Gay metal




A while ago I was chatting with a mate about recent music we’d listened to.  I mentioned that the track I’d probably played most often last year was from an album called Why do the Heathen Rage?  The album is the work of a dance-music project called The Soft Pink Truth, which is masterminded by Drew Daniel – a fellow who’s simultaneously a member of the electronica duo Matmos, an Assistant Professor of English at John Hopkins University in Baltimore and a gay man.  (His partner forms the other half of Matmos.)  Meanwhile, the track in question is a cover version of the 2003 song Satanic Black Devotion by the Finnish black metal band Sargeist.


Now black metal is a sub-genre of heavy metal that’s known for its shrieking and guttural vocals, its fevered guitars, its demented drumming and a lyrical emphasis on the dark, the unwholesome, the macabre and the utterly hellish – an emphasis reflected by the fondness among the sub-genre’s earlier practitioners to come onstage with their faces ghoulishly slathered in ‘corpse-paint’.  However, while The Soft Pink Truth’s take on Satanic Black Devotion starts out in a suitably sinister and menacing fashion, Daniel’s dance / electronica aesthetic soon comes to the fore and the track gets unfeasibly funky.  And incidentally, the famous sample that pops out of the mix after one minute and 45 seconds was so unexpected that I burst out laughing.


In fact, Why do the Heathen Rage? is a whole album of covers of black metal standards that Daniel has interpreted in his own inimitable, dance-electronica style and I find the album a lot of fun, although I’m sure there are old-school fans out there who think it’s sacrilegious (which is ironic considering that black metal, with its long tradition of Christianity-baiting, is about the most sacrilegious music you can get).  In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, home of the ground-breaking black metal band Venom, there are probably Geordie fans who’ve heard Daniel’s playful version of Venom’s agenda-setting anthem Black Metal and who haven’t been released from hospital yet.




However, when you write about black metal, there’s an elephant in the room.  This is an elephant that speaks Norwegian, has a big swastika painted on its side and smells strongly of burning churches.  Because the general public, if it’s heard of the term ‘black metal’ at all, normally associates this music with the unsavoury antics of some Norwegian musicians in the early 1990s.  These include Pelle ‘Dead’ Ohlin of the band Mayhem, who in 1991 decided to honour his nickname by blowing his head apart with a shotgun; Oystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth, also of (the aptly-named) Mayhem, who made a necklace out of pieces of Ohlin’s shattered skull; Varg ‘Count Grishnackh’ Vikernes of the band Burzum, who feuded with Euronymous and ended up murdering him in 1993; and Bard ‘Faust’ Eithun, of the band Emperor, who in 1992 stabbed a gay man called Magne Andreassen to death.  For their crimes, Vikernes and Eithun received prison sentences of 15 and nine years respectively.


In addition to acts of murder and suicide, the Norwegian black metal scene of the early 1990s was accused of harbouring Nazi sympathies, although this seems to have been largely due to the influence of Vikernes, who described the music as “a nationalistic (Norwegian-centric), racist… revolt.”  Last year, nobody was surprised when Vikernes – who’d finished his Norwegian prison sentence by then – was tried and imprisoned for another half-year in France for inciting racial hatred.  Also, the scene’s enthusiasm for northern-European paganism and theistic Satanism made it anti-Christian to the point where, by 1996, hardline black-metallers had been blamed for some 50 arson attacks on Norwegian churches.


In an interview in the Guardian last July, Drew Daniel was asked about the paradox of a gay man recording a set of cover versions of a musical form whose most notorious proponents committed crimes that included the slaying of a gay man.  Daniel admitted to being both fascinated by black metal in its ugliest, early 1990s, Norwegian version – “I couldn’t believe the power of it.  It’s so single-minded and energising…  It was such a strange mixture of undeniably compelling music attached to deeply repugnant behaviour” – and obsessed by it – “You know the way pitbulls bite something and their jaw locks and they can’t let go?  That’s kind of the way my mind works with things.”  In a gesture designed to both subvert and atone for the activities of Vikernes and co, Daniel dedicated Why do the Heathen Rage? to the memory of Magne Andreassen, Bard Eithun’s gay victim 23 years ago.


I should say that black metal has come a long way since those grim Norwegian days.  The Guardian piece on Drew Daniel also quotes the music journalist Dyall Patterson, who describes the modern black metal scene thus: “It covers a huge spectrum, from left-wing to right-wing, from atheist and Satanist, and even Christian and Muslim.  There’s more to it than just the sensationalist aspects, because it’s entered a demographic that would be turned off by a lot of those things.”  And for the record I’m a fan of it myself.  I like bands like Altar of Plagues, Darkthrone, Deafheaven, Leviathan, Rotting Christ and the brilliant Wolves in the Throneroom.  I’m also a connoisseur of County Suffolk’s greatest cultural export, Cradle of Filth, who were once regarded as a seminal black metal act – though these days I hear they’re considered more ‘goth’ metal.


Anyhow, The Soft Pink Truth’s take on black metal has made me ponder the role played by gay culture in heavy metal music generally.  Of course, some people would assure you that gay culture has never played any role in heavy metal because such music is reactionary, sexist and racist, performed by and listened to by artless people who are exclusively and thick-headedly masculine, heterosexual and macho.  Which is nonsense.  The theatricality of heavy metal contains a quality that’s androgynous at its mildest and downright homo-erotic at its most extreme.


Yes, there are morons like Sebastian Bach, front-man of the woeful 1980s American glam-metal band Skid Row, who once wore a T-shirt saying AIDS KILLS FAGGOTS DEAD.  But if you look at heavy metal since it was forged in the early 1970s, you’ll soon realise that despite all its red-blooded braying about straddling big motorbikes, and straddling hot women, and slaying dragons, and entering Valhalla, and worshipping Satan, there’s bubbled beneath its sweaty, warty surface a great amount of camp-ness that would appeal to many gay sorts.  (Not all gay people like camp things, of course, but I know a few who do.)


After all, one of the music’s greatest icons has been Angus Young, a chap who hops around stages wearing shorts and a schoolboy uniform whilst twiddling a guitar for a band called AC/DC – which according to the LGBT activist website Queers United is “a queer code used in chatrooms to indicate that someone is bisexual and sexually interested in both men and women.”


(c) Chronicle Books


Even the strand of heavy metal that I find most annoying, the boorish, laddish and shag-happy glam-metal movement that emerged from America’s west coast in the 1980s and gave us the likes of Mӧtley Crüe, Poison, Ratt, Cinderella and Warrant – thanks for that, America’s west coast – is really very sexually ambiguous.  You only have to look beyond its lyrical obsessions with sultry babes and observe the huge amounts of eyeliner, mascara, hairspray, jewellery, high heels and ultra-tight leggings worn by its practitioners.  Mӧtley Crüe might have sung Girls Girls Girls, but not every male who was drawn to the band’s photograph on the record cover was necessarily thinking about girls.


Plus, of course, some prominent heavy metal folk are gay.


Nowadays, 1970s rock legends Queen are celebrated for their football-terrace chant-alongs, their mock-operatic epics, their Noel Coward pastiches and their off-the-wall soundtracks for movies like Flash (“Ah-aaah!”) Gordon; but once upon a time the band had a heavy side too.  If you don’t believe me, check out tracks like Death on Two Legs (on 1975’s A Night at the Opera) or Stone Cold Crazy (on 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack).  The latter song was covered by Metallica, and indeed Metallica performed onstage at the Freddie Mercury Memorial Concert in 1992 after Queen’s much-loved singer died of AIDS.  Other metal bands and performers who turned up at the concert to pay their respects included Guns n’ Roses, Extreme, Def Leppard, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi.


As well as casting a long shadow over heavy metal, Freddie Mercury was, of course, shamelessly camp.  Interestingly, in his memoir The Long Hard Road out of Hell, Marilyn Manson – a performer who cuts a sexually ambiguous figure himself onstage – recalls that at his Christian school in Ohio, pupils were regularly lectured on the evils of heavy metal and hard rock music.  But the band those Christian teachers seemed to fear and hate most of all was Queen, due to the effect that the prancing, preening and cheerfully gay Mercury might be having on the sons of God-fearing America.




Meanwhile, when Judas Priest’s front-man Rob Halford came out of the closet in 1998, it wasn’t exactly a big surprise.  Early on, the band had cultivated a ‘biker’ look, a look that later became influential in heavy metal generally; but as Halford’s figure became increasingly bedecked with black leather, silver studs, spikes, chains, gauntlets and peaked caps, he looked less like a heavy metal singer, or a biker, and more like a member of Village People or Frankie goes to Hollywood.  By 2014, Halford felt comfortable enough in his own skin and in his own musical groove to describe himself to the Guardian as “the stately homo of heavy metal.”


Other gay metal performers include Doug Pinnick, vocalist with the progressive / funk metal band King’s X; Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert, respective singer and drummer with the progressive metal band Cynic; and Roddy Bottum, keyboardist with another metal band who’ve taken an interest in funk (and in hip-hop, punk, jazz and God knows what else), the mighty Faith No More.  Bottum announced he was gay sometime after he’d been involved in a heterosexual relationship with Courtney Love.  Inevitably, there was some scurrilous speculation that these two events might have been related.




Also, heavy metal has at least one prominent lesbian, Otep Shamaya, founder and front-woman of the nu-metal band Otep.  She’s a much-needed antidote to those macho lunkheads like Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst who’re found elsewhere in nu-metal.  And by 2014, heavy metal had acquired its first transgender performer – Mina Caputo (who until 2011 had been known as Keith Caputo), the singer with the New York alternative metal band Life of Agony.


Finally, and brilliantly, the Norwegian black metal scene of the early 1990s that I described at the beginning of this post has produced a gay icon too: Kristian ‘Gaahl’ Espedal, who’s been vocalist with the bands Trelldom, Gorgoroth and God Seed and who ‘came out’ in 2008.


Despite his sexuality, Gaahl has seemed happy enough to keep some of the bad old attitudes of Norwegian black metal alive.  Interviewed in Sam Dunn’s 2005 documentary Metalheads: a Headerbanger’s Journey, he described the Norwegian church burnings as “a thing that I support 100 percent.  It should have been done much more, and will be done much more in the future.”  In 2006, he was also accused of torturing a man for six hours, during which time he allegedly drained a cupful of the man’s blood and threatened to make him drink it.  Gaahl’s claim that he was acting in ‘self-defence’ was disbelieved and he spent nine months in prison.


On the other hand, he won Norway’s award for Gay Person of the Year at the Bergen Gay Gala in 2010, and he turned up to accept it, which was nice.




Even if you’re the type of person who’d sooner saw off one of their arms with a rusty knife than listen to black metal, or to heavy metal generally, I would urge you to sample the work of one of Gaahl’s recent musical projects, Wardruna.  Described by the music website The Quietus as “a truly remarkable outfit… focussing on immersive and ritualistic folk acoustics, making use of traditional instrumentation and clean sung vocals, and taking all its thematic inspiration from the Elder Futhark, the oldest set of Norse Runes”, Wardruna make a sort of medieval Scandinavian folk music that’s haunting, hypnotic and epic.  Actually, it sounds like the Wicker Man soundtrack re-imagined by ghost-musicians in Helheim, the Norse underworld.


Kingdom gone: book review / Disunited Kingdom by Iain Macwhirter


(c) Cargo Publishing


Timing is everything when you have a product to sell – even in a trade as old-fashioned as the book one.  And the publication of Disunited Kingdom, an account of the lead-up to and aftermath of last autumn’s referendum on Scottish independence by Herald and Sunday Herald columnist Iain Macwhirter, was cleverly timed indeed.  It appeared late in 2014, while the events of the referendum were still vivid in everyone’s memories – everyone north of the border at least.  (In England, predictably, once the result was announced, the hacks of the London-centric media immediately forgot that Scotland had ever been on the radar and returned to their habitual assumption that things of importance only ever occur within a square mile around Westminster.)  Also, the book arrived on the stands of Scottish bookshops as Christmas approached.  I imagine that more than a few members of Scotland’s liberal-minded, independence-inclined chattering classes discovered copies of Disunited Kingdom in their Christmas stockings on the morning of December 25th, newly delivered by Santa Claus.


Reading Disunited Kingdom is both a depressing and uplifting experience.  I felt the depressing side of it while Macwhirter – who, by the way, voted ‘yes’ to independence – described the threats, warnings, fear-mongering, disinformation, smears and occasional outright lies concerning Scottish independence that were shovelled at the Scots unremittingly for the most of two years by Britain’s political, business and media establishments.  After that barrage, it seemed a miracle that anybody in Scotland was minded to vote for independence at all, let alone 45 percent of the electorate.


A newspaper man, Macwhirter devotes a chapter to the manner in which the mainstream press conducted itself.  This makes particularly dispiriting reading.  The 30-or-so main newspapers that appear daily or weekly in Scotland – though apart from the Dundee-based company D.C. Thomson, none of their owners are Scottish – were almost unanimously hostile towards independence.  Some of their headlines would have been hilarious in their stupidity if the sentiments behind them hadn’t been so rancorous: the Daily Express’s UK SPLIT TO SET BACK CURE FOR CANCER in June 2014, for example; or the same month’s effort by the Sunday Telegraph, which had a picture of a Scottish soldier’s coffin below the words SCOTTISH SOLDIERS LOST THEIR LIVES DEFENDING THE UK, WHAT WILL THEIR FAMILIES SAY NOW; or the Daily Record’s claim a week before the vote that independence would TRIGGER A NEW GREAT DEPRESSION.  Macwhirter cites research by Press Data, a non-aligned PR agency, which monitored newspaper coverage of the final six weeks before voting day and found that negative news stories about Scottish independence and its supporters appeared three times more frequently than positive ones.


One narrative that was endorsed by the mainstream media, of course, was the one holding all independence supporters to be aggressive and racist louts who subjected the fragrant, pro-union likes of J.K. Rowling to death-threats and non-stop Twitter trolling.  Macwhirter notes how less was said about the online abuse of famous figures on the pro-independence side like SNP leader Alex Salmond and deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon: “There was little coverage of the numerous death threats to Salmond and Sturgeon.  Between 24th January and 17th September 2014 the @BritNatAbuseBot account logged 6,500 examples of hate tweets directed at Scots and prominent nationalist politicians, none of which were reprinted in the press.”  (Macwhirter supplies a few choice examples of these, such as: “If Alex Salmond was on fire and I had a hose I would wrap it around his fat neck and choke the lying bastard.”)


Meanwhile, Macwhirter writes of the infamous incident where the pro-union campaigner and Labour MP Jim Murphy was, during a speaking tour of Scotland’s towns, struck by an egg thrown by an independence supporter: “Never has a single egg received so many column inches.  It appeared on the front pages for fully four days.  Of course, politicians, even those on street corners, should not be pelted with groceries.  However, the Yes Campaign’s Jim Sillars was also hit by eggs – quite a number in fact.  His response was ‘next time give them to a food bank, pal.’  Perhaps this was reported somewhere, but I certainly didn’t see it.”


One of Macwhirter’s employers, the Sunday Herald, was the only major newspaper to take a deep breath and came out, editorially, in favour of independence.  Of the multitude of editors and journalists who stayed on the other side of the fence and used every opportunity to ridicule, belittle and demonise the independence movement, he writes not unsympathetically: “journalists did not actually falsify or invent stories – though the Mirror’s claim that Edinburgh’s giant pandas might have to be sent back to China after independence teetered on the edge.  It is right that papers have political stances, and these are invariably reflected in the prominence that is given to certain stories…  But in normal elections there is usually a variety of opinions.  Papers like the Guardian will tend to be of the left, while the Telegraph and the Daily Mail speak for the right.  But in the 2014 referendum it was as if they had all suddenly become the Telegraph…  Democracy doesn’t work when voters are not exposed to both sides of the story.”


Meanwhile, he hints at why the press, the Scottish press at least, was so partisan in its rejection of independence.  Regarding the Sunday Herald’s decision to back independence, he mentions “fears… that stories might dry up if the Sunday Herald was black-balled by Labour – an indication that, though Labour had been out of power for seven years, the tribe still held on to many key positions in public life.”  Later, he adds: “Scottish journalism is almost as tribal as Scottish politics, and Labour has traditionally called the shots in the Scottish media through its extensive patronage networks.”


Yet it was the robotic nay-saying of the establishment, including the mainstream media, which inspired the upside of the referendum campaign – a mobilisation and determination to get involved by many ordinary people, who suddenly seemed to decide that politics were too important to be left to politicians, journalists, and business bigwigs.  As Macwhirter puts it, “The 2014 referendum was a boisterous festival of political participation that brought the highest electoral turnout since the establishment of universal adult suffrage…  I travelled from Shetland to Wigtown, from Stornoway to Aberdeen, and everywhere, I found people talking about politics in the way they usually talk about football and celebrity culture.”


Much of Disunited Kingdom is spent describing the many forms that this ‘boisterous festival’ took – for example, the formation of groups like Common Weal, Generation Yes, Women for Independence, English for Independence, Asians for Independence and Radical Independence (the latter an umbrella organisation that incorporated socialists, environmentalists, trade unionists, nuclear-disarmament campaigners and anti-monarchists)events like Glasgow’s ImagiNation jamboree and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe show All Back to Bowie’swebcasts like Referendum TV; and news and comment websites like Wings over Scotland, Newsnet Scotland and Bateman Broadcasting, which undertook the job that the newspapers refused to do and presented independence in a positive light.


In addition, Scotland’s arts community seemed to offer overwhelming support for independence – although, Macwhirter notes, “it seemed that a very large number of people involved in classical music and opera in Scotland were opposed to independence, perhaps out of fear of the bagpipes.”  Many writers, musicians, singers, thespians and so on came together in a grouping called National Collective and busily set about raising political awareness with activities involving drama, stand-up comedy and concerts as well as smaller-scale projects with “wish trees, maps, flash fiction, knitting groups and guerrilla cinema.”


Some of these ventures, Macwhirter concedes, could be dismissed “as amateurish, agitprop, simplistic, and ill-informed” — well, it is difficult to view a pro-Scottish-independence knitting group as a serious political statement.  But he adds that such criticisms “rather missed the point.  The Collective wasn’t about trying to appeal to the arts establishment, win Turner Prizes or get grants from Creative Scotland…  It was a new form of political organisation primarily about mobilising people’s imaginations to build support for independence and counter its negative portrayal in the conventional media.  Its naiveté was part of its strength because it allowed practically anyone who felt they had something to say to get involved.”


Macwhirter’s sympathetic newspaper columns about the SNP and the wider independence movement earned him the disdain of unionist commentators – “Among the many names I was called the one I liked best was ‘Iain Natwhirter’” – but towards the book’s end of the book he describes his own preference for the constitutional future of the United Kingdom, which doesn’t involve full Scottish independence.  He favours a properly-balanced federal system in the UK, whereby Westminster would control only a few major items like international relations, defence and overall economic and monetary policy, and power over everything else would be devolved to parliaments in the UK’s component parts: “federalism is a perfectly respectable and rational system of government for a multinational state like Britain.”  However, he admits that such a system is unlikely to happen anytime soon.  Indeed, the moment for establishing it may have already passed.


Disunited Kingdom makes for fast, informative and entertaining reading.  If it has a fault, it’s that anyone familiar with the columns he’s penned over the past few years for the Herald and Sunday Herald won’t be surprised by it.  They’ll recognise many of the points he made in his columns as they reappear in the book.


And despite the fact that Macwhirter firmly positions himself on one side of the independence debate, those on the other side of the debate should be able to read the book without wanting to tear it to pieces.  He makes affable, non-partisan company during this exploration of last year’s momentous events in Scotland; so that even J.K. Rowling should manage to finish Disunited Kingdom without feeling an urge to disunite its pages from its binding.


You spend years waiting for an arty vampire movie and then three come at once


(c) Universal Studios


I’d practically given up hope of seeing an interesting vampire film again.  This was partly due to the malign influence of those Blade and Underworld movies, which were full of cartoon violence and computer-generated imagery and reduced this once-majestic and haunting sub-genre of the horror film to the level of a computer game.  And it was partly due to another malign influence, that of the Twilight movies, where vampirism became a bland metaphor for the travails and temptations faced by teenagers as they approach adulthood.  From Count Dracula to a bunch of mopey American teenagers.  What an ignominious fall from grace.


And yet recently I happened to view three – yes, three – movies on DVD, Neil Jordan’s Byzantium (2013), Jonathon Glazer’s Under the Skin and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (both 2014), which featured vampires and tried, mostly successfully, to do things with them that were more interesting than having Wesley Snipes or Kate Beckingsdale crack open heads or having Robert Pattinson and Kirsten Stewart simper love-struck at one another.


Am I going to tell you what I thought of them?  Of course I am.  (Incidentally, for this entry I have to post a warning: PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD!)


(c) Studio Canal


Neil Jordan’s Byzantium stars Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as mother-and-daughter vampires on the run from other, malevolent vampires, who hide out in a rundown English seaside resort – much of it was filmed in Hastings on the Sussex coast.  It got some frosty reviews on its release.  Certain snooty mainstream critics who regard all horror films as being ridiculous and / or revolting were disdainful of it.  Also, certain online horror-fan critics pooh-poohed it for being a bit uneventful, stuffy and pretentious.  Which is a pity because I found it impressive.  It’s certainly Jordan’s best movie for a while and is very welcome after The Brave One, the misfire of a vigilante movie that he made with Jodie Foster in 2007 – Neil is obviously a lot better with vampires than he is with vigilantes.  He and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt do great things with the film’s seaside setting and, despite the place’s decrepitude, it looks admirably dream-like and phantasmagorical.  And incidentally, Byzantium breaks the first rule of Neil Jordan movies, which is if Stephen Rea isn’t in it, it’s no good.  Rea isn’t in this one but it is good.


And Jordan gets good performances from Arterton and Ronan: the former playing the hardboiled mother vampire who behaves as ruthlessly and murderously as she thinks necessary to ensure her and her offspring’s safety; and the latter playing the less jaded and more humane daughter who tries to restrict her blood-drinking to victims who want to die.  (At the movie’s start, we see a sick old man learning what she really is and inviting her to finish him off.)


Once upon a time, vampire literature and cinema had reactionary and sexist tendencies.  Women would be infected by vampire-bites and become sensual, libidinous creatures freed from the restraints of the staid Christian society around them; but then, inevitably, they’d be punished and neutralised by staid Christian men who’d drive alarmingly phallic-looking stakes into their bodies.  (Bram Stoker’s original Dracula novel helped set the template.)  Because its main characters are female, Byzantium predictably has a revisionist and feminist take on this.  At one point we even see Arterton and Ronan sitting in front of the TV and watching, without much enthusiasm, the famous Spanish-Inquisition-like scene in the 1966 movie Dracula, Prince of Darkness wherein a pointy-toothed Barbara Shelley is held down and staked by a group of monks.


But this is actually a red herring.  The male-chauvinistic villains persecuting our two heroines in Byzantium aren’t vampire-hunting mortals but other vampires.  We gradually learn that the film’s vampire society is a Freemason-like one where weird initiation rituals take place in a temple on an uncharted island.  (For an island that’s so remote and mysterious, I have to say that nobody seems to have any trouble finding it.  Throughout the film it receives a stream of visitors, all keen to change into vampires.)  This society’s membership is jealously guarded and exclusively male – and, like the Freemasons, they seem to have an unhealthy influence over the police force.  So they aren’t best pleased when a pair of upstart females sneak in when nobody’s looking and join their immortal, blood-drinking club.


While Arterton and Ronan potter around modern-day Hastings – Arterton taking over a disused hotel, the Byzantium of the title, and Ronan getting involved with a sickly youth played by Caled Landry Jones (Banshee in the first X-Men prequel) – there are multiple flashbacks to the time of the Napoleonic Wars showing how they became vampires and earned the other vampires’ wrath.  Arterton was originally a young innocent who ended up as a prostitute after being used and abused by a nasty naval officer, played by Johnny Lee Miller, who essays the same sort of arrogant prick he essayed in Trainspotting.  Later, one of Miller’s friends and comrades who was supposed to have died in battle, a kinder character played by Sam Riley, reappeared and offered Miller the secret of eternal life and youth, i.e. vampirism.  But Arterton overheard them, and not only did she steal the vampires’ secret but she later shared it with her born-out-of-wedlock daughter.


And if the film has a problem, it’s the amount of backstory involved.  There’s a lot of it and sometimes it makes the narrative a little tangled and cumbersome.


(c) Film 4 / BFI


Backstory is not a problem with Under the Skin, in which scriptwriters Walter Campbell and Jonathon Glazer (also the director) are impressively determined not to tell, only to show.  It features an unnamed and, it becomes clear, artificial woman played by Scarlett Johansson who drives a big white van around Glasgow, picking up men with the promise of sex back at her place.  But when they get back to her place…  Well, things don’t end well for those lustful blokes.  Johannsson functions as bait, luring them there so that a mysterious alien force can use them for protein.


Also in the frame are some leather-clad, motorbike-riding alien minders.  At first, we think there’s just one of them, but later it becomes apparent there are several.  They clean away traces of Johannsson’s victims, tidy up loose ends and generally display Terminator-type levels of ruthless efficiency.


And that’s all the information we get.  It’s enough to get the plot moving, which picks up momentum when the blank, machine-like Johannsson nets a victim who’s disfigured by neurofibromatosis.  His sad plight causes something unexpected – a stirring of conscience inside her.  Thereafter, she rebels against her programming, abandons her mission and flees into the Scottish Highlands with those alien-motorbike-terminators in pursuit.  But it transpires that the biggest threat to her isn’t her former alien colleagues but the human males who’d previously been her prey.  Now that she’s no longer doing what she was programmed to do, she’s become confused and defenceless; and those men have suddenly become predators.


Once Johannsson goes on the run, she encounters things that seemingly encourage her to become less alien and more human: a slice of Black Forest gateau in a café (which she immediately spews up, not being designed to eat food); a TV clip of Tommy Cooper failing to do a magic trick with a spoon and a jar (“Spoon… jar!  Jar… spoon!”); and exposure to Real Gone Kid by Deacon Blue on the radio, which prompts her to tap her fingertips in a human, non-alien way.  In fact, if I’d been her, hearing Real Gone Kid by Deacon Blue would’ve persuaded me to give up on becoming human and return to being an alien killing machine – but maybe she hadn’t watched TV during the past year and hadn’t been driven mad by those Boots-the-chemist adverts that use the song as a jingle.


Obviously, Under the Skin isn’t a traditional vampire movie.  But it has similar themes, of sexual attraction and seduction, and of something superhuman sustaining itself by feeding on the merely human, so I’ll classify it as one.


The British film industry has previous form with sci-fi / horror alien vampires, most notably in Tobe Hooper’s barmy 1983 movie Lifeforce, wherein Mathilda May played an extra-terrestrial humanoid parasite who’s brought to earth and spends much of the movie strutting around in a state of nakedness whilst draining the energy out of hapless earthlings.  In Under the Skin, Scarlett Johannsson similarly spends a lot of time being nude in the name of art – though I have to say there’s rather more art in Under the Skin than there was in Lifeforce.


I wasn’t entirely impressed by Under the Skin.  Although I like how Glazer and Campbell leave it to the audience to work things out, there are times when the storyline’s vagueness seems a convenient way to sidestep problems with logic.  The biggest logical failing is a common one in films where aliens arrive on earth and behave in a secretive, low-key (and invariably low-budget) way.  The universe is unimaginably vast and so are the distances between solar systems with habitable planets, but despite all the time, energy, technology and effort these aliens must’ve expended in travelling to our planet, they decide to be as furtive as possible when they finally arrive here.  And if an alien civilisation went to such lengths to get to earth because they wanted a food source, I very much doubt if they’d be content to send Scarlett Johannsson prowling the streets of Glasgow in a white van, picking up the occasional Ned for them to snack on.  Surely they’d be consuming humanity on an industrial scale.


(The premise was treated more believably back in 1980 in the fourth and last of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass TV serials.  This had the world’s youth gripped by a mass psychosis, which made them congregate in certain locations, where they were then harvested by deadly energy beams sent from above by unseen aliens.)


Another inconsistency involves the capabilities of Johannsson’s alien-motorbike-minders.  Early on, they seem omniscient.  They immediately turn up to destroy any last traces of those men whom Johannsson has lured to their doom.  But when Johannsson goes AWOL, they seem clueless about where she’s got to and have to organise a search for her.  Maybe their alien-hive-mind link with her is sundered the moment that she develops a human conscience.  However, the motorbike-aliens still know what’s going on for a good five minutes after she does her first human good deed – for one of them appears dismayingly quickly to sort out the mess created by that.  Glazer and Campbell, we suspect, are happy to sacrifice logic whenever it suits their plot.


That said, though, I found much to admire in Under the Skin.  Despite the way-out-ness of its subject matter, it has a raw, uncomfortably-realistic feel to it that’s different from most other sci-fi or horror films I’ve seen.  This is largely due to Glazer’s unconventional filming methods.  The initial scenes where Johannsson encounters her victims often consist of footage, shot with hidden cameras, of her talking to non-thespians, i.e. real, ordinary blokes, while she trundled around Glasgow in her van.  Once Glazer and his crew had revealed themselves and explained to these men that no, a miracle hadn’t occurred and someone who looked like Scarlett Johannsson wasn’t really trying to chat them up, but their reactions had been secretly filmed for a movie, they were invited to participate further and do the scenes back at Johannsson’s lair.  Meanwhile, for the sequence where Johannsson discovers her human side, Glazer eschewed using an actor wearing prosthetics and employed a genuine neurofibromatosis-sufferer, a non-actor called Adam Pearson.


Incidentally, the film’s atmosphere is complemented by Mica Levi’s excellent music.  There are troubling periods where strings seethe like a pit of angry snakes.  At other times, during the seduction scenes, a slow, languid but suitably-ominous refrain kicks in.  It’s the best musical soundtrack I’ve heard since Clint Mansell’s work on Duncan Jones’s Moon (2009).


And praise is due for Scarlett Johannsson – though I suspect she wondered what she’d got herself into after she’d signed the contract and found herself in Glasgow for the first day of shooting. She’s believable as the gorgeous but doll-like, affable but not-quite-all-there man-bait roaming the city in the film’s first half.  She’s talkative in a flat, oddly-direct way, her conversation consisting mostly of questions about her passenger’s personal circumstances (to determine if they’ll be missed once they’re eaten) and of startlingly-open invitations back to her place.  She’s equally believable as the confused fugitive later on.  The moment she abandons her function and stops man-hunting, her conversational powers seem to desert her and she becomes mute.


(c) Recorded Picture Company / Pandora Film


The vampires in Byzantium kill with a retractable, talon-like, jugular-slashing fingernail, while Johannsson’s killing method in Under the Skin is appropriately weird and alien; so it’s nice in Only Lovers Left Alive, directed by American indie-cinema legend Jim Jarmusch, to see vampires with properly pointy canines lurking at the corners of their mouths.  Mind you, we only see these pointy teeth when the vampires are luxuriating, and grinning mindlessly, after they’ve had a heroin-like fix of blood.  But they don’t normally use the teeth to procure the blood, by biting people.  No, they try to procure it in a more mundane but civilised fashion, which involves slipping bundles of money to a crooked doctor (played by Jeffrey Wright) at the local blood-bank in return for packages of delicious O negative.


And the vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive are an oh-so-civilised bunch.  We first see the protagonists, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), in a series of revolving, overhead shots showing them lying languidly on their respective living-room and bedroom floors, one surrounded by vinyl and pieces of musical equipment and the other surrounded by piles of books.  Actually, as I seem to spend a lot of my life lying on floors surrounded by music and books, I think I’d make a good Jim-Jarmusch vampire too – unfortunately, I’m not immortal and I sometimes have to work for a living.  Apart from making music and reading, these vampires don’t do much else, except for getting off with one another – for Adam and Eve are lovers – and hanging out with similarly-arty fellow-vampires like John Hurt’s Christopher Marlowe, who (surprise!) didn’t really die in 1593 but became a blood-drinking immortal instead.


Needless to say, these vampires take a low view of humanity, regarding them as grubby and stupid creatures and doing their best to avoid them.  Apart from Jeffrey Wight, Hiddleston’s only contact with the human masses seems to be a wheeler-dealer (Anton Yelchin, who plays Chekov in the new Star Trek movies), who keeps him supplied with antique guitars.  Mind you, this disdain for humanity doesn’t stop the vampires from idolising certain individual members of the species.  At one point, Hiddleston, who’s based in Detroit, takes Swinton on a nocturnal drive to show her the house where Jack White used to live; and Hiddleston has stuck to his wall a gallery of pictures showing various humans whom he admires, including Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Franz Kafka, Buster Keaton, Harpo Marx, William Burroughs, Patti Smith and Keith Richards.  (I suppose it’s possible that Jarmusch is implying that these counter-cultural heroes and heroines have become vampires too.  Which is quite believable in Keith Richards’ case.)


Their idyllic, secluded existence comes to an end halfway through the movie when Swinton’s vampire kid sister, an immature, irresponsible brat played by Mia Wasikowska, turns up on their doorstep for a visit.  In David Cronenberg’s 2014 movie Maps to the Stars, Wasikowska plays someone whose arrival on the scene makes everything go pear-shaped, in a few cases fatally, for the other main characters; and she has a similar effect here.


I certainly wouldn’t say Only Lovers Left Alive is among the best of Jarmusch’s films.  It’s a little vexing that a director who’s been famous throughout his career for making unconsciously cool movies should now make a self-consciously cool movie about vampires.  In Jarmusch’s earlier films, the characters were losers and / or misfits (often because they belonged to minority cultures in America’s diverse but Anglo-Saxon-controlled melting pot) who remained themselves, stuck to their guns, got on with things and achieved a certain coolness.  I’m thinking of, say, Eszter Balint’s Hungarian girl in Stranger than Paradise (1984), Roberto Benigni’s manic Italian in Down by Law (1986), the Elvis-worshipping Japanese kids in Mystery Train (1989), Forest Whitaker’s samurai-obsessed hitman in Ghost Dog (1999) and the Ethiopian neighbour played by Jeffrey Wright (again) in Broken Flowers (2006) who loves detective novels and sends Bill Murray on a quest to find his long-lost son.  It now seems a cop-out for Jarmusch to make a movie about vampires, who by their very nature – being immortal, superhuman, elegant, nocturnal and all that – are cool anyway.


That said, the movie has good features.  I enjoyed the performances, even the one by Tilda Swinton, who’s normally an actress I respect rather than actually like.  There are some sly jokes and I love the idea of Detroit – after all its well-publicised economic and social problems – becoming an ideal spot for vampires to hang out.  And as you’d expect from Jarmusch, the music is good.  The soundtrack features artists ranging from established American ones (Zola Jesus, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) to less well-known ones from elsewhere in the world such as Lebanese singer Yasmin Hamdan and Dutch minimalist composer and lute player Josef van Wissem.


There’s nothing by Tom Waits, though, which is odd considering the association he’s had with Jarmusch in the past, in movies like Down by Law, Night on Earth (1991) and Coffee and Cigarettes (2003).  But perhaps old Tom is more of a zombie man.


Granite City looking grim




The past months have been healthy ones for Aberdeen Football Club.  Indeed, the current Aberdeen team look like they’re in with a shout of winning the Scottish League Cup for the first time in thirty years.


But it was announced last week that Aberdeen – the city, not the football team – has already won a trophy for 2015.  This, though, is a rather less edifying prize than the League Cup.  It’s the annual Plook on a Plinth award that Urban Realm magazine hands out to the town deemed to be the year’s most architecturally dismal one in Scotland.  To win the League Cup, Aberdeen-the-team will have to overcome some strong opposition from Celtic FC, but Aberdeen-the-city has already won the Plook on a Plinth award by overcoming equally strong opposition from the likes of East Kilbride, Greenock and Cumbernauld.


Now anyone who’s familiar with Aberdeen will know immediately that it’s not as architecturally dreary as East Kilbride, Greenock or Cumbernauld.  It has districts like the majestic west end along Queen’s Road, and the picturesque university campus at Old Aberdeen, and the quaint old fishing village, Footdee, at the edge of its harbour.  It also has buildings like Aberdeen Grammar School and His Majesty’s Theatre and the mighty Marischal College, the second-biggest granite building in the world.  Yes, parts of it are impressive – they could hardly fail to be, given that they were constructed with crystal-flecked granite blocks hewn out of nearby Rubislaw Quarry.


Rather, the givers of the award have made it clear is that it’s meant to be a kick up the arse for the city’s council.  Over recent decades they’ve made a string of dire planning decisions.  As Urban Realm’s editor, John Glenday, observed: “Aberdeen is a great city but despite its enviable financial clout and rich heritage legacy it has become the poor relation of Scottish cities…  The time to turn things around is now, in a few years’ time it may well be too late.”


None of this surprises me.  When I thought about this entry, I realised with a shock that I hadn’t actually set foot in Aberdeen during the 21st century.  But as far as the ignominy of receiving a Plook on a Plinth award is concerned, the writing was already on the wall while I lived there in the 20th.


I spent five years in Aberdeen, mostly as a student, during the 1980s.  The city made a big impression on me, though admittedly at the time I had a pretty impressionable young mind.  The High Street and Chanonry parts of the university campus, with landmarks like King’s College and St Machar Cathedral, looked so antiquated that I felt I’d stepped through a time-warp and arrived centuries back in the past.  Their venerability made it a perfect environment for an academically-minded student.  Not that I was academically-minded, though – the rest of the city held too many distractions.


That city was a strange, sometimes uneasy combination of the traditional and modern – modernity coming largely in the form of the North Sea oil boom, which had made Aberdeen Europe’s unofficial oil capital.  There was Union Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, a wide, straight corridor of granite that ran for a mile and was lined with busy shops.  Supposedly, it’d nearly bankrupted the city when it was built in the 19th century.  Beyond the top of Union Street was the west end, full of granite buildings on a more upmarket scale – these included several hotels that’d been glitzed up with oil money and attracted an oil-industry clientele.  For a while, I worked nightshifts in one of them, the Belvedere Hotel, as a kitchen porter.  Later, in the same area, I worked as a warden at the city’s youth hostel, which was full of aspiring oilmen, in town to do the training and sea-survival courses necessary before they could get industry jobs.


Meanwhile, the estuary of the River Dee was home to the city docks.  These were hardly scenic but they possessed an exciting buzz as hordes of dockers, sailors and oilmen went about their work and – in the district’s rough-and-ready pubs – about their play.  The granite streets leading down to this area always seemed eerily quiet and empty to me, though.  There were vestiges too of the city’s fishing industry, in the form of rundown and messy wee dockside streets that remained home to a couple of dozen fish-processing companies.  Another job I did was to work briefly as a dogsbody for a consultancy firm that’d been tasked with revitalising Aberdeen’s fish-processing sector.


There were districts of municipal grandeur like the late-Victorian Rosemount Viaduct; and, simultaneously, hard-pressed ones like Sandilands, which was paradoxically a few minutes’ walk northeast of Old Aberdeen and which was deemed so undesirable that students were offered extra-low rents to live there.  South of the Dee, meanwhile, was Torry, an area I’ve seen described as a ‘granite Gorbals’.  In fairness, though, no part of Aberdeen ever seemed as desperate as certain areas in Glasgow or Edinburgh.


For my first half-year there I was not enamoured with the Aberdonian temperament.  The locals didn’t seem particularly warm or welcoming.  Legend had it that in 1728 a Greenland Inuit, in his kayak, had been unlucky enough to be swept out on a current across the North Atlantic and was eventually picked up by fishermen close to Aberdeen, where he died three days later – a popular joke was that it wasn’t the coldness of the journey that’d killed him, but the coldness of the hospitality he received when he reached his destination.  For a little while I could believe that.


But later, I realised that the locals simply preferred to take their time to get to know you.  Once they’d sized you up, and decided you were worth talking to, you were in.  You got along with them fine.  And I have to say I found their gradualist approach to forming friendships more honest than the instant, you’re-my-best-pal-forever bonhomie I’ve encountered in certain other cities in the UK.




Meanwhile, in the university community there, I quickly met a good number of idiots, exhibitionists, megalomaniacs, oddballs and simple pains-in-the-arse; and I could understand why those Aberdonians might seem cool towards anyone they thought was a student.  For this reason, I seemed to spend a lot of time drinking in the city’s pubs – the rougher and more disreputable the better – to see if I passed the test, i.e. to prove to myself that I could hold my own, and chat to ordinary local people, and not be taken for a poncy student.


Actually, much of what I remember about Aberdeen seems to involve pubs.  I wonder if any of those venues like the Bridge, Castle, Clansman, Clouds, Criterion, Crown and Anchor, Drift Inn, 524 Cocktail Bar, Gilcomston, Grampian, Grill, Kittybrewster, Lochside, Martin’s Bar (the interior of which a friend of mine likened to “what life will look like after the bomb has dropped”), Moorings, Neptune, Peep Peeps (which I once, subsequently, saw featured in an episode of Sky TV’s Britain’s Hardest Pubs), Royal Antheneum, Seaton Arms, Schooner, St Clements, Yardarm, etc., still survive.


One pub that definitely no longer exists, because it was knocked down while I was still in Aberdeen, was the Cragshannoch on George Street.  I remember it being housed in a concrete bunker with metal grills on its windows and run by an ill-tempered old woman.  It also contained an antiquated metal cash register that had figures in old, pre-decimalisation money pinging up at the top of it.  I find it impossible to think of that pub now without being reminded of the ‘local shop for local people’ featured in The League of Gentlemen TV series.


Another abiding memory of Aberdeen is how schizophrenic it could be.  All of Scotland’s cities have a certain schizophrenic quality to them, but in Aberdeen it was literally embodied in the place’s fabric, i.e. in its granite.  When the sun shone and the flecks of crystal glittered in the granite walls, the city looked gorgeous.  When it rained, however, all that granite turned black and the mood became desolate indeed.




I generally considered Aberdeen to be a handsome city and felt proud to be living there, but soon after I arrived I noticed two buildings that seemed monstrous in their ugliness.  On George Street, which with Market Street formed a north-south thoroughfare that intersected Union Street at the city’s heart, there stood Norco House, the supposed showcase-building for the now-defunct Northern Cooperative Society.  Basically, this looked like a stack of giant concrete egg cartons.  Meanwhile, the city council headquarters were contained in a 1960s structure called St Nicholas House.  I suppose this towering box was no more hideous than a hundred other, 1960s municipal buildings that blighted the centres of a hundred other British towns and cities.  Unforgivably, though, this one had been plonked down just across the road from the soaring Marischal College and ruined the view of it from the south, west and north.


One project that was announced while I was living there didn’t inspire much faith in the city planners, either.  The axis formed by Union Street and George Street / Market Street had already been throttled by the construction of the St Nicholas Centre, a corridor-like shopping centre that blocked off George Street just before the two thoroughfares intersected.  In the late 1980s another swathe of George Street behind the St Nicholas Centre was demolished and a much bigger and uglier shopping centre, the Bon Accord Centre, was erected – making the rest of George Street seem even more like a backwater, cut off from the city centre.  Amazingly, the one George Street building that should have been levelled by this new development, Norco House, was left standing – I believe it’s still there, operating now under the auspices of John Lewis.


(One of the many reasons why the new Bon Accord Centre annoyed me was that two more dodgy old pubs I drank in, the Swan and the Harriet Street Bar, had to be demolished to make way for it.  Although I inspected it the other day on Google Maps and discovered to my amazement that a third dodgy pub, the Balaclava, still seems to survive at the back of it.)


I’m sure that similar shopping centres followed in the 1990s and the noughties.  And I’ve noticed that in Urban Realm’s comments on Aberdeen, it mentions how shops have closed along Union Street, caused while shoppers “retreat to covered malls, sucking the life out of surrounding streets”.


One wise thing that the city did last year was to finally demolish St Nicholas House.  On the day that the bloody thing finally toppled into the earth, one blogger described “the smiles on the passers-by as they stood and watched or took pictures on their mobile phones.  It didn’t seem to me as if anyone was upset to see St Nicholas House ruined.”  (  Alas, rather than turn it into a square, so that Marischal College can be observed in its full unimpeded glory, the powers-that-be seem hellbent on letting the developers into the vacated space to erect more buildings, of the retailing variety, which will no doubt be depressingly familiar in their crap-ness.


(c) Urban Realm 


Aberdeen City Council’s response to the news of the Plook on the Plinth award has been indignant and defensive.  Among the protests, council members have pointed to a new ‘City Centre Regeneration Project’, which will be unveiled this coming summer.  But hold on a minute.  When a town or a city talks about ‘regeneration’, it’s usually after the place has suffered from recession and economic decline and something is badly needed to turn it around and push it away from the post-industrialised brink.  Aberdeen, however, has been awash in oil money for a good three-and-a-half decades.  It’s wealthy.  It’s rich.  And if somewhere so fortunate and privileged is suddenly talking now in terms of regeneration, it’s clear that the people in charge, for a very long time, have had their heads full of mince.


Edinburgh and other stuff



What a strange wee place the Museum of Edinburgh is.  It’s one of several free-to-enter museums operating on or just off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and it’s surely the most schizophrenic of the lot.  Indeed, so multiple are its personalities that it feels like three or four different museums under a single roof.


It stands at Number 142 on the Canongate, the Mile’s lowest section, and occupies a building called Huntly House.  This building dates back to 1570, when it was assembled out of three separate properties that’d previously occupied the site.  It underwent a five-year restoration job from 1927 to 1932 and subsequently, under the auspices of Edinburgh City Council, reopened its doors as a museum.


Initially, it follows the regulations of the Trades Description Act and does what the sign outside says it does – it functions as a museum about Edinburgh.  You get, for example, some intricate models of medieval Edinburgh’s Old Town, which I never tire of looking at.  They remind you how, as a location for building a city, Edinburgh’s site was a defensive no-brainer – with Edinburgh Castle rock rising at its western end, and the Nor Loch (now drained and replaced by Waverly Station and Princes Street Garden) stretching along its northern side, all that was needed for the city’s defences were walls to its east and south.



You also see architect James Craig’s original plans from the 18th century for the altogether grander and more spacious New Town, which helped turn Edinburgh into the alleged ‘Athens of the North’ and make it North Britain’s most desirable address for posh folk.  Not that this municipal success did much for Craig’s fortunes – according to the information in the museum-display, he was suffering serious financial problems by the 1780s.


Among the other Edinburgh-related items that catch the eye are the National Covenant of 1638, which is surely the most important and precious artefact in the building; a banner from the rather more recent Campaign for a Scottish Parliament; weaponry belonging to the City Guard who maintained law and order from 1679 to 1817; a couple of imposing grandfather clocks; and, to show the city’s modern councillors what a proper tram should look like, a model of one of the original trams from the days of the Edinburgh Corporation Tramways, which ended in 1956.



Inevitably, there’s also a display about Scotland’s most loyal wee dog, Greyfriars Bobby, who’s supposed to have slept on his master’s grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard for 14 years.  The display includes his feeding bowl and collar.  Well, I should probably say their feeding bowl and collar, as modern research indicates that there were actually two of the cemetery-haunting mutts – when the first Bobby died, a second Bobby was quietly substituted in his place to ensure that 19th-century tourists kept coming to Greyfriars to see him (and to ensure that the cash registers kept jingling in the vicinity).



As you climb the stairs to the museum’s upper regions, however, the tone changes.  You find yourself in what is in effect a different museum, one devoted to pottery and ceramics and then to glass and silverware.



And once you’ve passed that, you arrive in a final couple of rooms that are dedicated to the life of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the 1st Earl Haig and commander of the British Expeditionary Force during the latter three years of World War One.  Haig was born in Charlotte Square in Edinburgh in 1861; and when he died in 1928, the museum’s premises, Huntly House, were in the middle of being restored.  Haig was massively popular at the time of his death and his funeral was marked by a day of national mourning, so no doubt it seemed a good idea to have the museum pay tribute to him when it finally began operating in 1932.


That idea seems less good a century later, now that historical revisionism – in the form of, for instance, Alan Clark’s 1961 book The Donkeys, Richard Attenborough’s 1969 film Oh, What a Lovely War! and the 1989 TV series Blackadder Goes Forth (in which Stephen Fry seemed to channel Haig for his performance as the psychopathically blimpish commander Lord Melchett) – has changed the way we look at old Douglas.  We’re less inclined to see him as a national hero and more inclined to see him as a deluded mass-murdering incompetent, as his common posthumous nicknames ‘Butcher Haig’ and ‘the Butcher of the Somme’ testify.  Blackadder seems to have particularly done for his reputation.  As Rowan Atkinson remarked in one episode, “Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.”  Perhaps that’s why I had the Haig section of the Museum of Edinburgh entirely to myself when I visited it recently.


Still, I really like this section’s display of Toby jugs that are fashioned in the likenesses of eleven political leaders and military commanders of the First-World-War Allies – including Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George and Lord Kitchener.  Here’s the no-nonsense King George V-jug with the Haig-jug perched loyally by its side.



The Museum of Edinburgh is best described as ‘eclectic’ and that eclecticism makes it interesting.  But it could do with a proper, unifying narrative to make it feel more orderly and satisfying.  And maybe the problem is that the necessary narrative is already being used, elsewhere – just on the other side of the Canongate, at the People’s Story Museum.


RIP the Taitu




Some sad news reached me last month regarding one of my favourite haunts in Ethiopia.  The Taitu Hotel, which has stood for more than a century in the Piazza district of Addis Ababa, caught fire on the morning of Sunday, January 11th, and suffered severe damage to its main – and most historic and characterful – building.  One foreign tourist staying there at the time told journalists that the fire brigade turned up in “about ten minutes… but it was really gone by that time.”  From the photograph of the fire’s aftermath that I saw in a report in the Guardian, ‘gone’ is definitely the word for it – certainly as far as the upper half of the unfortunate building is concerned.


The Taitu Hotel was the place I stayed in most often when I visited Addis Ababa during the two-year period – from 1999 to 2001 – that I worked in Ethiopia as a volunteer.  And when I returned to Ethiopia in 2009 to research a dissertation for a Masters’ degree, I resided there during my whole time in the city.  Its main building was a lovely, atmospheric old structure with a varnished wooden floor and wooden furnishings and walls that were adorned with historical and cultural bric-a-brac.  I even remember its upstairs landing doubling as a small art gallery.


However, because I was a volunteer, the rooms in that main building were out of my price-league and so I would stay in an annex building at the back of the premises, where the rooms were cheaper, though inevitably scruffier.  At least that didn’t stop me from frequently sitting with a bottle of Bedele beer in the restaurant / bar area of the main building – or, when the sun was out, sitting on the terrace immediately behind the building and enjoying the view of Addis Ababa down the hillside below – and pretending I had money.


During my volunteering days, there was also a bar / dance-floor, complete with a DJ’s booth, at the side of the yard in front of the main hotel.  Its draft beer was very cheap indeed and I spent many a leisurely afternoon or evening there, wasting my time in the pleasantest way possible.  Actually, my memory of that bar also has a darker association, for it was while I was in there that I first learned about events in New York on 9 / 11.  My girlfriend of the time and I had been up late the night before, enjoying the festivities of Ethiopian New Year, which falls on September 11th, and we wandered into the bar early the following afternoon hoping to dampen our hangovers with a ‘hair of the dog’.  We couldn’t understand why so many staff-members of the Taitu Hotel were huddled around the television set there, which was tuned into CNN and showing scenes of carnage on an epic scale unfurling against a familiar-looking cityscape.  I remember my girlfriend’s first reaction being that the TV must be showing a modern version of Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds hoax.


When I returned to the hotel in 2009, I discovered that the bar had disappeared.  The hotel’s owners must have sold the side-building off because it was now occupied by a bank.  Meanwhile, more budget rooms were being created at the back of the hotel and its rear premises were screened off by giant sheets of canvas, behind which construction work was presumably going on.  Needless to say, this ruined the view from the terrace.  In another effort to attract more budget travellers, the management allowed people to park their 4x4s at the back and sleep overnight in them – I saw one group of westerners turn up in a land rover and then stay inside a tiny tent that they erected on the land rover’s roof.


The cheaper quarters seem to have survived the conflagration.  The hotel’s website stresses that 75 rooms remain ‘operational’ and I assume they’re all located at the back.


It’s especially sad to see the Taitu Hotel, or at least the old part of it, vanish in smoke because it constituted a genuine piece of Ethiopian history.  It was named in honour of the formidable Empress Itegue Taitu Bitul who in 1896, a few years prior to the hotel’s construction, had led Ethiopian forces into the Battle of Adwa with her husband Emperor Menelik II and defeated a would-be Italian invasion force.  It was one of the most venerable buildings in Addis Ababa and, although its sombre, dignified presence felt a little out-of-place in the surrounding neighbourhood of Piazza, which is overflowing with noisy cheap-and-cheerful bars, the hotel certainly deserved its status as one of the city’s landmarks.


(c) Penguin


The Taitu had literary as well as historical significance.  When Ethiopia suffered its second invasion by the Italians in the mid-1930s – the Italians were successful this time, largely because they had something their 19th-century predecessors lacked, military aircraft – the Taitu became the base for the foreign journalists and photographers who were covering the conflict.  Among these correspondents was Evelyn Waugh, working for the Daily Mail, and he later used his Ethiopian experiences as material for his satirical novel Scoop (1938).  In Scoop, the African country in question becomes the fictional nation of Ishmaelia and the hotel containing the hordes of foreign pressmen is renamed the Hotel Liberty.


I can’t say I’m a big fan of Waugh’s work.  I’ve always considered his other famous ‘comic’ novel Vile Bodies (1930), which is populated by the bright young things of England’s upper classes, to be a pile of chinless, double-barrelled tripe.  Scoop begins equally unpromisingly, with jokes about crusty old lords, elderly nannies, eight-year-old child prodigies who recite Virgil and dynamic young ladies who crash their motorcars down the steps of underground public lavatories because – haw-haw-haw! – women don’t understand anything about machines!  No doubt the likes of Stephen Fry or Julian Fellowes (or come to think of it, Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg) would throw up their hands and chortle in delight at such aristocratic japes, but I find them about as amusing as toothache.


Scoop, however, improves immeasurably when its timid hero William Boot, who pens an innocuous weekly countryside / nature column for a newspaper called the Daily Beast, gets sent, in a case of mistaken identity, to the conflict-ridden Ishmaelia to serve as the Beast’s war correspondent.   The absurdities that follow, with none of the European correspondents knowing remotely what is going on but prepared to invent anything and everything in order to justify their presence there (and justify their expense accounts) suggests that little has changed in the workings of the news media during the 80 years since.  Incidentally, Christopher Hitchens was a big fan of Scoop and, indeed, he wrote the introduction to the edition of the novel that I have.


The racial epithets Waugh uses to describe the Ishmaelians – the ‘c’-word, ‘d’-word and, yes, the ‘n’-word all see service – make for queasy reading at times, though in his defence I suppose I should argue that he was merely using language and expressing attitudes that were commonly held and accepted among 1930s Westerners: the book was of its time.  And he does present the Western characters as being much bigger dolts than the African ones.


The Liberty Hotel in Scoop, with its ‘bare boards’, ‘tin roof’ and every bedroom having ‘a leak somewhere in its iron ceiling’ seems a much less hospitable place than how I remember the Taitu Hotel being 15 or five years ago.  Mind you, if the real hotel had been full of leaks letting in ‘the monotonous splash and patter and gurgle of rain’, it perhaps wouldn’t have gone up in flames as quickly last month.