Kolkata’s Kalighat Temple

 

 

I might not have gone near Kolkata’s Kalighat Temple at all if I’d read some of the comments about it on www.tripadvisor.com beforehand.  “Horrible,” laments one past visitor.  “Priests harass you and fleece you…  Inside, cleanliness is not a priority and money decides how fast you are in and out!”  Another thunders that a “(v)isit to Kalighat Temple is a shame in the name of religion.  Home to one of the most revered gods of Hindus, Goddess Kali, this place is one of the most corrupt and mismanaged…  The pandits are more like touts than priests.  They are a shame to the temple and should be slaughtered right in front of the goddess herself.”   A third writes despairingly, “Infested with thugs… who will start harassing you as soon as you are 200 metres near the temple…  Please stay away.”  And there are horror stories about people being pickpocketed, being threatened, being overcharged and – when they refused to pay up – being insulted and sworn at, even in the supposed sanctity of the temple’s main shrine-hall.

 

I’ve noticed that most of these comments have been posted by Indians, well-to-do Indians from the look of the pictures accompanying them.  When I was at the temple, I had a few people sniffing about me in the hope of making a little cash, but it was nowhere near the scale of the scary tales on www.tripadvisor.com.  I’ve certainly experienced worse hassle elsewhere.  Maybe for once my foreignness offered protection.  I saw a few Westerners wandering the temple grounds who bore the full, unashamed ‘backpacker’ look – i.e. their clothes appeared not to have seen a washing machine for a long time and they themselves appeared not to have seen a bath for a long time either; and they generally gave the impression that they didn’t have two rupees to rub together.  Maybe the priests and pandits – a pandit is a Brahmin scholar, although around this temple the only thing the pandits seem scholarly in is how to fleece people – have reasoned that if all foreigners are as poor as these ones obviously are, then they aren’t worth hassling.  Better to target those comfortably well-off Indians instead.

 

Predictably, around the temple compound and along the street heading towards the local Metro station, there are a vast number of souvenir stalls laden with mementoes of Kali, the goddess whose image dominates the temple’s shrine-hall and who’s surely the most formidable figure in the pantheon of Hindu deities.  Mind you, in one stall, I noticed dangling amid the Kali-esque wares a plastic bag containing a plastic cricketing set – proof that even in the holiest of Indian places, thoughts are never far away from the national sport.

 

 

I also saw a row of carriages, tilted forward and propped on their front poles.  These were ‘pulled’ rickshaws.  Their operators don’t even have the luxury of a bicycle to sit on and pedal – they just struggle along on foot, towing carriages and passengers behind them.  According to Wikipedia, “(t)he pullers live a life of poverty and many sleep under the rickshaws.  Rudrangshu Mukerjee, an academic, stated many people’s ambivalent feelings about riding a rickshaw; he does not like being carried around in a rickshaw but does not like the idea of ‘taking away their livelihood’.”  That was the attitude of several Indians I talked to – they didn’t like what the pullers do, but at the same time they didn’t want to deprive them of business by not using them.

 

 

At the temple-compound, a long queue of people waiting to enter the main temple-building extended back through a gateway in the wall and out among the souvenir stalls.  I managed to blag my way into the compound and spent the next half-an-hour mooching around, looking at stuff, without trying to enter the temple-building itself.  It was difficult to escape from the sun, which by then, midday, was directly overhead.  Every scrap of shade cast by a piece of roofing or a parasol had people crowded onto it.  Occasionally a PA system would cough into life and a shrill voice would spend a minute or two yelling about something-or-other.  So frantic was the voice that I wondered if its intention was to get the queuing multitude suitably psyched up before they had their appointment with Kali.

 

Along one terrace men sat making chains of red paper hibiscuses – Kali’s symbolic flower – and were flogging them off to passing worshippers.  Darker in purpose was a tiled area occupying an opposite corner, where men who were either stripped to the waist or wearing vests polka-dotted with blood were at work.  Here, sacrificial offerings at the temple were slaughtered.  Looking in there, I saw a dais with a pile of severed goats’ legs arranged neatly on top of it, while an oozing heap of goats’ entrails lay beside the dais’s base.  No wonder half-a-dozen dogs were circling, eager to scavenge.

 

The compound was chaotic and messy.  Beggars crouched in various nooks and crannies and pedlars harried the queuing worshippers, trying to sell them flowers.  And the offerings that people made to Kali didn’t seem to last long before they ended up in the garbage.  I saw a wheelbarrow crammed full of pulverised flowers parked in a corner.  A ledge running along an outside wall of the temple bore, for a time, a stubble of smouldering incense sticks left by the visitors.  Then a temple workman ambled along with a broom and disdainfully swept them all off the ledge.

 

 

Rising above the confusion, the temple-building was a two-tiered structure, each tier curved – almost breast-like – and bordered with bright, arcing lines of green, yellow and red.  Its vertical surfaces were tiled.  The queue snaked up some stairs on one side of it, while folk who’d attended the shrine inside were constantly being disgorged down some stairs on the other side.  I finally decided I would like to look inside it but without spending an eternity in the queue.  So I resolved to take advantage of one of the touts who’d been occasionally been pestering me with offers to, for a fee, ‘fast-track’ me through the temple and give me an abbreviated version of the ‘Kali experience’.  When the next tout, a shifty-looking wee guy, approached me, I found he was willing to take me through the building for 200 rupees.

 

First, I had to remove my shoes and socks.  However, I didn’t fancy taking my chaperon’s advice and leaving them on a ledge outside.  I had a feeling that when I returned to that ledge later, shoes and socks would be gone, kidnapped, and there’d be a ransom to pay.  Luckily, I was carrying a shoulder bag and I stuffed my footwear into that.

 

And then…  I was bundled along the side of the queue, up the stairs and through the temple entrance into a narrow passageway adjacent to the shrine-hall.  I have to say that the Indian worshippers seemed so focused on seeing Kali that nobody complained as the little tout, and the considerably bigger me, came burrowing and barging through them.  It was bedlam.  Like a rugby scrum.  Somehow, a dog had managed to get into the passageway and it looked battered and scared as it tried to negotiate the countless pairs of oncoming feet.  (That was the only harassed-looking dog I saw in Kolkata.  Usually, they seemed totally unfazed by the humans around them while they wandered about and dozed on the pavements and roads.)

 

There was a window-like gap in the wall between the passageway and the shrine-hall and my escort urged me up onto its ledge – this was as close to Kali, who was on the other side of the gap, as I got.  Beyond and below me, worshippers streamed around the shrine in the same chaotic way that they streamed through the passageway behind.  Immediately in front of it, some stripped-to-the-waist priests, who looked more like bouncers than clergy, kept things moving and made sure that nobody loitered for too long.  All was confused, noisy and emotional – just a little way short of hysterical.  On the ledge beside me was another priest, who (1) gave me some hibiscus flowers to throw onto the deity; (2) dabbed some colour onto the centre of my forehead; (3) said a prayer on my behalf; and (4) demanded money.  Seeing as I was in Kali’s presence, I thought I’d better oblige.  Though he looked a little put-out when he realised that I’d only contributed another 50 rupees to the Kalighat Priest / Tout Retirement Fund.

 

Of Kali I’ll say more in a minute.

 

Then my chaperon bundled me down from the ledge, along the rest of the passageway and out of the temple’s other side.  Just before the exit I felt small hands grab at my ankles – two beggar-kids crouched on either side of the door, trying to get people’s attention before they departed the building.  Thereafter, I was whisked through some ante-rooms attached to the temple where more priests dabbed more colour on my head, said more prayers for me and demanded more money.  By this time I felt I’d already parted with enough.  So I would point at my chaperon and say brightly, “Oh, I gave all the money to him.”

 

And that was it – done in less in ten minutes.  Outside, the wee tout tried to interest me in buying some souvenirs, but I said, “No thanks,” and hurriedly walked away.  I walked away a little too hurriedly, in fact.  The moment I stepped out of the shade, the soles of my shoeless feet were scalded by the compound’s paving stones, baking-hot in the sun.

 

To quote Wikipedia again: “The image of Kali in this temple is unique.  It doesn’t follow the pattern of other Kali images in Bengal.”  Indeed not.  Though some of the more familiar Kali features are present – the three eyes, with the central one arranged perpendicularly to the other two; the great flowing tongue (but golden, not red); and the four arms, one brandishing a sickle-like scimitar and another gripping the severed head of the demon-king Shumbha – the goddess here is a humped, truncated-looking thing, her arms stumpy and only just discernible.  I have to say that she resembles a cross between one of H.P. Lovecraft’s elder gods and Eric Cartman in South Park.  Photography isn’t allowed inside the temple, but here’s a picture of a mural of her that I saw painted on a wall whilst walking back to the Metro.

 

 

Across that wall-image, I noticed, someone had fastened a semi-circle of red paper hibiscuses.  Even when she exists as graffiti, Kali commands respect.

 

NME – New Musical Express or No More Expenditure?

 

From www.rocklistmusic.co.uk

 

I read recently that the NME, or the New Musical Express as it once was in its non-initialised form, is about to stop being a magazine you pay money for and become a freesheet.  This is a move similar to one made by London’s Time Out magazine in 2012.

 

I was surprised to read this because I wasn’t aware that the NME still existed.  Yes, I’d heard there was an NME music station lurking out there in the jungle of satellite TV channels, and I’d assumed there was an NME website operating somewhere on the Internet; but I hadn’t known that the letters N, M and E still adorned the top of a physical publication, with pages, print and pictures in it, that you could pick up at a newsagent’s.  I certainly hadn’t seen it for yonks in any newsagent’s I was familiar with in Scotland.

 

But it’s still around.  In fact, of Britain’s once-thriving weekly music-mag scene, only it and Kerrang!, the heavy-metal publication, remain on the go.  Though in the NME’s case, thanks to plummeting sales, it’s only just on the go.  This freesheet move is a desperate last attempt to keep it alive, the intention being that its freeness will make it more widely-read, which in turn will attract more advertisers.

 

Anyway, reading about the NME’s financial plight, I thought with more than a smidgeon of schadenfreude: oh, how the mighty have fallen.

 

During the early-to-mid-1980s, when I was in my late teens and a college student, if you read the NME you weren’t just making a statement about the sort of music you liked – which at the time would have been a bunch of post-punk indie / alternative bands that the magazine championed, some of which (like the Smiths) were genuinely good and deserved its adulation; and some of which were so determinedly affected and obscure that I’d probably pee myself in a fit of embarrassed laughter if I ever heard their names again.  I’m talking about the likes of the Woodentops and the Monochrome Set here.  Oops.  Excuse me while I rush to the toilet before I pee myself laughing.

 

No, by reading the NME, you weren’t just announcing to the world that in terms of your musical tastes you were a defiantly rejecting-the-norm, going-against-the-grain, arty, bohemian type – or as a non-NME reader would put it less elaborately, a posing wanker.  Because you read the NME, which spent that period of British history publishing features not only about music but also about social issues and politics, about the Anti-Nazi League, Northern Ireland, the miners’ strike and the evilness of Maggie Thatcher, you were making a statement too about your attitudes, beliefs and general mind-set.  A statement that said you were against the system, anti-the-establishment and ready to man the barricades and shout, “Viva the revolution!”  You were firmly of the left.

 

To be honest, with regard to its politics at the time, there wasn’t that much that I disagreed with the NME about.  It was just that the NME broadcast its politics in such an annoying, pretentious, self-conscious, stuck-up and patronising way that I sometimes wondered if its writing staff consisted entirely of clones, grown from the cells of Rik Mayall’s character in The Young Ones.

 

(c) The Times

 

Mind you, and oddly enough, those people I knew during my youth who seemed most cut from the NME’s cloth, politically as well as musically, managed to chuck their anti-establishment principles into the bin the moment they graduated from college.  And they promptly reinvented themselves as high-earning, Mammon-worshipping, Maggie-loving, Tory-voting, materialist Yuppie scumbags.

 

I suppose such people were only following the example set by the NME’s most famous writer of the era, Julie Burchill, who abruptly changed her spots in the mid-1980s.  Post-NME, and possibly confronted by the prospect of a bigger pay-cheque than what she was accustomed to, Burchill switched with startling suddenness to being a columnist for the Mail on Sunday, sister-newspaper to that reliably poisonous and fulminating right-wing shit-sheet, the Daily Mail.

 

Not only did the 1980s NME annoy me with its holier-than-thou approach to politics.  It also annoyed me with its assumptions about what constituted good and bad music.  My favourite musical genres were heavy metal and goth music, both of which the NME loathed and ridiculed.  I remember journalist Charles Shaar Murray writing in its pages that heavy metal was the music of “the suburban white racist”.  (And since then, who has Murray – whom in many ways I consider to be a decent and knowledgeable writer – worked for?  Why, the entirely non-suburban, non-white and non-racist Daily Telegraph.)  Of course, heavy metal was never going to be acceptable to the scribes of the 1980s NME, not when the genre’s practitioners liked to wield their electric guitars onstage in an aggressive and rather phallic manner.  The magazine at the time dubbed such guitar-thrusting shenanigans ‘rockist’, which it believed to be as abhorrent as being ‘sexist’ or ‘racist’.

 

From eil.com

 

Unsurprisingly, I spent more of my money on the NME’s two main rivals at the time, the Melody Maker and Sounds.  The Melody Maker was as disdainful of heavy metal as the NME was, but at least it gave some positive coverage to goth bands like the Mission, Sisters of Mercy, Fields of the Nephilim and the Cult.  It also had a sense of humour, whereas your average NME journalist gave the impression that he or she wouldn’t recognise a joke if it hit him or her on the nose.  And I admired the work of some its writers, such as Allan Jones, Barry McIlhenny and Andrew Mueller.  I have to say, though, that I was less enamored with Everett True, who became one of the Melody Maker’s star contributors later on, in the grungy early 1990s.  In fact, I considered True to be an irritating, opinionated and – if Kurt Cobain happened to be in the room – sycophantic wee toss-pot who deserved a good kicking.  The Melody Maker expired in 2000, when it was merged with, or more accurately was subsumed into, the NME.  (The magazines shared the same publisher.)

 

Sounds on the other hand was unashamedly supportive of heavy metal bands, especially ones like Iron Maiden which, at the time, were seen as part of the movement known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.  Which was fine by me, although the magazine did have a few downsides.  One was that it helped launch upon the world the journalist, columnist, critic, TV presenter and noted right-wing homophobic / xenophobic arse-pipe Garry Bushell, an individual so odious that he makes Julie Burchill seem like Aung San Suu Kyi in comparison.  Also, the standard of prose in Sounds was usually pretty artless.  This, and the fact that it championed bands consisting of long-haired blokes with a penchant for spandex trousers and singing songs about Satan, prompted the NME and Melody Maker to constantly belittle it.  For instance, I recall one NME writer declaring sniffily that his mag was the musical equivalent of the Guardian while poor old Sounds was just the music world’s answer to the Sun; and a Melody Maker journalist making a sneering comment about “thicko Sounds readers”.

 

From www.cygnus-x1.net

 

Yet Sounds, even though it closed its doors in 1991, had the last laugh in a way.  It spawned the weekly metal magazine Kerrang!, which started off in the 1980s as a supplement inside it but was then turned into a separate and very successful title.  Yes, rather like the title character of Alien incubating within John Hurt’s chest, before bursting out of him and slaughtering his colleagues, Kerrang! incubated within Sounds, burst out of it and slaughtered its competitors.  Lately, it’s been selling just over 30,000 copies a week, which is twice the current sales of the NME.

 

Incidentally, a while ago, I was wandering around my neighbourhood in Colombo, Sri Lanka, when I stumbled across the entrance to a grand house that, according to the sign on its gatepost, was called ‘Sounds’.  My first thought was that the premises were somehow connected to that old, inky, heavy-metal-loving music weekly in 1980s Britain.  Actually, whenever I see that house now, I like to think that it contains the long-lost Sri Lankan branch office of Sounds magazine; and that when Sounds folded in 1991 nobody thought of informing them.  So that even today there are people inside the house wondering why the Sounds head office in London never bothers to get back to them after they submit a feature about the New Wave of Sri Lankan Heavy Metal.

 

 

Richard Johnson 1927 – 2015

 

(c) MGM

 

Last month, venerable British actors seemed to be dropping like flies and it was difficult for this blog to keep up with the increasing body count.  One actor whose demise went unmentioned in Blood and Porridge was Richard Johnson, who passed away on June 6th at the age of 87.  But I thought I would write something about him now, even if I’m about seven weeks late.

 

Johnson was a busy and much-admired theatrical actor whose stage CV included Pericles Prince of Tyre, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Cymbeline, Twelfth Night and Antony and Cleopatra and who could boast that he’d worked with stage directors as distinguished as Tony Richardson and Peter Hall.  However, it’s for his film work that I’ll remember him – and never more so than for his performance as the male lead, Dr John Markway, in Robert Wise’s epic spooky-house movie The Haunting (1963).  I think it’s one of the scariest films ever made and, indeed, both Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese are on record as saying that it’s the scariest film ever made.  The fact that The Haunting is based on a terrific novel, 1959’s The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, doesn’t do it any harm, either.

 

The initially smooth and charming Dr Markway is investigating strange phenomena in an old, rambling and reputedly haunted house with a group of helpers – the young man who stands to inherit the building (Russ Tamblyn), a psychic (Claire Bloom) and a lonely oddball called Eleanor Vance (Julie Harris), in whom the supernatural forces on the premises start taking an unhealthy interest.  Markway’s wife (Lois Maxwell) also turns up at the house when things are getting properly scary, which the now-unnerved doctor isn’t very happy about.

 

Director Robert Wise understood that the most frightening things are things that we don’t see and are left to our imaginations; because what we are capable of imagining in the mind’s-eye is far worse than anything a special-effects or make-up man can conjure up for the camera.  So in The Haunting we hear rather than see.  The film’s characters find themselves reacting to all manner of weird and disturbing noises made by mysterious somethings off screen.  Wise’s sound editors played these noises aloud while the actors and actresses were filming their scenes, which added to the rattled authenticity of the performances by Johnson and company.

 

(c) MGM

 

Needless to say, when Hollywood got around to remaking The Haunting in 1999 with action director Jan de Bont at the helm, the result was dire.  Starring Liam Neeson – shame on you, Liam! – and also Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Owen Wilson, it abandoned Robert Wise’s ultra-creepy suggest-don’t-show approach and relied instead on a crass welter of computer-generated special effects.  It got five nominations for in that year’s Golden Razzie Awards (including worst screenplay, worst director and worst picture) and I think I hate it even more than I hate the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man with Nicholas Cage.

 

The rest of Johnson’s film biography contains some interesting tales.  In the early 1960s, while Sean Connery was known only as a bit-part actor, former body builder and former Edinburgh milkman, he turned down the opportunity to play James Bond.  Terence Young, who was lined up to direct the first Bond movie, 1962’s Dr No, offered the role to Johnson but he didn’t like the idea of being stuck playing the same character in a long contract.  Later, though, he did play another British literary action hero (and a forerunner to Bond), Bulldog Drummond, in the films Deadlier than the Male (1967) and Some Girls Do (1969).  Meanwhile, in 1975, Johnson not only starred in but also wrote the original story for the forgotten thriller Hennessy, directed by Don Sharpe, which must be one of the first films to be inspired by the recently-ignited Troubles in Northern Ireland.

 

16 years after The Haunting, Johnson played another doctor in a very different sort of horror movie.  He was Dr Menard, the beleaguered but stoical GP on a remote Caribbean island doing his best to deal with an epidemic of reanimated and hungry cadavers, in the Italian film Zombie Flesh Eaters, directed by the inimitable Lucio Fulci.  Despite the schlockiness of the movie, which includes a once-seen-never-forgotten underwater battle between a shark and a zombie, and the variableness of the other performances – Johnson’s fellow Brit Ian McCullough is solid enough but Tisa Farrow is bloody useless – Johnson gives it his all.  He spouts the less-than-epic dialogue with as much earnestness as he would doing Shakespeare onstage.

 

(c) Variety Film Productions

 

When he was older, and after Fulci had become a cult figure and Zombie Flesh Eaters had become something of a camp classic, Johnson would be invited to horror movie conventions to discuss his experiences making the film.  He might have been a serious Shakespearean actor but he always sounded gracious and affectionate towards Fulci.   He was even complimentary about the film’s most notorious moment, wherein Menard’s wife gets grabbed by the hair and dragged through a freshly-smashed hole in a door by a rotting zombie arm – and in the process, in loving close-up, gets a big splint of wood protruding from the hole embedded in her eye.  (This image was surely the one that cemented Zombie Flesh Eaters’ place on Britain’s list of banned ‘video nasties’ in the 1980s.)  Ben Bussey, a writer for the excellent horror-film website www.brutalashell.com, remembers an 80-something Johnson enthusing at one convention, “That spike in the eyeball scene!  Wasn’t that genius?  So cinematic!”

 

Clearly, the late Richard Johnson was a man who enjoyed his work.

 

Three shades of Cedric

 

The dozen-odd stage-lights in the Spiegeltent that’s the centrepiece of the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival in St Andrew’s Square seem capable of cooking up three different colours: red, purple and blue.  So here are pictures of blues band the Cedric Burnside Project, who performed on the Spiegeltent’s stage the other evening, wrapped in red, purple and – most appropriately – blue.

 

 

Cedric Burnside is the grandson of the late, legendary bluesman R.L. Burnside, who learned his trade at the knee of Mississippi Fred McDowell and whose biography included a stint in Parchment Farm (i.e. Mississippi State Penitentiary) for a murder conviction – you don’t get much blues-ier than that.  A decade before his death in 2005, R.L. became known to music audiences beyond the blues fraternity for his association with American punk-alternative band the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, which included a collaboration album A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (1996).

 

Cedric was touring with his grandpa’s band at the age of 13 – R.L. liked to start ’em young – although he’s grown into a big strapping lad since then.  He needs to be big and strapping because he’s both the band’s drummer and vocalist.  The only other band-member is guitarist Trenton Ayers.  Onstage, they generated a surprising amount of noise for just two people.  Though I shouldn’t really be surprised, considering the healthy racket that Jack and Meg White used to conjure up in the White Stripes.

 

Because of Cedric Burnside’s prominence, the band’s sound was predictably percussion-driven.  His drum-kit was high in the mix with every jingle, rustle, patter, smack and thud of it audible.  Ayer’s guitar, meanwhile, seemed to surf atop those waves of percussion.  For a blues aficionado, though, it was all excellent stuff.

 

My only quibble with the gig was that I missed a chunk of it on account of the Spiegeltent not being equipped with toilets.  When I went to relieve myself, I had to go outside, follow the structure’s curved wall, wander along an alleyway…  And basically travel for light-years to the edge of the known universe before I arrived at the portacabin containing the Jazz and Blues Festival loos.  From the tenor of the vibrations coming faintly through the loo-walls, I believe I missed the band doing a Jimi Hendrix-type number at the time.

 

It’s also frustrating, for someone like myself who loves blues music but who considers jazz music to be mainly a heap of wanky, mind-numbing bollocks, that the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival seems to be choc-a-bloc with jazz acts but has only a modicum of blues ones during its 11-day run.  So, any Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival organisers reading this, you’d better make sure you hire more blues artists for your 2016 bash.  Or I’ll have you all done for violating the Trades Description Act.

 

You can’t Beta good western

 

(c) DMC Film / Film 4

 

The Beta Band were a Scottish group active from 1996 to 2004 whose songs showed a wide range of ideas and influences and incorporated a wide range of sounds and samples.  Appropriately, if not very concisely, their Wikipedia entry describes their oeuvre as ‘folkatronic, experimental music, downtempo, indie rock, Scottish, folk.’  I quickly heard about the Beta Band because their drummer, Robin Jenkins, had attended the same high school that I had in Scotland and so a lot of people I knew were talking about them.  But during the years that they were on the go, I never warmed to them.  I found them a bit too self-consciously eclectic and improvised.  Having a sound that seemed all over the place didn’t endear them to me, even if it was in the name of art.

 

Eleven years after they disbanded, I’ve recently listened to their double-album swan-song The Best of the Beta Band (2005) and I’ve decided that, actually, they were really good.  Maybe I’ve matured and my ears have become better attuned to quality.  Or maybe the Beta Band simply sound an awful lot better in retrospect, after a decade when the contemporary music scene has been dominated by the dire and ghastly Simon Cowell; and when the best new acts you can hope for seem to be ‘landfill indie’ guitar bands, whose best bits sound like the work of older and superior bands like Joy Division, the Jam and the Undertones and whose other bits sound like an anonymous sludge.

 

Now the Beta Band’s DJ, sampler and keyboard-player John Maclean has turned his hand to film-directing and he currently has a film on release, a western called Slow West.  As you might expect from someone involved in Maclean’s old musical combo, it’s an eclectic affair.  Its ingredients are more disparate than, say, the ingredients of those 1960s spaghetti westerns where Clint Eastwood would ride into town, mumble a few words, smoke a few cigars and kill a few people.  Slow West features among other things a trio of Congolese musicians; a pair of husband-and-wife Swedish bandits; a German social anthropologist who’s studying the Native American tribes; a bounty hunter masquerading as a clergyman; a haunted forest; some flashbacks to simpler, more innocent times in Scotland; and some slapstick comedy involving a washing line that wouldn’t have gone amiss in an old Laurel and Hardy movie.

 

Wisely, though, Maclean doesn’t let things get too disparate.   He reins in – that’s a good phrasal verb to use when you’re talking about westerns – these elements and the result is a film that’s eccentric and varied in character but that nonetheless has a narrative that’s lean and linear.  Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Jay, an innocent love-struck teenager who’s pursed the girl of his dreams from the Scottish Highlands, over the Atlantic and across the 19th-century American West – where things become wilder and more dangerous the further west he goes.  He ends up hiring a mysterious, hard-bitten and not-necessarily-honourable bounty hunter called Silas, played by Michael Fassbender, to act as his guide and guardian.  It’s a wise move, as throughout the movie danger intrudes in a number of forms – other bounty hunters, outlaws, natives and not-to-be-trusted fellow travellers, all in possession of that volatile trigger-happiness that seems endemic to characters in western movies.

 

Actually, I read once that gunfights in the Wild West were rare because of the high price of ammunition and the low wages of the average cowboy.  Shoot-outs like the one at the end of Sam Peckinpah’s bloodbath The Wild Bunch (1969) would probably have left the survivors bankrupt.

 

Slow West has a fine cast.  Fassbender is his usual dependable self and there are good performances too from Ben Mendelsohn as a shifty rival bounty hunter and Caren Pistorius as the girl whom Smit-McPhee is searching for.  You also catch a glimpse of Alex Macqueen, who played the oily Julius Nicholson in Armando Iannucci’s caustic political sitcom The Thick of It, in the role of Smit-McPhee’s unsavoury uncle back in Scotland.

 

(c) DMC Film / Film 4

 

But Smit-McPhee gives the film’s most engaging performance.  He’s memorably naïve and vulnerable – but stubbornly set in his ways.  In fact, he pursues his romantic dream with a hapless and somehow Scottish determination that reminds me of a similarly dreamy, hapless, Scottish and determined male adolescent, the title character played by John Gordon Sinclair in Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl (1981).  Yes, we’re talking Gregory’s Girl out west here.  That’s how odd this film is.

 

In one of the film’s best sequences, Fassbender and Smit-McPhee get wasted at their campfire with a bottle of absinthe.  Smit-McPhee goes for a wander, returns to the campfire and after a while realises that he’s sitting at someone else’s campfire.  It’s the sort of anecdote that a teenage lad would delight in telling, bragging to his mates about how drunk he got the other night.  The difference here is that the people whom the inebriated Smit-McPhee finds himself sharing a campfire with are ones who’d happily cut his throat.

 

Kodi Smit-McPhee, incidentally, first made his mark in John Hillcoat’s 2009 film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road.  I find this disconcerting.  Why, it seems only yesterday that he was the little boy accompanying Viggo Mortensen through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, facing cannibals and other post-apocalyptic unpleasantness.  But today, he’s the romantic lead in a western.  God, they grow up so fast…

 

As you might expect from a film made by a musician, Slow West has a pleasingly lyrical feel to it.  But it isn’t as bloody and violent as the last western made with major creative input from a musician, 2006’s The Proposition, which was scripted by Nick Cave (and was also directed by John Hillcoat).  Slow West has a high body-count, admittedly, but there’s less viciousness involved than in The Proposition – people shoot each other, and people die, but often there seems a haphazard, accidentally quality to it all.  Too many guns are being waved around by people who really don’t know how to use them.  (This, of course, bears no resemblance to the situation in America today.)

 

It’s also a lot less grotty than The Proposition, a film whose verminous, lank-haired characters made you grateful that someone finally got around to inventing shampoo.  Maclean even includes a scene where Fassbender shaves Smit-McPhee with a knife-blade – clearly this is a vision of the Wild West where the blokes have time for their personal hygiene and grooming.

 

Do I have any criticisms of Slow West?  Well, the German character, Werner (Andrew Robertt), feels a little too similar to the one played by Christoph Waltz in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2011) – although he’s not onscreen for long, so it hardly matters.  Also, while we never doubt that Fassbender’s character will eventually do the right thing, his transformation near the end to good guy, from morally-ambiguous guy, feels a little too abrupt and fast.  But generally, watching Slow West is a near-flawless way to spend 85 minutes of your time.

 

I’ve always been a big fan of western movies and it’s irked me that, during the last three decades, the genre has almost petered out of existence.  However, if filmmakers continue to make westerns very occasionally, and if the very occasional western that comes trotting along is as good as Slow West, I think I’ll be happy.

 

Four ways to save the Great British rom-com

 

(c) Working Title Films / StudioCanal / Little Bird / Universal

 

Terrible news, folks.  According to a recent report in The Guardian, both British and global cinema-goers are falling out of love with the movie sub-genre that, for the past two decades, has been a profitable and prestigious staple of the British film industry (well, what’s left of it): the romantic comedy, aka the rom-com.

 

Sad though it is to report, the sub-genre, whose most celebrated British examples – 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, 1999’s Notting Hill, 2001’s Bridget Jones’ Diary and 2003’s Love, Actually, all from the stable of Working Title Films and all with writer / director Richard Curtis at their helm – earned more than a billion dollars worldwide between them, is now out of favour with cinema audiences.  Recent British efforts like 2013’s I Give it a Year and Not Another Happy Ending, 2014’s Love, Rosie and 2015’s Man Up have barely earned a penny at the box office.  Indeed, I don’t think I’d even heard of those four films before I started researching this blog-entry.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jul/02/not-love-actually-british-romcoms-bridget-jones-relationship-go-so-wrong

 

Now regular readers of Blood and Porridge will know what an absolute, devoted fan I am of the Great British rom-com.  I worship at the Temple of Richard Curtis.  (I’ve built one in my back garden.)  And I sincerely believe that Hugh Grant is the greatest actor in world history.  Yes, other actors, like Marlon Brando and Sir Laurence Olivier, won more critical acclaim in their time; but when it comes to playing a posh and floppy-haired, but bumbling, self-deprecating and lovable Englishman, the likes of Brando and Olivier wouldn’t have been fit to kiss Hugh’s Paolo Vandini retro-Mod brogues.

 

And when I venture into a cinema, there is nothing guaranteed to fill me with more delight than a film about a posh, floppy-haired, self-deprecating, etc. Englishman who falls in love with and, in his bumbling way, tries to woo some unobtainable beauty, who’s usually American.  A film that has as its climax a desperate, but hilarious, race across London while the posh Englishman and his posh friends attempt to get to and disrupt a wedding ceremony in the nick of time.  A film that has a hilarious cameo appearance by Rowan Atkinson, who of course is famous around the world for playing that very funny man, Mr Bean.  A film that comes with a musical soundtrack consisting of such thrilling and cutting-edge artists as Geri Halliwell, Robbie Williams and Wet Wet Wet.

 

Therefore, to do my bit to save the Great British rom-com from artistic and financial oblivion, I will offer suggestions for some new British rom-coms – possible new movies that, while sticking to the familiar British rom-com formula that we all know and love, also introduce some fresh elements that might attract new cinema audiences.  I just hope Richard Curtis is reading this.  And making notes.

 

One.  Four Waterboardings and a Funeral

Hugh Grant plays Jack Bauer, a posh and floppy haired, but self-deprecating, bumbling and loveable agent of the Counter Terrorist Unit.  Whilst engaged in a desperate, but hilarious, 24-hour race against time to prevent Islamic terrorists from detonating a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles, he falls in love with and attempts to woo, in his bumbling way, an unobtainable beauty working for the CIA (Andie MacDowell), whom he encounters during four waterboarding-sessions with suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans and Guantanamo Bay.  It climaxes with a desperate, but hilarious, race across Los Angeles while Hugh and his posh friends in the Counter Terrorist Unit attempt to disarm the nuclear bomb and, more importantly, get to and disrupt Andie’s wedding ceremony in the nick of time.  Watch out for a hilarious cameo appearance by Rowan Atkinson playing that very funny terrorist, Osama Bean Laden.  (Mr Bean Laden’s impromptu burial-at-sea is the ‘funeral’ of the title.)

 

Two.  Rotting Hill

Hugh Grant plays a posh, floppy-haired, self-deprecating, etc. Englishman who falls in love with and, in his bumbling way, tries to woo the corpse of a dead American actress (Julia Roberts) in an upmarket neighbourhood of London.  It climaxes with a desperate, but hilarious, race across London while Hugh and his posh friends attempt to get to the crematorium and disrupt the dead actress’s funeral ceremony in the nick of time.  Watch out for a romantic sequence between Hugh and Julia while Wet Wet Wet sing a cover version of Alice Cooper’s I Love the Dead.

 

Three.  Love, Expendably

Just in time for Christmas!  A heart-warming smorgasbord of separate love stories set during the festive season, involving a variety of elderly 1980s action-movie heroes whose fates prove to be interlinked as the film progresses.  Terrorist mastermind Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) is cheating on his partner (Bruce Willis) by having an affair with his secretary (Chuck Norris) at the office of his terrorist organisation – will Willis catch him out while he tries to buy from some Chechen arms dealers a jewel-encrusted AK-47 as a Christmas present for his new lover?  A kick-boxing mercenary (Jean Claude Van Damme) retires to a Belgian cottage for some Zen-type meditation where, gradually, he falls in love with his Italian housekeeper (Sylvester Stallone) despite the fact that Stallone can’t speak any English – can’t speak any sort of language, in fact.  And the SAS-trained Prime Minister of Great Britain (Jason Statham) has to stand up to the body-building US President (Arnold Schwarzenegger) after Schwarzenegger, during an official visit, makes some ungentlemanly comments about the flabby body of his aikido-practising tea-lady (Steven Seagal).  Watch out for a hilarious cameo appearance by Dolph Lundgren playing Mr Bean.

 

Four.  The Hu-Grant Centipede

A middle-aged English actor (Hugh Grant), driven insane by being typecast in lame British romantic comedies, hires a disreputable surgeon (Bill Nighy) to carry out an operation that will give vent to all his bitterness against the many British actors who have never suffered the indignity of appearing in such movies.  The surgeon stitches together Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne, James McAvoy, Christian Bale, Daniel Craig, Daniel Radcliffe, Ralph Fiennes, etc., in a human centipede, attached mouth-to-anus so that they have one super-long digestive tract.  Sewn on at the front of the centipede, meanwhile, is Richard Curtis.  This means that Grant’s rivals will have to swallow from Curtis all the crap that he’s had to swallow from Curtis over the years: posh and floppy-haired, but self-deprecating, bumbling and lovable Englishmen; unobtainable American beauties; desperate but hilarious races across London; cameo appearances by Mr Bean; and music by Geri Halliwell, Robbie Williams and Wet Wet Wet.

 

From www.digitalspy.co.uk

 

Pump up the volumes

 

(c) George Allen & Unwin Ltd

(c) New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films

 

Although I’m someone who loves both books and films, I’m wary when these two art-forms overlap.  If a film appears that’s based on a book I’ve read and liked, I feel reluctant to go and see it.  Or if there’s a new film that’s based on a book that I haven’t read but I hear is good, I usually try to read the book before I watch the film.  And if I enjoy that book, I may not even bother with the film.  This is because I find that the majority of films based on books are – regardless of their quality as self-contained entities – disappointing compared to their source material.

 

Obviously, a film, even a very long film, will never have enough time to represent all the incidents, details, characters and ideas that give a book its richness.  You either end up with a film whose scriptwriter has hacked away chunks of the book – like the 1983 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Honorary Consul, which deletes one of the book’s main (and unfortunately for the film, most memorable) characters, the machismo-obsessed Argentinian writer Julio Saavedra – or with a film that becomes cluttered in its efforts to stay faithful to the book.  For film adaptations that try to recreate every twist and turn in the books’ plots, to the point where they become incomprehensible, you need look no further than the Harry Potter movies.

 

Television adaptations of books suffer from this problem too – although in theory TV programme-makers have more time at their disposal to cover everything.  I remember back in 1977 being narked by the BBC’s nearly-three-hour-long Count Dracula, which starred the late Louis Jourdan as Bram Stoker’s vampire count and which supposedly was the most faithful version ever of Stoker’s novel.  However, my twelve-year-old self, already a Bram Stoker purist, was not impressed that two of the characters, Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris, were for the sake of narrative simplicity compressed into one character called ‘Quincey Holmwood’.

 

A similar thing happened 23 years later, when the BBC unveiled its four-hour adaptation of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, the first two books in Mervyn Peake’s Titus trilogy.  Here, the fearsome father-and-son team of Sourdust and Barquentine, the officials who enforce the observation of endless, numbing ritual at Gormenghast Castle, were combined into one character played by Warren Mitchell.

 

Even when a film or TV production manages to reproduce a book’s plot and characters and doesn’t tie itself in knots doing so, it’s still liable to miss something that’s crucial to one’s enjoyment of the book – the author’s voice.  John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) and Roman Polanski’s Tess (1979) both stick closely to the Thomas Hardy novels on which they’re based, and both are undeniably good films; but inevitably they lack that flavour that’s uniquely and enjoyably Hardy-esque.  For instance, I like Alan Bates’ portrayal of Farmer Gabriel Oak in Madding Crowd; but his performance didn’t, alas, give me the impression that Oak was capable of smiling so that “the corners of his mouth spread till they were an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared around them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the sun.”

 

Unsurprising, one book that translated smoothly into a film, losing little of its substance in the process, was Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal.  An account of a doomed romance during the Northern Irish Troubles, it was filmed in 1984.  The novel is short and straightforward in plot, so it isn’t diminished when its story is retold in a 100-minute film.  Also, MacLaverty is an author who firmly believes in showing rather than telling – he writes both simply and visually.  Thus, there isn’t a marked literary style that the film misses out on, either.

 

(c) Collins

(c) Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer

 

That’s not to say that I haven’t encountered the odd film, based on a book, which does a better job of telling the story than the book does.  This is usually because writers, typing out hundreds of pages without having anyone to tell them when to stop, can fall into the trap of waffling; whereas filmmakers are usually under pressure to tell a story with a beginning, middle and an end within a time limit.  For that reason, I thought that John Sturges’ 1968 adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s Arctic / submarine thriller Ice Station Zebra was better paced and structured than its literary predecessor.  MacLean’s novel is basically an espionage whodunit where the characters potter about in a submarine, surface at the North Pole, and then potter about in the submarine again.  The filmmakers wisely confine the submarine stuff to the film’s build-up and use the North Pole for the climax, which they also beef up by bringing in some Soviet paratroopers.

 

Another film-adaptation that I preferred because it cut the flab from its source novel was Steven Spielberg’s shark-epic, Jaws (1976).  Happily, that film abandoned the sub-plots in Peter Benchley’s original book about the Mafia exerting pressure on the local town mayor to keep the beaches open in spite of the shark attacks; and about the affair that develops between the ichthyologist Matt Hooper and Police Chief Brody’s wife, Ellen.  This left more time in the film for proper shark action which, needless to say, my eleven-year-old self was delighted about.

 

More often, though, a film adaptation of a book is successful not because it manages to be better than the book – but because it uses the book as a starting point and then goes off and does something different.  The cinematic result isn’t necessarily better than the book, but it works in its own right.  A classic example of this is Ridley Scott’s transformation of Philip K. Dick’s eccentric, mind-screwing novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep into the 1982 movie Blade Runner, which uses Dick’s basic story to create a new cinematic aesthetic with the use of astonishing set-design, cinematography and special effects.

 

However, perhaps the most exuberant instance of a book being incarnated in a new, different-but-equally-valid cinematic form is Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996).  It takes Irvine Welsh’s ultra-dark and very-Scottish source novel and reinvents it a way that captured the mid-1990s zeitgeist in Britain (as opposed to just Scotland).  The film retains enough of the book’s darkness to make it feel edgy, daring and anti-establishment, though Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge leave out incidents that would have been near-unwatchable on screen, such as when a revenge-seeking character mocks up the buggering of a child with a Black-and-Decker power drill; or when psycho-villain Begbie kicks his pregnant girlfriend in the belly to make her miscarry.  At the same time, the film is awash with then-fashionable young British actors (Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Kelly Macdonald) and then-fashionable Brit-pop music (Blur, Sleeper, Pulp).  It becomes a mission statement, telling the world that British cinema is back (temporarily at least) with a punky new attitude and shed-loads of young directing, writing, acting and musical talent.

 

(c) Minerva

(c) Channel 4 Films / Poly Gram Filmed Entertainment

 

It’s fascinating how Boyle’s version of Trainspotting has to a large extent supplanted Welsh’s version of it – so that by the time Welsh got around to writing a sequel, Porno, in 2002, he seemed to be writing for two audiences, those who’d read the original book and those who’d seen the film.  There are references to things that’d happened in the book, which didn’t happen in the film, but they’re confined to vignettes – for example, there’s a couple of pages where the hero, Renton, tracks down Second Prize, a member of his old gang in the book who was deleted from the movie.  It’s almost as if those vignettes are there so that book-followers can read them and movie-followers can skip them, leaving everyone happy with the continuity.

 

Finally, over the last few years, we’ve seen a new phenomenon, that of the lavish movie series and the lavish TV series, which invariably end up as DVD box-sets that are as thick as sets of encyclopaedias.  This has led to certain book-to-screen adaptations being criticised not for what they leave out, but for what they put in.  The most famous, or notorious, example of this is Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film trilogy, which took J.R.R. Tolkien’s moderate-sized source novel, a prequel to his Lord of the Rings books that’s about 300 pages long, and expanded it into three movies that had a total running time of 474 minutes.  Jackson got flak from Tolkien fans for, basically, taking their beloved and scholarly old author and pumping him full of movie-steroids; for turning what’s essentially a mild-mannered children’s book into a long, loud, testosterone-fuelled, CGI-laden series of blockbusters.

 

Jackson, who’d filmed the three Lord of the Rings novels in the early noughties, argued that he’d merely padded out The Hobbit’s storyline with material from the appendices that Tolkien placed at the back of the third and final Lord of the Rings novel, The Return of the King.  These appendices gave extra information about the history, mythology and culture of the books’ setting, Middle Earth.  Sneakily, though, Jackson also added some characters who’d appeared in his earlier Rings movies who, to be honest, didn’t have any business being in The Hobbit movies – unless it was to please fans of the Rings movies who wanted to see some fond old faces again.  I suppose I didn’t mind the unnecessary presence in The Hobbit trilogy of the likes of Lady Galadriel or Saruman the White, but I could certainly have done without Legolas-the-elf.  Played by the doleful Orlando Bloom, Legolas is surely the most boring elf in Middle Earth.

 

And it’s not just The Hobbit that’s been pumped up during the transition from page to screen.  Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, the first of Harris’s books about suave, cannibalistic serial killer Dr Hannibal Lecter, had already been filmed twice; excellently by Michael Mann in 1986 and less excellently by Brett Ratner in 2003.  Now, however, it’s also become the basis for seasons 1, 2 and 3 of the NBC television series Hannibal, whose show-runner is the screenwriter and producer Bryan Fuller.

 

Although Fuller introduced the book’s main characters – serial-killer profiler Will Graham (Hugh D’Arcy), senior FBI agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and the charming, intellectual and suspiciously-culinary Dr Lecter himself (Mads Mikkelsen) – in the first episode, it’s only now, some 30 episodes later, that the show is getting around to the actual meat of Harris’s novel, which is the hunt for the family-murdering, William Blake-inspired serial killer Francis Dolarhyde.  Coincidentally, the actor playing Dolarhyde is none other than Richard Armitage, who in the Hobbit movies essayed the role of the royal dwarf, Thorin Oakenshield, “son of Thrór, King under the Mountain” – or as my girlfriend likes to call him, ‘The Hot Dwarf’.

 

One way in which Fuller has extended the story of Red Dragon to almost unimaginable lengths has been to throw in chunks of the third of Harris’s Lecter novels, which is also called Hannibal.  These chunks include the character of Mason Verger, the repulsive meat-packing mogul who plans to feed Lecter to his collection of prize pigs; and Lecter’s escape to the city of Florence at the end of season 2.  Actually, Fuller has described Hannibal as a ‘mash-up’ of Harris’s novels rather than a linear series of adaptations of them, which makes sense.  And I have to say that of Harris’s novels, Hannibal-the-book is the one that most suits the grotesque, baroque and gothic aesthetic of Hannibal-the-show.  (It’s a pity that NBC has just announced the cancellation of Hannibal, as it would have been interesting to see, after another season or two, what Fuller would do when he finally got around to filming the second and most famous of Harris’s Lecter novels, The Silence of the Lambs.)

 

Anyway, I wonder which literary work will be next to be subjected to the pumping-up, as opposed to the trimming-down, treatment.  Perhaps Peter Jackson or Bryan Fuller will treat us to a nine-hour film trilogy or TV adaptation of Ernest Hemmingway’s hundred-page novella The Old Man and the Sea.  With, hopefully, the big fish played by Richard Armitage.

 

(c) Berkley

(c) NBC

 

Terrorism — the clue is in the word

 

From www.nationofchange.org

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about terrorism lately.  This is hardly surprising.  Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the July 7th, 2005 suicide bombings on the London transport network that killed 52 people.  And twelve days ago saw the mass-shooting of Western tourists at the Tunisian coastal resort of Sousse – in which 38 people were murdered, 30 of them British.

 

The clue is in the word.  The purpose of terrorism and the raison d’être of terrorists is to inspire terror.  To terrify people and governments.  Therefore, logically, if we wish to resist and defeat terrorists, we should respond in a simple way.  We shouldn’t be terrified.  We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be afraid of them.  To quote the slogan that’s been ubiquitous in Britain during the last few years, emblazoned on mugs and on T-shirts, we should keep calm and carry on.

 

In the case of the Tunisian attack, a reaction of fear and panic is the thing that the terrorists want – and the very last thing that the situation actually needs.  It was originally believed that this was carried out by a gunman acting under the auspices of Islamic State (IS), although more recent analyses suggest that he was trained by a Libyan terrorist outfit, Ansar al-Sharia.  Both IS and Ansar al-Sharia loathe what Tunisia represents – a modern Arab state that, four years after its revolution, has been able to create a functioning democracy.  One where a moderate Islamic party was elected into government and then, later, voted out of government and replaced by a secular one – all done peacefully, which after all is the democratic way of doing things.

 

Unfortunately, the Tunisian economy is also fragile.  Just over 15% of its GDP and nearly half-a-million Tunisian livelihoods are dependent on tourism.  Attack the local tourist industry and scare away tourists, and you cause severe damage to the country’s economy and leave a lot of people in poverty.  And of course, it’s relentless, hopeless poverty that provides the likes of IS and Ansar al-Sharia with one of their greatest recruiting sergeants.

 

The appropriate response, then, is for Western tourists to set aside their fears and keep on holidaying in Tunisia.  By doing so, they thwart the terrorists’ objectives and put much-needed money in the Tunisian economy, which indirectly helps the stability of the Arab world’s only proper democracy.  The other day, this argument was put forward in an article by Justin Mozarra in the Spectator magazine.  I have to say that its appearance in that particular publication surprised me, considering how I normally find the Spectator to be a blinkered, intolerant, right-wing rag that I can only read when I’m holding it at arm’s length with a clothes-peg fitted over my nose.

 

Sadly but inevitably, the thread below Mozarra’s article was soon full of abusive comments from the Spectator’s usual shower of bigoted, cave-dwelling, knuckle-dragging trolls.  Many of them argued that no right-thinking white British person should ever go on holiday in Tunisia again because (a) all Tunisians are Muslims, and (b) all Muslims are jihadists.  That last bit’s been scientifically proven, apparently.

 

http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9573232/a-duty-and-a-pleasure-why-its-time-to-visit-tunisia/

 

Actually, if those trolls were correct, and all Tunisians are jihadists, I find it strange that many local people tried to save the lives of Western tourists on the beach at Sousse on June 26th — by, for example, forming a human chain between them and the gunman, or by piloting their boats close to the beach to rescue tourists who’d fled into the sea in an attempt to escape the carnage.  If such folk are jihadists, I can only say that they’re the sort of jihadists who give the jihad a bad name.

 

For more about the heroics of ordinary Tunisians that day, check out this article by Chris Stephen that appeared in Sunday’s Observer:

 

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/05/tunisia-beach-attack-local-heroes-unemployment

 

Sadly, what’s likely to happen now is that tourists will shun Tunisia in the near-future and everything that the terrorists hoped would happen will happen.  Meanwhile, it’s possible that the British government will respond, in the state of panic that seems to be its default mode of response to terrorist attacks, with military intervention in the likes of Iraq or Syria.  It’s as if those big military interventions in the Bush / Blair years, in the name of the supposed War on Terror, haven’t taught anyone any lessons.

 

In recent years, the British authorities’ other response to terrorist activity has been to curtail civil liberties and extend state powers to snoop upon and detain people, i.e. to bring in measures to combat terrorism that go against citizens’ rights to a fair trial, freedom of speech, privacy laws and all those other things that mature democracies are supposed to be about.

 

One wonders why they haven’t learned anything from the experiences of the Irish Republican Army’s campaign between the 1970s and the 1990s, which saw atrocities being wreaked daily in Northern Ireland and regularly in England.  The British response to the IRA was at its best when people simply shrugged off those shootings and bomb attacks and got on with their daily lives as if the terrorists weren’t there – adopting the ‘stiff upper lip’ that’s supposed to be a quintessential characteristic of Britishness.

 

On the other hand, there were plenty of dumb official responses to the IRA.  These ranged from the incredibly counterproductive, such as the introduction of internment-without-trial in Northern Ireland in 1971, which today is regarded as a terrible blunder that only succeeded in driving more young people into the arms of the IRA; to the merely idiotic, such as when Margaret Thatcher decided to “deny terrorists of the oxygen of publicity” by banning the broadcasting of the voices of people like Gerry Adams, head of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing – with the result that when such people were interviewed on TV, their voices had to be dubbed by actors.  If nothing else, the ban at least provided some much-needed employment for Northern Irish actors, such as Conor Grimes, who did the dubbing.  (“Well, Conor,” Adams asked Grimes later, “what’s it like being me?”)

 

(c) The Independent

 

One reaction to the recent spate of Islamic-terrorist attacks has been for journalists and politicians to argue that Islamic State shouldn’t be known as Islamic State anymore.  Rather, they say, IS should be referred to by its Arabic name, Daesh.  The French government, for instance, has complained that calling the organisation Islamic State implies that it represents an actual, legitimate state; and, also, it “blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and terrorists.”  French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has said of IS and its members that, “The Arabs call it ‘Daesh’, and I will be calling them ‘the Daesh cutthroats’.”

 

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-vs-islamic-state-vs-isil-vs-daesh-what-do-the-different-names-mean-9750629.html

 

Well, I suppose there’s some logic in the idea of renaming terrorist organisations to avoid offending innocent people.  Although I think it’s a bit unfair on, say, the many Irish people who didn’t support the IRA but for decades had to put up with them being called the Irish Republican Army.  Anyway, if we are going to rename Islamic State, why don’t we go the whole hog and give them a really unflattering name?  I would suggest Caliphate of Crap.  Or possible, Stone-Age-Mentality Dumb-shits.

 

The Queen Vic

 

 

I’m about to make a statement that’s based on my personal observations of India.  It may actually be a wildly inaccurate generalisation.  And I apologise to any Indian who thinks otherwise.  But it surprises me how relaxed Indians seem to be about the period of their history when they were incorporated into the British Empire and treated as imperial subjects of the British Crown.

 

As evidence for this statement, I’ll cite the day I visited the Queen Victoria Memorial Museum, which stands in an area of parkland at Maidan in central Kolkata.  This is a huge white building with a central chamber dedicated to the memory of the longest-serving monarch in British history.  (For the time being, at least.  If the current Queen Elizabeth can hang in there till September 9th this year, she’ll break old Victoria’s record of 63 years and seven months – or to be more precise, 23,226 days, 16 hours and 23 minutes.  Yes, it’s amazing what facts you can find in the Daily Telegraph.)

 

As you go into this chamber, you pass a foundation stone with an inscription saying that the building was “erected in memory of Victoria, first Queen Empress of India 1837-1901, by the contribution of the princes and peoples of India” and the stone was “lain by her grandson HRH George Prince of Wales on January 4th, 1906.”

 

The day of my visit, the museum was thronged – and thronged almost entirely by Indians, who seemed to be absorbing everything in a spirit of calm historical curiosity.  I come from Ireland and I can safely say that if this building – commemorating the regal emblem of British imperialism during its most powerful and global era – stood in, say, Dublin, it wouldn’t be as popular with the local public.  In fact, the IRA would probably have blown it up 50 years ago.

 

Anyway, what’s on offer at Kolkata’s Queen Vic?

 

 

In the centre of the main chamber stands a statue of Victoria bearing an orb and sceptre.  Display-tables, cases and cabinets holding a variety of bric-a-brac are arranged around the statue, their contents including antique swords, a hefty model of an East India Company merchant ship called The Alumgeer and a model of the museum-building itself.  Also parked here, for some reason, is a grand piano.

 

Halfway up the sides of the chamber is a circular gallery; and above that, occupying the space between the gallery and the base of a cupola at the chamber’s top, are a dozen alfresco paintings.  The paintings show important scenes in Victoria’s life, including her coronation in 1838, her marriage in 1840, her Golden and Diamond Jubilees in 1887 and 1897 and, following her death in 1901, her body lying in state.  Meanwhile, alcoves in the wall around the gallery house busts of important (British) personages of the time, including one of Victoria’s son and successor Edward VII.  The famously fun-loving king’s eyes seem a little too fixed on the middle-distance, as if he’s determinedly trying to conceal the fact that he’s just quaffed a few brandies.  Meanwhile, at the summit of the cupola, a round hole opens into a small belfry-shaped dome, where pigeons flap around oblivious to the crowds below.

 

An entrance lobby before the main chamber contains a statue of the building’s foundation-stone layer, George Prince of Wales, in his future monarchical incarnation as King George V.  There’s also a statue of his wife, Queen Mary; and the two statues face one another mutely, as if both are in the bitter, smouldering aftermath of a fierce matrimonial row.  Off to the left of this lobby is a gallery.  At the time of my visit it was hosting an exhibition by Abanindranath Tagore, founder of the Bengal School of Art and a nephew of the famous Nobel Prize-winning polymath (poet, novelist, dramatist, composer, song-writer, painter and political activist) Rabindranath Tagore.  One of the younger Tagore’s most famous paintings is Bharat Mata, which personifies India as a saffron-wearing mother goddess.  And I suppose that, by rights, it should be her who occupies the plinth in the next room, not Queen Victoria.

 

From wikipedia.org 

 

On the far side of the main chamber is another lobby, which has more statues – including one of Major-General Robert Clive, looking a bit pompous – and three antique field guns.  Two of those guns are French ones that Clive captured at the Battle of Plassey in 1757.  The third gun is a brass Bengali one, with an ornately patterned barrel and a curious, pointy-nosed, fox-eared face moulded onto the barrel’s end.

 

Two more galleries are located at either end of this second lobby.  The one to the left was, at the time, hosting an exhibition called The Artist’s Eye of India 1770-1835, which was a collection of paintings of early colonial-era buildings, townscapes and landscapes by Western artists.  I liked Thomas Daniell’s Dead Tiger in a Forested Landscape, but overall I found the exhibition rather dull.  To the right of the lobby is the Kolkata Gallery, which displays copious paintings, photos, sketches, maps, weavings, woodcuts and artefacts relating to the local city and which I found much more interesting.

 

There are some charming grounds around the building, although – appropriately – they’re subject to a horde of rules and regulations that show a Victorian-mentality strictness and stuffiness: No food, no smoking, no exercise, no plastic bags and use the bins.  The building was undergoing extensive maintenance when I visited, so that both its wings were encased in a dense mesh of scaffolding; but nonetheless, in the hazy early-evening light, it looked very appealing as it stood overlooking an artificial lake that’d been installed in front of it – with its reflection shimmering in the lake-water and with the retreating sun making a golden splash beside it.  A little way behind the building, you’ll encounter Edward VII again, this time on the back of a horse perched atop a stone archway; while some majestic stone lions lounge on pedestals beside the grounds’ entrance.

 

 

Finally, in the middle of a lawn just outside the building’s back doors, surrounded by pink and purple flowers, is a statue of Lord George Curzon of Kedleston, who was Viceroy of India when the building was constructed and who also served as British Foreign Secretary under David Lloyd George, Andrew Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin.  Curzon hardly distinguished himself during his time in India.  He was much criticised for the Indian Famine of 1899-1900 and for an attempt to partition Bengal in 1905.  And yet a century after Curzon’s failures, I saw countless Indian sightseers happily pose for photographs with his statue in the background.  No doubt this had less to do with any historical awareness of the Viceroy and his record, and had more to do with the fact that you aren’t allowed to use cameras inside the building and this is the handiest spot to take a picture as soon as you come out of it.

 

 

And that seems to sum up local attitudes to the Queen Victoria Memorial Museum.  Don’t vex yourself by thinking too much about the historical realities underlying the building.  Just relax and enjoy the majesty of its architecture and the pleasantness of its backdrop.