A Ted talk

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

One of the problems with growing older is that every time an anniversary – of something you love or that’s important to you – crops up, it affects you like a punch to the solar plexus.  “Jesus, is it really ten years since they released that album?”  “Bloody hell, no!  It can’t be 15 years since that movie came out!”  “What, 25 years ago that happened?  25 f**king years?  No!  Surely not!”  The result, once the initial wave of shock has passed, is that you spend five minutes studying your ravaged face in the mirror.  Then you spend the rest of the day in a daze, reliving fond – though now bitter-sweet – memories from long ago.

 

And the same thought keeps flashing inside your head: “Aw!  I was so young then!”

 

I had an experience like that recently when I read in the Guardian that this month is the 20th anniversary of the debut, on Channel 4, of Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews’ much-loved situation comedy Father Ted.  Yes, that surreal and slapstick-ridden saga of three hapless priests and their demented housekeeper living on a remote Irish island is now two decades old.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2015/apr/20/father-ted-legacy-20-years-on-up-with-this-sort-of-thing

 

The very first episode of Father Ted reached our TV screens in April 1995.  Which was the year of the Oklahoma Bombing, the Tokyo Subway gas attack and the Unabomber; of Jacques Chirac becoming French President, Nick Leeson bringing down Barings Bank and O.J. Simpson being acquitted of murder; of the disappearance of the Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards, the feud between Blur and Oasis and the release of the world’s first full-length computer-animated feature film, Toy Story.  It was that long ago.  Now please excuse me while I go off and stare at myself in the mirror for five minutes.  Aw!  I was so young then…

 

Okay, five minutes have passed and I’m now back at my keyboard.  The thing with Father Ted is that the show feels like it’s never left us.  This is despite it running for just three series, plus a Christmas special, and notching up just 25 episodes.  Also, the fact that its third season would be its last was tragically underscored when the show’s star, Father Ted himself, Dermot Morgan died of a heart attack just 24 hours after the final episode had finished filming and two weeks before Channel 4 began to show the final season.  Thus, even before Father Ted had ended its TV run in 1998, fans were sadly aware that it was all over.

 

However, those 25 episodes have seemingly spent the last decade being broadcast on an endless loop on Channel 4’s digital / Freeview subsidiary More 4.  If you desperately need a Ted-fix, it seems to be there for you most evenings.  And every Christmas-time, Channel 4 still gives a prominent festive airing to the 1996 Christmas special, the one where Ted and gormless sidekick Father Dougal and half-a-dozen other priests get trapped inside the ladies’ lingerie section of a giant department store.  I suspect this is the only TV programme some people in Britain watch at Christmas-time.  These days, it’s the only thing I ever watch at Christmas-time.

 

So why was Father Ted so good?  There are many factors that can contribute to the success of a TV sitcom.  And if you wrote those factors down in a list and started ticking off the ones that apply to Father Ted, you’d probably find at the end that you’d ticked all of them.  For example…

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Being trapped

The clue is in the term itself: situation comedy.  The more limiting the situation the characters are in, the more they get on each other’s nerves and the more comedy is generated as a result.  See Slade Prison in Porridge (1974-1977) or the World War I trenches in Blackadder Goes Forth (1989).  Father Ted’s setting isn’t quite as claustrophobic as those.  But the Parochial House is pretty bad – with Dougal practising his relentless buffoonery, Father Jack sitting drinking and swearing in the corner and Mrs Doyle torturing her charges with endless cups of tea.  And the wider environment, Craggy Island, isn’t much better – it’s populated by misfits like Tom, the village idiot / truck driver / pest-control officer / armed bank robber, and John and Mary O’Leary, the shop-owning couple who when they aren’t grovelling to the priests are busy trying to murder each other.  The place is maddening for someone with Ted’s intelligence and aspirations.  Which leads neatly to…

 

Frustrated aspirations

Many great sitcoms have a lead character or characters who believe they’re capable of greater things but are continually thwarted by their circumstances and the less able souls around them.  Harold Steptoe in Steptoe and Son (1962-1974) was forever trying to climb the social ladder but was held back (1) by his being a rag-and-bone man and (2) by his wheedling, devious and utterly exasperating old dad.  The elderly leads of Dad’s Army (1968-1977) were brave former soldiers desperate to do their bit for King and Country against Hitler, but because of their age and infirmities they had to make do with playing at being soldiers in the local Home Guard unit.

 

Ted’s aspirations aren’t complex.  He’s a regular bloke pining for money, comfort and an easy life (as in the episode Going to America) or for the love of a good, preferably beautiful and wealthy woman (as in the episode And God Created Woman).  Fulfilling those aspirations isn’t going to be easy, though, as Ted – despite his apparent disinterest in religion – has somehow ended up becoming a priest.  The fact that the community of priests that Ted belongs to consists mostly of idiots doesn’t help, either.

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Recognisable characters

Obviously, it helps a sitcom’s success if viewers can identify with its characters.  Ted is a recognisable everyman figure, but the show’s other characters – though drawn with hugely-broad brushstrokes – are hardly ones that people in Ireland, south or north of the border, are unfamiliar with.  You don’t have to wander far on the Emerald Isle before you encounter an amiable young dimwit like Dougal or a cantankerous old drunk like Jack.  As for Mrs Doyle, I seem to remember Northern Ireland being overrun with types like her in my childhood – ladies of a certain age, both Protestant and Catholic, who’d treat their guests to an almost psychotic level of hospitality.  If you set foot in their parlours and didn’t immediately consume a gallon of tea and several kilos of their best cakes, buns and biscuits, they’d take it as a mortal insult.

 

A family unit

Many successful sitcoms are about families.  Many others feature a set of characters who interact in family-like ways.  Their relationships are recognisably parent-child, brother-sister, husband-wife, etc.  Thus, in The Thick of It (2005-2012) we have an abusive father (Malcolm), a well-meaning but ineffectual mother (Nicola), a bratty child (Ollie) and a dotty uncle and aunt (Glen and Terri).  And the family dynamic doesn’t necessarily require the presence of both genders.  In the all-male Porridge, there’s an overbearingly strict father (MacKay) and another well-meaning but ineffectual mother (Barrowclough), plus two sons chaffing against their parents’ authority, the streetwise older brother (Fletcher) and the naïve kid brother (Godber).

 

Thus, in Father Ted, it isn’t difficult to see how Ted, Mrs Doyle, Jack and Dougal fill the roles of stressed-out dad, hectoring mum, sozzled old granddad and naïve young son.

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Work

Some of the greatest sitcom characters, in Britain at least, are defined by their jobs – world’s worst hotelier (Basil Fawlty), world’s worst office manager (David Brent), world’s worst D.J. (Alan Partridge).  Meanwhile, sitcoms like The IT Crowd (2006-2013, written by Linehan) and Black Books (2000-2004, with both Linehan and Arthur Mathews contributing to the scripts) show the endless jealousies, rivalries and antagonisms that arise in a workplace.  These are invariably petty conflicts that outside observers, i.e. the sitcom audience, find both ridiculous and hilarious.  It’s a variation on the first item on this list, being trapped.  You don’t want to spend 40 or more hours every week with these losers and misfits around you.  But you signed the job contract and they’re your colleagues.  You have to.

 

Ted probably isn’t the world’s worst priest.  (That title may well belong to Dougal or Jack.)  He is, though, tortured by his work situation.  He has to deal with the army of oddballs who make up the local priesthood – bores (Father Paul Stone), annoyances (Father Noel Furlong), delinquents (Father Damo Lennon), bitter rivals (Father Dick Byrne) and utter sadists (Father Fintan Stack, the priest who plays his beloved jungle music really loud).  He also has to deal with the idiocies of the organisation that employs him – such as the All Priests Over-75s Five-a-Side Football Championship, the All Priests Stars in their Eyes Lookalike Competition or the church hotline that puts you on a hold while a real nun sings Ave Maria down the phone-line at you.

 

Lies that escalate

Fawlty Towers (1975-1979) mined comic gold from the deceptions of Basil Fawlty.  His attempts at, say, hiding a dead body from the hotel guests or hiding a pet rat from a hotel inspector would trigger chains of events where confusion escalated into embarrassment and then into disaster.  Similarly, Ted is forever trying to lie his way out of tricky situations.  How can he hide the fact that he’s just destroyed the car that was going to be the prize in the big fundraising raffle from his parishioners?  How can he hide the fact that the Parochial House is infested with rabbits from his bellicose superior, Bishop Brennan, who’s coming to visit and who coincidentally has a massive rabbit-phobia?  Predictably, each lie ends up causing him a hell of a lot more trouble than the trouble it was originally meant to avoid.

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Catch-phrases

It’s an easy route to comic success.  Load your comedy show with catch-phrases and hopefully the public will be shouting at least some of them on the street the next day.  It often works, though.  Look at how The Fast Show (1994-1997), The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002) or Little Britain (2003-2006) quickly imprinted themselves on the national consciousness.  Father Ted, of course, is choc-a-bloc with them – Jack shouting, “Feck!  Arse!  Drink!  Girls!” or Mrs Doyle going, “Ah, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on…” or Bishop Brennan bellowing, “Crill-eee!”

 

Even one-off lines from individual episodes have passed into everyday usage – “Down with this sort of thing!” (from The Passion of Saint Tibulus) or “That would be an ecumenical matter!” (from Tentacles of Doom).  Indeed, just the other day, while I was having lunch with someone, I suddenly found myself intoning: “There are some very hairy babies on Craggy Island.  And I think you are the hairy baby-maker!”  At which point my girlfriend told me not to order another pitcher of beer.

 

Of its time

Dad’s Army couldn’t have appeared at any period other than the 1960s / 1970s.  World War II still loomed large in many people’s memories but sufficient time had passed for its awfulness to feel less pronounced, so that it was the right moment for a sitcom making gentle humour out of it.  The Office (2001-2003) was perfect for the early noughties.  Tony Blair and the Nu-Labour government were at their peak and Britons were supposed to feel good about themselves – the economy was booming but everyone now inhabited a nicer, more civilised, more PC and touchy-feely environment.  But the suspicion – which the show confirmed – was that, under the surface, working practices were just as callous, exploitative and horrible as they’d been before.

 

Similarly, Father Ted couldn’t have arrived at any time other than the mid-1990s.  Ireland had become more cosmopolitan and streetwise and it now had the confidence to poke fun at its old stereotypes and clichés.  Sadly, this was also before the dark secrets of the Catholic Church came tumbling out of the closet.  Indeed, Linehan, interviewed two years ago in the Independent, said he wouldn’t have penned a series about loveable buffoonish priests if he’d known what he knows now about the industrial levels of child abuse perpetrated by his country’s clergy: “I could never write Ted now because I’d be so angry my fingers would go through the keyboard.”

 

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/graham-linehan-ive-come-to-hate-the-church-8665386.html

 

Come to think of it, modern-day Ireland would be a lot more at ease with its religious heritage if the Catholic Church had been staffed purely by the likes of Fathers Ted, Dougal, Jack, Dick Byrne, Noel Furlong, Fintan Stack and so on.

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Premature death and graveyard billboards

 

 

“They all died so young!”

 

So exclaimed the most recent comment in the South Park Street Cemetery Visitors’ Book – just before I added my own comment to it at the end of an hour’s exploration of the place one Saturday afternoon in Kolkata.

 

The cemetery took its name from the Kolkata road it’s located on, which was known as South Park Street before it got rechristened Teresa Sarani in honour of the city’s most famous 20th-century inhabitant.  According to www.findagrave.com, it was “opened August 25th, 1767” and “closed around 1831, but burials of relatives of those already interred were permitted well into the 1840s…  In all, 1624 graves are numbered and registered in this cemetery, some of them commemorating more than one person.”

 

 

Actually ‘grave’ – in its simple definition of being a hole dug in the ground to receive a coffin and marked by a headstone – isn’t quite the word I’d use to describe the contents of South Park Street Cemetery.  ‘Monument’ seems more appropriate, as everywhere there are plinths with tapering obelisks or stone cones or cupolas on top.  Also, there are columns, stele, sarcophagi and square or circular sepulchres with mock-Grecian pillars.  This is definitely a cemetery with architecture.

 

Many of those monuments, unfortunately, are no longer in good nick.  Their stone surfaces are cracked and crumbling and their inscriptions have faded to illegibility.  I also saw a few disfigured by graffiti that’d been scratched out with a nail or sharp stone, mostly of the Moron loves Eejit variety.  Some, though, have been restored by the descendants of those interred beneath them or by interested societies and organisations.

 

 

And yes, when you find an inscription that’s readable, you do get the impression that many of the cemetery’s inhabitants, men and women who left the British Isles in the 18th and 19th centuries and ended up in India as part of Britain’s south-Asian empire-building operations, died young.  They succumbed, no doubt, to a barrage of foreign diseases, ailments and hazards that an upbringing in temperate Western Europe had singularly failed to prepare them for.

 

There was, for example, Elisa Forsyth of Elgin, Scotland, who survived only to the age of 19, and Captain Denis Bodkin, Lieutenant John Briscoe and Mrs Anne Jones, who expired at the ages of 26, 27 and 29 respectively.  Some inscriptions are particularly sad, for example, that of Dorothy Smith, who died aged 28, and of two of her offspring, David (died at seven months) and Amelia (died at three years and four months).  Probably the saddest one that I encountered, though, was that of Mrs M. Dennison, who died aged 26 and was buried at the same time as an unnamed infant daughter.  They were soon joined by Captain E.S. Dennison, who apparently “survived his wife and child but a few days, for on the 16th of October following their decease he was united to them in death and buried in the same grave.”

 

 

No wonder the messages on those tombs tend towards the fatalistic.  “ALL IS VANITY”, proclaims one.  “What tho’ we now lament and mourn / Her mortal frame shall ne’er return / That’s gone alas for evermore… / Let us, my son, in God put our trust / And know that in His sight all flesh is dust.”

 

 

Another premature death recorded in South Park Street Cemetery is that of the Anglo-Indian poet and teacher Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, who passed away at the age of 22.  He’s commemorated by a gleaming white monument and bust that were erected by the Kolkata branch of the Anglo-Indian Association.  Derozio achieved a great deal in his short life.  As well as being a poet, he was assistant headmaster at the city’s Hindu College and he was such a star there that his student-disciples became known as ‘Derozians’.  His accomplishments are eloquently summed up by an inscription: “Pioneer of the 18th century Indian Renaissance, greatest teacher of the era… and first of the patriot-poets who like ancient Socrates inspired a generation of students to be rational, international and great lovers of the muse.”  At the time I assumed that Derozio’s remains were buried beneath the monument, but I’ve read subsequently that because of his ethnicity he was denied burial in the cemetery and had to be interred outside it  So that’s all the monument is – a monument.

 

 

The cemetery has a few occupants who did reach a ripe (or comparatively ripe) old age.  For example, it contains Major General Charles Stuart, who made it to 70 and was known by the nickname of Hindoo Stuart.  He acquired the nickname after embracing Indian culture and converting to Hinduism.  He collected effigies of Indian deities, encouraged British womenfolk to wear the sari and supposedly bathed every day in the Ganges.  Appropriately, his tomb is in the form of a miniature Indian temple and his formidable collection of effigies is buried there with him.  Also enjoying a relatively decent innings was Captain W. Mackay, who reached the age of 64.  Mackay was evidently a captain of the seafaring kind because the tapering white obelisk that commemorates him has a ship’s anchor sculpted on its side.

 

 

Another white obelisk, a bigger one, makes for one of the most imposing monuments in the cemetery.  It’s that of Sir William Jones, an 18th-century Anglo-Welsh polymath who was a scholar of all things Indian, a co-founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and a political radical who championed the American Revolution.  In addition, he was both a philogist – i.e. someone who studied languages in their written and historical forms – and a hyperglot who, before he died at the age of 47, was reputed to speak 13 languages fluently and communicate reasonably well in 28 more.

 

 

South Park Street Cemetery is a place of contrasts.  Parts of it have been reasonably well looked after and have the air of a presentable – well, perhaps slightly scruffy – British park or country-house garden, especially along the central thoroughfare that runs from its gate and in the general area that borders on its southern wall.  But in other parts the undergrowth has taken over.  Bushes, branches and shrubs crowd around the monuments and the spaces between them are clogged with fallen leaves.  Indeed, there were moments when I felt I was exploring an only slightly less jungle-ridden version of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  This was despite the presence of several gardeners and workmen.  They were fighting a continual battle against the encroaching foliage and weren’t necessarily winning it.

 

 

And while the cemetery has places where you can wander amid the sombre monuments and rampant vegetation and feel isolated from the outside world – although you’re never quite alone, thanks to the crows and stripy-backed squirrels that hop and scurry about the plinths, obelisks and sepulchres like kids in a playground – there are other places where you’re conscious that modern-day Kolkata is just a few yards away.  The view of the cemetery’s western side is ruined by a long, cliff-like and monotonously-ugly surface of corrugated iron that rises above the wall there and forms the back of some building on the neighbouring street.  Similarly, just beyond the cemetery’s southern wall, you get the jarring sight of a weird and ultra-modern glass building whose sides slant both upwards and outwards.

 

 

But the oddest juxtaposition between the old cemetery and the surrounding modern city is found at the two corners beside Mother Teresa Sarani.  One cemetery-corner nestles in the junction where the street is bisected by Sarajini Naidu Sarani, and the other nestles in the intersection between it and AJC Bose Road.  Billboards have been erected there to take advantage of the corners’ visibility to passing motorists and they advertise things like cars, coffee and mobile-phone shops.  The pylon-like columns of iron that support the billboards rise out of the cemetery itself, from among its monuments and tombs.  Their scaffolding is planted in the same soil as South Park Street Cemetery’s 1624+ inhabitants.

 

Actually, the sight of a graveyard with advertising-hoardings reminded me of the old adage that no matter what material goods you acquire during your life, you can’t in the end take any of them with you.

 

 

When songs and films collide

 

There are many reasons why I hate those Richard Curtis / Working Title romantic-comedy movies that over the past two decades have blighted British culture.  Four Weddings and a Funeral?  Bleeeuuurgh!  Notting Hill?  Double-bleeeuuurgh!  Love Actually?  Multi-bleeeuuurgh!  But one of my main reasons for hating them is their musical soundtracks.  More precisely, the calculating, predictable and sterile nature of their soundtracks – music that’s not been chosen with any artistic desire to complement the varying moods of the scenes onscreen, but chosen because it can also go on a lucrative aimed-at-the-lowest-common-denominator soundtrack / compilation album to tie in with the movie’s release.

 

For example, I can imagine Curtis and fellow writers Helen Fielding and Andrew Davies, director Sharon Maguire, producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Jonathan Cavendish, etc., sitting around discussing the music that they were going to bung onto the soundtrack of Bridget Jones’s Diary back in 2002.  “Okay, so this is about a woman called Bridget Jones.  Jones…  Miss Jones…  Hey, wait a minute!  Why don’t we use that old Frank Sinatra number Have You Met Miss Jones?  But hold on.  Frank Sinatra.  He’s a bit old… and dead.  He’d never appeal to the kids.  So let’s get someone young and cool and vital whom the kids really dig to record a new version of the song.  Someone cutting-edge.  Like…  Yes, Robbie Williams!”

 

And then: “So Bridget Jones is desperate to get hitched but she can’t find Mr Right.  She must wish it was raining men…  Hey, wait a minute!  Why don’t we use that old Weather Girls number It’s Raining Men?  But hold on.  The Weather Girls.  They’re a bit fat… and black.  They’d never appeal to the kids.  So let’s get someone young and cool and vital whom the kids really dig to do a new version of the song.  Someone cutting-edge.  Like…  Yes, Geri Halliwell!”

 

Cue £-signs pinging up inside Richard Curtis and company’s eyeballs.

 

On the other hand, and as somebody who loves both music and films, it’s a pleasure when I watch a movie and suddenly hear a song on the soundtrack that I didn’t expect.  The song isn’t there because it slotted neatly into a money-spinning soundtrack album to be released on the back of the film.  It’s there because someone involved in the film thought that it enhanced – however weirdly – what was happening in the film itself.  The result is a memorable musical / cinematic frisson.  (It helps if the song and the film are good, but occasionally I’ve heard a song I didn’t like turn up in the middle of a film I didn’t like either – and somehow the resulting juxtaposition has been hard to forget too.)

 

Here, then, are seven of my favourite instances when songs and films have collided unexpectedly and strangely – in a manner that’s simply beyond the range of Richard Curtis’s thought processes.

 

From medberths.com

(c) Colombia Pictures 

 

Duran Duran / The Layer Cake (2004)

“Ten years!” screams George Harris’s Morty character during the infamous café scene in the British gangster movie The Layer Cake.  Meanwhile, the strains of Duran Duran’s 1993 opus Ordinary World waft from a radio behind the café-counter.

 

Harris – who’s better known for playing Kingsley Shacklebolt in the Harry Potter movies – is not, as you might think, screaming about the fact that Duran Duran ushered in the New Romantic movement and ruined popular music in Britain for about ten years, i.e. the 1980s.  No, he’s screaming at sleazebag Freddie (Ivan Kaye) who’s just appeared and highlighted the fact that, thanks to him, Morty spent ten years in prison.  Morty proceeds to kick Freddie to a pulp on the café floor before emptying an industrial-sized pot of scalding tea over his head; while, all the time, Simon Le Bon warbles in the background about how he won’t cry for yesterday, about how he has to try to make his way to the ordinary wooo-ooo-ooorld.

 

No wonder the unnamed character played by Daniel Craig can only stand and watch from the side-lines, stunned.

 

Just as Stealer Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle with You has never sounded the same since Quentin Tarantino used it to accompany the ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs in 1993, so the soppy, dreamy vibe of Duran Duran’s last big hit will be ruined forever if you watch The Layer Cake.  Instead of seeming soppy and dreamy, Ordinary World will become synonymous in your mind with excruciating violence, pain and rage.  Here’s the scene on Youtube, but be warned.  It might put you off your food – and your tea.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6WEatV1oEc

 

(c) Probe Plus

(c) Blueprint Pictures / Film4 / BFI

 

Half Man Half Biscuit / Seven Psychopaths (2012)

Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths is a black comedy set in and around Los Angeles.  It’s a phantasmagorical affair, populated by aspiring Hollywood scriptwriters, dog-kidnappers, gangsters, henchmen, molls and, yes, psychopaths.  It takes place against a backdrop of blue skies, wide boulevards, palm trees, swimming pools and – when the action moves out to the Joshua Tree National Park – looming rock formations and vast scrubby plains.

 

So it’s a surprise, in the midst of these sun-drenched Californian cityscapes and landscapes, to hear the chords of 1985’s Trumpton Riots – the first single off the debut album Back in the DHSS by Half Man Half Biscuit, the durable indie band from Birkenhead.  Since the 1980s the Biscuits have sung relentlessly surreal and sarcastic songs about the crapness of British popular culture and the crapness of British life generally.

 

Trumpton Riots tells a tale of violent insurrection in Trumpton, the cosy English village depicted in the much-loved 1967 BBC animated kids’ programme of the same name: “Someone get a message through to Captain Snort / That they’d better start assembling the boys from the Fort / And keep Mrs Honeyman out of sight / ‘Cos there’s going to be a riot down in Trumpton tonight.”  Which is as far away from LA swimming pools and the Joshua Tree National Park as you can get.

 

From gunshyassassin.com

(c) Warner Brothers

 

Cannibal Corpse / Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)

Adam Sandler may be the modern bête noir when it comes to irritating screen presences.  But even Sandler at his worst is small beer compared to the wincing painfulness that was Jim Carrey in his early movie career – he was immensely annoying in supposed comedies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumber and Dumber (all 1994).  Mind you, he did get better later on, in the likes of The Truman Show (1998) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).

 

The grimly unfunny (and transphobic) Ace Ventura would have left my consciousness a nanosecond after it’d entered my consciousness if it wasn’t for one curious scene where Carrey / Ventura blunders into a live concert – and the band onstage is none other than the legendary American death metal band Cannibal Corpse, who’re performing a song with the memorable title Hammer Smashed Face.  Carrey, wearing a multi-coloured shirt that’s louder than anything coming from the speakers, goofs around and behaves like a dick for a minute.  Then he gets flung off the premises.  Good.

 

From www.blogs.houstonpress.com

(c) United Artists

 

Sisters of Mercy / Showgirls (1995)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven, written by Joe Eszterhas and regarded as one of the worst films of the 1990s, the tits-crazy Showgirls is, actually, a fitting movie for the city in which most of its action takes place, Las Vegas.  Like Vegas, it’s flashy, shallow, dumb, vulgar, materialistic and soulless.

 

I’m sure that Andrew Eldritch, who depending on your point of view is either the creative genius or the arrogant git in charge of the seminal, operatic and grandiose 1980s / 1990s goth band the Sisters of Mercy, would not care to have the adjectives flashy, shallow, dumb, vulgar, materialistic or soulless applied to his music.  So I often wonder if Andrew ever strolled into his local multiplex in 1995 and settled down in the front row with a bucket of popcorn to watch Showgirls.  And, if he did, how he felt when he discovered that his record company had given United Artists permission to use the 1990 Sisters of Mercy song Vision Thing during Showgirls’ opening scenes, when heroine Elizabeth Berkley is shown hitchhiking to Las Vegas.

 

I’ll bet he wasn’t chuffed.

 

(c) Acid Jazz

(c) DNA Films

 

Matt Berry / Dredd (2012)

The Pete Travis-directed, Alex Garland-scripted Dredd, based on the Judge Dredd strip in the British comic 2000AD, is not a movie you’d take your granny to – unless your granny has a penchant for hyper-violent, grimy, monosyllabic, sleazebag-populated, fascistic, dystopian-future bloodbaths where civilians are blasted apart with cannons and villains burst messily after being dropped off a very high skyscraper.  But what should pop up in the middle of Dredd’s mayhem but the theme song for the short-lived BBC comedy series Snuff Box, sung by the congenial folk / progressive / pop-rock singer (and comic actor) Matt Berry?

 

A jaunty little number, with synthesisers chugging pleasantly in the background, the Snuff Box theme is what big-bad-villainess Lena Headey’s techie henchman (played by Domhnall Gleason) is listening to in her HQ at the top of the skyscraper.  This contrast between the musically winsome and the cinematically brutal is jarring – it’s like having The Clangers make an appearance in the middle of Alien (1979).  But it’s also rather sweet.

 

From www.freeradio.co.uk

(c) BFI / Film4

 

Deacon Blue / Under the Skin (2014)

It may not be fashionable to say so now, but once upon a time I liked the poppy Glaswegian soul band Deacon Blue.  At least, I liked their debut album, 1986’s Raintown.  Unfortunately, it was a song off their less-good second album in 1989, one called Real Gone Kid, that became the template for their sound – i.e. clodhopping keyboards and vocalist Lorraine McIntosh going “Whooh-whooh-whooh!” like a stuttering factory whistle.  That Boots-the-Chemist has used Real Gone Kid as the jingle for its ubiquitous TV adverts over the past year or so hasn’t helped Deacon Blue’s reputation, either.

 

And last year, Real Gone Kid was heard on the soundtrack of the dark, unsettling, Scottish-set science fiction thriller Under the Skin, starring Scarlet Johansson.  This is especially weird considering that the rest of the film’s soundtrack consists of the flesh-crawling work of Mica Levi, with violin-strings squirming and seething like a pit full of snakes and scorpions.

 

Even more weirdly, the film suggests that exposure to Real Gone Kid helps Johansson’s character – a murderous alien who’s beginning to rebel against her programming – become a little more human.  When she hears the song on a radio, it kindles homo-sapiens emotions in her and she starts tapping her fingers in time to it in a homo-sapiens way.  To be honest, that part of Under the Skin seemed less like science fiction and more like fantasy.

 

From thequietus.com

(c) Studiocanal / Film4 / Rook Pictures

 

Frankie Goes to Hollywood / Sightseers (2012)

After dominating the British charts in 1984 with Relax – spending five weeks at number one after the BBC refused to give it airplay – and Two Tribes – a whopping nine weeks at number one – Frankie Goes to Hollywood blew everything by releasing saccharine ballad The Power of Love at Christmas-time.  It reached number one again, briefly, but it wrecked the band’s credibility.  Particularly problematic was the accompanying video, which consisted of Nativity scenes.  These scenes had zero to do with the lyrics and was obviously designed to sell it as a ‘festive’ song.

 

Having always regarded The Power of Love as crass and clunking, then, I was surprised when it turned up at the end of Ben Wheatley’s 2012 black comedy Sightseers – an eccentric and beguiling film that’s best described as a cross between Alan Bennett and Natural Born Killers (1994).  Shorn of the nonsensical Christmas-y imagery and transposed into a very different context, The Power of Love is actually affecting.  It even inspires a lump in the throat while it plays out over the fate of the film’s hero and heroine, played by Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, two north-of-England oddballs in love with caravanning, hillwalking, dog-walking, wearing woolly hats, visiting National Trust properties and serial killing.

 

Oh Kolkata

 

From motherteresa.org

 

I recently spent a month in the Indian city of Kolkata, or Calcutta as it was once known, where I co-ran a training course.  I didn’t know what to expect when I boarded the Kolkata-bound plane.  I’d previously worked in Delhi and Hyderabad, while all the images of booming hi-tech modern-day India that I had in my head – skyscrapers, call-centres, Slumdog Millionaire, etc. – seemed to originate in Mumbai or Bangalore.  On the other hand, Kolkata / Calcutta was an unknown quantity to me.

 

Well, not quite unknown.  For British people – my age, at least – there are a few things that the old name ‘Calcutta’ conjures up.  Firstly, there’s the dark and tragic (and possibly exaggerated) tale of the Black Hole of Calcutta.  Supposedly in 1756 the Nawab of Bengal captured the British fort in Calcutta, Fort William, which protected the interests of the East India Company; and he promptly flung 146 British and Anglo-Indian prisoners into a miniscule 14 x 18-foot dungeon.  Of these, all but 23 died of suffocation, heat, crushing and shock.  The veracity of the story, which was related by a survivor called John Zephaniah Holwell, has since been questioned and disputed, but at the time it was enough to make Robert Clive retaliate later in the year and defeat the Nawab at the Battle of Plassey.

 

Also, of course, Calcutta was known to me because it was the long-term base for the Macedonian religious sister and missionary Mother Teresa of Calcutta, founder of the Missionaries of Charity organisation.  Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and beatified by the Catholic Church six years after her death in 1997, Mother Teresa remains a controversial figure – accused by her detractors of unthinkingly perpetuating the destitution, illness and misery that her hostels had been set up to deal with.  One sure thing is that Mother Teresa’s constant presence in the news during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s made Calcutta synonymous in many people’s minds with severe poverty.

 

I suppose I should mention one other Calcutta-connotation I was aware of in my youth – especially as it’s inspired the title for this blog-entry.  Oh Calcutta was a theatrical revue, notorious in its day for its rampant nudity and sexual themes, masterminded by legendary British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan and featuring sketches written by, among others, John Lennon, Jules Pfeiffer, Edna O’Brien and briefly (before he had his sketch withdrawn) Samuel Beckett.  Despite, or probably because of, the controversy it notched up nearly 4000 performances in London after it debuted there in 1970.  But why did Calcutta feature in the title of this saucy revue?  Well, apparently, Oh Calcutta is a pun on the French expression oh quel cul t’as, which means, “Oh, what a bum you have!”  Though I’ve never heard anyone use that expression when I’ve been hanging out with French friends and acquaintances.  (That may be, however, a reflection on the unremarkable state of my bum.)

 

Anyway, when I arrived in Kolkata, I found the place immensely appealing.  Interspersed among the fancy new apartment buildings, banks, chain stores, boutiques, shopping malls and modern cultural centres that you’d associate with 21st-century India were a surprising number of old colonial-era buildings.  These were often crumbling, grimy and dilapidated and were possibly not much fun to live inside, but their continuing presence gave Kolkata a lot of character.  It was particularly atmospheric to walk amid this architecture after dark.  No doubt most of the old stuff will be gone in another decade or two as Kolkata continues to renew itself and no doubt most local people will applaud that – and good luck to them – but I was glad to have had a chance to see the city like this when I did.

 

 

One of these venerable buildings contained the hotel – and a good many other premises besides – in which I stayed for the month.  I’m glad I was warned by my employers beforehand not to be put off by the place’s external appearance, because I would have been slightly alarmed otherwise when, at 6.15 in the morning (after a night flight), a car dropped me off outside a huge, hulking and decrepit-looking structure.  Much of its façade was covered by a brace of rickety wooden scaffolding and festooned with dusty, ragged sheets of canvas.  Elsewhere, I spotted a few thin, twisty trees growing from the masonry around the drainpipes a couple of storeys up.

 

On the right of the lobby as you came through the entrance door was an incredible, chaotic mass of exposed electrical cables and wires, coiling and tangling around a dozen or more fuse-boxes and electricity-meters.  A wooden staircase with a chipped and scratched banister and a scuffed and holed strip of matting went climbing up a stairwell; while access to higher floors was also provided by a cramped and creaky lift with two sets of metal accordion doors – the inner one on the lift itself, the outer one on the landing of each floor – that looked like something you’d see in a 1940s film noir starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

 

 

And yet, the hotel – on the building’s second floor – proved to be, the moment I crossed its threshold from the landing, utterly charming.  Actually, the whole building, which was in the middle of undergoing restoration work, was charming too, though in a dusty, down-at-heels way.  Tourists just shouldn’t book accommodation there expecting the place to be like the Hilton.

 

One strong impression I got from my month in Kolkata was that it was a very cultural and artistic city.  This impression may have been due to where I ended up staying and working.  The hotel I was in, you see, was called the Harrington Street Gallery and, yes, it doubled as an art gallery.  In fact, there were only a couple of guest-rooms, which were so big and airy that I suspect they’d served as exhibition spaces in a previous incarnation.  The rest of the premises still functioned as a gallery and it wasn’t unusual to return there at the end of a workday and find it overrun with wandering art-lovers, art-experts and art-buyers.  On one occasion, a person blundered into my room while I was in it (in a partial state of undress), expecting to find more works of art to look at – and was understandably shocked to discover that the only artwork on display was myself.

 

 

Another building that served as an art gallery – in addition to being a number of other things – was the Rabindranath Tagore Centre next door.  This was where the training course I was working on took place.  The remarkable Tagore was a Bengali poet, novelist, essayist and playwright and became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.  He was also a prolific composer and a painter, although he didn’t take up painting until he was 60.  And he was a famous Indian nationalist and anti-imperialist who turned down the offer of a knighthood and, on one occasion, came close to being assassinated.

 

 

A bust of this almost-superhuman polymath stood in the middle of the building’s lobby.  Meanwhile, looming up on either side of it were statues of two Hindu deities that seemed to have been entirely fashioned out of scrap metal, so that instead of having hydras of arms sprouting from their sides they radiated a dozen rusty-brown metal pipes.

 

 

With surroundings like these, then, I knew immediately that this work assignment was going to be a little out of the ordinary.  Stand by for more Kolkata-related blog entries in the days to come.

 

Jockalypse now

 

From derekbateman.com

 

As the British general election approaches – 20 days and counting – I’ve tried to avoid the UK’s mainly right-wing press.  Tried to, but not succeeded.  I can’t understand why I should want to peruse the Sun, Daily Express, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, seeing as the opinions expressed therein usually induce in me a feeling of alarming numbness that’s attributable either to the onset of a stroke or to my will-to-live exiting my body.  Yet peruse them I do.

 

Maybe the reason for this is similar to the reason why motorists, approaching a serious accident-scene, unconsciously slow down and peek out of their side-windows in the hope of glimpsing some horribly mangled bodies.  It’s because of a primordial and morbid fascination with the hideous.  However, I prefer a different analogy for my inability to stop reading Britain’s right-wing newspapers.  It’s like how small boys will cluster around the edges of an open sewer, a sewer awash with rancid effluent, curious to sample its glorious yucky stinkiness.

 

A notable feature of this election campaign is that, so far at least, the Scottish National Party has had a substantial lead in opinion polls in Scotland.  It looks capable of usurping the Labour Party as the main political force north of the border and could win a pile of new seats in Westminster.  This raises the possibility of the SNP having a major say over who gets to form the next government of the UK as a whole – especially since UK-wide polls show the Conservative and the Labour Parties bobbing along neck-and-neck with a hung parliament being the likely consequence.  The SNP, under their new leader Nicola Sturgeon, has said her party won’t do a deal to ensure a Conservative government; but they are willing to prop up a government run by Ed Miliband’s Labour Party – provided Ed rediscovers a little of the socialism that’s supposedly in his party’s DNA and tailors his policies so that they better fit the SNP’s (and traditional Labour’s) left-of-centre sensibilities.

 

Speculation that a Labour government might be put in power – and drawn leftward – by the SNP has not gone down well with the scribes of the Sun, Express, Telegraph and so on.  In fact, the newspapers have treated the prospect as something so apocalyptic that if there was a nuclear holocaust tomorrow and the start of the ensuing nuclear winter was marked by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding around sowing the landscape with biblical plagues of frogs, flies, boils, locusts, etc., it wouldn’t be half as ghastly.

 

From the Daily Record

 

The Sun – whose proprietor Rupert Murdoch, as they say, needs no introduction from me – got its scare story about the potential Labour-SNP socialist nightmare in early.  On March 10th the tabloid published a piece, written by Kevin Schofield, entitled TARTAN BARMY / ‘WRECKING BALL’ PLANS OF ED (sic) SNP PALS.  This was accompanied by a picture of Miley Cyrus from her 2013 Wrecking Ball video straddling the titular big steel ball, but with Nicola Sturgeon’s head and a tartan bikini superimposed on it, courtesy of Photoshop.  Presumably, this symbolises how Sturgeon and the SNP would induce Ed Miliband to demolish all the sensible policies of Conservative Britain — policies such as fiscally flaying the poorest and weakest in society with a welfare-slashing cat-o’-nine-tails whilst spending £100 billion on renewing a Trident nuclear missile system that, because of its massively destructive nature, can never be used.  (Unless we suddenly decide to take out Boko Haram by nuking Nigeria.)

 

The timing of the Sun’s Nicola-in-a-tartan-bikini picture was impeccable.  It appeared just two days after International Women’s Day, the theme of which this year was, according to the UN, ‘empowering women’.

 

Where the Sun leads, the Daily Express is sure to follow.  (The Express is owned by soft-porn magnate Richard Desmond, who in 2010 was said to be worth £950 million – although as he recently donated a million to Nigel Farage’s right-wing-loony / fruitcake United Kingdom Independence Party, he’s presumably now only worth £949 million.)  March 18th’s Express featured a piece by Chris Roycroft-Davis with the headline LABOUR PLUS SNP WOULD PRESIDE OVER ECONOMIC DISASTER.  This warned of SNP-inspired doom and devastation, of “ultra-Left bampots and crankies” dictating “how the United Kingdom is governed”.  Even Scottish people who don’t support the SNP – and there are quite a few – may have objected to the following assertion: “Many of us are already sick of the excessive subsidies English taxpayers send over the border.  Is it part of Cameron’s foreign aid policy to let Jockistan have even more?”

 

Now on to the pantomime villain of the British mainstream media, the Daily Mail – Hiss! Boo! – which is owned by the 4th Viscount Rothermere.  (He’s worth £720 million and is handily in possession of non-domicile tax status, which according to his Wikipedia entry means he pays “almost no UK tax on his income, investments or wealth”.)  On March 6th, historian and former newspaper editor Max Hastings penned a Mail article entitled THE TERRIFYING PROSPECT OF THE SCOTS RULING ENGLAND IS NOW ALL TOO REAL.  Max accuses the Scots of sinking to a new low – they’ve started to resemble French people.  And Greek ones.  The horror!  “Like the French and the Greeks, the Scots seem immune to rational argument about their circumstances and prospects.  They simply challenge the Westminster parties to declare who will pay most for their support… it is deeply dismaying that a substantial part of the population of this island seem eager to endorse the fantasy economics which have become the policies of the SNP and of Labour.”

 

Interestingly, the articles by Schofield and Hastings didn’t appear in the Scottish editions of the Sun or Mail, only in the newspapers’ English editions.  Evidently, people in Scotland – or Jockistan – are too poor and primitive to have access to the Internet and social media, so nobody there will ever find out what the English versions of the Scottish Sun and Scottish Daily Mail are saying about them.

 

Max Hastings described Nicola Sturgeon as “red in tooth and claw”, which is almost gentlemanly compared to what columnist Bruce Anderson has written about her: “It is less a question of a splinter of ice in her heart, as a few scraps of heart tissue clinging to an icicle.  She has all the human warmth of a tricoteuse waiting for a tumbril.”  Anderson is the author of two recent pieces about Scotland in the Daily Telegraph – one on March 21st entitled HOW TO CRUSH THE NATS’ HOPES FOR SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE and the other on April 4th entitled NEVER BEFORE HAS SCOTLAND BEEN QUITE THIS DELUDED – and his view of what is happening north of the border is not an optimistic one.  Not only are Scottish politics dominated by a harridan who sits knitting Liberty caps next to a guillotine (presumably set up outside Bute House in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square), but Scotland’s mood, writes Anderson, “is extraordinary.  Over the past few months, millions of Scots have been baying at the moon…  Not since the thirties has a once great nation been in the grip of so many delusions.”

 

From www.nvcc.libguides.com

 

The rabidly anti-Scottish independence, pro-United Kingdom Daily Telegraph is owned by David and Frederick Barclay, tax-avoiding billionaires who are holed up in the Channel Islands – more precisely on Brecqhou, which is the smaller sister-island of Sark.  Fascinatingly, their Wikipedia entry claims that, after feuding with the Sark government, the brothers have “expressed a desire to make Brecqhou independent from Sark – building on the research of William Toplis, the painter, and others, who argued that Brecqhou was not a part of the fief of Sark.”  So the Barclay brothers’ love of unity and hatred of separation apparently don’t extend to their own backyard.

 

Up until now the journalists I’ve quoted have been English (or in Anderson’s case, Northern Irish) ones.  However, plenty of right-wing Scottish commentators have been equally, if not more, determined lately to stick the boot into Scotland for its current enthusiasm for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP.   I suspect this is because if you’re right-wing and Conservative in modern Scotland, like these journalists are, you’re likely to feel very lonely at times.  And loneliness breeds bitterness.  Also, I’m sure they’re encouraged by their editors to be as anti-Scottish as possible.  Because the resultant articles are penned by Scots, the publications in which they appear can’t then be accused of anti-Scottish xenophobia.

 

For example, the right-wing website www.capx.co  published on April 7th an article by Scotsman Chris Deerin entitled SCOTLAND HAS GONE MAD.  Deerin accused his native land of being “a soft and sappy nation, intellectually listless, coddled, a land of received wisdom and one-track minds, narrow parameters and mass groupthink.”  The “viewpoint that dominates our polity and media”, he claimed, is “an unholy alliance of nationalists, Greens and socialists.”  And he wailed about Scotland being populated with paranoid crackpots: “We have become a land peppered with conspiracy theorists who believe in secret oil fields and MI5 plots and rigged polls…”

 

Incidentally, I find claims – advanced by the likes of former MP Jim Sillars and former ambassador Craig Brown – that MI5 is meddling maliciously in Scottish politics far-fetched.  But then again, in the run-up to last September’s referendum on Scottish independence, some big establishment figures like UK Home Secretary Theresa May and Lord George Robertson of Port Ellon made dire warnings about the threat an independent Scotland would pose to national and international security.  If these warnings were true, wouldn’t MI5 be failing in its duty not to interfere in Scottish politics and thwart the SNP in its objective of making Scotland independent?

 

(c) AFP / Getty Images

 

Deerin’s article was illustrated with a photograph of a stripped-to-the-waist bloke with Pictish-style tattoos and a Scottish saltire painted on his chest.  This photo and this particular bloke seem to have adorned every Daily Telegraph article about Scotland during the year leading up to the independence referendum.  Presumably, the figure’s embodiment of the irrational – if not animalistic – aspects of Scottish nationalism was intended to terrify genteel, pension-age Telegraph readers and make them choke on their tea and crumpets in the English Home Counties.  Now the bloody thing has migrated over to www.capx.co.  Find a new photo for your articles, guys, please!

 

I don’t want to, but I suppose I should mention Glasgow-born Tom Gallagher, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Bradford, who’s had a bee in his bonnet, a chip on his shoulder and a stick up his arse about the SNP for as long as I can remember.  On the creepy, right-wing, Muslim-baiting, trade union-bashing, UKIP-loving website www.thecommentator.com, two Gallagher-authored articles about Scotland have appeared lately.  One went up on March 3rd and was entitled SEEDS OF TYRANNY BEING SOWN IN SCOTLAND?  It likened Scotland to Russia – “once briefly… free” but threatened by “creeping tyranny”.  I have to say that since there are nearly 40 national and daily newspapers in Scotland and only one of them – the National – openly supports the SNP and its goal of independence, I suspect tyranny in Scotland will have to creep a hell of a lot further before Nicola Sturgeon is able to cow the media and run the place like Vladimir Putin runs Russia now.

 

The second Gallagher piece came on April 13th.  Entitled SCOTLAND 2015: TOTAL ELECTORAL POLARISATION, it announced ominously that “Scotland is convulsed by confrontation as the SNP and its supporters intimidate opponents.  Democratic civility is treated with contempt, and prejudice and disdain are the order of the day.”  Like Bruce Anderson, Gallagher sees parallels between modern-day Scotland and decapitation-crazy France just over two centuries ago: “Perhaps Nicola Sturgeon is a lawyer with a finely-tuned sense of history: Robespierre, the lawyer who led the French Revolution at its most crazily radical stage, ended up on the guillotine.”

 

Incidentally, look who’s pictured above Gallagher’s article on March 3rd.  Yes, it’s that stripped-to-the-waist / Pictish tattoos / saltire-on-his-chest bloke again!

 

I was disappointed to find the Scottish-Borders-based author and columnist Allan Massie, whom I’d considered to be an affable, reasonable and sensible Unionist, putting his name on March 8th to an article in the Mail on Sunday with a holocaustic headline: …IF SCOTLAND RULES ENGLAND, I CAN SEE THE THAMES FOAMING WITH MUCH BLOOD.  Massie, who’d evidently taken a few too many sherries at the time, warned that “the Scots do very well out of the English taxpayer and give nothing in exchange.”  To have the SNP calling the shots at Westminster, then, would spark such consternation in England that there could be trouble.  Big trouble.  Anarchy.  Slaughter.  The Thames awash with blood!

 

From wingsoverscotland.com 

 

Well, in the article itself, Massie doesn’t quite predict the apocalyptic scenario described in the headline.  “…I don’t say the rivers Thames and Mersey will literally foam with blood – but they might well do so metaphorically.  For the English regard a government dependent on the SNP as undemocratic and an insult to democracy itself.”  Actually, I don’t see how Massie’s image of rivers foaming with blood can only be a metaphor.  It’s so extreme that it suggests bad things really will happen – things like mass violence and loss of life.  Also, I’m sceptical that, in the event of the SNP ushering in a left-wing Labour government at Westminster, the River Mersey would foam with blood.  I’ve met a few Liverpool folk in my time and from their political opinions I reckon the Mersey is much more likely to run red if the Conservatives win another five years in office.

 

Finally, in case you ever wondered what’d happened to Gerald Warner, who for many years was right-wing-ranter-in-chief at Scotsman Publications, I can announce that…  He’s back!  He resurfaced on 15th April at www.capx.co with a feature entitled SOCIALIST SCOTLAND IS SLEEPWALKING TO BANKRUPTCY.  Even by the right-wing-loony standards of right-wing loonies, Warner is in a right-wing-loony class of his own.  He seems to hanker for the good old days before Clement Atlee ushered in the beastly Welfare State, when everybody knew their place – when the wealthy lived in big houses, went to church on Sunday and spent the rest of their time grouse-shooting, and the working class stayed in their slums, with their tuberculosis and rickets, and were grateful for it.

 

In his most recent missive, Warner gives us a handy summary of 20th century Scottish history.  “From the advent of the Labour government of 1945, Scotland became marinated in socialist dependency.  The land of Adam Smith and Andrew Carnegie, a nation of thrifty, proud, self-sufficient wealth creators, rejected capitalism and embraced socialism…  When Margaret Thatcher came into office, Scotland had the largest percentage of population living in municipal housing of any nation in Europe, except the then East Germany…  The Berlin Wall came down – but not in Scotland.  While other countries embraced the free market, often enduring much initial pain in the process, Scots defiantly carried the Red Flag into the 21st century…  By 2009, Scotland enjoyed the dubious distinction of being the third-most state-dependent country in the world, after Communist Cuba and war-torn Iraq.  Welcome to Alba-bania.”

 

Be aware, though, that this is history Gerald Warner-style.  So it might be slightly biased.

 

There are other articles I could mention – Andrew Gilligan recently wrote a piece for the Daily Telegraph that stopped just short of claiming SNP supporters in Glasgow East were murdering their political opponents and eating their entrails – but I’ll stop here.  At the start of this entry, I likened reading this stuff to standing at a sewer’s edge and inhaling its toxic fumes.  But having written about it in detail, I now feel like I’ve been swimming in that sewer.

 

A few final observations.  For many British people, the past five years of David Cameron and Conservative Party government have not been edifying.  They’ll remember 2010-2015 as an era of zero-hour contracts, welfare cuts, food-banks, the Bedroom tax, a crumbling NHS, exorbitant student fees, unpaid internships, tax avoidance, bankers’ bonuses, corrupt politicians, rumours of paedophile rings in Westminster, the rich getting richer and the poor getting evermore helpless.  That a coterie of journalists, like those I’ve mentioned above, can’t only get their heads around the fact that many people don’t want to be a part of modern British society as the Conservatives have fashioned it, but also go out of their way to mock such people as being “soft and sappy” and “baying at the moon”, suggests how far removed from reality much of Britain’s journalistic establishment is.  It’s locked inside its own bubble of privilege.  In fact, it’s as out of touch as most of Britain’s political establishment is these days.

 

Secondly, in the opinion polls Cameron’s Conservative Party is struggling to win the support of more than a third of the UK population.  Even if you factor in support for UKIP, still less than half of British people want to see a right-wing government in Westminster.  The Scots only account for 8% of the UK population, so why pick on them?  Why single them out for maligning as left-wing nutcases and fantasists?  Surely there are plenty of folk in England and Wales guilty of the same sin — if you’re blinkered enough to consider wanting to see the back of the Conservatives a sin?

 

And finally, this guff is self-defeating.  The more that commentators in the Sun, Express, Telegraph, Mail and so on fulminate about all things Scottish and chuck insults around about Jockistan and Alba-bania, the more likely Scottish people are to say in response: “F**k them.”  And then go off and vote for the SNP.

 

(c) The Scotsman

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 5

 

 

When I first heard the term ‘Frisian horse’, I thought immediately of some genetically-engineered mutant beastie that was an amalgamation of the equine species and the common black-and-white Friesian cow that’s the world’s most productive dairy animal.  I visualised a stallion with horns or a mare with milk-dripping udders.  However, translated into French, Frisian horse is cheval de frise, which is actually the term for a simple but brutal defensive device from medieval times.

 

It’s a basic wooden frame, or even a log, that’s been porcupined with long wooden spikes or metal blades and placed across an area to discourage an enemy’s cavalry from riding through it.  And should the cavalry decide to ride through the area, it’s there to stop them – messily and gorily.

 

The cheval de frise, the Frisian horse, takes its name from the coastal part of mainland Europe bordering the North Sea that was the homeland of the Frisian people.  I’d always assumed that Frisia corresponded to the modern-day province of Friesland in the Netherlands, where people still speak the West Frisian language and the mainstay of the local agricultural economy is the place’s most famous export, the afore-mentioned Friesian cow.  However, when I did some research, I discovered that once upon a time Frisia had extended across the coast of the modern-day Netherlands, across the coast of north-western Germany and to the edge of Denmark.  Apparently, the medieval Frisians invented the nasty, spiky, horse-troubling cheval de frise as a defensive device because they possessed very little cavalry of their own.

 

As time passed and as the horse became less important in military science – as did mechanisms for stopping horses – the term cheval de frise grew looser in meaning.  It came to refer to any sort of spiked impediment that’s erected in defence of a place.  This included the vicious-looking crests of broken glass that householders would embed in mortar along the tops of their perimeter walls to deter – and if necessary, maim – would-be burglars and other trespassers.

 

These days, people in Britain are urged not to crown the tops of their walls with large jaggy pieces of glass.  The Ask the Police website warns: “Using barbed / razor wire and broken glass in order to stop people getting into your home is not advisable.  You are making yourself liable to civil action as you owe a duty of care to ensure that visitors to your property are reasonably safe.  Odd as it may seem, you also owe a duty of care to trespassers.”  Instead, the website advice, which was obviously written by a horticulturally-minded police-officer, is to reinforce your external walls with “(p)rickly plants such as hawthorn, poncira, pyracantha (rapid growth), rosa rugosa, or any kind of berberis,” which “are an effective obstacle against possible intruders and much more pleasant to look at.”

 

Apparently, either the police in Sri Lanka are less concerned about trespassers suffering multiple lacerations and about keeping up the aesthetic appearances of neighbourhoods; or Sri Lankans pay a lot less attention to what their local coppers say.  That’s because around where I live in Colombo, walls that sport long lethal-looking ridges of jutting, fragmented glass – usually pieces of broken bottle – are a familiar sight in the residential side-streets.  Indeed, there’s one wall on the seafront, close to my local supermarket, that’s so packed along its top with fangs of glass that I was inspired to whip out my notebook and write a few lines about it.  “It resembles,” I waxed poetically, “the spine of a punk stegosaurus”.

 

I wasn’t surprised when I recently read Straw Hurts by the Sri Lankan writer Romesh Gunesekera, a short story included in Gunesekera’s collection Monkfish Moon, and saw one of the scene-setting opening sentences describe “the sun… on the smashed bottle-glass embedded in the curved top of the roadside cement wall”.

 

One thing’s for certain.  If you’re a burglar in Sri Lanka, you need to make sure that you’ve had your tetanus shots.  This is a place where the cheval de frise still has a painful kick.

 

 

Bond bows out: The Man with the Golden Gun

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

The Man with the Golden Gun was one of the first of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels that I read.  It almost put me off reading any more of them.  It was definitely not what I’d expected.

 

There were two reasons why the book bewildered me.  Firstly, I was ten years old and around the same time the 1975 movie version of The Man with the Golden Gun was showing in cinemas.  I’d seen clips of it on TV, which had Jolly Roger Moore battling hordes of karate-kicking, karate-chopping martial-arts trainees at a Far Eastern dōjō.  In the mid-1970s, popular culture was martial-arts-daft and so to me these looked like the most exciting movie-scenes ever.  So I was perplexed when I started reading The Man with the Golden Gun-the-novel and discovered that there wasn’t a single martial-arts fighter in sight.

 

It wasn’t even set in the Far East.  Most of the book’s action took place in Jamaica, which was Fleming’s main stomping ground in real life – he’d established Goldeneye, his house and estate, on Jamaica’s north coast.  (Later, briefly, Goldeneye belonged to Bob Marley and it’s now an upmarket hotel with an adjacent ‘James Bond Beach’.)  Fleming was obviously fond of using Jamaica as a setting, for he sent Bond there in the novels Live and Let Die and Dr No and the short story Octopussy as well.

 

More importantly, The Man with the Golden Gun was entirely the wrong book for a newcomer to Bond to start reading.  Fleming completed the first draft of it a few months before his death in 1964 and the manuscript was subject to posthumous revision by Fleming’s copy-editor William Plomer before it saw publication in 1965.  (I’ve heard claims that Kingsley Amis had input into the editing process too, although the book’s Wikipedia entry denies this.)  And as the last Bond novel, it carries a lot of back story.  By this point Bond had been married and seen his wife murdered (in 1963’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and had tracked down and executed the murderer, Ernst Stavros Blofeld (in 1964’s You Only Live Twice); but at the end of the latter book he’d also gone missing.  In reality, he’d been stricken with amnesia, but he was believed killed in action by his London-based boss M, who went as far as to pen an obituary for him in The Times.

 

When The Man with the Golden Gun begins, Bond has not only been fed through the wringer but he’s also – since You Only Live Twice – been captured and brainwashed by the Soviets and sent on a mission to London to assassinate M.  So not only is this a weary and jaded Bond, but also (in the early chapters, at least) a robotic and murderous one.  It’s a long way indeed from the cosy, jovial world depicted in the 1975 film version, where, for example, Roger Moore quips, “Who would pay a million dollars to have me killed?” and M retorts, “Jealous husbands!  Outraged chefs!  Humiliated tailors!  The list is endless!”

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

However, a little while ago, I found a copy of The Man with the Golden Gun in a second-hand bookshop and thought that I’d give it another go.  How would it seem to me now, a good – my God, I’m old! – 39 years after I last read it?

 

So the book begins with a brainwashed Bond returning to London and trying to kill M: “A storm of memories whirled through his consciousness like badly cut film on a projector that had gone crazy.  Bond closed his eyes to the storm.  He must concentrate on what he had to say, and do, and on nothing else.”  M, however, realising “that death had walked into the room and was standing beside him,” thwarts the attempt on his life by activating a shutter of ‘Armour-plate glass’ that crashes down from his office-ceiling and shields him from his would-be assassin.  Then, with Bond in custody and receiving de-programming treatment, M has to decide what to do with the set of damaged goods that is 007.

 

He opts to send Bond on a suicide mission of his own.  This is to locate and kill one Francisco ‘Pistols’ Scaramanga, a hitman known as the Man with the Golden Gun on account of “his main weapon which is a gold-plated, long-barrelled, single-action Colt .45.”  Linked to Fidel Castro and the KGB, Scaramanga has lately assassinated half-a-dozen British secret-servicemen in the Caribbean and M is desperate to put him out of action.

 

A restored but still-fragile Bond arrives in Jamaica and finally encounters Scaramanga in the lobby of a local ‘bordello’.  He manages to convince the assassin that he’s a private security man called Mark Hazard and, conveniently, Scaramanga hires him to oversee security during an upcoming weekend when he’ll be meeting some business associates at his new investment, a luxurious (but still-under-construction) hotel.  It turns out that this weekend conference is really an assemblage of American gangsters, plus one KGB operative, who are planning various criminal operations in the region that’ll both line their pockets and boost the standing of Fidel Castro.

 

Bond learns what’s going on with the help of his old CIA friend Felix Leiter, who’s managed to secure an undercover position in Scaramanga’s hotel too; and of his former secretary, Mary Goodnight, who’s working now in British Intelligence’s Jamaican station (and who, inevitably, ends up as Bond’s love interest in the book).  At the same time, however, Scaramanga and his guests cotton on to Bond’s true identity.

 

In the novel’s climax, Scaramanga treats his weekend visitors to a ride on a local light railway line and then a hunting and fishing trip.  Bond is forced to accompany them, aware that later in the day he’s likely to be the main quarry being shot at.  But Leiter comes to his rescue – he stows away in the train and once it’s moving a gun-battle breaks out on board.  (An added complication is that, according to Scaramanga, Mary Goodnight has been captured and tied to the railway tracks ahead.)  Bond and Leiter crash the train and Scaramanga is the only survivor among the villains.  Injured, he flees into the bush and Bond pursues him.  The pair meet up for a final showdown in “a small clearing of dried, cracked black mud” that’s infested with snakes and land-crabs.

 

As my synopsis makes clear, the plot of The Man with the Golden Gun is as simple and one-track as the little Jamaican railway line on which its climax takes place.  What’s more disappointing, however, is the lack of detail and colour with which Fleming customarily embroidered his plots – making their fantastical goings-on seem a little more grounded and believable.  Fleming tended to insert more detail when he was working on later drafts of his books but in this case he didn’t live long enough to produce a later draft.  The Man with the Golden Gun feels rather drab as a result.

 

At the same time, when it comes to describing what Scaramanga and his friends are up to, the book is muddled.  Fleming seems unable to decide on one nefarious operation for them to work on, so he has them engaged in a mishmash of things.  They’re conspiring to destroy cane-fields in Trinidad and Jamaica in order to boost the Cuban sugar industry; to use arson attacks to wreck the Jamaican bauxite industry; and to destabilise Jamaican society by bribing local politicians to grant a licence for a ruinous new casino franchise.  (“There’ll be incidents.  Coloured people’ll be turned away from the doors for one reason or another.  Then the opposition party’ll get hold of that and raise hell about colour bars and so on.  With all the money flying about, the unions’ll push wages through the roof.  It can all add up to a fine stink.  The atmosphere’s too damn peaceful around here.”)  And for good measure, they intend to flood the US coast with narcotics too.

 

Meanwhile, credibility departs when Felix Leiter turns up as a supposed accountant working at Scaramanga’s hotel.  Scaramanga has just hired the most legendary agent in the British Secret Service, which suggests that he badly needs to overhaul his vetting procedures.  But to have also recruited one of the top bods in the CIA suggests that it’s not just his vetting that’s non-existent – his brain’s missing too.  This is particularly so as Leiter has ‘a bright steel hook’ instead of a right hand, thanks to a savaging he received from a shark in an earlier book.  Sporting an appendage like that, Leiter must be the most identifiable CIA agent in the northern hemisphere.

 

But The Man with the Golden Gun’s biggest let-down is its lack of characterisation.  Mary Goodnight is perfunctorily drawn.  She’s a feisty but obviously well-bred young English gal and, well, that’s it.  Britt Ekland was criticised for portraying Goodnight as an archetypal dumb blonde in the 1975 film version.  But to be fair to Britt, if she’d looked in the book for inspiration about how to play her character, she wouldn’t have found any.

 

Equally poor is the characterisation of Scaramanga.  Although the film adaptation of The Man with the Golden Gun is regarded as one of the worst Bond movies, critics agree that its single redeeming feature is Christopher Lee’s performance as the villain.  Lee invests Scaramanga with suave and sardonic menace.  He’s charming and sophisticated but these traits are tempered by his obvious lethalness and intimidating physicality.  (You only have to look at the stills of Bond and Scaramanga together to see how the six-foot-four-inch Lee looms over Roger Moore.)

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

So it’s a shock in the book when Scaramanga first opens his mouth and comes across like a macho / braggart lowlife in a Martin Scorsese film: “I sometimes make ’em dance.  Then I shoot their feet off.”  Talking in crass gangster-isms, the literary Scaramanga is a simple thug.  He’s no smarter or more cultured than the pack of Mafiosi – the amusingly-named Sam Binion, Leroy Gengerella, Ruby Rotkopf, Hal Garfinkel and Louie Paradise – who later turn up at his hotel.  In a normal Bond novel he might make a serviceable henchman.  But the big villain?  No way.

 

And yet, paradoxically, it’s Scaramanga who inspires Fleming’s best writing in The Man with the Golden Gun.  Two-dimensional he may be, but he at least gets an intriguing backstory.  He started off as a sharpshooter in his father’s circus and his first victim was a policeman – whom he shot dead after the policeman killed his favourite circus animal, an elephant that’d gone berserk and trampled circus-goers in a rampage.  This backstory was impressive enough for the scriptwriters to use it in the film version and they have Lee relate it to Moore when they first come face to face.

 

The initial encounter between Bond and Scaramanga in the book is memorable too.  On a hot Jamaican evening, the two square up in the reception area of a dilapidated brothel called Number 3½ Love Lane and Scaramanga treats Bond to a sudden and shocking display of his shooting prowess – he blasts two tame ‘kling-kling’ birds (Jamaican grackles) a moment after they take panicked flight from a nearby counter-top.  “The explosions from the Colt .45 were deafening.  The two birds disintegrated against the violet back-drop of the dusk, the scraps of feathers and pink flesh blasting out of the yellow light of the café and into the limbo of the deserted street like shrapnel.”  And Bond and Scaramanga enjoy a good final encounter too.  At Bond’s mercy, Scaramanga pleads for a minute’s stay of execution so that he can say his prayers.  Bond is unable to refuse – Watch out, James!  It’s a trick! – and the scene acquires a strange, almost Graham-Greene-like intensity.

 

Elsewhere, it’s fun to spot signs that the then-nascent Bond movie series was influencing Fleming – Dr No had been filmed in 1962 and From Russia with Love in 1963.  There’s a movie-like emphasis on gadgetry – notably the glass shutter that saves M from the brainwashed Bond – and Fleming slips in a reference to Honeychile Rider, the heroine of Dr No whom Ursula Andress had immortalised in the film version two years earlier.  We get a hint too that Fleming was impressed by the actor playing Bond onscreen at the time, the truculent working-class, Edinburgh-born, Scottish-nationalist, former-milkman Sean Connery.  He ends the book with Bond, recuperating after his showdown with Scaramanga, receiving the offer of a knighthood for his services to the Realm.  Bond not only turns down the offer, but sends back a surprisingly anti-establishment message via a cypher machine: I AM A SCOTTISH PEASANT AND WILL ALWAYS FEEL AT HOME BEING A SCOTTISH PEASANT…

 

It has to be said that when Sean Connery was offered a knighthood in 2000, he showed none of Bond’s reluctance.  He said ‘yes’ to the thing immediately.

 

I have no arguments with the many critics who’ve dismissed The Man with the Golden Gun as the runt of the litter among Fleming’s Bond novels – though its lowly status was inevitable considering Fleming’s state of health at the time of writing and the fact that he died before he could polish it up.  Still, I didn’t find the novel boring.  I kept turning its pages until the end.

 

And what a bitter-sweet end it is.  Fleming leaves Bond in the arms of Mary Goodnight but he indicates that it won’t be long before Bond is back in his old, wandering and philandering ways: “he knew, deep down, that love from Mary Goodnight, or from any other woman, was not enough for him.  It would be like taking ‘a room with a view’.  For James Bond, the view would always pall.”  So it looks like Bond will soon be saying ‘good night’ to poor Mary Goodnight.  But alas, it’s good night too for Bond himself in his most fascinating incarnation — the literary original, created by Ian Fleming.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Bangkok carp and cabbages

 

 

Suan pakkad means ‘cabbage garden’ in the Thai language and Bangkok’s Suan Pakkad Palace Museum is just that – a museum contained in what was once a palace, built on a piece of ground that previously had been used for growing cabbages.

 

The palace was the residence of Prince and Princess Chumbot Paribatra of Nagor Svarga – the prince being a grandson of one of Siam’s greatest monarchs, King Chulalongkorn (or Rama V), who reigned from 1868 to 1910.  The palace grounds acquired their most striking feature in 1952 when a quartet of traditional Thai houses that’d stood elsewhere were dismantled, transported here and reconstructed with walkways running between them at first-floor level.  In their new location, these houses functioned as exhibition rooms for the prince and princess’s huge collection of cultural, historical and geological artefacts.  These items, still on view today, include furniture, crystal-ware, silverware, porcelain, fans, scrolls, paintings, musical instruments, shells, fossils and precious rocks and minerals.

 

 

Later, further traditional houses were added to the site, as was a ‘lacquer pavilion’ that’d originally been part of a temple near Ayudhya.  (The museum leaflet spells it as ‘Ayudhya’, but I assume it’s the same place as Ayutthaya, a town 40 miles north of Bangkok that’s home to the ruins of an old temple-riddled city and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)  The original pavilion was built in the 17th century but it was in a state of disrepair by the 20th; and, shifted to the palace, it underwent restoration until its internal gold-on-black-lacquer murals, depicting scenes from the life of Buddha and tales from the epic Indian poem Ramayana, could be seen again in their full glory.  These days, the palace is a fully-fledged museum operating under the auspices of a Thai philanthropic organisation called the Chumbhot-Pantip Foundation.

 

Suan Pakkad Palace Museum is a few minutes’ walk along the road from Phaya Thai Station, which serves both as a terminal for Bangkok’s Airport Rail Link and as a stop on the Sukhumvit Line in the city’s Skytrain system.  And unfortunately, the close proximity of a transport hub like Phaya Thai is noticeable in the museum grounds.   Although the gardens there are admirably green and tranquil-looking, their peace is sometimes disturbed by clanking, trundling noises that reverberate down from an elevated concrete railway running above their southern perimeter.  Also, the afternoon I visited, some evilly-bland Muzak kept wafting into the grounds from the PA system of a neighbouring multi-storey car-park.

 

 

Still, the traditional Thai houses are gorgeous and there’s much to see and enjoy inside them.  My favourite part of the museum’s collection was contained in the first house – an array of traditional Thai musical instruments, including drums, gongs and Thai variations on the lute, xylophone and zither.  I was always hopeless at learning to play musical instruments – tooting a cornet in a silver band when I was 10 or 11 years old was about as far as I got – but musical instruments themselves fascinate me.  So I spent a good half-hour in there.

 

The sixth traditional house, meanwhile, contains an automated puppet show that enacts a battle from the afore-mentioned Ramayana.  (The epic has a non-Hindu, Laotian version known as Phra Lak Phra Lam, which is popular in north-eastern Thailand, an area heavily populated by ethic Lao.)  Once you press the ‘start’ button, the automated show takes seven minutes to play, although most of it consists of music, song and spotlights snapping on and off to highlight the battle’s protagonists.  After a couple of minutes of listening and watching, this in itself becomes a little trippy.  The puppets don’t actually move until near the battle’s end, and their movements are confined to them gliding back and forth along slots cut in the stage’s floor – which I thought was charming in an old-fashioned way.  However, anyone who watches the show expecting robot-like puppets to suddenly come to life and start hacking at each other with swords will be disappointed.

 

 

Overall, I found the museum a pleasant and informative way to spend an hour or two but, weirdly, my most vivid memories of it involve two slightly-creepy encounters I had with aquatic life-forms.  At the back of the premises stands a boathouse, which has berthed inside it a royal barge called Kao Kung Bayam (used by King Rama V himself during river processions).  I noticed in the water beside the barge what I thought was a soldier’s helmet – discarded, submerged and filmed in algae.  I got a shock when the helmet started moving beneath the water, seemingly under its own volition.  Then I realised I was looking at a green turtle.

 

Meanwhile, one of the traditional houses overlooks a pool that has a fountain in the form of a huge fish-head jutting from the middle of it.  While I was standing on a balcony above the pool, I decided to take a photo of the fountain – and I was perturbed when, through the viewfinder, I saw a second huge fish-head rise out of the water beside it.  The second head belonged to a monstrous-sized carp.  There seemed to be several specimens of them prowling around in that pool, Jaws-like.