The Defence Colony



As its name suggests, the Defence Colony district of Delhi has military connections.  It was built in the 1960s as a residential area for retired senior officers in the Indian services.  Today, it has shed that military exclusivity and become a well-heeled neighbourhood where all sorts of big-shots in the Indian business and entertainment worlds have their homes.  These include, for example, the former swimming champion, former Miss India, former Bollywood actress and current Congress Party politician, the versatile Nafisa Ali; and a business dynasty whom the district’s Wikipedia entry describes as ‘the Kool Brew / Coca Cola-Campa Cola family’.  Well, if the Kool Brew / Coca Cola-Campa Cola family live there, it’s got to be posh.


Much too posh for the likes of me, of course, but during my recent sojourn in Delhi, my employers saw fit to put me up in a hotel called the Colonel’s Retreat, situated in the Colony’s south-eastern corner.  So on a couple of occasions I went out and explored the locality, armed with my trusty notebook and trusty camera.  Here’s a report on what I found.


Because of the era in which it was founded, many Colony buildings have a 1960s aesthetic that now looks pleasantly retro.  You see an airy but simultaneously hulking geometry about the place, as if it had been designed by a cubist painter; with lots of blocks, squares, boxes, slots, grills, grooves and straight-edged, right-angled terraces, tiers and crenellations.  The buildings are often enclosed by thick garden walls, latticed railings and heavy gates with fancy ironwork and brick-or-concrete gateposts topped with decorative lamps.  Outside those gates in the evenings, uniformed guards slump back in plastic chairs while electric fans whirr and crank to and fro beside them.  It all looks pleasant but it feels subtly fortified.



The district has a fortified feeling as a whole.  It seems to be bounded by unrelenting perimeter walls, railings and fences and has a limited number of entrances through which the outside world can gain access.  These entrances are equipped with gates or, in the case of the Varun Marg road that slices through the middle of it, with mobile police barriers.  I suppose this is unsurprising given that its original occupants were former bigwigs in the Indian military, though now it simply feels like a particularly big, gated community inhabited by rich folk.  (The military association lingers on, mind you.  You don’t have to wander far before you notice names on the brass gate-plaques like ‘Colonel This’, ‘Brigadier That’ or ‘Admiral The Other’.)


Most of the gates seem to be closed and padlocked at around 11.00 each evening by the local neighbourhood watches.  I was told that these roads are normal city thoroughfares and the neighbourhood-watch guys actually don’t have any right to seal them off at night, but they do so anyway.  At least I didn’t have any difficulty getting past the gates nearest to my hotel if I stayed out of the district after 11.00 – the section of wall next to them had collapsed and I just clambered over the top of it.


Delhi is a more spacious and greener city than its reputation suggests, but it feels especially spacious and green here.  The streets are tree-lined and the leaves cast a cool, healthy shade.  No wonder small, striped-back squirrels are constantly scooting up and down the street-side tree-trunks and squadrons of bats flap around at dusk, their shadows crossing the ground in black, squirming V-shapes.  However, not every street is so verdant.  Between the ‘proper’ streets, at the backs of the residences, there runs a parallel system of service alleyways.  In comparison with the official street-system, these alleyways are narrow, bare, functional-looking and sometimes scruffy.



The Defence Colony is easy to walk around but not-so-easy to locate an address in.  It’s divided into blocks, each with its own grid of streets, but the blocks have been assigned letters and the streets are identified only by their building numbers.  Twice, lost auto-rickshaws drew up beside me so that their passengers could ask me – someone who hardly looked like a native – for directions.



In the middle of the district is the Defence Colony Market, which isn’t really a market but a collection of shops, boutiques, restaurants, fast-food joints and even the odd bar.  It was handily located for my hotel, but I found the market a bit gaudy and soulless.  The bars I tried were expensive and it was cheaper to eat in one of the family restaurants and order some alcohol there.  Though the downside of that policy was that I occasionally had to endure the caterwauling of some badly behaved little kid.



However, perhaps the Colony’s most striking feature is a long, narrow ribbon of parkland that bisects it from north to south, hemmed in on either side by the Chetna Marg and Divya Marg roads.  The park is actually an artificial construct of soil and grass sitting on top of a concrete lid, which covers a giant drain – the nallah.  The locals seem to appreciate this strip of park / concrete-and-grass-sewer-roof, for I often saw folk walking, jogging and playing cricket on it.  But I have to say that the giant drain doesn’t seem to have been that successfully capped.  There are places along it where the smell of corruption from underneath is still faintly discernible.



In fact, the capping of the nallah took place only recently.  Historically, its filth and stench were the source of countless complaints from the Defence Colony’s well-to-do residents.  I find it amazing that such a posh and desirable district of the city could have had a thing like that, a Stygian channel of rottenness, oozing through the middle of it.  And if you walk to the southern edge of the Colony, there’s a spot where the concrete / parkland covering terminates and for a few yards the sewer is exposed to the sky (before disappearing again under a busy expressway that runs past there).  The smell is horrific, evoking my worst memories of stinky things: diarrhoea, rotten eggs, slurry pits, decomposing carcasses and un-cleaned animal-sheds at the height of summer.



Nehru’s house



The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library occupies the house that was once the residence of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and its leader during the first 17 years of its independence.  It’s located among the tree-lined boulevards and walled-off properties just south of the Indian Parliament building.  On the Sunday that I went to visit the museum and library (and for good measure there’s a planetarium on its grounds too), the parliament seemed to be receiving a visit from some international big-shot.  This meant the roads there had been sealed off to traffic, to ensure that the big-shot’s cavalcade of limousines and police-cars could pass in and out of the area in privacy and security.  For some reason, though, I emerged from the exit of a nearby Metro station and entered the neighbourhood without noticing any guards or cordons.  Unaware of what was happening, I assumed the streets here were so quiet because it was Sunday afternoon.


I hadn’t seen a part of Delhi so devoid of traffic before.  So I concluded that if you wanted to go for a stroll in the capital, Sunday was the day to do it.


In the absence of traffic and people, those boulevards had been taken over by the local macaque monkey population.  Nonchalantly, they wandered across the asphalt where normally there’d be a thunderous procession of vehicles.  Whole monkey-families, adult males and females and wee monkey-bairns, were happily mucking about on the roads.  Along one boulevard, where railings enclosed some sort of military compound with rows of barracks, those railings were covered in monkeys, dangling, swinging, climbing and generally monkeying around.


When I arrived at the entrance gates to the Nehru Memorial Museum, I finally realised what was going on.  The cavalcade must have been scheduled to pass by there because police cars and motorcycles were parked on either side of the road.  Yellow metal barriers with castor-wheels and signs saying DELHI POLICE had been trundled across the lane heading into the Parliament district and a huge line of stalled cars, buses and auto-rickshaws extended back from it, into the distance.  Disconcertingly, the police didn’t seem to want any pedestrians out on the pavements either, so they’d locked the museum gates even though it was doing business today.  As a result, a dense crowd of people who’d been visiting the museum, including parents with young children, had gathered against the inside of the gates — surprised, annoyed and upset to find that, having concluded their visit, they now couldn’t get out of the place.  They looked like inmates in a prison camp.


After I’d waited for a while, a policeman decided it wouldn’t do any harm to unlock one of the gates, open it a crack and let me into the premises.  However, the delay meant that I missed the English-language tour of the planetarium, which began at 3.00 PM.  So I won’t be saying anything about the planetarium here.



The house – originally known as Teen Murti House, designed by Robert Tor Russel and built by Edwin Lutyens in 1929-1930 – served as the Indian leader’s home for 16 years until his death in 1964.  Thereafter, it was turned into a museum in honour of his memory.  I liked the museum but I have to say that its organisation is pretty ramshackle.  Nehru’s story is presented in a long series of wall-mounted newspaper articles, letters and photographs but there’s no attempt to provide an overarching narrative that links these disparate bits of information together.  You have to piece the story together yourself as you follow the trail of personal and journalistic fragments from room to room.  And the trail takes a torturous route through the mansion’s numerous rooms.  It’s all-too-easy to take a wrong turning, enter the wrong room and miss a chunk of his life story – so that one moment it’s 1920 and the non-cooperation movement has just got going, but then the next moment it’s the late 1940s and suddenly Louis and Edwina Mountbatten are in town.


One thing I hadn’t known was that the young Nehru had links for a time with the esoteric philosophy of Theosophy, popularised by Helena Blavatsky in the late 19th century.  His boyhood tutor Ferdinand T. Brooks got him interested in it and he was initiated into the Theosophical Society at the age of 13 by the versatile Annie Besant, a friend of the family who wasn’t just a Theosophist but also a writer, socialist, women’s rights activist, supporter of home-rule for Ireland and India, and member (and later president) of the Indian National Congress.  Here’s a wall-display that’s dedicated to her.



During my wanderings in the mansion I saw a great many bookshelves filled with a great many books, which obviously made me warm to their late owner.  There’s also a chance to see the bedroom-cum-study once used by Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, who of course was no small presence in 20th-century Indian history herself.


Having viewed the museum, I made my way back to the Metro Station.  By this point, the visiting big-shot’s cavalcade had been and gone, the barricades had been removed and the traffic in the neighbourhood was back to rumbling normality.  This had forced the monkeys off the roads but they were still brazen about their use of the pavements.  Just before the station I encountered a bunch of them ranged across the pavement and strutting along intimidatingly like a Simian re-enactment of the opening-titles scene of Reservoir Dogs.


Later, an Indian colleague told me that monkeys have become a great nuisance in and around the Indian Parliament.  And according to an article I found on the Guardian website they’re notorious in the building for their habits of ‘terrorising senior bureaucrats, snatching files and stealing food’:


So there you have it.  The Indian Parliament is overrun with monkeys.  Unlike, of course, any other parliament in the world.



Overrated films


(c) Columbia EMI Warners


The Guardian recently ran a series of features where its resident team of film reviewers wrote about the film they believe is the most overrated one of all time.  We had Peter Walker writing about There will be Blood (2007), Alex Hess about The Dark Knight (2008), Stuart Heritage about Pulp Fiction (1994) and the spoiler-crazy Peter Bradshaw about Billy Liar (1963).  Perhaps the bravest man of all, though, was Xan Brooks, who wrote a piece claiming that everybody in the world (apart from him) had got it wrong about John Ford’s The Searchers (1956).


This, as they say, got me thinking.  What movies would I accuse of being wildly overrated by critics and audiences?  Well, off the top of my head, I can think of a few.  Here they are:


The Graduate (1967), directed by Mike Nichols

Barbarella (1968), directed by Roger Vadim

The Italian Job (1969), directed by Peter Collinson

Planet of the Apes (1968), directed by Franklin J. Schaffer

Silent Running (1972), directed by Douglas Trumbull

The Deer Hunter (1978), directed by Michael Cimino

The Empire Strikes Back (1980), directed by Irv Kershner

Chariots of Fire (1981), directed by Hugh Hudson

Poltergeist (1982), directed by Tobe Hooper

Ghostbusters (1984), directed by Ivan Reitman

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), directed by John Hughes

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), directed by Barry Levinson

Beetlejuice (1988), directed by Tim Burton

Born on the Fourth of July (1989), directed by Oliver Stone

Batman Returns (1992), directed by Tim Burton

The Remains of the Day (1993), directed by James Ivory

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), directed by Mike Newell

Mulholland Drive (2001), directed by David Lynch

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), directed by Wes Anderson

Morvern Callar (2002), directed by Lynne Ramsay

Zombieland (2009), directed by Rueben Fleischer

The Hangover (2009), directed by Todd Philips


Actually, I feel guilty about topping that list with The Graduate, whose director Mike Nichols died just the other day.  But I could never fathom the film’s sudden change of gears wherein Dustin Hoffman stops moping over Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) and starts moping over her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross).  There’s also the issue of the film’s musical soundtrack.  Much of your tolerance of The Graduate depends on your tolerance of Simon and Garfunkel.  And my tolerance of them is about as high as my tolerance of Ebola.


The Graduate is classed as a comedy and there are plenty of those on my overrated-movie list.  At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, I have to admit that many film comedies fail to make me laugh.  I find it even more of a turnoff when I get the impression that a film – its writer, director and performers – are desperately signalling to the audience: “Hey!  This is a comedy!  We’re being really funny here!  Laugh!  Come on, laugh!”  As my Dad has said more than once, “I can’t stand a man who laughs at his own jokes.”


Barbarella and The Italian Job are examples of a comic sub-genre I particularly despise: the would-be cool, would-be zany, definitely-is smug swinging-1960s comedy.  Yes, I know the ending of The Italian Job with those three Minis whizzing around Rome is brilliant, but the earlier stuff where Michael Caine struts his groovy stuff about swinging-1960s London just makes me wince.


Meanwhile, I managed to crack a smile twice during Ghostbusters.  On both occasions Bill Murray had just opened his mouth and said something properly funny.  And Murray’s shuffling cameo is about the only thing that amused me during that inexplicably-lauded spoof on walking dead movies, Zombieland.  So here’s a lesson for moviemakers.  If your comedy film doesn’t actually have any comedy in it, parachute in Bill Murray and then everyone in the world (apart from me) will think it’s hilarious.


A couple of popular comedies I find especially despicable.  The Hangover has an amusing premise, one I can identify with from past experience – waking up after a night on the town with no memory of what you did but with plenty of incriminating evidence about what you might have done – but the subsequent guest appearance by convicted rapist Mike Tyson, whom the script assures us is a ‘nice guy’, is repellent.  (With gruesome irony, it transpires that the protagonists weren’t just drunk when they had the collective memory blackout: they’d been drugged with roofies, aka flunitrazepam, aka the ‘date-rape’ drug.)


Meanwhile, the moral of that smug, oh-so-1980s comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off seems to be that if you’re young, cocky, good-looking and financially privileged, you can get away with doing anything.  And if you wreck a Ferrari belonging to the bullying father of your dweeby, less-advantaged pal, it’s the pal who’ll have to go home, face the father and take the blame.  (No wonder Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is said to be a favourite film of Simon Cowell.)


(c) Universal


Moving from comedy to science fiction, I could never understand the respect people feel for the original Planet of the Apes and the love people feel for Douglas Trumbull’s touchy-feely eco-fable Silent Running.  The premises of both movies are deeply illogical.  And if a filmmaker’s trying to convince me that the fantastical, science-fictional world being presented onscreen is real, then he or she had better get the underlying logic right.


In Planet of the Apes, we’re supposed to believe that Charlton Heston doesn’t realise that he’s back on earth, albeit in the far future, until he discovers the Statue of Liberty buried up to her chest in sand.  But hold on, Chuck, doesn’t the fact that all the intelligent apes you’ve met before then are speaking fluent English give you a clue about where you are?  Meanwhile, the ending of Silent Running indicates that the earth’s last remaining flora and fauna can survive perfectly well in those little greenhouse-hemispheres if they’re untethered and floating free in space.  They don’t have to be attached to a fleet of spaceships, as they are at the beginning of the film.  Yet the film’s plot is set in motion by the spaceship company deciding that the spaceships are needed for commercial use and, for some unnecessary and illogical reason, the greenhouse-hemispheres are jettisoned and blown up.


Incidentally, The Empire Strikes Back makes my list too.  I suspect a lot of people admire it because, unlike the other films in the original Star Wars trilogy, it dares to finish on a downer: Darth Vader reveals himself as Luke Skywalker’s father and Han Solo is carted away by Boba Fett.  But I think it’s a badly structured film.  The first part, set on the ice planet, is great; but the last part, set on the cloud city, is rather flat and uninteresting.  I can’t understand why George Lucas didn’t start it on the cloud city, end it on the ice planet and retain the downer climax.


Looking at the list I see there’s a few 1970s / 1980s Vietnam movies on it – The Deerhunter (another film that ignored logic and yet the critics seemed not to notice), Good Morning, Vietnam and Born on the First of July.  I suspect they got so much praise at the time because the critics were delighted that Hollywood was finally daring to make serious films about the Vietnam War.  Thus, their shortcomings were overlooked.  I like Oliver Stone’s other movies from this period, but Fourth of July, a vehicle for the po-faced Tom Cruise, seems to me grimly earnest, in-your-face and humourless.  (I know Stone is often earnest and in-your-face, but he usually manages to be funny about it.)


Another key director from that era whose work I generally like is Tim Burton, but I just can’t understand why people rate his Beetlejuice and Batman ReturnsBeetlejuice is especially disappointing.  It has a good idea – two mellow ghosts inhabiting a house that becomes ‘haunted’ by a family of obnoxious living people – but when Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice character takes centre-stage it becomes an unoriginal mess, with its imagery borrowed from other movies like Gremlins (1984) and The Evil Dead II (1987).  And while Burton seems to plagiarise other people for Beetlejuice, I find David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive disappointing because in it he seems to plagiarise himself, using themes and ideas he’d already used in Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1990-1991) and Lost Highway (1997).


Some acclaimed films I don’t like not only because I think they’re overrated, but also because they created trends – a host of ghastly imitators and cash-ins followed in their wake.  That flashy-but-empty, special-effects-laden rollercoaster of a horror movie Poltergeist paved the way for a load of other horror movies that were, well, flashy-but-empty, special-effects-laden rollercoasters.  In British cinema, Four Weddings and a Funeral, a jolly-hockey-sticks romantic comedy set in a chocolate-box version of Britain and featuring a bunch of rich, posh characters led by Hugh Grant, soon caused a rash of jolly-hockey-sticks romantic comedies set in a chocolate-box version of Britain and featuring a bunch of rich, posh characters who were very often led by Hugh Grant.


Finally, I found a few films underwhelming because I’d already read the books on which they were based.  And no matter what the films’ merits were, they just didn’t measure up to the standard of the books.  That said, even if I hadn’t read Alan Warner’s novel Morvern Callar beforehand, I wouldn’t have enjoyed Lynne Ramsay’s pretentious, needlessly-humourless take on it in 2002.


And I feel sorry for poor old James Ivory.  Not only did his film version of The Remains of the Day fall short of Kazuo Ishiguro’s source novel, but it had the bad luck of being released around the same time as Martin Scorsese’s period movie The Age of Innocence (1993).  Compared to the astonishing amount of detail that Scorsese put into recreating the New York of the 1870s, which made you feel like you’d stepped through a time portal and really landed in a different era, the 1930s and 1940s world of The Remains of the Day just looked artificial and phony.  You could never shake off the suspicion that if Ivory’s cameras moved a fraction further to the left or the right, you’d glimpse a satellite dish squatting on a background rooftop.


(c) Columbia Pictures


Now you see him, now you don’t


(c) The Guardian


One afternoon in early 1987 I was nursing a pint in the Central Refectory building at Aberdeen University and, as a fourth-year undergraduate student, wondering if it was not time I got my finger out and started doing some serious studying for my final examinations.  From the corner of my eye, I saw a group of students I recognised as leading lights in the campus branch of the Scottish National Party – Alan Kennedy, Val Bremner, Gillian Pollock, Nick Goode – wander in and go to the serving counter.  In their company was a young, slightly plump-faced bloke dressed in an un-studenty suit, shirt and tie.


I identified him as an up-and-coming SNP politician whom Alan Kennedy – a good mate of mine – had told me would stand in the next general election in nearby Banff and Buchan against the incumbent Conservative Party MP Albert McQuarrie.  He’d come to the university that day to address the SNP group and this was the SNP students showing their visitor some post-talk hospitality.  Although why they’d brought him into that dreary concrete refectory and not into the much cosier St Machar Bar a minute’s walk away is beyond me.  (Then again, what was I doing there that afternoon?)


This guy, Alan had assured me, was one to watch.  In fact, Alan said something along the lines of: “He’s going to do great things.”


A few months later, on June 11th, the general election took place and this rising SNP star duly wrestled Banff and Buchan away from Albert McQuarrie and became its new MP.  McQuarrie, a doughty old-school Scottish Tory MP who revelled in the nickname ‘the Buchan Bulldog’, was subsequently interviewed by a local newspaper.  During the interview he burst into tears at what he saw as the unfairness and indignity of losing his beloved constituency to this SNP whippersnapper.  He was perhaps the first politician, but certainly not the last, to have his nose put out of joint by Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond.


27 years later and Salmond has just departed the stage.  On September 19th, a day after the ‘yes’ side’s defeat in the Scottish independence referendum, Salmond announced he was stepping down as Scotland’s First Minister and as SNP leader.  He formally relinquished the party leadership to Nicola Sturgeon, his deputy, at the SNP national conference on November 14th; and he submitted his resignation as First Minister to the Scottish Parliament on November 18th, with Sturgeon taking over in that capacity the following day.  For someone who’s dominated Scottish politics for a generation and is generally agreed – by fans and detractors alike – to have mopped the floor with the opposition, it seems a sudden exit indeed.  The vacuum he’s left behind is a big one.  If, of course, he actually has gone.


As Salmond grew in political prominence – a growth similar to that of his waistline, i.e. fast and to an epic degree – he became ever more polarising, so that profiles written about him soon had to contain the stock phrase, ‘love him or loathe him’.  In many ways, prior to the referendum, the shadow he cast over Scottish politics and the mixed emotions he inspired were handicaps for the pro-independence campaign; because it was easy for their opponents, many of whom worked in the mainstream media, to portray their movement as a one-man-band.  So if you were one of the multitude who were turned off by the portly First Minister, you had to vote against independence.


The other components of the independence camp – the Scottish Greens, Scottish Socialists, Radical Independence Campaign, National Collective, Labour for Independence and so on – barely got a look-in while the anti-independence Better Together campaign and its newspaper allies screamed, “Salmond!  Salmond!  It’s all about Salmond!”


For instance, after the referendum, I was chatting to a family member who’d voted ‘No’ and he was astonished when I pointed out that Alex Salmond hadn’t been chairman of the Yes Campaign.  That’d been the role of Dennis Canavan, the distinguished former-Labour politician who’d represented Falkirk West as an MP for 26 years and then as a Member of the Scottish Parliament for another eight.  Canavan had been treated shabbily by the Tony-Blair-led Labour Party and ultimately expelled from it because he was an old-style socialist, keener on sticking to his principles than on pandering to the right-wing Blair cabal who’d taken control.  But of course, you never got to hear about Canavan and others like him being pro-independence.  It might’ve given Scotland’s traditional Labour voters the wrong idea.  Instead, the ‘no’ establishment talked about Salmond – a lot.


The political and media powers-that-be seemed desperately eager to peddle the idea – maybe some of them were so thick that they genuinely believed it – that the referendum was an election.  By voting ‘yes’, you were helping to make Salmond the all-powerful overlord of an independent Scotland.  Which defies the logic about how you create an independent country.  First, of all, you vote to make that country independent.  Only then do you vote to decide who actually runs it.


And the abuse heaped on Salmond was immense.  Even though there are aspects of his personality and policies that I find disagreeable – his comments professing respect for Vladimir Putin, for example, and his refusal to apologise for those comments – I was annoyed at how insults were directed against him by supposedly-respectable politicians and commentators that would never have been levelled at, say, David Cameron.  One instance of this was Jeremy Paxman likening him to Robert Mugabe during an interview on Newsnight.  If Paxman had said the same thing about Cameron, the UK government would probably have axed the BBC’s licence fee by now.


And while Mugabe is undoubtedly A Bad Bloke, I doubt if Steve Bell or Dave Brown, respective cartoonists in the left-leaning Guardian and Independent newspapers, would ever depict him as the racist, colonial-era stereotype of an ‘African native’, with a grass skirt, nose-ring and spear.  Both cartoonists, though, were happy to regularly portray Salmond as a corpulent Jock with all the joke-Scottish regalia and accessories: kilt, sporran, bonnet, bagpipes, haggis, heather and Loch Ness Monster.  That shtick wasn’t funny when Russ Abbot and the Goodies did it 30 or 40 years ago.  It certainly isn’t funny now.


Meanwhile, the Internet and Twitter-sphere were aflame with thousands of anti-Salmond messages, in which he was usually referred to as a ‘fat bastard’ and a ‘granny-shagger’.  (His wife Moira is 17 years older than he is.)  Whilst rushing to publish stories about pro-independence supporters being beastly on Twitter to anti-independence celebrities like J.K. Rowling and David Bowie, the newspapers curiously didn’t mention this.


Still, Salmond’s ubiquity and his ability to get up many people’s noses worked in his favour too.  Scottish Labour never forgave him for usurping them from power in the Scottish Parliament in 2007 and since then their hatred for / obsession with him has only grown.  No wonder the current Scottish branch office of the Labour Party is so intellectually bereft and so hopelessly out-of-touch with the electorate.  For seven years, they’ve been like political equivalents of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, a bunch of shrill, unhinged losers whose only objective in life is to boil Alex Salmond’s bunny.


They’ve harped on incessantly about his expenses, in particular about the hotel bills he’s run up as Scottish First Minister.  Salmond looks like he enjoys the good life and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s been a tad extravagant with tax-payer’s money, but Scottish Labour are going to look very stupid when, as expected, they elect Jim Murphy MP as their new leader.  In 2012 Murphy was caught out letting property in London whilst claiming money to pay rent there.  In 2013-2014 his expenses bill came to just short of £197,000.


So have we seen the last of Salmond?  I doubt it.  There’s already talk of him becoming an MP again and returning to Westminster where, if the current polls are accurate, the SNP could have a significantly enlarged presence after the next election.  Danny Alexander, the MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey and the most enthusiastic of the Liberal Democrat collaborators in the current Conservative-led coalition in London, was surely relieved when Salmond denied reports that he was planning to stand in Alexander’s constituency.  Even though it’s an institution he recently tried to prise Scotland out of, I like the idea of Salmond being let loose again in Westminster again, cocking a leg like a badly-trained dog and pissing on the lamppost of traditional two-party British politics.


I also like the fact that Salmond, uniquely among modern political leaders, is into literature.  Over the years I’ve seen comments by him adorning the dust-sleeves of novels by the likes of James Robertson and Matthew Fitt and he’s peppered his speeches with quotes from Alasdair Gray, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and even the odd English writer like William Shakespeare.  And while politicians usually show their faces at the Edinburgh Book Festival each August to flog a book they’ve just written – like Gordon Brown did – Salmond has appeared there not as an author but as an interviewer.  He interviewed Ian McEwan at an event in 2012.  It’s to my eternal regret that I didn’t see him the previous year interviewing the late Iain Banks.


At the end of the day Alex Salmond was detested by establishment politicians, businessmen and journalists because he dared to give Scotland ideas above its supposed station.  And despite his faults, I’ll applaud him for that.  It’s about time that the Scots – a people often crippled by pessimism, doubt and inferiority complexes – had a few ideas above their station.


Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 4



Do kids play in treehouses anymore?  For the past decade at least, I can’t recall seeing a treehouse in the part of Scotland where my family live.  I suspect that for most modern kids, brought up on a diet of flash-bang-wallop computer games like Plants vs Zombies and Crypt of the Necrodancer, the idea of hanging out in a rickety wooden structure in the upper regions of a tree would seem rather lame.  Also, given the contemporary obsession with ‘health and safety’, any parents who allowed their kids to play in the upper regions of a tree, with a potentially bone-breaking distance between them and the ground, would probably run the risk of seeing their young offspring taken into care.


How different it was when I was a kid, back in 1970s Northern Ireland.  Admittedly, my own attempts to build a treehouse were abortive, mainly because I was a little porker at the time and had difficulty hauling my rotund body more than two feet up a tree-trunk – never mind transporting up all the tools and building materials needed for the treehouse-construction.  But some friends of mine, the Wilson kids, whose parents owned a farm in the Feglish townland of County Tyrone, did have one for a while in a tree rising out of some scrubby ground behind their garden.  I was mightily impressed by their treehouse (after I’d completed the arduous business of climbing up to the thing), although thinking about it now I realise it was a wee bit precarious.


The Wilsons had built it with only enough wood to form the frames of the walls and roof.  The actual walls and roof themselves were made of plastic sheeting or old plastic fertiliser bags stretched across the frames.  Lean against those walls a little too heavily and you’d have burst through them and dropped out of the treetop – quite possibly impaling yourself below on the vertical stakes supporting the gooseberry plants that grew along the garden’s edge.  Just as well health and safety wasn’t such a hot potato in those days.  Those kids would’ve ended up in care for sure.


One treehouse I’ve always wanted to visit is the massive one in the gardens of Alnwick Castle in Northumberland – yes, that’s the stately home that stood in for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies – which contains its own restaurant.  Improbably, considering that the treehouse is made of cedar, redwood and pine and is located in the branches of a copse of lime trees, the restaurant is equipped with its own log fire.  I’d intended to go there while I was living in nearby Newcastle-upon-Tyne but, alas, never got around to it.


I’d been under the impression that the Alnwick Garden treehouse was the largest treehouse in the world, but apparently that honour belongs to one in Crossville, Tennessee.  This was built by a preacher called Horace Burgess, who claims to have received his instructions from God.  “If you build a treehouse,” God told him one day, in a vision, “I’ll see to it that you never run out of material.” To the dismay of Burgess, and presumably of God, the state closed the Crossville treehouse to the public in 2012 because it violated fire-safety rules.  Yes, there it is again.  Bloody health and safety.’s_Treehouse


Anyway, when I moved to Colombo six months ago, I was delighted to discover the treehouse in the picture above, contained among some trees that rose up from behind the stone wall, timber gate and metal railings of a property in my new neighbourhood.  It appeared to be a one-room cabin with a balcony or external platform attached to the end facing away from the street.  It wasn’t located at any great altitude – just a couple of feet above the top of the wall – and a wide wooden ladder propped against its base gave it easy access.  There was no need for Tarzan-style climbing and clambering to get up to it.


In fact, it seemed to be quite a posh treehouse.  Its roof was made of bluish corrugated plastic and I noticed electrical cables snaking up the tree-trunk to it, which suggested it had its own lighting system.  At the same time, it’d clearly seen better days and on one side the plastic roofing was holed and broken.  I hoped that sooner or later the owners would get around to repairing it.


But then the other week I returned to Colombo after a trip abroad and discovered that the treehouse had gone.  Well, it’s mostly gone.  Its floor, its wooden base, is still in place but I’m sure that won’t survive much longer either.  Indeed, much of the trees that’d cradled it is gone too – all but their largest branches sawn off, those remaining branches ending in gruesome stumps and just an odd clump of leaves suspended here and there.



I wonder what happened.  Did the Sri Lankan Department for Health and Safety make them dismantle it?


More Mountfield


(c) Jeani Rector


After something of a hiatus, my horror-fiction-writing alter-ego Jim Mountfield is back with the publication of two new, and nasty, short stories this autumn.  His / my haunted-house story Coming Home is among the contents of the autumn 2014 – sorry, the fall 2014 – hardcopy edition of The Horror Zine Magazine, produced by the hard-working Californian writer and editor Jeani Rector.  It can be obtained here:


(c) Trevor Denyer


Meanwhile, Trevor Denyer – another prolific writer and editor who some years ago was responsible for the magazines Roadworks and Legend, in which I had stories published under the pseudonym Eoin Henderson – has just put out the fourth volume of his digital magazine Hellfire Crossroads.  Containing a Jim Mountfield story called The Next Bus, it can be downloaded to kindle from here:


Or from here:


As its title suggests, The Next Bus is about someone waiting for a bus that seems it will never come – though with a macabre twist.  It was inspired by an experience I once had after I’d visited the legendary Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian and was waiting for the next bus home at the stop on the nearby A701, where there’s a big traffic roundabout with the fabulously eccentric name of Gowkley Moss.  I should say that my situation didn’t become quite as extreme as it does in the story.  And incidentally, why J.K. Rowling never gave the name ‘Gowkley Moss’ to one of her wizard characters  in the Harry Potter books is a great mystery to me.


(c) STV


Ed’s dead, baby, Ed’s dead




Labour Party leader Ed Miliband is the sort of gawky, uncomfortable-in-his-own-skin human being to whom looking happy does not come easily.  Indeed, when Ed tries to affect a smile, the resulting rictus looks like something on the face of an ultra-posh cocktail-party hostess (who in a 1970s TV sitcom would have been played by Penelope Keith) who’s just witnessed her most pissed guest barf up 50 shades of vomitus onto her most expensive hand-woven Persian rug but is determined to grin, bear it and keep up those oh-so-important appearances.  So perhaps it’s just as well that in the past fortnight Ed has had absolutely no reason to look happy.


With the Conservatives now in power for four years – four years during which they’ve done little or nothing to alter the common perception of them as being a bunch of filthy-rich ex-public-schoolboy bastards who’re perfectly willing to suck up to big business and the banks whilst making sure that those who bear the brunt of their much-vaunted austerity cuts are the poorest, weakest and most disenfranchised members of British society – Labour, with Ed at the helm, should be cruising far ahead in the polls.  But this hasn’t happened.  According to a recent opinion poll commissioned by the Evening Standard, Labour’s support is now three percent behind that of the Conservatives (though at 29 and 32 percent respectively, the support-levels for both parties are nothing to write home about).  Meanwhile only 13 percent of the people surveyed believed Miliband was up to the job of being Britain’s next prime minister.  Indeed, nearly 60 percent of Labour supporters were unhappy with his performance as party leader.


Admittedly, other polls have put Labour ahead by a whisker, but that whisker can’t be much comfort to the party and its supporters.   There’s still nearly a half-year to go before the next UK election on May 7th, 2015, and – as usually happens – the party in power can expect to see its support-level rise as the election campaign gets underway.  And with the Conservative Party, having big business behind you to fill your campaign coffers and most of the British newspapers on your side to trumpet your message doesn’t hurt, either.


Meanwhile, Ed’s woes have intensified further thanks to rumours that about 20 Labour frontbenchers are so disenchanted with him that they’d be willing to back Alan Johnson if he announced himself as a leadership contender.  The affable Johnson who, as a one-time Tesco shelf-stacker, one-time postman, one-time amateur rock musician, one-time Marxist, one-time trade union official and one-time Home Secretary, has had everything that Ed hasn’t had – i.e. a life – has, luckily for Ed, ruled himself out of such a leadership challenge.  Johnson realises that being Labour Party leader entails a risk of ending up Prime Minister, a position that he once candidly admitted on Desert Island Discs he didn’t think he had the qualities for.


And just when it seemed that things couldn’t get any worse, Tony Blair declared the other day that Ed Miliband had his ‘full support’.  The kiss of death, in other words.


I can’t say that any of this surprises me.  Even back in September 2010, when he won the contest for Labour Party leader, the Great British public were already cheesed off with having as their ruling class a bunch of bland, privileged, autocratic, out-of-touch, never-done-a-proper-day’s-work-in-their-lives career politicians.  I thought the party was insane to adopt as its skipper the upper-middle-class, Oxford University-educated and stiff-as-could-be Ed Miliband, whose CV consisted of the following job items: student politician, media researcher, policy researcher, speechwriter, special advisor, MP for a safe Labour seat and cabinet minister.  This cosy, politically-incestuous career trajectory seemed to represent everything that ordinary people despised about modern politicians.  (Although along the way Ed did take a year’s sabbatical at Harvard University, presumably to keep him in touch with, you know, the real world.)


To be fair, Ed becoming leader wasn’t simply a case of the cosseted upper echelons of the party choosing one of their own for the top job.  His leadership bid was actually supported by the big trade unions like Unite and UNISON.  Mind you, there wasn’t much choice on offer.  All the main candidates for the party leadership seemed to be cut from the same cloth — including Ed’s own brother, the only slightly-less-gawky David.  So whoever ended up in charge was going to be as bland as the Ed-Miliband brand.


I admit Ed has come out with the odd opinion or policy I approve of.  Apologising for how the Labour Party had, while in government, propelled Britain into the second Gulf War was a good start to his leadership.  (It would’ve been nice if he’d also promised that, when in power, he’d ship the smirking, lying Tony Blair off to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes, but I suppose that was too much to hope for.)  And I liked his promise to do something about the Great British utilities rip-off, i.e. to freeze gas and electricity bills for 20 months after coming to power.


But most of the time he’s done nothing to convince me that a future Labour government with him in Number 10 would be anything other than Conservative government-lite.  Having the calculating and conniving Ed Balls as his Shadow Chancellor probably hasn’t helped in that regard.


For me, the proverbial writing on the wall came three years ago when Ed was interviewed about the public-service-worker strikes happening at the time.  Determined to sit on the fence, he managed, eerily, to give the same answer, with a few words and phrases shuffled around, five times within two minutes: “These strikes are wrong, at a time when negotiations are still going on, but parents and the public have been let down by both sides, because the government has acted in a reckless and provocative manner…  After today’s disruption, I urge both sides to put aside the rhetoric, get around the negotiating table and stop it happening again.”  The interview, with Ed behaving like a malfunctioning android, can be watched in all its toe-curling glory on youtube, here:


What I find amusing is that the opinion-threads on the websites for left-leaning newspapers like the Guardian and Independent are currently full of posters blaming Ed’s woes on the mainly right-leaning British media, which they say is determined to give him non-stop bad publicity between now and election day.  And I have no doubts that the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Telegraph, to say nothing of the coven of titles owned by Rupert Murdoch, will do their utmost to rubbish the Labour Party leader as May 7th draws ever closer.  They have past form in that, as the hapless Neil Kinnock will testify from his experiences in 1992.


However, I can’t say I heard any complaints from Labour-ites about media bias during the two years before the referendum on Scottish independence on September 18th, 2014, when the Mail, Express, Telegraph and co. poured scorn relentlessly on pro-independence politicians like Alex Salmond and on their supporters.  When it came to the prospect of the Scots having full say over their own affairs, Labour was only too happy to climb into bed with the right-wing scandal sheets of Fleet Street.  By the way, despite the media’s torrent of anti-independence propaganda, I’m heartened by and proud of the fact that 45 percent of Scottish voters still told them to go and stuff it and voted ‘yes’.


At the time of the referendum, I made the following prediction on this blog: “as Scotland disappears off Westminster’s radar again… the press hunkers down for the next big story – the 2015 General Election.  The Mail, Express, Telegraph and Sun re-align their artillery, away from Salmond and towards Ed Miliband, whom they spend the next months portraying as a weak, out-of-touch socialist bumbler who’ll run Britain into the ground if he gets the keys to Number 10.  Labour Party politicians start complaining about ‘bias’ in the media.  This provokes great Schadenfreude from certain people north of the border.”


Aye, Schadenfreude.  Believe me, the feeling you get from that is better than the high of any drug.


Modern art is rubbish



Okay.  I don’t really think that it’s rubbish.  That was just the message suggested by this striking metallic sculpture of an upended bin and torrent of spilling garbage found in the grounds of Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art, which I visited while I was working in the Indian capital the other month.


Housed inside Jaipur House, which stands on the Central Hexagon surrounding India Gate and was once the grand residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur, the gallery has exhibits that date back to the 19th century.  There’s a selection of predictably earnest and stately paintings by British painters from the days of colonialism and the Empire, such as Thomas Daniell and Marshal Claxton; but the displays become more interesting once they move on to a more Indian mind-set, with indigenous painters eschewing Western models of art to do their own thing, drawing on local domestic and community life and on local tradition, folklore and legend for inspiration.  That said, some, like the brothers Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore, were influenced by artistic styles from cultures further east, such as Japanese ones.


Here’s Abanindranath Tagore’s Emperor’s March to Kashmir.


(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi


Mind you, by the time his brother Gaganendranath got around to painting Magician, he’d possibly been infected with a dose of the Picassos and gone slightly cubist.


(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi

Raja Ravi Varma was perhaps more old-school, in that he incorporated techniques of Western art into his depictions of Indian daily life, literature and mythology.  Here’s his Mohani on a Swing.


(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi

Also catching my eye was this bleak and melancholy work, Mataji, by the female Bengali-American artist Anjolie Ela Menon, who according to her Wikipedia entry is still going strong in her mid-seventies.


(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi

Ganesh Pyne, unfortunately, passed away early last year at the age of 75.  I liked his lush, gorgeous but somehow stark Mother and Child.


(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi

Once the art in the Gallery of Modern Art gets truly modern and starts to tilt towards the abstract, it loses something.  It isn’t objectionable, but it becomes a bit corporate and samey, with the Indian flavours subdued – a lot of it, you feel, could hang on a gallery wall in Hong Kong or Barcelona or New York without seeming much different from the works around it.  And to me most modern art is informed by gimmicks, and whether or not a particular example of it works for you depends on whether or not you appreciate the underlying gimmick.


I did quite like the gimmick in Madhvi Parekh’s cheeky take on The Last Supper.


(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi

Finally, when I visited the gallery, it was staging an exhibition dedicated to the life and works of Amrita Sher-Gil.  Of Sikh and Hungarian Jewish parentage, the remarkable Sher-Gil crammed a lot into her brief life – she died at the age of 28 – with sojourns in European cities like Budapest, Florence and Paris and in Indian ones like Shimla, Gorakhpur and Lahore (which was then in India).  During her European experiences, she found inspiration from the likes of Cezanne and Gauguin.  During her Indian ones, she fell under the influence of the Bengal School of Art, two of whose leading practitioners were the afore-mentioned Tagore brothers.  Since her death in 1941, she’s been recognised as one of India’s most important 20th century artists and also become something of an Indian feminist icon.  In 2006 her painting Village Scene set a record, for a time, of being the most expensive painting ever sold in India.  Here’s one of her self-portraits, which captures her obvious élan and joie de vivre.


(c) National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi

Fascinatingly, in the mid-1930s, she had an affair with the English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who was then young, leftward-leaning and agnostic (and, incidentally, married to author Katherine Dobbs).  I wonder what the adventurous, bohemian and reputedly promiscuous Sher-Gil would have made of Muggeridge in his later years, who by the early 1970s had drifted into reactionary-old-fart-dom; become a right-wing fulminator against the permissive society and its evils like ‘pills and pot’ and the Beatles (whom he once described as ‘four vacant youths’ with ‘no talent’); and made himself a stalwart of the censorious Christian movement the National Festival of Light alongside the likes of Mary Whitehouse, Lord Longford and Cliff Richard.


Malcolm’s new book


(c) University of Ottawa Press


Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano, reckoned to be one of the greatest novels published in the English language during the 20th century, has a new book out.  Entitled In Ballast to the White Sea, it was recently launched at a special event in the Bluecoat Art Gallery in Liverpool, which was the local Big Smoke for the Birkenhead-born Lowry.  Yes, authors have new books out all the time, but news of this one struck me as being extra-special.  Particularly since Lowry has been, well, dead for the past 57 years.


I’ve always had a fondness for Lowry, or at least, for the version of him that appears in his books; and Under the Volcano, his debut novel Ultramarine and the posthumously published Dark as the Grave wherein my Friend is Laid and October Ferry to Gabriola (which were edited, completed and generally nursed from rough-draft form to publishable-book form by Lowry’s widow Margerie Bonner in 1968 and 1970) are all intensely personal, introspective and autobiographical.  Actually, many would claim that his books are too much so.  The presence in them of Lowry’s rambling, querying and at times paranoid voice, forever interpreting everything he sees and hears and leaping from one association to another, makes them hard going for a lot of readers.  I’ve heard even Under the Volcano dismissed on more than one occasion as one of The Great Books That Nobody Actually Reads.


But I have to disagree.  I find Lowry, or at least the authorial voice of Lowry that pervades his works, an endearing character.  And even when his plots are going absolutely nowhere, which is often, there’s enough of interest in his musings to keep me engaged.


It helps, of course, that Lowry was interesting as a human being.  Although he came from a moneyed background – his father was a wealthy cotton broker – he was desperate to escape from the comfortable, servant-supported existence of his boyhood and spend some time at the University of Life.  This drove him, in his late teens, to take on a job as a deckhand on a cargo ship bound for the Far East, an experience that provided him with the material for Ultramarine.  Post-university, he roamed around Spain, France, the USA and Mexico before winding up living in a ramshackle and amenities-free squatter’s shack out in the sticks by Dollarton in British Colombia, which is now a northern suburb of Vancouver.  Lowry seems to have spent his most contented years in that rural Canadian shack – at least, that’s the impression I get from his short story collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (again published posthumously, in 1961), three of whose tales use the place as their setting.


He was, of course, a prodigious boozer.  Indeed, the drinking exploits attributed to him are such that he leaves all other literary bevy-merchants of the 20th century, like Fitzgerald, Hemmingway and Mailer on the far side of the Atlantic and Behan, Thomas and Amis (senior) on this side of it, well behind in the inebriation stakes.  I’m sure it’s his reputation as an outrageous drunkard, at least as much as the prestige of Under the Volcano, which keeps him remembered today.


He also had an interest in the esoteric and was an acquaintance of Canadian occultist and ceremonial magician Charles Stanfield Jones, who himself had been initiated into the spiritual organisation the AAby Aleister Crowley.  I’ve read claims that some of Jones’ teachings about the Cabbalistic Tree of Life found their way into the symbolism of the heavily allegoristic Under the Volcano.  And there was also a musical string to Lowry’s bow, a rather charming one — he played the ukulele.


(c) Penguin


All this makes Lowry sound a pretty cool figure, a combination of James Joyce and Jack London as played by a sozzled-to-the-gills Peter O’Toole, with traces about him of Crowley and – okay, not quite so cool – George Formby.  However, what I find likeable about Lowry was that he was anything but cool.  There was always an unfortunate, at times amusing, gap between what Lowry aspired to and what fate actually dealt out to him.


For a start, ‘Malcolm’ was only his middle name.  As a first name, his parents saddled him with the regrettable moniker, ‘Clarence’.  And at the age of 18, when he boarded that cargo ship to begin work as a deckhand, the romance of the moment was dampened by his father’s insistence that young Malcolm be driven to the quayside in the swanky family car – in full view of his understandably unimpressed shipmates-to-be.  Even worse, the local press were on hand to cover the eccentric rich kid’s embarkation.  (Small wonder that in Ultramarine the young hero spends the book trying to win the respect and approval of his sceptical fellow crewmembers.)


Indeed, Lowry’s whole life seems to have been a series of embarrassments, panic attacks, breakdowns, deportations – in the late 1930s he was expelled from Mexico and the same thing almost happened to him in the USA – and general misfortunes, such as a fire in 1944 that destroyed his shack in British Colombia and also destroyed his manuscript of In Ballast to the White Sea.  Poor old Lowry wasn’t even spared the misery of sexual angst because he possessed, as Keith Richards once said of Mick Jagger, a ‘tiny todger’.  These insecurities crop up in his writing but, again, I find them endearing.  They make his books feel like the work of a believable human being, one who has to put up with life’s indignities and humiliations as much as the rest of us do.


That said, Lowry might seem like a decent guy in his books but I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be around him in reality – certainly not during his final years when his drinking became truly desperate.  By 1954 he was happy to drink aftershave if his stock of conventional alcohol ran out.  There were also two occasions when, in drunken rages, he attempted to throttle his wife Margerie; though Margerie was no lightweight drinker herself, was able to give as good as she got and administered several batterings to Lowry too.  Significantly, Lowry’s life seemed to really go down the pan when Under the Volcano was published, to great acclaim, in 1947.  As he himself noted in a letter, “Success may be the worst possible thing that could happen to any serious writer.”


His death in 1957, which occurred while he and Margerie were staying in the Sussex village of Ripe, was sadly predictable.  After a heavy drinking session, he overdosed on barbiturates and then choked on vomit.  Investigating officials deemed it an accident, though there’s been speculation since that it was suicide or even murder at the hands of his long-suffering wife.  (It’s been suggested that Margerie, who’d got into the habit of feeding Lowry pills at night to calm him down, gave him the barbiturate overdose accidentally or intentionally.  I have to confess that, having read about their last years together, what surprises me is not the possibility that she murdered him but the fact that she wasn’t driven to doing it sooner.)


Margerie, murderess or not, became the overseer of Lowry’s literary legacy after his death.  However, it’s a different wife, Lowry’s first one, Jan Gabrial, to whom In Ballast to the White Sea owes its survival.  Lowry apparently presented an early draft of it to Jan’s mother in 1936.  He seems not to have remembered this when the blaze destroyed his shack and what he thought was his only copy of the book in 1944.  (He and Jan split up in 1937 and by 1944 they were no longer in contact.)


Since it’s an early draft, and since Lowry would obsessively spend years revising, trimming, reworking and adding to his prose, this version of In Ballast to the White Sea is no doubt far removed from his vision of how it’d finally be; and the best we can hope for is that it’s, to quote the Lowry scholar Colin Dilnot, ‘the skeleton of a masterpiece’.  But, as with Dark as the Grave wherein my Friend is Laid and October Ferry to Gabriola, I’m glad that something of it is still around and it’s now out there.




A Bangkok heavy-metal Halloween




I first went to Bangkok in 1996 and, from my memories of the time, I seem to have perceived it as a dark, crowded, polluted, noisy, seedy and rather claustrophobic city.  But perhaps that was because of bad luck and bad choices – I got those impressions from the district I ended up staying in and the places I happened to visit and explore.  Also, that was before the opening of Bangkok’s Skytrain system in 1999 and Metro system in 2000.  Both transport networks have made the city a lot easier to get around and allowed visitors to sample more of its varied attractions and neighbourhoods.


Last week, I was in Bangkok again – my fourth trip there – and now my perceptions have entirely changed.  I think it’s a great city.  Somehow, it manages to combine the corporate and the cosy, the trendy and the venerable, the sacred and the salacious.  Yes, nowadays, there’s a danger that the first of those qualities, the corporate, will eventually buy everything up, take everything over and muscle everything else out.  But judging from the seemingly endless ability of ordinary Thai people to colonise any free space, no matter how concrete, bare and soulless, and transform it – small spaces into stalls, kiosks and makeshift eateries and boutiques, large ones into full-scale markets and food-courts – that corporate takeover shouldn’t be complete for a long time yet.  At street-level at least, Bangkok should remain intimate, decorous, bustling and colourful for a while longer.


Anyway, last week’s visit coincided with Halloween.  On the night of October 31st, I thought I would take the opportunity to check out two Bangkok music-bars associated with a genre that’s the sonic equivalent of Halloween monsters, ghouls, demons and macabre japery – heavy metal.


Firstly, I went to the Immortal Bar, which is on the second floor of the building at 6 Soi Bun Choo Sri in Dindaeng, about ten minutes’ walk east from the Victory Monument.  On the left as you go in is a lounge / terrace area with no front walls or windows, meaning that any air-conditioning system would be useless and for coolness you have to rely on some whirring ceiling-fans.  But it’s comfortable enough with sofas and pleasantly subdued lighting.  Needless to say, the inner walls are adorned with framed posters and T-shirts bearing angular, jagged logos for the likes of Sepultura, Soulfly, Naplam Death and Thai metallers Dezember.  For some strange reason, though, an end wall has a pair of old black bicycles mounted on it.


In one corner stands a san phra phum or spirit house – i.e. a miniature house or temple that accommodates the venue’s spirits, appeases them and keeps them from causing mischief – although this one is bare and empty-looking.  I’d expected the spirit house of the Immortal Bar to be populated by little effigies of long-haired, denim-and-black-leather-clad heavy-metal spirits, depicted in the act of playing air guitar.


On the right-hand side of the entrance, meanwhile, is a live-music area with a stage and, also, the bar’s serving counter.  A Halloween show was in progress when I arrived and the band on stage at the time was one called Tantra, whom I thought sounded a bit like the American trash / groove-metal outfit Pantera.  Due to my unfamiliarity with Thai-accented English (or to a distorted sound-system) I couldn’t decide if one song they performed was called Blow Up or Throw Up.  Then Tantra gave way to a band called Rusty Bomb, who did covers of songs by Black Sabbath, Mӧtorhead, Metallica and Slayer.  Their vocalist was a French guy and I scoffed when he announced that their next number would be a ‘French trash metal’ song.  To me, the phrase ‘French trash metal’ sounds about as promising as ‘English haute cuisine’ or ‘Scottish sunbathing terrace’.  But their French trash metal song was actually pretty good.


The pub’s clientele were mostly Thais, a few of whom were wearing corpse-paint make-up – although I’m not sure if that was because they were seriously into black metal or because it was Halloween.  A couple of fareng – foreigners – were present, but not many.


From there I went to the Rock Pub at Radchatewee, in the Hollywood Street Building that faces the Asia Hotel below the Skytrain line.  Supposedly founded in 1987, the Rock Pub is contained within one long room that resembles an austere, stone-walled chamber from a medieval castle.  It’s definitely more mainstream and commercial than the Immortal Bar.  For one thing, its beer that evening cost 30 baht more than the brew in the Immortal.  Also, there were quite a few fareng among the Thai audience, including a couple of flea-ridden old sex-tourist tomcats who’d picked up their ‘Siamese kittens’ for the evening.


When I entered here, another live Halloween show was in progress and a band called Sugar Rocket was playing.  Despite having one band-member in corpse-paint make-up, they were performing a cover of Song 2 by Blur (the one that goes ‘whoo-whoo!’ every other second).  The next band up, Nine Monkey Nine, were similarly eclectic – they managed to do covers of the Foo Fighters and Franz Ferdinand.  So the Rock Pub wasn’t really hosting a heavy-metal night at all, although the memorabilia on its stone walls did include mementoes of Iron Maiden and Napalm Death.  (The legendary West Midlands grindcore band seems to be a favourite in Thailand.  Indeed, they performed a show at the Rock Pub back in August 2010.)


In both pubs – and unlike most others I drank in during my sojourn in Bangkok – very few people were fiddling with their smart-phones.  Clearly, they were there to savour the music and enjoy the sociability of being among fellow heavy-metal / rock fans.  The only exceptions were those old fareng sex-tourist guys and their Thai girlie pick-ups.  Actually, I’ve noticed that, thanks to recent developments in technology, Bangkok’s sex tourists and their Thai pick-ups no longer have to go through the awkward, preliminary ritual of sitting in a pub and exchanging stilted conversation with one another.  No, now, both of them can bend forward over the pub-tables and spend the time quietly f**king around on their smart-phones.