his university days were over and he’d started to shin his way up the slimy pole of politics.  (And cynics would mutter that his career as a Labour MP started suspiciously soon after he’d overridden the wishes of the NUS conference and forced the organisation to sing from the same anti-grant hymn-sheet as the Labour Party.)  Mind you, if someone can prove to me that Jim Murphy definitely got through those seven years at Strathclyde University without any state assistance and funded them by himself, I’ll happily recant what I’ve just written and declare that he isn’t a hypocrite at all.  No, he’s a chap of impeccable integrity.


Anyway, Jim Murphy’s back-story has got me thinking about my own, distant student days at Aberdeen University and my dealings with that odd set that Murphy was once a member of: the student-political set.


(c) The Guardian


To be honest, I wouldn’t have had any dealings with student politicians at all if I hadn’t got involved with Aberdeen University’s student newspaper and co-edited it for a term in 1986.  The newspaper office was located in the same building as the offices and meeting rooms where the members of the Students’ Representative Council did their business.  And obviously, those student politicians also figured in a lot of the stories we reported on.  So I got to observe the species close up.


The one who probably did best for himself was Stephen Carter, who served as SRC President from 1985 to 1986.  I found Carter pretty lacking in warmth, humour and character and at one point, in a fit of naughtiness, I published in the newspaper a spoof-article depicting him as an aloof Roman Emperor in the manner of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius novels – the article was entitled I, Carterus.  We didn’t get on very well, though not because I’d likened him to one of the Caesars.  Near the end of my editorship, I wrote a front page article that made several criticisms of his reign as student president, which infuriated him.  To be fair, I later discovered that I’d made an error with a financial figure I’d quoted so at least part of his anger was justified.  Being bawled out by the bland, automation-like Carter was a strange experience.   The abuse didn’t seem to emanate from a real human being.  It was like being scolded by an indignant speak-your-weight machine or a cranky elevator voice-recording.


Decades later, in 2008, Carter served as Gordon Brown’s Downing Street Chief of staff.  Also, from 2008 to 2009, he was Brown’s Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting.  (As he wasn’t a member of either house at Westminster at the time, which would have barred him from taking on a ministerial position, he was quickly ennobled.  He was made the Right Honourable Lord Carter of Barnes and entered into the House of Lords.)  I didn’t hear much about how that he got in on those roles, except for claims that his relationship with Brown’s notorious spin-doctor Damian McBride was ‘fractious’.  (http://www.theguardian.com/media/2009/jul/17/damian-mcbride-smeargate-emails-gordon-brown)  Actually, McBride was such a scumbag that it’s to Carter’s credit that the pair of them didn’t get along.


Coincidentally, days before Stephen Carter – sorry, Lord Carter of Barnes – ended his stint as Brown’s Chief of Staff, I found myself a full-time student again.  In October 2008 I started an MA course at the University of East Anglia.  The students there had mounted a protest against student debt, with hundreds of them sticking fake cheques to a campus wall.  On each cheque was written the sum of money that each student expected to owe by the time of his or her graduation.  To me (who’d graduated in 1987 with an overdraft of £1,500, which I paid off within two years) some of those sums were eye-watering: £40,000 or more.  What, I wondered, would we have thought at Aberdeen University in the mid-1980s if we’d known that our student president would one day be a key figure in a government presiding over levels of student debt we wouldn’t have imagined in our worst nightmares?


Another student politician from that era who’s done well is Katy Clark.  She was a leading light in Aberdeen University’s Labour Party and since 2005 she’s been Labour Member of Parliament for North Ayrshire and Arran.  When I co-edited the student newspaper, Katy came to our attention when she led protests against Aberdeen University’s then-rector, the former Scottish National Party MP Hamish Watt.  At a debate during Freshers’ Week, Watt had made some supposedly-jovial comments in which he compared the young female students who’d just arrived on campus to ‘unbroken fillies’.  Now, while Watt undoubtedly deserved to be strung up by his sexist testicles for saying that, I didn’t enjoy having to speak to Katy about the incident.  I found her to be intense, one-note, lacking in personality and devoid of humour.  Actually, looking at what I’ve just written about Lord Stephen Carter of Barnes, a theme seems to be emerging in that regard.


To be fair to Katy Clark – and unlike Murphy and Carter, whose careers have been a process of selling out and shifting to the right – I will say that she’s stuck by the left-wing principles she had as a university student.  During her career as an MP, she’s voted against the introduction of ID cards, against the renewal of the Trident missile system and, recently, against the bombing of Isis in Iraq.  That said, with views like hers, I don’t know how she can bear to continue as a member of the modern-day Labour Party.


On the rightward end of the spectrum, meanwhile, I should mention someone else from my old alma mater – Murdo Fraser, who’s now Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Mid-Scotland and Fife region and was once the deputy leader of the Scottish Conservative Party.  That Murdo became a big hitter in Tory circles surprised me because he’d seemed an unprepossessing character in Aberdeen.  The detail I remember most about him was that he wore a Glasgow Rangers scarf 24/7, to the point where I wondered if it’d been stitched on.  A good friend who knew him a little, the late Finlay McLean, told me once that he had ‘the personality of a deep-frozen Cyberman’.  Then again, for an ambitious politician, not having a personality seems to be part of the course.


Murdo’s political ascendancy happened despite the fact that he was once associated with the notorious Federation of Conservative Students, an organisation that by the 1980s had become more right-wing than the Conservative Party of which it was the university branch.  At the time the Conservative Party was led by Margaret Thatcher, so being more right-wing than her was quite an achievement.  In 1986, after a string of well-publicised incidents – wherein FCS members had abused ethnic-minority staff at student bars, brayed their support for the Contras in El Salvador, sang the Special AKA song Free Nelson Mandela with the words changed to ‘Hang Nelson Mandela’, insulted former, more moderate Conservative prime ministers like Ted Heath and Harold Macmillan and so on – this extreme-minded group was disbanded by Tory Party Chairman Norman Tebbit.  And yes, being disbanded by Norman Tebbit for being too extreme was quite an achievement too.


The FCS at Aberdeen University were particularly obnoxious.  Among other things, they had a penchant for insulting gay people and taunting them about AIDS.  (The more I think back to those un-PC days of Hamish Watt and the FCS, the more I’m reminded of L.P. Hartley’s famous quote: “The past is a different country.  They do things differently there.”)  The start of my term as newspaper editor coincided with an incident wherein a bunch of FCS students invaded and disrupted a health-and-welfare talk being given to an audience of new students.  Their motive for disrupting the talk seemed to be because it covered safe sex for gay as well as straight students and was therefore, somehow, encouraging AIDS.


Later, after the newspaper had published an article about the society for gay students, Gay Soc, we received a letter from one deranged FCS member accusing us of furthering the interests of ‘the plague rats of the 20th century’.  We published his letter in the belief that by allowing the FCS to air their views publicly, we were letting people see what arseholes they were.  Give them enough rope and they’d hang themselves, we felt.  However, at least one gay friend of mine was extremely upset that the letter had appeared in our newspaper.  Today, nearly 30 years on, I’d think twice about publishing it.


In Murdo Fraser’s defence, I’ll admit that he seemed aware of what a squad of bampots he was having to keep company with in the FCS.  He kept his mouth shut while the rest of them were being as offensively vocal as possible, and whenever I saw them strutting about the campus en masse he was the one who seemed to trail silently and reluctantly along at the back – sort of like Mr Blue in Reservoir Dogs.  Which I suppose was appropriate given his footballing allegiances.


Having dissed the Labour and the Conservative Parties, I suppose in the interests of balance I should say something about Aberdeen University’s 1980s Liberal Party – the Liberal Democrats as they are now.  The Liberals’ most visible representative was one Dan Falchikov who, with his excitable and eccentric manner and his striking dress sense (a slightly psychedelic, stripey, coloured jersy), possessed something that other people I’ve mentioned lacked: a personality.  And I think Dan was a genuinely well-meaning guy even if he wasn’t endowed with a great deal of common sense.  However, he was also an easy target for us unscrupulous hacks at the student newspaper and we spent an inordinate amount of time poking fun at him, calling him ‘Dan the Man’, ‘Desperate Dan’, ‘Dan, Dan the Liberal Man’ and (when he was particularly off-the-wall) ‘Dan F**k-me-off’.


Out of curiosity, I googled his name a while ago and discovered that he’s now a Liberal Democrat activist in the London constituency of Kingston-upon-Thames, where he’s engaged in a struggle to usurp the sitting MP, that alleged ‘green’ Tory Zac Goldsmith.  Also, in 2010, Dan was embroiled in controversy when he was overheard boasting on a train that he’d managed to ‘plant’ a story, a false story, in the Evening Standard newspaper about the Labour Party having plans to close Kingston Hospital.  Unbeknownst to Dan while he blabbed about this into a mobile phone, a train-passenger sitting nearby was none other than the journalist Kevin Maguire, political editor of the Daily Mirror.  Maguire not only tweeted about what he was overhearing but also sneaked a camera-phone picture of Dan and posted it online (http://order-order.com/2010/01/30/loose-lips-sink-ships/).  As a result of Maguire’s scoop, people in Kingston-upon-Thames now seem to regard Dan as the bad boy of local politics.


How could you, Dan?  Selling your soul to the political dark arts – I expected better of you.


By the way, Dan blogs at http://livingonwords.blogspot.com/. He regularly calls on the Liberal Democrats to dump Nick Clegg as their leader, which suggests that he has more sense than I’d credited him with.  Also, I like the youtube music-clips he sometimes sticks on the blog, so I think he has good musical sense too.


Although I’ve tried to make this account of it humorous, there were things I noticed about the world of student politics that I found seriously depressing.  They seemed to reinforce Douglas Adams’ famous comment in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that “it is a well-known and much lamented fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.”


I heard, for example, how two different candidates running for senior positions in the SRC, senior enough for the holders of such positions to get a year’s sabbatical from their courses, were given enthusiastic support by their classmates.  Indeed, those classmates even went out and campaigned on the candidates’ behalf – not because they thought they were any good, but because they detested them and wanted them to have a sabbatical so that they wouldn’t be in their classes for a year.


Also, shortly before I graduated, some nasty rumours circulated in the SRC building about one student politician making another one pregnant.  There wasn’t actually a pregnancy but this didn’t prevent two SRC people, from two different political parties, both of whom had axes to grind with the man involved, from approaching me and assuring me that it was true.  One person even swore that she’d seen the results of a pregnancy test.  Presumably, I was fed this false information in the hope that, as a student journalist, I’d spread the word to the detriment of the man’s reputation.  (I should point out that none of the people I’ve mentioned above were involved in this saga.)  This showed me that at least a few of the people operating in that building were backstabbing scumbags — scumbags who’d probably do very well if they ever became real politicians.


Nonetheless, there were some student politicians whom I liked and respected.  Indeed, if I ever bumped into the likes of Graeme Whiteside, Tim Morrison, Alan Strain or Stuart Black again on the High Street of Old Aberdeen, I’d invite them into the St Machar Bar and buy them a pint.  However, with regard to those people, there’s an important point to remember.  None of the decent sorts, to the best of my knowledge, pursued their political careers any further than university.  They stayed well clear of the scumbag world of real politics.  Good for them.


*These tuition fees do not apply in Scotland.  The 2008 Graduate Endowment Abolition (Scotland) Bill re-established the concept of free higher education there.


Sri Lankan horror


(c) Chandrika Gadiewasam & Nadeesha Paulis 


A while ago, I picked up a copy of Water in my Grave and other Horror Stories from Sri Lanka in a bookstore in Colombo.  Now that I’ve read it, I’m not quite sure how I’d describe its contents.  The foreword claims that it’s a collection of “stories of the paranormal based on tales gleaned from persons relating their actual experiences”, but the stories feel more assorted than that.  Some appear to be fictional ones, dreamed up and put on paper by the authors.  Other read like creepy folkloric stories that’ve been passed down from generation to generation.  Others again have the ring of being anecdotes told by individuals who believe they’ve experienced the supernatural in real life.  And there’s a few that come across as being those urban myths so beloved of school playgrounds and Internet forums.


Not that it matters, because on the whole I found Water in my Grave, which was written by the Colombo-based mother-and-daughter team of Chandrika Gadiewasam and Nadeesha Paulis, an enjoyable and informative read.  The assorted tones of the stories give the book a pleasing degree of variety and they allow you to view the Sri Lankan culture that forms their backdrop from an interesting range of angles.


For instance, Tovil for Soma, Let the Dead Live and the fabulously titled The Baby Twisting Nightmare of Modera involve possessions and hauntings – not by demons or anonymous evil spirits, but by the souls of deceased family members who have axes to grind with the still-living.  Family strife and conflict seem to be as common in Sri Lanka as they are everywhere else.  Called in to deal with the supernatural goings-on in these stories are such Sri Lankan professionals as ‘light readers’ or fortune tellers (anjamankaraya) and ‘demon-priests’, the extremely energetic and expensive local exorcists (kattadiya) who come dressed “usually in a white sarong and red coat type costume… sacrificing chickens, dancing around the fire, breathing fire, talking in local filth to intimidate the entity from leaving the human host.”


Meanwhile, Legend of the Devil Dog is a Sri Lankan version of the Black Shuck legends that are found in East Anglia.  It involves a demon called Mahosona, who “is so fearsome and powerful that his mere presence causes people to faint and then become violently sick immediately.”  On the other hand, Night of the Black Buffalo is impressively inexplicable and weird – it’s like something David Lynch would write, if he was interested in south-Asian livestock.


Other stories show a less folkloric and more modern and cynical Sri Lanka.  How I Bought a Haunted House is narrated by a figure who’s become a scourge of contemporary societies, Western and Eastern – an estate agent.  “(T)he best thing is that in the real-estate sector,” he notes, “properties appreciate with time, whether they are haunted or not.”  Restless Cadaver, set on a campus and dealing with the mistreatment of dead bodies, suggests that medical students in the Sri Lanka can be as obnoxious as they are in the West.  And the major event of recent Sri Lankan history, the Civil War, overshadows both Quiet Soul and A Different Kind of Phantom.  The former is a sedate but sad ghost story, the latter a tale about a lost limb that also draws on Buddhist beliefs about reincarnation for its raison d’être.


Elsewhere, Zombie Bus to Purgatory does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s a gleefully schlocky story that calls to mind the American EC Comics, like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, of the 1950s.  The Feud employs a neat little back-story – involving two rival shaman and a demonic assassin – to explain why a particular, desolate plot of land seems to be haunted by “what looked like a decaying body of a small child scuttling about.”  And Hospital Hell manages to be both a gruesome ghost story and an indictment of healthcare in a society where corruption is common, where “the ward sister sells the pharmaceuticals and painkillers she pinches” and “the rations have been cut in half so that the kitchen staff can smuggle out the salmon tins.”


The book is a little rough-edged in its English.  In places it could do with tighter punctuation and some of the idiomatic and clichéd phrases could have been pruned out – the story A Night at River Green is a particular offender with such gems as ‘thank my lucky stars’, ‘what have you’, ‘the girl of my dreams’, ‘Hell hath no fury’, ‘batten down the hatches’, ‘make our bed and lie in it’ and ‘long and hard’.  Mind you, this roughness works in the book’s favour because it gives the stories an added feel of authenticity.  By making them less slick, the occasional artlessness of the prose makes the stories seem more real.


At the book’s end, a handy glossary by co-author Nadeesha Paulis – who, by the way, also helps out with a Sri Lankan dog-adoption agency that had, by late 2013, found homes for about 700 stray canines – fills the foreign reader in on some demonic creatures from Sri Lankan myth and legend.  These include Kalu Kumaraya (an incubus preying on young village girls); Mala Mohini (a female phantom seen eating a baby “with blood drooling down her sari and intestines drooping down her chin”); and Kinduri, an apparition who wears the guise of a pregnant women and goes around knocking on doors of houses – “If you’re a woman,” notes Paulis, “you’re safe.  But if you’re a man opening the door to her knock, I’m sorry but she’ll probably kill you…  She just doesn’t like men.”


When you’re in a new culture, a good way to get insight into that culture is to read a selection of traditional ghost and horror stories from the place – finding out what makes people scared and finding out how they like to scare others give you some appreciation of their psychology.  Water in my Grave performs that task admirably with Sri Lanka.


We are not worthy


From therumpus.net


I suppose your enjoyment of the recent documentary-film 20,000 Days on Earth will depend on your opinion of its subject, Nick Cave: the Antipodean singer, songwriter, musician, novelist, scriptwriter, co-founder of the Birthday Party and leader and frontman of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.


If you regard him as the coolest Australian on the planet, if not the coolest human being on the planet, then 20,000 Days on Earth is definitely for you.  If you’re less enamoured with Cave and his talents, you might conceivably regard the film as a pile of self-obsessed, self-aggrandising, self-indulgent and up-its-own-arse bollocks.  Happily, I’m a member of the first camp and so I really liked the film.  And in this post I’ll be singing its praises.


20,000 Days on Earth, which is directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard (who co-wrote the script with Cave), purports to show the events in one day – presumably the 20,000th day – in the life of its subject as, mostly, he potters around his adopted hometown of Brighton.  However, the truth is clearly being bent here.  For example, during the film, we see Cave performing his songs, old ones like Stagger Lee and new ones like Higgs Boson Blues, in venues as far away as the Sydney Opera House.  Now even someone with as iron a constitution as old Nick has would be hard-pressed to jet from Brighton to Sydney, sing Jubilee Street to an adoring audience, and jet back again in the space of one day; and then manage, with nary a grumble or yawn, to sit on the sofa with his two young sons, munch some pizza and enjoy a late-evening showing of Scarface with Al Pacino (“Say hello to my little friend!”), which is what happens near the end of the film.  No, obviously, artistic licence is being deployed.


Indeed, it’s fun to speculate how much of 20,000 Days on Earth is actually real and not artistic licence – some of it, a little bit of it or none of it at all?  We see Cave clamber out of bed in the morning and go to the bathroom, whilst getting a brief glimpse of Susie Bick, the model who is Nick’s missus.  Later, we see him work both in his study and in the studio.  And we also see him meet up and chat with the hirsute Warren Ellis, who’s been a Bad Seed since 1995 and has also collaborated with Cave on movie scores like The Proposition (2005), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), The Road (2009) and Lawless (2012).  But even this seemingly ordinary stuff is suspect.


The study where Cave does his writing, for example, looks rather too bohemian and glamorous, rather too much like where we’d imagine him to be doing his writing.  He’s banging away at an old, manual typewriter, surrounded by stacks of books while pictures of iconic people (Elvis, Marilyn, etc.) adorn the walls behind him.  Actually, you can see a picture of him at work in this too-good-to-be-true study on the movie poster.


(c) Corniche Pictures / BFI / Film4


(I saw 20,000 Days on Earth with a mate at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, in south London; and when we compared notes afterwards I declared that I wanted to have a study exactly like the one Nick Cave has in the film.  My mate, however, wanted to have a house exactly like the one we see Warren Ellis living in – a pretty little structure located on a scenic stretch of the south English coast.  Though I don’t know if his enthusiasm for the house extended to the wax replica of a severed hand that we glimpse lying on Warren’s kitchen table.)


Much of 20,000 Days on Earth, though, is obviously staged – in particular, the sequences that are designed to make Cave open up and talk about his past life, his hopes and fears, his artistic inspirations and so on.  There are scenes where he visits a psychiatrist and talks candidly about his father and about what scares him most – which, without giving too much away, is something that’s understandably frightening for anyone with creative urges.  There are scenes set in an imaginary archive devoted to Cave’s past life, where he explains the significance of photographs and other artifacts to the staff-members.  And there are some slightly-ghostly sequences where Cave drives around in his car and people from his past simply materialise in his passenger seat and talk to him for a while.


Among these people-from-the-past are the Berlin musician Blixa Bargeld, who founded the industrial band Einsturzende Neubauten and who served as guitarist and backing vocalist in the Bad Seeds from 1983 to 2003; the somehow-inevitable Kylie Minogue (who sang a duet with Cave on the 1995 single Where the Wild Roses Grow, a song that culminates with Cave smashing in Kylie’s face with a rock); and actor Ray Winstone.  I was a bit puzzled about why Ray Winstone should end up in the film until my mate pointed out to me that he and Cave had worked together on the excellent 2005 Australian-western The Proposition.


Informative though these in-car conversations are, I’d have liked a couple of other past Cave-collaborators to turn up too.  It’d have been fascinating, for instance, to hear him have a blether with P.J. Harvey, who sang with him on the 1996 single Henry Lee.  Mind you, for Cave, that might’ve been a little too painful – in the mid-1990s, Cave and Harvey had a brief but passionate affair and when Harvey called it off, supposedly, Cave was so upset that he wrote his next album about her, 1997’s The Boatman’s Call.  (I’ve heard one cynic describe it as The Cave-man’s Bawl.)   And I’m sure if an appearance had been made by ex-Pogue Shane McGowan, with whom Cave recorded a cover version of What a Wonderful World in 1992, the resulting conversation would have been entertaining, if not exactly structured.


While we’re on the subject of omissions, I was slightly disappointed too that no mention was made of Cave’s career as a novelist.  1989 saw the publication of And the Ass Saw the Angel, while twenty years later he wrote a second novel, The Death of Bunny Munro.  In some ways the novels are as different as chalk and cheese, one being a Gothic epic set in the 1930s / 1940s American south, the other being a contemporary tale set in Brighton.  In other ways, particularly in their themes of self-delusion and self-destruction, they’re very similar.


All in all, however, if you’re an admirer of Nick Cave, you should find 20,000 Days on Earth an honourable attempt to do justice to the remarkable life and talents of its subject.  It gives you enough new insights into him to keep you satisfied while not – and this is important – stripping away too much of the mystique that makes him what he is.  And incidentally, though I’ve never been to Brighton and though I’ve heard mixed reports about the modern-day state of the town, the final sequence where Cave stands on the nocturnal seafront, looking out to sea, makes the place look impressively phantasmagorical.


A quick word of recommendation for Brixton’s Ritzy Cinema.  It seems to do a good job of combining the features of a normal, commercial cinema with the features of a specialised, art-house one.  And last year, after Margaret Thatcher died, it gained some notoriety when local people celebrating the Iron Lady’s departure climbed up its façade and rearranged the letters on its hoarding – so that instead of spelling out the titles of the films currently showing, they spelled out the message MARGARET THATCHER’S DEAD LOL.


Now that’s what I like.  A cinema that serves the needs of its local community in all sorts of ways.


Time waits for no tree



I don’t know how long exactly this oak tree has been growing at the corner of my Dad’s lawn – which before he built a bungalow in the vicinity was actually his farm’s front paddock.  I seem to remember him telling me he reckoned it was 300 years old at least and it certainly figures in paintings of the farm that were done several generations ago.


Alas, just as time and tide wait for no man, they don’t wait for any tree.  Someone noticed a little while ago that a huge crack had appeared down its trunk and when my brother invited a tree surgeon to have a look at it, he declared that he’d never seen an oak in such a bad – and dangerous – condition before.



So for safety reasons this poor old tree will have to be chopped down before it falls down.  And if this coming winter is as stormy as the previous one was, the falling-down scenario might be only a couple of months away.


It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… a tram


Here’s something I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever see – one of the Edinburgh trams that finally became operational a couple of months ago.  The other week I was briefly back in Scotland and, after arriving at Edinburgh Airport, at the western end of the new tramline, I decided to take a tram to Princes Street, near the line’s eastern end.



I’ve written about the Edinburgh tram saga before – about how the project was announced in 2008 and was supposed to be completed in 2011 but took twice as long; how its budget was originally supposed to be 375 million pounds but eventually crept up to a billion; how the whole thing became bogged down in arguments between contractors and Transport Initiatives, the project’s management company, who were embarrassingly ‘relieved of their duties’ in 2011; and how plans to have the trams trundle all the way to Newhaven, north of Leith, were trimmed back to a much shorter route between the airport and York Place, off the end of Queen Street.


All told, the Edinburgh trams scheme was, to quote Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, an omni-shambles.  During the run-up to the Scottish referendum on independence, I saw on the websites of (mainly English) newspapers many posts from readers who held up the trams fiasco as conclusive proof that the Scots were way too inept to ever successfully run their own affairs – although the Scottish National Party had always opposed the project while the Unionist parties in Edinburgh Council were the ones who’d pushed ahead with it.


But now that Edinburgh has the things, and leaving aside the debate about whether or not they were needed in the first place, how do they actually measure up?  Well, firstly, when I stepped out of the airport terminal building, I was surprised at how far I had to walk to find one.  The airport tram-stop is some way beyond the embarkation point for the shuttle bus that runs to the city centre, and I suspect that the majority of folk who land there, laden with luggage, will continue to take the bus because the trams are just too distant.  Also, I wasn’t impressed by the fact that the ticket machines at the tram-stop don’t accept notes and don’t give change.  And for a five pounds a ride to Princes Street, it’s a tad pricey.


For a good part of the journey, as the tram winds its way through the industrial park / retail park / car park periphery of western Edinburgh and halts at places like the Gyle Centre and Ingliston Park and Ride, the cityscape outside is so anonymous that you feel you could be anywhere.  It isn’t until Murrayfield Rugby Stadium looms ahead that you remember you’re in the Scottish capital.  And it isn’t until after that, at Haymarket Station, where finally the tramline enters the middle of the street and the stately architecture of the city centre starts to scroll past the windows, that it finally hits you.  You’re in – wow! – an Edinburgh tram.


Here’s a photo of the stop I got off at on Princes Street.  That columned structure visible in the distance beyond the end of the tram is the unfinished National Monument on Calton Hill.  The fact that the city fathers never got around to completing the monument – they gave up on its construction in 1829 – have led some people to dub it ‘Scotland’s disgrace’.  Its presence in this picture alongside the tram is coincidental.



Welcome to Cronenbergia


(c) The Times


The other evening I watched Maps to the Stars, the latest offering from Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg.  And it occurred to me that the grisly and disturbing things that 30 or 40 years ago were safely locked inside Cronenberg’s head, and only appeared outside that head whenever he made a movie, are today loose in the world.  They now walk among us.  Even worse, they’re now regarded as normal.


Following his takes on corporate power (2012’s Cosmopolis) and psychiatry (2011’s A Dangerous Method), Maps to the Stars sees Cronenberg turn his baleful and probing eye on Hollywood.  It’s the tale of a psychotherapist, played by John Cusack, who treats his wealthy actor and actress clients to a no-holds-barred and barking-mad form of self-help therapy; the psychotherapist’s wife, played by Olivia Williams, who manages the career of their movie-star son; the son himself, played by Evan Bird, who’s a ghastly pubescent Justin Bieber clone; and a fading and deranged Hollywood star, played by Julianne Moore, who when she isn’t receiving treatment from Cusack is being tormented by memories of her deceased, abusive Joan Crawford / Mommie Dearest-style mother.


The lives of all four are turned inside-out and upside-down when Mia Wasikowska arrives in town one morning on the Greyhound bus from Florida.  I won’t describe what Wasikowska, playing an enigmatic young lady who conceals extensive burn-scars beneath her long black gloves, eventually does to the four other protagonists.  I’ll just say that most of what follows can blamed on Carrie Fisher.


The horribleness of Hollywood has long been a popular topic, both in novels like Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust (1939) and Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park (1955) and in movies from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) up to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).  Nonetheless, there’s something fresh in seeing Cronenberg take a scalpel to it with his customary clinicalness.  But what I found most interesting, and more than a little disturbing, was seeing how elements that once seemed to belong only in his grotesque ‘body-horror’ movies of the 1970s and 1980s have now crossed not just into mainstream culture, but into mainstream reality.


There’s the fruitcake psychotherapy peddled by Cusack – and it’s surely no more fruitcake than the self-help that’s extolled in every second book now on sale in W.H. Smith’s – that brings to mind the ‘psychoplasmics’ treatment practised by Oliver Reed in The Brood (1980).  Admittedly, Cusack’s method is probably a little less severe than Dr Ollie’s one, which induced Samantha Eggar to spawn a squad of homicidal mutant toddlers who then set about attacking and murdering anyone who’d caused her mental anguish: her parents, her daughter, her ex-husband, her ex-husband’s potential new girlfriend.  Meanwhile, the ghastly child-star played by Bird and his equally-ghastly friends – who’re too young to know what a ‘yuppie’ is but are sexualised far beyond their years – call to mind the infected humans, including children and adolescents, in Shivers (1974); turned into slavering sex maniacs by artificially-created parasites.


Even the luxury home of Cusack and Williams – which we learn has been drooled over by various feature writers from various expensive and pretentious home-interiors magazines – is a fearsomely bare and oppressive structure of glass and concrete, calling to mind the cavernous, soulless clinics, condominiums and headquarters where Cronenberg’s mad-scientist villains used to do their dirty work: Reed’s Somafree Institute in The Brood, Starliner Towers in Shivers, the Keloid Institute in Rabid (1977) and ConSec HQ in Scanners (1981).


And early on, there’s a black joke about AIDS – a disease that, had it appeared in a Cronenberg movie in the 1970s, would have been dismissed by the critics as yet another of his distasteful, sex-obsessed, science-fictional gimmicks.


One echo of Cronenberg’s earlier work that’s slightly unfortunate, though, is the weakness of the leading male characters in Maps to the Stars.  Back in the day, Cronenberg rarely allowed actors like Frank Read in Rabid, Art Hindle in The Brood or Stephen Lack in Scanners, or indeed, Jude Law in the more recent eXistenZ (1999), to exhibit much depth.  Compared to a barnstorming performance by Julianne Moore and a hypnotic one by Wasikowska, Cusack’s turn as the film’s villain is fairly two-dimensional.  He’s entertaining enough in a pantomime way, but he’s two-dimensional nonetheless.


Meanwhile, Robert Pattinson drifts in and out of the film as an aspiring actor / writer who has to chauffeur his more successful peers around in a black limousine as a way of making ends meet; and with his distant tone and manner, he fails to make much of an impression.  In fact, other than provide a rather half-hearted love interest for Wasikowska, it’s difficult to see what Pattinson’s doing in the film at all.  Perhaps Cronenberg wanted to slip in a statement about the fickleness of the big-business world.  Pattinson, of course, played the mega-wealthy mogul in Cosmopolis, who ran his global corporation from the back of a massive and extravagantly high-tech limousine.  In Maps to the Stars, he’s been reduced in status and fortune to the point where he has to earn a living by driving one.


That said, I have to admit that there’s one impressive male performance in Maps to the Stars, which is given by Evan Bird as the evil-little-bastard child star.  What’s galling about this character is that by the end of the film Bird, and Cronenberg, have actually managed to make us feel a smidgeon of sympathy for the diminutive shit.


Yes, I still expect Cronenberg’s films to be perverse.  However, feeling sorry for Justin Bieber was one perversion I just didn’t expect.