The fickleness of acting fame


(c) Reynolds Pictures, Inc


The actor Gregory Walcott, who died a week ago at the age of 87, was hardly a household name.  But in a fickle profession – I’ll wager that 99.9% of all actors and actresses never win any degree of fame or recognition at all – he had a pretty good innings.


Between the 1960s and 1980s he made guest appearances on a slew of American TV shows that I remember well, if not always fondly, from my childhood and teens – western ones (Rawhide, Bonanza, The High Chaparral, Alias Smith and Jones, The Quest), cop ones (Kojak, McCloud, Barnaby Jones, Baretta, CHiPs, Vega$) and science-fiction ones (The Invisible Man, The Gemini Man, Land of the Lost, The Six Million Dollar Man).  He also turned up in those two big-haired, big-moneyed super-soap-operas that were an inescapable feature of Ronald Reagan-era TV, Dallas and Dynasty.


Cinematically, Walcott appeared in the supporting casts of several Clint Eastwood movies back when Big Clint was in his prime (and before he became better known for talking to empty chairs at Republican Party conferences).  These were Joe Kidd (1972), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), The Eiger Sanction (1975) and Every Which Way but Loose (1978).  Also, Walcott got to work with legendary director John Ford in 1955’s Mister Roberts; and in 1974 he appeared in The Sugarland Express, which was directed by a young, barely-started-shaving Steven Spielberg.


However, when Walcott’s obituaries appeared a few days ago, it wasn’t his extensive TV work or his associations with Eastwood, Ford and Spielberg that received attention.  No, the item in Walcott’s CV that the obituarists focused on was a low-budget science-fiction film that he’d made in 1956: a film whose script he considered to be ‘gibberish’ but which he went ahead and starred in as a favour to a friend, Ed Reynolds, who was the film’s executive producer.  Initially, Walcott wasn’t bothered about making this unpromising-sounding film and possibly damaging his acting reputation as a consequence.  He assumed it would sink without trace.  “I honestly thought,” he told an interviewer later, “it would only be shown out in the boondocks and no-one would ever see it.”


Walcott must have felt increasingly nervous as, during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, this particular film refused to stay in the boondocks.  Rather, it began to loom large in popular culture.  Inexorably, its fame – or infamy – grew.  Thanks largely to it being championed by movie critics like Michael Medved, filmmakers like Joe Dante and cultural commentators like Clive James, it became a contender for the title of Worst Film Ever Made.


By 1994, when Tim Burton made Ed Wood, a biopic of the movie’s director – with Johnny Depp in the title role of oddball, angora-obsessed and epically-incompetent filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr – it was no longer just a contender for the title.  In the public consciousness, the movie, Plan 9 from Outer Space, now was the worst film ever made.


(c) Reynolds Pictures, Inc


These days connoisseurs of bad movies spend hours enthusing about Plan 9’s multiple shortcomings: about the cemetery headstones (obviously made of cardboard) that topple over on camera and the characters’ cars that change make from scene to scene; the flying saucers that look like they’ve been fashioned from hubcaps; the risible dialogue (“Inspector Clay is dead… murdered… and someone is responsible!”); the fact that the movie’s biggest star, Bela Lugosi, had died before filming started and his ‘performance’ was a combination of home-movie footage shot when he’d been alive and the use of a stand-in (actually Wood’s wife’s chiropractor) who looked nothing like him; the sets that’d apparently been assembled inside a cupboard, including one of an airplane cockpit with sides made out of shower-curtains and a very visible boom-microphone overhead; the barmy narration by Jerome King Criswell, a real-life, self-proclaimed psychic who intones, “Greetings my friends!  We are all interested in the future.  For that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives!”  And so on, and so forth.


With cruel inevitability, Plan 9 figured prominently in the headlines about Walcott’s death.  The Independent called him THE BLAMELESS ACTOR WHO COULDN’T SHAKE OFF BEING A PART OF THE WORST MOVIE EVER.  In the Times, he was the ACTOR WHO STARRED IN A FILM REGARDED AS THE WORST IN CINEMA HISTORY.  A slightly-more-circumspect New York Times declared, GREGORY WALCOTT, ACTOR IN ‘PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE’, DIES AT 87.


Walcott reminds me of a more famous actor who passed away in February, Leonard Nimoy.  Nimoy appeared in some classic TV shows (The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Mission Impossible) and was nominated for an Emmy for playing Golda Meir’s husband in the 1982 TV movie A Woman Called Golda.  He appeared in several acclaimed stage productions, including Fiddler on the Roof, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Equus and Twelfth Night.  He enjoyed parallel careers as a screenwriter, producer and director – he even directed and starred in a 1981 TV movie called Vincent, a biopic of Vincent Van Gogh.  And he was a photographer, poet and singer-songwriter too.  Despite all this, Nimoy went to his grave with five words etched (metaphorically) on his headstone: MR SPOCK IN STAR TREK!


(c) Desilu Productions 


No matter how much he tried to escape it – and by the mid-1970s he seemed pretty annoyed at the fact, because he penned a memoir called I am not Spock and refused for a time to be involved in the first Star Trek movie (which eventually did have him on board when it was released in 1979) – Nimoy was forever associated in people’s minds with a half-human alien who lived by the dictates of logic.  One who took orders from Captain William Shatner, incapacitated opponents using the very handy Vulcan nerve-pinch, and possessed the most famous pair of pointy ears on the planet.


Later, though, Nimoy seemed to make his peace with Star Trek and Mr Spock.  The second volume of his memoirs, published in 1995, was entitled I am Spock; and he continued making Star Trek movies into his old age.  He even appeared in the new, rebooted Star Trek films with Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, Benedict Cumberbatch, etc., playing a venerable and sagacious Mr Spock from an alternative universe.


I have to say that, while I’m not a Star Trek fan, I think Nimoy made the right decision.  I’ve read some of his poems and heard a little of his singing.  And I like him much better as Mr Spock.


It must be galling for actors and actresses – trained in a profession where the goal is to become a human chameleon, to be able to step into the shoes of any character, inhabit their persona and imbue them convincingly with life onstage or onscreen – when your audience becomes fixated with one role you’ve played, or one TV show or film you’ve appeared in, and associates you with that for the rest of your career.  And very often, the role, show or film that the crass, fickle public saddles you with is something less than Shakespearean.


(c) De Laurentiis Entertainment Group


I can think of two well-known Scottish actors who’ve had to deal with this.  Craggy, Dundonian performer Brian Cox has enjoyed a distinguished career in the theatre, on TV and in films.  But in 1986 he had a supporting role in Michael Mann’s dark thriller Manhunter, based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.  He played an inmate in an institution for the criminally insane who’s onscreen for only a few minutes.  But that character was Dr Hannibal Lektor who, three years later, would win mass-popularity when Anthony Hopkins played him in Silence of the Lambs (with the character’s surname re-spelt as ‘Lector’).  For a long time afterwards, Cox had to put up with countless comments and queries about his turn as the first cinematic incarnation of Harris’s suave, Nietzschean super-cannibal.  Even now, he’s probably getting letters asking him what his thoughts are on the funky new leather jacket that Mads Mikkelsen will be wearing in season three of Hannibal.


Then there’s Crieff-born actor Dennis Lawson, who receives more mail about his role as Wedge Antilles in the original three Star Wars movies than about everything else he’s done put together.  This is despite the fact that he’s only in each movie for about a minute.  He’s seen climbing into an X-Wing Fighter before each big space-battle, sitting in the X-Wing Fighter during each big space-battle, and climbing out of the X-Wing Fighter after each big space-battle.  (Indeed, it was only when he filmed the climbing-out scenes that Lawson realised that his character had survived yet another movie.)  Still, his association with the films may have been welcomed in certain quarters of his family – two decades later, his nephew Ewan McGregor secured the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels.


(c) 20th Century Fox


Returning to Gregory Walcott – like Nimoy and Spock, he eventually learned to live with Plan 9 from Outer Space.  In an interview with the LA Times, he said of the film that “it’s better to be remembered for something than for nothing.”  Bearing his old director no malice, he agreed to a cameo role in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, which proved to be his final film appearance.  And last year, when a pub called the Plan Nine Alehouse opened in his neighbourhood, he allowed his son to gift it his old copy of the Plan 9 script.  (The script ended up as a decoration in the pub toilets).


Actually, I get slightly irritated when people identify Plan 9 as the worst film ever made.  It’s badly written and technically inept to a comical degree, I admit, but I think Ed Wood deserves kudos for at least investing it with a crazed enthusiasm.  He was a desperately bad filmmaker but he shouldn’t be condemned for being ambitious – the problem was that the realisation of his ambitions fell far short of what’d been in his imagination.  Tim Burton clearly recognises and sympathises with Wood’s creative yearnings because, near the end of 1994’s Ed Wood, he inserts a hypothetical scene where Wood, pissed off at his financiers’ meddling in the making of Plan 9, bumps into and chats with Orson Welles, who’s equally pissed off at Universal’s meddling in the making of Touch of Evil.  (“They want Charlton Heston to play a Mexican!”)


Plan 9 even contains a speech, delivered by an alien, which denounces humanity’s obsession with building bigger and evermore-terrible weapons of mass destruction.  It’s a noble sentiment but, as usual with Wood, this well-meaning speech becomes nonsensical.  The alien (played by an actor with the eccentric name of Dudley Manlove) starts raving about exploding sunlight-particles that’ll somehow trigger a chain reaction and destroy the universe.  Then he has a hissy fit: “Your stupid minds!  Stupid!  Stupid!”  And yet, in that artless scene, there’s probably more personality than you’d find in the entirety of Michael Bay’s Transformers, Transformers 2, Transformers 3 and Transformers 4.


I should say that I’m supported in this opinion by no less a personage than the TV star and movie critic Jonathan Ross.  In his 1993 volume The Incredibly Strange Film Book, Ross writes that he’d far rather watch an enjoyably shonky Ed Wood movie than some ultra-bland, boring mainstream Hollywood effort like 1987’s Three Men and a Baby.


Three Men and a Baby, incidentally, was directed by a certain Leonard Nimoy.  Yes, Mr Spock, would you prefer to be remembered for that?


(c) Touchstone Pictures


Patrick’s progress


(c) John Murray


It’s hard to know where to start with A Time of Gifts and its sequel Between the Woods and the Water, which chronicle part of a journey that Patrick Leigh Fermor made across Europe, on foot, in the mid-1930s.


To simply describe them as travel books would do them a disservice.  Fermor, who was a lad of 18 when he started this epic walk – though later he’d become known as a soldier, decorated war hero, author, scholar, polyglot and all-round Renaissance-Man-of-Action – has a voracious eye for detail that refuses to confine itself to the geographic.  You also get pages of observation and speculation about the history, mythology, art, architecture, languages, costumes, music, etc., of the locales that he visits.   At times, it seems like his teenaged brain is the mental equivalent of a blue whale, cruising along and sucking in and trapping every iota of information that comes its way, just as the baleen plates in a whale’s maw sift up tons of krill.  Depending on your interests, and patience, this can make the books a fascinating and delightfully anecdotal read; or a distractingly long-winded and rambling one.  I have to say there were moments when I found them fascinating, delightful, long-winded and rambling all at the same time.


But the best place to start (as Julie Andrews sang in The Sound of Music) is at the beginning.  A Time of Gifts details Fermor’s progress, in 1933 and 1934, from Rotterdam and through the Low Countries; into Germany, where he passes through Cologne, Stuttgart and Munich; into Austria and to Vienna; by way of a detour, up into Czechoslovakia and to Prague and back; and to the western borders of Hungary.  Between the Woods and the Water continues the story from there and by the end of the second book he’s travelled across Hungary and Romania.


A third book, The Broken Road, was published after Fermor’s death in 2011.  I haven’t read it yet but I assume it completes the journey and sees him arrive at his ultimate destination, Constantinople, in 1935.


Obviously, perusing these books in 2015 and knowing what would happen to Europe a few years after he’d walked through it, you’re aware that many of the communities, cultures and places he describes will soon be changed, drastically – disfigured at best, erased at worst.  And viewing the books from this sombre perspective, you can’t begrudge Fermor his obsession with detail.  You want him to get everything recorded, before it’s too late.


Events in 1930s Germany send subtle but menacing ripples through the books.  In one Rhineland town in A Time of Gifts, he accepts a youth’s offer of a night’s sleep on a camp-bed in an attic.  He discovers the attic to be “a shrine of Hitleriana.  The walls were covered with flags, photographs, posters, slogans and emblems.”  The youth tells him: “You should have seen it last year!  You would have laughed. Then it was all red flags, stars, hammers and sickles, pictures of Lenin and Stalin and Workers of the World, Unite…!  Then suddenly, when Hitler came into power, I understood it was all nonsense and lies.  I realised Adolf was the man for me.  All of a sudden!”


Later, in Between the Woods and the Water, Fermor encounters a group of Orthodox Jews in the Carpathian Mountains and, while he chats to them, the issue of Nazi Germany crops up: “They came into the conversation and – it seems utterly incredible now – we talked of Hitler and the Nazis as though they merely represented a dire phase of history, a sort of transitory aberration or a nightmare that might suddenly vanish, like a cloud evaporating or a bad dream.”


Meanwhile, it’s worth considering these books from another perspective.  Although Fermor did the travelling in the 1930s, he didn’t do the writing until decades later.  He finally got A Time of Gifts published in 1977 and Between the Woods and the Water in 1986.  Thus, while the books’ narrator views the world through the eyes of a teenager, a second pair of eyes are at work here, those of a man in his 60s and 70s with immeasurably greater knowledge and experience.  While Fermor waxes loquaciously about the forces shaping German art, or the Kingdom of Bohemia’s connection with Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, or the elephant that Harun al-Rashid gave to Emperor Charlemagne, or the remnants of Turkish culture found on Ada Kaleh Island – or indeed, while he lectures his readers on the historical comings and goings of a dozen different tribes in central Europe – you’re not, as you may initially believe, hearing the thoughts of a superhumanly-intelligent boy genius.  Many of those thoughts belong to the old Fermor.  But they’re expressed in the excitable voice of the youth.


And there’s a further point – one that might trouble readers who open a book about a real-life journey made by a real-life traveller expecting it to be, well, real.  Fermor subsequently lost many of the notes he’d written during the trip and, in the 1970s and 1980s, he had to reconstruct a lot using his (admittedly-formidable) memory.  And as was suggested by a report in the BBC news magazine in 2012 (, certain events may have been embroidered.


(c) Penguin Books


One bone of contention has been Fermor’s account in Between the Woods and the Water of how he crossed the Great Hungarian Plain.  The book says he did it on horseback.  Some 27 pages are spent in the company of a horse called Malek, “a fine chestnut with a flowing mane and tail, one white sock, a blaze and more than a touch of Arab to his brow”.  This aroused the suspicions of Fermor’s editor and biographer Artemis Cooper because, in an earlier draft of the book she’d seen, the beast hadn’t existed.  Fermor admitted to her, “Ah yes, well, I thought everyone would get tired of me trudging along, so I put myself on a horse for a bit – you won’t let on, will you?”


Actually, what bothers me more than possible distortions of the truth is Fermor’s reliance on well-to-do contacts for accommodation and sustenance, which increases the further he travels.  His original manifesto was to “set out across Europe like a tramp – or, as I characteristically phrased it to myself, like a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight…  I would travel on foot, sleep in hayricks in summer, shelter in barns when it was raining or snowing and only consort with peasants and tramps.”  And when he does this, the results are rich and engrossing.  For example, he dallies with Rhineland bargemen, Hungarian gypsies and Transylvanian shepherds.  He encounters a Franciscan monk called Brother Peter, with whom he communicates in Latin and passes the time playing games of skittles; and a down-at-heels eccentric called Konrad who, in Vienna, encourages him to make money by going around the city’s wealthier homes and offering to draw sketches of the inhabitants.  (Sketching, apparently, was another of Fermor’s multitudinous talents.)


Gradually, though, Fermor falls in with a succession of aristocrats and moneyed folk.  Each of these gets in touch with relatives or friends further along his walking route and arranges for them to put him up.  So Fermor makes increasingly-frequent stops at big houses, where he dawdles among drawing rooms, libraries, servants, vintage motor cars, lavish family picnics and sumptuous evening balls.  He hangs out with people with names like Baron Rheinhard von Liphart-Ratshoff, Count Graf Joseph, Baron Pips, Captain Tibor of the Horse-Gunners, Countess Ilona Meran, Count Lajos, Count Józsi and Count Jenӧ.  There’s a fellow called Tibor living in a house with a “Palladian façade” and another called Istvàn living in “a mixture of manor house, monastery and farmstead”.  Between the Woods and the Water, in particular, contains so many of these aristos that they start to blur into one another.  (Admittedly, you’re aware of how this old Hungarian-Romanian aristocracy was shortly to be obliterated, courtesy of Hitler and Stalin, and you sense Fermor’s desire to commemorate all these people who’d shown him hospitality.)


At this point I should declare an interest.  When I was 17, I made my own trip across mainland Europe.  I started off near Lausanne in Switzerland, where I’d earned money with a grape-picking job, and travelled to Bern, Interlaken, Lucerne and Zurich; then into Liechtenstein and through the western end of Austria; into Germany, to Munich, Stuttgart, Heidelberg and Bonn; and finally into the Low Countries and to Brussels and Rotterdam.  I didn’t walk, but hitchhiked – back then, hitchhiking was still a relatively safe and acceptable form of transport.  This meant that while Fermor got to see some of the most glorious historical and natural sights of 1930s Europe, I got to see a lot of entry-ramps leading down to a lot of Autobahns.  For much of the way, my travelling companion was a guy from Stevenage who claimed to be both a football hooligan and a drummer in a punk-rock band.  So our conversations were slightly less highbrow than those enjoyed by Fermor while he enthused about the details of local history and culture with his new-found chums in aristocratic central Europe.


I never slept in a barn or a cave-entrance like Fermor did occasionally, but I didn’t enjoy the hospitality of the continent’s landed gentry either.  My evenings were spent in a succession of Swiss and German youth hostels, which in those days were run with a Teutonic strictness – I remember the wardens in the Lausanne and Grindelwald hostels being particularly bossy, bad-tempered old farts.


Indeed, I suspect that if I’d set foot on the estates belonging to Baron Rheinhard von Liphart-Ratshoff, Count Graf Joseph, etc., they’d have taken one look at me, grabbed a gun and sprayed me with buckshot.  Not that I’d have wanted their hospitality.  I’d been raised by typical Northern-Irish-Protestant parents who’d taught me a near-religious devotion to the principles of independence and self-reliance.  The worst thing a Northern Irish Prod could do was accept charity or favours from somebody else.  Hitching a lift with someone for a few miles along the road was bad enough.  Turning up on a stranger’s doorstep and expecting to be housed and fed was diabolical.  Whereas this was not an issue for Fermor who, as one of Britain’s ruling class, seemed to have both self-confidence and shamelessness imprinted in his genes.


And yet…  I like these two books a lot.  Despite his rich-and-powerful friends and his many brainy digressions, there’s much in the character of their 18-year-old narrator that I can identify with – at least, through my memories of what I was like at a similar age.  There are passages that are wonderfully evocative in a youthful, wide-eyed, open-to-everything way.  For example, Fermor’s description of an Easter Sunday parade shortly after he’s entered Hungary: “Woken by the bells and the music, the storks in the town were floating and crossing overhead and looking down on our little string of lights as it turned uphill into the basilica again.  The intensity of the moment, the singing and candle flames and incense, the feeling of spring, the circling birds, the smell of fields, the bells, the chorus from the rushes, thin shadows and the unreality of the moon over the woods and the silver flood – all these things hallowed the night with a spell of great beneficence and power.”


Or a description of a glade he encounters while wandering in the forested uplands of the Carpathians: “there lay… a space like an enormous room: a long, enclosed clearing where beech trees sprang up like gigantic pillars flinging out vaults of tangled and interlocking boughs.  Grey in shadow, their smooth trunks were flecked with silver where the sunbeams spilt their way through an infinity of leaves and scattered blurred discs of light over the bark and the muscular spread of the roots; they shed a sparser and still more grudging confetti on the unencumbered floor.”


I suppose there are moments when Patrick Leigh Fermor, writing this in his 60s and 70s, seems in danger of succumbing to purple prose, to poetic overkill, to whimsy.  But with those sentences ringing out in the voice of his exuberant 18 or 19-year-old self, he gets away with it – rather magically.




An awful inevitability




As a kid living in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, I sometimes experienced an ominous feeling about our nearest town – a town nine miles west of our village and one to which I would often accompany my mum on shopping trips and, later, I would travel to daily to attend secondary school.  This was Enniskillen, a settlement of 14,000 people, located in the very centre of County Fermanagh and on the banks of the River Erne, the short, twisty artery that links the waters of Lower and Upper Loch Erne.


The ominous feeling came from the Northern Irish Troubles.  At the time, these were at their bloodiest and even as a young child I was aware of them being reported in the newspaper that arrived in our house every morning and then again on the news programme that appeared on our TV at six o’clock every evening.  And every couple of months the Troubles seemed to spawn a bombing atrocity.  As the 1970s progressed, these happened both in big cities like Belfast, Dublin, Birmingham and London and in smaller places like Coleraine, Omagh, Bangor and Claudy.  Although I was very young, I seemed to understand that the longer the Troubles wore on for, the greater the odds became that something similarly terrible would happen in Enniskillen.


This sense of awful inevitability was proved right eventually, though the atrocity didn’t come until November 1987, a decade after my family had left Northern Ireland.  This was when the Provisional IRA exploded a bomb in the Reading Rooms next to Enniskillen’s war memorial at the start of the annual Remembrance Sunday ceremony.  The bomb toppled a wall onto the crowd assembled on the pavement outside.  11 people died in the attack – a dozen if you include a victim who passed away 13 years later without ever reviving from a coma.


If there’s any consolation at all for the relatives of those who died that day, it might be that the Enniskillen Remembrance bombing is viewed now as a turning point in the history of the Troubles, an event that even some hardened terrorists felt was an atrocity too far.  It possibly encouraged a few such people to become less intransigent and start off on the path of peace and reconciliation.  It was a long and torturous path, admittedly, but it did wind its way through the Peace Process of the 1990s and arrive finally at the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.


Anyway, it wasn’t that long ago that I experienced a similar, ominous feeling – one of awful inevitability – about another town I was familiar with.  Well, this time it was about a city: Tunis, capital of Tunisia, where I lived from 2010 to 2013.  Among other things, those three years exposed me to the Tunisian Revolution and to the birth of the Arab Spring.


Looking at what happened subsequently in Egypt, Libya and Syria, it’s fashionable for commentators today to describe the Arab Spring as an out-and-out disaster, a movement that led to instability at best and to chaos and carnage at worst.  But this attitude does a great injustice to Tunisia, which has been able in the years since to create a functioning democracy for itself.  Last year the country even held an election and the first post-revolution party of government, the politico-Islamic group Ennadha, managed to bow out with a minimum of fuss when it lost.  In the blog-posts I used to write when I lived in Tunisia, I would slag Ennadha off regularly.  But hats off to them for being able to accept defeat gracefully.


It was never going to be anything like plain sailing for Tunisia, though.  Especially not with unsavoury outfits operating in the neighbourhood like Al Quaeda-in-the-Maghreb next door in Algeria, Alsar al-Sharia in Tunisia’s own back yard and now, popping up on the other side of the fence in deeply-troubled Libya, the very unwelcome Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, aka IS.  None of this lot have any wish to see a democratic Arab country survive and prosper, certainly not one that’s just voted an Islamic party out of office – though Ennadha’s brand of Islam is obviously pretty mild compared to that of IS – and replaced it with a secular one, the Nidaa Tounes party led by Beji Caid Essebsi.


So again, I suspected that, sooner or later, something bad was going to happen.


And two days ago, it did.  Two gunmen, reportedly trained in Libya and acting under the auspices of IS, launched an attack on Tunis’s celebrated Bardo Museum that left 23 people dead, 20 of them foreign tourists.  I’ve read suggestions that those gunmen were actually planning to target the Tunisian parliament building, which is next door to the Bardo.  However, deciding at the last moment that a parliament-assault wasn’t feasible, they turned their attention to the museum and started machine-gunning tourists who were getting out of coaches in its parking lot.


When I first heard the details of the slaughter, an unwelcome piece of terminology from 1970s Northern Ireland came to mind, a term that’d once referred to the Northern Irish terrorist practice of running into a pub frequented by people of one religion or the other and shooting everyone in sight.  What’d happened at the Bardo was a ‘spray-job’.  Spray-jobs were, and are, hideous in their simplicity but always sure to generate – manna for terrorists – huge headlines.


IS have since described the attack as a ‘blessed invasion of one of the dens of infidels and vice in Muslim Tunisia’.  The Bardo Museum boasts Punic artefacts from the ancient port of Carthage and the biggest collection of Roman mosaics in the world.  So it doesn’t surprise me that IS, who’ve recently bulldozered the ruins of ancient Assyrian cities like Hatra and Nimrud into dust and rubble in Iraq, should regard the museum as a hotbed of infidelism and general evil.  Museums have a habit of broadening their visitors’ minds and in IS’s book there is surely nothing more loathsome than broadening minds.




What this will do, of course, is deter many tourists from visiting Tunisia – a country where the tourist industry is vital to the economy, calculated to be responsible for 13.8% of overall employment and 15.2% of GDP.  This has happened at a time too when Tunisia’s tourist industry was showing signs of improvement.  When I went for a haircut while I was in Scotland last month, even the barber mentioned that he’d just lined up a beach-holiday there.  Naturally, wrecking the tourist industry, and by extension the Tunisian economy, is IS’s intention.  With more of the population living in poverty, and greater misery prevailing, and more people turning to extreme forms of religion for solace, the more favourable the circumstances are for gathering new recruits.


(Not that all recruits to IS, Al Qaeda and the like are the products of extreme poverty.  Ayman al-Zawahiri, for example, who’s been the current leader of Al Qaeda since his more famous predecessor got it in the neck in 2011, was born into an upper middle-class family in Cairo and is a qualified eye surgeon.  Evidently, some people just join because they’re immensely f***ed up.)


The answer, then, is for everyone who feels strongly about democracy, and about defeating terrorists and thwarting the goals of terrorists, to book a holiday in Tunisia this summer.  To fly over there, get out and about, spend some money and generally do their bit to help the inhabitants of this courageous little country.  But with news outlets already reporting that several cruise liners have changed their courses to avoid docking in Tunis, I doubt if that is going to happen.


Anyway, here is what the usually well-informed Robert Fisk of the Independent has to say on the matter:


The belly of the beast


(c) Daily Telegraph


If the first rule of journalism is that you should never become the story, then I feel sorry for those headline-writers at the BBC news website who today had to break the news on their main page that their venerable employer had just suspended one of its most popular and lucrative presenters – Jeremy Clarkson, the mainstay of the BBC’s watched-in-170-countries, enjoyed-by-350-million-viewers-worldwide, generating-£50-million-per-annum motoring show, Top Gear.  Mind you, Clarkson’s suspension was such big news that the BBC couldn’t not have reported it.  At the moment I’m in India — a country about which Clarkson once famously said everyone “gets the trots” when they visit it — and it was one of the top stories emblazoned across MSN India’s home page today too.


According to rumours (which both Clarkson and the BBC have yet to verify), the 54-year-old presenter was doing location filming in Newcastle last week when, first, he took umbrage at the lack of hot food provided by the show’s caterers; and, second, he took a swing at one of the show’s producers.


Now maybe I’m just a strange misfit, but I really don’t see the great fascination that Top Gear holds for many people, and especially for people who fit my profile, i.e. blokes in their middle years.  In fact, any time I watch Top Gear I feel embarrassed.  I feel particularly embarrassed by the antics of Clarkson, who also happens to be a bloke in his middle years.  God, I think, is Clarkson what those 350-odd-million viewers around the world imagine middle-aged British men are like?


I’m not like that.  I would never want to be like that.  Not like Clarkson with his crappy stonewashed blue jeans, and his crappy big beer-paunch, and his crappy scraggy grey hair, and his crappy saggy don’t-give-a-f**k-about-anything expression.  And his crappy would-be-rebellious political incorrectness (“Slopes!  Lazy Mexicans!  One-eyed Scottish idiots!” etc.), and his crappy reactionary right-wing politics (“Execute those strikers in front of their families!”), and his crappy tedious middle-aged mates (Top Gear co-presenters James May and Richard Hammond and that dorky neighbour of his in Chipping Norton, David Cameron).  Oh, and I bet he has crappy taste in music as well – he’s probably into stadium-era Pink Floyd and other pompous progressive-rock dross from the mid-1970s.  In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a less flattering representative of British manhood in the 40-to-60 age range, apart perhaps from Stephen Wright (56), the Suffolk prostitute-strangler, or Stephen Griffiths (45), the Bradford ‘Crossbow Cannibal’.


(c) The Guardian


Actually, if this allegation against Clarkson is upheld, it’ll be fascinating to see what action, if any, the BBC takes.  Will it do what any normal employer would do when faced with an employee who’s just assaulted a colleague, and show him the door?  Or will the thought of those 50-million-smackeroonis-a-year prove too alluring for the old corporation?  Will it let him off with a mealy-mouthed warning and then hurry him back to the business of making it, and himself, tanker-loads of money?  Which would reinforce the message – sadly commonplace in modern Britain – that if you have enough dough behind you, you can get away with doing anything.


I suspect there are some in the BBC who’d like to retain Clarkson because they believe he proves the corporation’s many right-wing critics (politicians, commentators, newspapers) wrong.  With Clarkson — who’s an unashamed petrol-head and who seemingly shares his politics with Attila the Hun — on board, the BBC can’t be as those critics claim it is.  It can’t be entirely a hotbed of trendy-lefty, tree-hugging, nauseatingly politically-correct, Guardian-reading pinkoes.  But Clarkson’s presence has never prevented the BBC from being attacked for that in the past.  The right-wing website Guido Fawkes has just launched a petition to get Clarkson reinstated, to which 400,000 people have already added their names; but I’m sure that Guido Fawkes and many of its petition-signatories have reviled the BBC before and will revile it again for its supposed wishy-washy liberalism, whether Clarkson and Top Gear appear on it or not.


I think the BBC, as a publicly funded organisation, should just let Clarkson go.  Indeed, they should have jettisoned him long before.  For years Clarkson has pushed the envelope with his un-PC babblings, upsetting folk from different places, groups and ethnicities – folk who often live in the UK and have to fork out money every year for the BBC licence fee.  But why should they be obliged to pay that money to fund a broadcaster whose most visible star is someone who takes seemingly-limitless glee in slagging them off: Asians, blacks, Scots, Liverpudlians, people with special needs, and so on?


If he ends up working for a private broadcaster, fine.  If its subscribers and advertisers want to shell out cash to keep him onscreen being a knob-end and keep him in the lavish lifestyle to which he’s become accustomed, that’s their business.  I’m sure there’s a huge audience who worship their defiantly un-PC hero so much that they’ll still tune in to hear his wit and wisdom, no matter how costly the subscription fee and how different the format of his future programmes are from that of the much-loved Top Gear.  Win-win all round, I’d say.


Actually, the perfect place for Clarkson to end up would be on Rupert Murdoch’s barmy right-wing American outlet, Fox News.  I’m sure the likes of Bill O’Reilly would be delighted to have Clarkson join the team.  No doubt they’d regard him as a fine, upstanding paragon of sophistication, manners and good taste from Merrie Olde England, and one blessed with an intellect to rival that of Stephen Hawking in his prime.  Yes, you always know class when you see it.


Bangkok’s Kamthieng House



In previous blog entries I’ve written about the marvellous contrasts you find in Bangkok – contrasts that despite their utter incompatibility manage to exist side by side.  Thus, you sometimes get the sacred, the salacious, the antiquated and the achingly hip and up-to-date along the same street.  And while more and more buildings soar upwards and make the Bangkok skyline look increasingly corporate, Bangkok at street-level, cluttered with vendors, stalls, make-shift eateries, shrines and spirit houses, remains pleasingly intimate.


So it’s hardly surprising that the tranquil, grassy compound containing Kamthieng House, a memento of rural 19th-century Thailand, is located on the rumbling six-lane Thanon Asok road just above a junction with the equally busy Thanon Sukhmvit and a line of the city’s fancy new Skytrain system.  The compound is also surrounded by towering chunks of 21st-century Bangkok, including the Sheraton Grande; and a little way south of it, across the road, lurks the entrance to that alleyway-of-iniquity known as Soi Cowboy.  But once you’re on the grounds of Kamthieng House, a reconstruction of a teakwood building that two centuries ago belonged to the Lanna people of Chiang Mai, you feel transported to a different era from that of the hustling, bustling neighbourhood around you.  You also feel you’ve entered a different mind-set, one whose take on life, the universe and everything is altogether more spiritual and holistic.


The building’s rooms function as museum galleries and they sit, elevated, on thick wooden columns.  Under the main room is an open-plan terrace where you can see such things as a seo sakang, a totemic pillar serving as a point of worship for the village’s guardian spirits and a place where sacrifices (usually buffalos) were made to them; a tu phra tham, a lacquer chest in which sacred Buddhist scriptures were stored; and a model of the Lanna’s muang fai irrigation system, made of bamboo and hollowed tree-trunks, which still can be seen channelling water from rivers and streams in northern Thailand today.  In the original building, this ground-level area would have been used for doing domestic chores like weaving and basket-making and for keeping livestock.



A staircase takes you to the complex’s main chamber, devoted to the display of cultural and religious artifacts.  These include amulets, talismans, Buddha images, weavings, swords and a musical instrument called the pin pia, a stringed affair whose sound resonated from a coconut shell and that was played by men during the Lanna courtship ritual.  Also on view are tien yan, candles talismans that were “made from pure beeswax, with magical spells and diagrams drawn on a thin piece of mulberry paper and rolled around the wick” and were burned “in particular places in the house, in times of trouble or opportunity, to invoke the help of natural and supernatural forces”; and pha yan cloth talismans, which were “consecrated by a spell doctor in a rite invoking the spirit of the khru, or ritual masters, and other sacred forces” and which sometimes displayed sexual imagery of extreme sauciness.



As well as showcasing artifacts, this gallery gives copious information about various aspects of Lanna culture.  Courtship etiquette, for example, “was strict, with no physical contact allowed for fear of phid-phi, or ‘wronging the ancestral spirits’, for which punishment was severe.”  Men often bore sak meuk, symbolic tattoos, on their skins so that “(t)he upper body would have magical spells, geometrical diagrams and animal symbols to protect against obstacles and malevolent forces, and to increase one’s magnetising qualities.”  And the Lanna view of health and medicine had a predictably spiritual perspective – they believed in “the existence of 32 khwan or vital spirits that govern the 32 major elements of a person’s well-being, including hair, teeth, flesh, bones, marrow, major organs, blood, new and old food, and bodily fluids and tissues.”


On guard outside this gallery, meanwhile, stand two stone mom, mythical creatures that look like smaller versions of the traditional Chinese lion and were “believed to have the power to bring rain.”



A walkway takes you to another building that includes a granary room and gives insight into the Lanna’s agricultural practices.  Also here are examples of the naga, a water symbol that adds a decorative aspect to many a traditional Thai boat-end and house gable.  In folklore, naga were serpentine beasts, a little like Scottish kelpies, “believed to reside in deep underground grottoes or beneath the riverbed.”


Elsewhere on the premises are the headquarters of the Siam Society, an organisation that in these ever-more frenetic and changing times has the challenging task of documenting and preserving Thailand’s history and traditional culture.  These headquarters contain a bookshop, which I’m sure stocks some fascinating volumes.  Unfortunately, after I’d toured the Lanna building, it’d got very close to closing time and the bookshop had already shut its doors.  At least that gives me an incentive to drop by again during my next visit to Bangkok.


By the way, in order to accommodate its spirit inhabitants, the site is equipped with its own Thai spirit house.  And in keeping with the old-worldly, teakwood gorgeousness of Kamthieng House, this is appropriately ornate and venerable-looking.