Miscellaneous Kolkata



Kolkata is now indelibly linked in my mind with chess.


One reason for this is because of the tomb of Sir William Jones – pictured above – which stands in the city’s crumbling but atmospheric South Park Street Cemetery and which I mentioned in a blog-post a few months ago.  I described Jones then as “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 historical and written 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.”




What’s more, Jones was – at least in his youth – something of a poet and at the age of 17 he wrote a poem, in Latin, called Caissa.  This was about the mythological Thracian dryad of the same name and it helped to popularise her as being the patron goddess of the game of chess.  (Come to think of it, Jones’s tomb looks like an eccentrically-shaped chess-piece itself.)  So I’d like to imagine that, after winning a particularly arduous game at the chequered board, Garry Kasparov slumps back in his chair, wipes the sweat from his brow and whispers gratefully, “Thank you, Caissa!”


There’s even an online chess-game server at www.cassia.com.  The site’s name is Caissa’s Web.



By a coincidence, during the last few days that I worked in the city, at its Rabindranath Tagore Centre, the floor below the one where I was based played host to the Kolkata International Grandmasters Chess Tournament.  The training course I was involved in co-existed peacefully with the tournament downstairs until the course’s final day.  Then a training activity that required all the course participants  to get up, move around the room and talk volubly to other participants generated so much noise that someone soon came running up from the tournament to beg us to sit down and be quiet.  The noise was putting the chess-players off their game.  Evidently, on this occasion, divine help from Caissa was not forthcoming.


Anyway, just before I finish my series of Kolkata blog-posts, here are a few other snippets about the city.


One day I was wandering along an inauspicious street, full of inauspicious shops, a little way from New Market when I spotted this plinth and bust at the street’s side.  An indication that Indira Gandhi might be long gone in India but she isn’t forgotten.



Meanwhile, on a road behind the restaurant-and-bar-populated Park Street, I happened across a building that’s home to the city’s branch of the Iran Society.  Oddly, its presence in Kolkata seems to be a legacy of the British Empire, because the Iran Society was set up in 1935 “to spread knowledge and understanding of Persian culture in the UK and thus to contribute to Anglo-Iranian understanding and friendship.”  The photo I took doesn’t do justice to the handsomeness of the society’s building, especially not to the fetching row of arched, multi-paned windows along the first floor of its façade, which are rimmed with green, blue, red and white glass.



Meanwhile, at an entrance leading off Park Street itself, I discovered a gatepost with the following sign attached to it: “Bengal Freemasons’ Trust Association, Freemasons’ Hall, 19 Park Street, District Grand Lodge of Bengal.”  Yes!  It’s the Masons!  The bowler-hatted, apron-wearing, compass-wielding, funny-handshaking members of this fairly-secretive society get everywhere.  And no doubt their presence in Kolkata is another legacy of the British Empire.



And finally, here’s a picture of a tree growing on top of a house.  Not a treehouse, but a house-tree.  Just one of many reasons why, by the end of my time in Kolkata, I think I had fallen in love with the place.



James Bond in Scots


(c) Eon Productions


I have at least one seriously silly thought every day and I’ve decided to share today’s seriously silly thought with you.  What would the titles of all the James Bond movies sound like if they’d been formulated not in Standard English, but in Scots?  Well, maybe like this:


Dr No                                                             Dr Naw

From Russia with Love                               Frae Russia wi Winchin’

Goldfinger                                                    Gauld Pinkie

Thunderball                                                  Thunner Baw

You Only Live Twice                                    Ye Onie Bide Twa Times

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service                On the High Heid-Yin’s Secret Service

Diamonds are Forever                                 Diamonds are Firiver

Live and Let Die                                            Bide an’ Let Dee

The Man with the Golden Gun                    The Gadgie wi the Gaulden Gun

The Spy Who Loved Me                               The Spy Whae Winched Me

Moonraker                                                     Moon Howker

For Your Eyes Only                                      Fir Yer Een Onie

Octopussy                                                      Octo-Fannie

A View to a Kill                                              A Shuftey tae a Malky

The Living Daylights                                     The Bidin’ Daylichts

Licence to Kill                                                Licence tae Malky


(c) Eon Productions


Goldeneye                                                      Gaulden Ee

Tomorrow Never Dies                                  The Morra Nivir Dees

The World is not Enough                             The Wirld isnae Eneuch

Die Another Day                                            Dee Anither Day

Casino Royale                                                Ceilidh-Hoose Royale

Quantum of Solace                                       Smeddum o Solace

Skyfall                                                             Sky Cowp

Spectre                                                           Bogle


All right, some poetic licence – as opposed to a licence to kill – has been deployed here.  Certain Scots words I used because I liked the sound of them, not because they captured the exact shade of meaning.


For example, I know that the Scots noun ‘pinkie’ refers to your little finger only, not to any old finger; and the verb ‘bide’ means ‘live’ as in ‘reside’, not ‘live’ as in simply ‘be alive’.  Also, I don’t know of any direct Scots equivalent of ‘Her Majesty’; so for the title of the sixth Bond movie (the only one to show 007 wearing a kilt) I used the term ‘high heid yin’, which means the boss, the person in charge of an organisation.  Although if you believe the rumours about what people living near Balmoral Castle — which since 1852 has been the Royal Family’s private residence in Scotland — call the Queen and her kin, maybe ‘the auld German wifie’ would have sufficed.  As for Ceilidh-Hoose Royale, well, that’s me being really daft.


Incidentally, by penning this post, I risk incurring the wrath of fulminating wee columnist John Macleod, who in the most recent Scottish edition of the Mail on Sunday lambasted the fad for translating literary works — especially works for children — into the Scots tongue.  He cited one of Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin, The Black Island, as an example of the horrors that happen — in 2013 Susan Rennie had the temerity to translate it, as The Derk Isle, into the frightful devil’s gobbledygook that is Scots.  As the learned Macleod knows, Tintin should only be read in the civilised eloquence of Hergé’s native Standard English.


Anyway, I’m sure this man would approve…


From www.pinterest.com 


By the way — happy belated 85th birthday, you grumpy auld bugger.


Bairns on a plane


(c) New Line Cinema


“I’ve had it with these motherf***ing snakes on this motherf***ing plane!”


So bellowed a disgruntled Samuel L. Jackson towards the end of the 2006 action movie, Snakes on a Plane, which, surprisingly, was about a cache of poisonous snakes breaking loose in the hold of a passenger plane and wreaking deadly havoc during a flight.  Lately, I’ve done a lot of flying.  And I have to say that on several occasions I’ve been close to doing a good impersonation of Samuel L. Jackson in that particular movie.  As the noise of screeching, caterwauling babies and infants has struck up from one, two, three, half-a-dozen, a dozen airplane-seats around me, I’ve wanted to paraphrase the distinguished star of Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997) and Django Unchained (2012) and bellow:


“I’m had it with these motherf***ing bairns on this motherf***ing plane!”


In our modern, hyper-connected world, it’s now become as normal and commonplace to bundle the entire family onto an airplane for a ten-hour flight as it once was to bundle the entire family into the car for a Sunday-afternoon drive.  And as an increasing number of airplane seats are taken up by families, so the proportion of young family members – very young family members – flying has grown too.  Which would be fine by me if it meant that other passengers weren’t subjected to a relentless sonic assault from these seemingly-inexhaustible wee noise-machines.


 From thepointsguy.com


Yes, I know, all airlines these days (except perhaps for the North Korean one, Air Koryo) have inflight entertainment systems and headsets, so that theoretically you’re able to block out the aural barrage coming from wailing bairns.  But unfortunately, (a) the selection on those entertainment systems is usually so dreadful that you have to make a choice between subjecting yourself to The Essential Mariah Carey and subjecting yourself to Michael Bublé Meets Madison Square Garden, both of which in my opinion are actually worse than listening to the equivalent of a whole nursery school shrieking their little heads off; and (b) your headsets are usually collected again as the airplane begins its descent, leaving you with no protection at all against the eardrum-lacerating squeals and hollers coming from passengers who are under three years old.


Talking of eardrums, I accept that taking off and coming in to land are particularly traumatic for little kids – thanks to the sudden changes in altitude, the air pressure inside their ears is out of synch with the air pressure outside them and the painful popping that occurs must convince them that their heads are going to explode.  But really, in my book, that’s no excuse.  These young bairns just have to man up.  And shut up.


There are possible solutions to this problem, however.  One solution would be for airplanes to have a special crèche area where the younglings could play, or scream, to their hearts’ content well away from adult passengers.  Ideally, the crèche would be contained inside a special external module that bobbed along, say, several hundred yards behind the plane itself, separate, but still connected to it by some reinforced cables (or bits of string).


I realise this might prove unacceptable to the parents of the young children, though.  So alternatively the crèche could be located somewhere on board, such as down in the luggage hold.  Actually, having the crèche there would be extra useful, as it could also double up as an early-warning system.  If the noise-levels from the hold got abnormally high, it would alert the crew to the fact that another cache of poisonous motherf***ing snakes had broken loose.


Another solution would be to have a brand new airline dedicated to carrying nobody but babies and infants – leaving adults to travel peacefully on the established airlines.  This new airline for young-kids-only could be called Bairnair, for example, or Screechyjet.  And it’d have definite commercial possibilities.  In fact, I’m surprised that someone like Michael O’Leary, the mischievous, profit-hungry chief executive officer of Ryanair, hasn’t already realised the financial advantages of the idea and started up his own bairns-only airline.  For one thing, you could carry a hell of a lot more paying passengers on a plane if they were all infants.  I read somewhere that Ryanair’s Boeing fleet can currently hold 189 passengers per plane but I’m sure that with some creative – and compact – new seating arrangements, Michael could get at least 800 bairns onto one of them.  Why, he could probably manage over a thousand if he fitted the fuselage from end-to-end, floor-to-ceiling hutches.


From www.theda.co.uk


It’s Hammer time


From www.horrorpedia.com


When I was seventeen years old, I worked for a while as a volunteer assistant teacher and houseparent at a residential school in Lincolnshire, one for teenaged boys who in those un-politically correct times were deemed ‘maladjusted’.  I suppose in the less brutal terminology of today, they’d be described as having ‘behavioural issues’.  One day I was sitting in the deputy headmaster’s office, chatting to him about something or other, when the school secretary stomped in.  She carried in her hand – one corner of it pinched delicately between a thumb and finger, as if it was something filthy and potentially infectious – a magazine that sported on its cover the face of a savage, hairy, fanged monster.


Actually, the monstrous face belonged to Oliver Reed – no surprises there.  This was how he’d appeared in the 1961 British horror movie Curse of the Werewolf.  I knew this because I recognised the magazine immediately.  It was issue ten of a horror-film magazine called House of Hammer.  I remembered buying the same issue six years earlier, when I’d been eleven.  The secretary had caught a couple of pupils leafing through a tatty old copy of this magazine and she’d promptly confiscated it.


I was about to interject – on the principle that you should be free to read whatever you want to read – with a humorous but pointed comment: “Well, that looks like the sort of magazine I used to read when I was their age!”  But then the secretary wrenched open House of Hammer, issue ten, at a certain page and screeched, “Look at that!  Disgusting!”


The page contained a still from another British horror movie called Satan’s Slave, which’d been released around the time of the magazine’s publication in 1977.  The still showed a gruesome close-up of an actor called Martin Potter moments after someone had stuck a metal nail-file into one of his eyeballs.


The deputy headmaster gasped, “Oh my God!”  And I decided that to preserve my professional reputation among the school’s staff, I’d better keep my mouth shut about my familiarity with issue ten of House of Hammer.


House of Hammer was the brainchild of magazine and comic editor Dez Skinn.  In 1976, Skinn was asked by Warner Brothers Entertainment’s publishing division to come up with a new monthly magazine dedicated to horror films.  While trying to think of a selling point for the new publication, it occurred to him that whilst walking to work every day he passed Hammer House, headquarters for the legendary British horror-movie studio Hammer Films, on London’s Wardour Street.  So he contacted the studio, which was then headed by Michael Carreras, and got it to agree to the publication of a Hammer-themed magazine.  The magazine would deal with all horror films, but part of it would be devoted to Hammer’s output.  Each issue would feature a comic-strip adaptation of a Hammer horror movie and its title would reflect the connection too: House of Hammer.


Actually, I suspect that Skinn, who was primarily a comics man, had his own agenda.  Although he’d worked on British children’s comics like Buster and Whizzer and Chips, it must have irked him that Britain – unlike, say, the USA and Japan – regarded comics as being strictly for children.  According to the British view, anyone who read them beyond the age of twelve or thirteen must be a bit soft in the head.  Skinn possibly saw House of Hammer, with its comic-strip adaptations of films that were still regarded in the 1970s as adult viewing, as a Trojan horse – a vehicle by which he could smuggle more adult-orientated comic strips into the British publishing world.


From www.dezskinn.com


Indeed, he also persuaded Hammer to give him access to two of the more comic-book-like characters in its canon: Captain Kronos, hero of the 1974 horror-swashbuckler, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter; and Father Shandor, the gruff, bearded, rifle toting (and thanks to his being played by Caledonian actor Andrew Keir, Scottish-accented) Transylvanian monk who’d battled Christopher Lee in 1966’s Dracula Prince of Darkness.  Skinn created spin-off comic-strip adventures for Kronos and Shandor and inserted those in the magazine too.


Finally, he rounded off each issue with a three-page strip called Van Helsing’s Terror Tales.  Here, Count Dracula’s arch-enemy Professor Van Helsing, as played by Peter Cushing in the original 1958 Hammer adaptation of Dracula, would narrate a blood-curdling story that was clearly inspired by those in the old American EC Comics of the 1950s like Tales from the Crypt and Haunt of Fear.


Though I started buying House of Hammer for its film coverage, the magazine soon opened my eyes to the fact that comics were much more than a juvenile medium.  In their multi-panelled, visually fast-moving way, they could be an art form.  In particular, House of Hammer showcased the work of two superb artists: John Bolton, whose work was beautifully shaded and conjured up oodles of gothic atmosphere; and Brian Lewis, whose work was simpler and more delineated but equally gorgeous.  No wonder Carreras told Skinn that the artwork in the magazine exceeded anything the studio had commissioned for its posters.


From www.comicbookbrain.com

From www.kidr77.blogspot.co.uk


But the writers dealing with House of Hammer’s film material were impressive too.  They included the learned cinema historian Dennis Gifford, whose book A Pictorial History of Horror Films is regarded today as a milestone in written studies of horror cinema.  There was also John Brosnan, an Australian ex-patriate who was surely a busy man – he wrote several film-related tomes, namely James Bond in the Cinema, Movie Magic, The Horror People, Future Tense and The Primal Screen, and at the same time he penned horror novels under the pseudonym of Harry Adam Knight.  And there was David Pirie, now an acclaimed TV writer, who’d written another seminal cinema-book, A Heritage of Horror, the first critical work to say good things about the British horror films of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  Plus Alan Frank, who’d written a lavishly illustrated volume called Horror Films and who later became a national newspaper critic.  (All right, the newspaper in question was the cheesy, tit-obsessed tabloid the Daily Star, but it still counts as a national newspaper.  Apparently.)  The shelves in my bedroom, needless to say, were soon groaning under the weight of Gifford’s, Brosnan’s, Pirie’s and Frank’s books.


One other House of Hammer writer whom I liked was a bloke called John Fleming.  In one of the first issues I bought, he penned a review of the 1974 Spanish zombie-horror film The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue – which despite being Spanish was set in England, and despite having ‘Manchester’ in its title was set in the Lake District.  The review made me uncomfortable because, as Fleming explained, the film’s plot involved a new agricultural machine that kills crop-pests by emitting low amounts of radiation: this has the unexpected side effect of bringing recently dead humans back to murderous life.  I was living on a farm at the time and employing a machine that destroys crop-damaging bugs, but that accidentally unleashes a plague of killer zombies too, sounded like something my Dad would do.  Fleming had a humorous writing style.  He wryly described the film’s many disembowelments, dismemberments and eye-gougings that, to my eleven-year-old self, didn’t sound like laughing matters.  He concluded with the memorable line: “The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is no great horror film.  But you certainly won’t sleep through it.”


From www.britishcomicart.blogspot.com


I would furtively buy House of Hammer at my local newsagent’s and read it well away from the eyes of my parents.  I doubted if the magazine would receive adult approval – rightly, as my experience at the school in Lincolnshire demonstrated years later.  Hammer horror films nowadays are a cherished part of Britain’s film heritage.  People rank them alongside the Gainsborough romances and Ealing comedies and wax nostalgically about how fairy tale-like and relatively un-bloody they were.  But that certainly wasn’t how they were regarded in the past, even as late as the 1970s.  Back then, they had a reputation for being crude, sleazy and violent.  The really subtle and artful horror films, the establishment critics would tell you, were the monochrome ones made by Universal Studios in the 1930s and 1940s.


Another reason to keep shtum about reading House of Hammer was the magazine’s coverage of new – well, late-1970s – horror films.  It didn’t flinch from showing graphic scenes from those films.   (Though the pictures were at least in black and white.  The only part of House of Hammer that was in colour was its cover).  As well as the nail-file-in the-eye picture from Satan’s Slave, I remember grisly stills from the 1976 killer-worm film Squirm, including one where a bucketful of crazed worms start burrowing into someone’s face – these special effects were the work of a young make-up man called Rick Baker, who’d later win Oscars for his contributions to more reputable movies.  I was also haunted by pictures from 1977’s The Incredible Melting Man, in which actor Alex Rebar spends 84 minutes dissolving in a gloop of what looks like mouldy pizza topping.  Its special effects were also masterminded by Rick Baker.  Obviously, Rick was a busy lad in those days.


In fact, horror movies then were rapidly changing.  The gothic costume-drama horrors of Hammer Films – who managed just one release during House of Hammer’s run, 1976’s To the Devil a Daughter – were on their way out, along with the traditional monsters that they’d featured, like vampires, werewolves and mummies.  In their place appeared angrier, more brutal, contemporary-set horror films.  Whether it was conscious of this or not, the magazine in its later issues devoted increasing space to younger and more nihilistic horror filmmakers like George Romero, Dario Argento and Brian De Palma.


Indeed, it was John Fleming in House of Hammer who introduced me to the work of a young Canadian director called David Cronenberg.  He wrote a feature about Cronenberg’s first four movies, the mutation-obsessed, body-horror shockers Stereo (1969), Crimes of the Future (1970), Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977).  Noting that Rabid, which was about blood-crazed zombies in Montreal who had hypodermic spikes oozing in and out of their orifices, was just a remake of Shivers, which was about sex-crazed zombies in Montreal who had slug-like parasites oozing in and out of their orifices, Fleming expressed concern that Cronenberg might be a one-trick pony who’d spend his career repeating himself.  “In horror films,” wrote Fleming, “I prefer ad nauseum to mean something else.”  Well, John, you obviously didn’t see A History of Violence (2005) coming.  Or Eastern Promises (2007).  Or A Dangerous Method (2011).  Or…


House of Hammer folded after 23 issues.  I suppose its demise was inevitable.  By this point in the late 1970s the studio from which it’d taken its name was virtually dead in the water, as was the whole British film industry.


From www.alistasi.com


But over the past few years what’s been interesting, and gratifying, for me has been the realisation that I wasn’t the only kid in Britain who’d surreptitiously read the magazine.  No, some heavy-hitters of the future had read it too.  The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss made a documentary about British horror films for BBC4 a couple of years ago and it contained a scene where Gatiss sat down and pored over an old copy of House of Hammer.  Meanwhile, comic actor and writer Mathew Holness (of Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place fame) was clearly a fan too, as this item on his twitter feed indicates:




Perhaps most significantly, I’ve read an interview with British filmmaker Julian Richards, whose 1997 movie Darklands is credited with kick-starting the modern boom in British horror movie-making – which has spawned films such as 28 Days Later (2003) and Kill List (2011) and is still going today.  In the interview Richards mentioned that his first attempt at movie-making, at the age of 13, involved filming a version of a Van Helsing’s Terror Tale from a House of Hammer issue.




At one point I’d managed to amass all 23 issues of House of Hammer, which today, in mint condition, would probably raise a fortune on eBay.  Unfortunately, each issue had on its back cover the original poster for the Hammer film being told in comic-strip form inside it.  And in my unthinking juvenile enthusiasm, I’d immediately grab a pair of scissors, cut off that poster / back cover and stick it on my bedroom wall.  Oh well.  I still think the Vampire Circus (1972) poster is a thing of beauty that should be on everyone’s bedroom wall.


(c) Hammer Films


By the time of House of Hammer’s demise, Skinn had launched a sister magazine, Starburst.  This was inspired by the success of Star Wars (1977), dealt with science-fiction films and TV shows and used most of House of Hammer’s writing staff – including John Fleming, who’d get to interview heroes of mine such as Nigel Kneale, creator / writer of Quatermass, and Brian Clemens, key writer on The Avengers.  After about twenty issues Starburst widened its remit to include fantasy and horror films as well and it’s continued to be published, on and off, ever since – the last time I checked, it’d clocked up over 400 issues.


In the 1980s, Skinn also launched the influential comic – the influential adult comic – Warrior, which gave the world its first taste of the classic Alan Moore-written, David Lloyd-illustrated dystopian saga V for Vendetta.  At the risk of sounding uncultured, I have to say that what excited me when I read Warrior wasn’t so much V for Vendetta; but the fact that it contained more of the adventures of that demon-fighting Transylvanian / Scottish monk from Dracula Prince of Darkness, Father Shandor.


From www.tor.com


A while back, whilst Internet-surfing, I stumbled across a blog called So It Goes written by John Fleming, House of Hammer’s old Living Dead at Manchester Morgue reviewer and David Cronenberg expert.  Fleming has been busy since then.  Although he still does some journalism, he’s also been a producer of comedy shows and a consultant for theatres and entertainment companies; he organises the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards that are handed out every year at the Edinburgh Fringe; he sets up websites, usually for comedians; and he records podcasts with the Scottish comedy critic Kate Copstick.  His blog is mainly about comedy and comedians too.


I wasn’t surprised that Fleming had turned out to be a comedy specialist.  Back at the beginning of the 1980s, I’d watched Tiswas, the famous ITV Saturday-morning kid’s show that was a glorious mixture of jokes, slapstick, anarchy, stupidity, custard pies, buckets of water and vats of gunge and that helped to launch the careers of Chris Tarrant and Lenny Henry; and I’d noticed the name ‘John Fleming’ among the show’s credits.  I’d always wondered if this was the same John Fleming who’d written for House of Hammer and Starburst.  (Answer: it was.)


I sent Fleming an email, in which I threw at him a couple of his old quotes from House of Hammer – God knows how I remembered them after nearly 40 years, but I did – and he responded with a request to interview me for his blog.  He’d had a look at my biography on Blood and Porridge and must’ve decided that I sounded weird enough to make an interesting interview subject.  So we did a half-hour interview via Skype.  The piece that resulted from the interview can be read here.




I have to say that our half-hour chat was pretty rambling.  It veered from my time in North Korea to my experiences as a writer; from the cinematic oeuvre of Mr Cronenberg to the town of Norwich, where I’d studied for my MA; from my current life in Sri Lanka to the question of why an eleven-year-old kid, as I was in 1977, would want to subject himself to a magazine like House of Hammer, dealing with films that were supposedly the stuff of nightmares.  (Fleming had assumed that the magazine’s readership consisted of geeks in their late teens.)  I was dubious that he’d be able to shape our all-over-the-place conversation into a coherent article, at least one where I didn’t sound like a babbling madman whose brain had been disconnected into a dozen different pieces.


But I think he’s managed to do a decent job of it.  I only sound slightly babbling and mad and disconnected.  Cheers, John!


From www.tainted-archive.blogspot.com


Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 6 (plus a Scottish preamble)


It’s said that all bullies are cowards at heart.  Similarly, I suspect that if you took a serial boaster and bragger and subjected him or her to psycho-analysis, you’d soon discover a host of neuroses, insecurities and inferiority complexes.  I’m afraid this is true about the country I’ve called home for much of my life, Scotland.


You don’t need to live in Scotland for long before you realise that the national character is seriously beset by hang-ups.  Lurking just below the surface is a terrible conviction that Scotland is, well, rubbish.  Rubbish compared with the rest of the world in general and with England in particular.  Rubbish in terms of culture, economy, education, health and – especially – sport.  This lack of self-confidence, so crippling to the national psyche, is well-documented enough for it to have received its own name: the Scottish Cringe.


Many would argue that the cringe manifested itself spectacularly a year ago on September 18th, 2014, when by a ten-percent margin the Scottish electorate voted against Scotland becoming an independent country again.  All right, a lot of Scots voted against independence because they’d considered things rationally and concluded that it was against Scotland’s political, economic and cultural interests.  But there must have been a sizeable number of ‘no’ voters who voted the way they did because they believed that their country was just too crap to be independent.  Too poor, too wee and too stupid.


And yet, going to the other extreme, I’ve found that one unappealing feature of Scotland is the propensity of certain Scots, under certain circumstances, to start bragging about how great their homeland is.  If you’re familiar with Scotland, you’ll know the score.  You go into a pub and without warning you get cornered by some drunken blowhard who spends the next half-hour raving about Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, Rabbie Burns, Sean Connery, Billy Connolly, Scottie-from-Star Trek, golf, whisky, the hills, the glens, etc., etc.  Several years ago, while I was trying to have a quiet pint in the Hebrides Bar in Edinburgh, I got stuck in the company of one such havering idiot.  When he wasn’t babbling about Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, etc., and punctuating his discourse with occasional cries of “Freedom!”, he assured me that the Scots were the friendliest people in the world.  Everyone loved them, and they loved everyone else, because if there’s one thing the Scots aren’t, it’s racist.  “No,” he added, “like them racist English bastards.”  After he’d finally shut up, and finally f***ed off out of the pub, the barmaid leaned over the counter and said apologetically, “Och, never mind him.  He’s had a rough time lately.  His wife has just divorced him.”


At the end of such a pro-Scottish bragging session, it’s customary for the braggart to conclude tearfully with an old adage: “Aye, wha’s like us?  Damned few – an’ they’re a’ deid!”  (For those of you unable to cope with anything not worded in precise Standard English, I shall translate: “Yes, who’s like us?  Very few – and they’re all dead!”)


One thing that looms large in any boasting session about Scotland is the claim that the place is so wonderful because of the natives’ inventiveness.  Human civilisation could never have advanced without Scotland because, basically, Scottish people have invented or discovered everything necessary for it to advance.  You name it, some Scottish genius cobbled it together originally in his garden shed.  Tarmac, thanks to which mankind can now drive along the road without being bumped to death?  That was John Louden Macadam.  The mackintosh raincoat, which prevents mankind from getting wet when it rains and dying of hypothermia?  That was Charles Macintosh (without a ‘k’).  The adhesive postage stamp?  James Chalmers.  Criminal fingerprinting?  Henry Faulds.  The ATM?  James Goodfellow.  The kaleidoscope?  Sir David Brewster.  God, can you imagine the horror of living in a barbaric primitive world where an enterprising Scotsman hadn’t invented the kaleidoscope?!


I was reminded of this Scots-invented-everything malarkey a few weeks ago in Colombo, of all places, while I was walking along my neighbourhood stretch of Galle Road.  I came across this large billboard, erected next to the bridge that crosses the Kirillapone Canal.



It’s a joint advertisement for Scotland’s Napier University and Sri Lankan educational specialists BMS, who between them are offering flexible / distance degree-courses to local students.  For this particular advert, Napier University decided to play up the Scottish connection and so it shows the faces of five great Scottish geniuses who’ve invented or discovered something massively important: John Napier (inventor of the calculator); Alexander Fleming (discoverer of penicillin); James Watt (the steam engine); Alexander Graham Bell (the telephone); and John Logie Baird (television).  Undertake a Scottish / Napier University-affiliated degree course, the advertisement tells its target audience, and you too could invent something momentous and make pots of money from the patent.


Now I don’t want to dispute the fact that, for the size of its population, Scotland has produced a remarkable number of inventors and discoverers.  Although I think that with this advert Napier University has exposed itself, slightly, to the risk of prosecution for violating the Trades Description Act.


For one thing, it’s disingenuous to say that John Napier, who died in 1617, invented the calculator – the pocket version of which I don’t remember seeing prior to 1976.  Napier, a mathematician, physicist, astronomer and (as was common for men of learning in his day) reputed occultist, did devise a manually-operated calculating device that was nicknamed ‘Napier’s bones’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napier%27s_bones).  But if that qualifies as a calculator, then shouldn’t the calculator’s invention be attributed to whichever ancient Babylonian thought up the abacus?  It might have been more honest for the advert to say that John Napier discovered logarithms and popularised the use of the decimal point, but probably logarithms and decimal points look less sexy on a billboard.


Meanwhile, Alexander Graham Bell chose in later life to become an American citizen, so arguably the telephone is an American rather than a Scottish invention.  Besides, there’s controversy over whether or not Bell really invented it.  Some evidence suggests that the true telephone-inventor might have been Elisha Gray, an American, or Antonio Meucci, an Italian.


But what irks me about this advert is not so much its accuracy or inaccuracy.  It’s that grandstanding line about “Scotland’s proven track record of producing great thinkers.”  I find it an uncomfortable reminder of Scotland’s neurotic boastfulness – boastfulness which hides a paralysing lack of confidence, which surfaced very clearly during the referendum last September.


Aye, wha’s like us?  Quite a lot of folk, actually.  And most of them live in independent countries.



Jurassic snark


(c) Alfred A. Knopf


We haven’t reached the end of the summer yet, but it’s already obvious what has won the title of Biggest Summer Movie of 2015.


Jurassic World, fourth in the series about genetically-recreated dinosaurs running loose in a theme park, which began with the original, Steven Spielberg-directed film Jurassic Park in 1993, has raked in a brontosaurus-sized pile of money.  The last time I looked at the website www.boxofficemojo.com, its worldwide takings were about $1,581,000,000.  It’s now the third-most successful movie in history, trailing behind only the James Cameron-directed duo of Avatar (2009) and Titanic (1997).  I realised how popular Jurassic World was when it played at the cinema at the top of my street in Colombo.  Movies, even massive movies like The Avengers ones, rarely seem to stay longer than a week in Sri Lankan cinemas.  Jurassic World, however, managed to continue its residency there for a month-and-a-half.


Mind you, I’ve felt no urge to go up to my local cinema and fork out some Sri Lankan rupees to see Jurassic World.  No doubt I’ll catch up with it one day – probably ten years from now when I encounter it one Sunday afternoon showing on ITV2 in a sanitised, family-friendly version, i.e. with all the gory bits cut out.  But nothing I’ve read about it has convinced me that it’s worth making an effort to see now.  Film critics whose opinions I respect, like the Observer’s Mark Kermode, have described it as being bland, by-the-numbers and predictable.  Oh, and supposedly it’s a bit sexist too.


Actually, I haven’t been particularly impressed by any of the Jurassic Park movies.  And that includes the original Spielberg movie of 1993, which was based on the novel of the same name, written three years earlier by Michael Crichton.  Although a lot of people nowadays seem to view Jurassic Park as a classic, I thought it was a big let-down.  That was because I made the mistake of reading Jurassic Park-the-book before I went to see JurassicPark-the-movie and I felt miffed when what’d I’d visualised in my head during the book failed to materialise on the cinema screen.


I did have high hopes for the film.  Firstly, with Spielberg at the helm and a ton of Hollywood money behind it, Jurassic Park looked like being a very rare beast, a dinosaur movie with proper dinosaurs in it.  I’ve always loved the idea of dinosaur movies, but apart from those ones where the prehistoric beasties were powered by stop-motion animation – like the silent-movie version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1925) and the original King Kong (1933), whose dinosaurs were animated by Willis O’Brien, and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), One Million Years BC (1966) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969), whose special effects were the work of the late, great Ray Harryhausen – dinosaur movies before 1993 had contained dinosaurs that looked, well, rubbish.


I’m thinking of ones where the dinosaurs were plainly stuntmen lumbering about in rubbery dinosaur suits, like The Land Unknown (1957).  Or magnified glove puppets, like The Land that Time Forgot (1974).  Or unfortunate modern-day lizards who’d also been magnified and had had fake spikes, horns and fins glued onto them to make them look big and fierce.  The worst offender in that last category is surely Irwin Allen’s terrible 1960 remake of The Lost World, during which Claude Rains exclaims at the sight of one supposed sauropod: “It’s a mighty brontosaurus!”  While I was watching the film on TV, at the age of ten, I remember yelling back: “No, it’s not!  It’s just a stupid iguana!”


(c) Amblin Entertainment / Universal Pictures


The big-budget Jurassic Park was going to employ all the latest advances in animatronics and computer-generated imagery to get its dinosaurs right, so I wouldn’t have to worry about having my intelligence insulted by the spectacle of men in monster suits and overblown puppets and lizards.


Secondly, there was a buzz about Jurassic Park because it was rumoured that, for the first time in yonks, Spielberg was going to do something dark.  He’d spent the 1980s making movies with unbearably-high schmaltz levels: movies about cute aliens phoning home, and ghostly pilots moping about their still-alive girlfriends, and Robin Williams turning out to be Peter Pan.  Once upon a time, though, he’d directed punchy, at times nightmarish films like Duel (1972) and Jaws (1975).  Prior to Jurassic Park’s release, I was told by more than one film magazine to expect Spielberg to be back to his old schmaltz-free best.  Supposedly, Jurassic Park was going to be like Jaws on dry land.


As for Michael Crichton’s original novel – well, it’d never be mistaken for great literature but, reading it, I did think that with cutting-edge special effects and a skilful director it could make a hell of a movie.  Many of its scenes seemed intensely cinematic.  Actually, this wasn’t a surprise because Crichton himself had made films.  Most notably, he’d written and directed 1973’s Westworld, which is about a futuristic theme park that allows its visitors to indulge their most homicidal fantasies in mock-ups of the American Wild West, medieval Europe and Roman-era Pompeii.  These are populated by scores of human-like robots whom it’s okay to shoot or hack or stab to death because they can’t actually die.  Of course, a glitch in the system eventually compels the robots to start fighting back and then it’s the holiday-makers who get slaughtered.  Westworld, in fact, is a prototype for Jurassic Park, with the same theme-park setting but with the exhibits-that-turn-nasty changed from robots to dinosaurs.


I knew Crichton’s novel would get trimmed as it was turned into a film, but I was dismayed at how much of it was trimmed.  Jaws had shed a few gratuitous sub-plots that made its source novel, the 1974 bestseller by Peter Benchley, seem a bit flabby, and it was a lean, muscular movie as a result.  Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, however, was pared to the bone.  In its final reel the park’s pack of deadly velociraptors have escaped from their compound, the surviving humans are running around trying to avoid being eaten by them, and that’s about it.  The velociraptors rampage through the book’s final chapters too, but there are other matters adding to the suspense.  It becomes clear that some velociraptors have managed to board the supply-ship that services the island where the park is located and there’s a real danger that they’ll reach the American mainland and become an ultra-lethal invasive species.  The humans are also on a desperate quest to count the hatched eggs in the velociraptors’ nests, so that they can calculate just how many of the scaly killers are on the loose.


(c) Amblin Entertainment / Universal Pictures


Also simplified in the film are the fates of the characters.  The main characters, palaeontologists Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler, chaos theorist Ian Malcolm and the billionaire mastermind behind the park, John Hammond, don’t all make it to the end of the book.  Malcolm expires from injuries sustained from a dinosaur attack while Hammond dies after he hears the roar of a tyrannosaurus rex, panics and falls down a hillside.  (Ironically, the roar comes from the park’s PA system – Hammond’s two young grandchildren have been mucking around in a control room with some dinosaur recordings.)  Meanwhile, certain secondary characters, like the park’s lawyer Gennaro and its game warden Muldoon, survive the dino-carnage.  Gennaro is even allowed to show a degree of courage, which is unusual for a fictional corporate lawyer.


In the movie, though, Grant, Sattler, Malcolm and Hammond are played by big-name stars – Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum and veteran British actor / director Sir Richard Attenborough – who clearly had it in their contracts that none of them would suffer the indignity of being eaten by a dinosaur.  So they all survive.  But because this is a monster movie, which demands that monsters eat people at regular intervals, the supporting characters are gradually bumped off, including Gennaro and Muldoon.  This makes the plot very predictable.  Interestingly, one supporting character who got killed in the book but made it out of the movie alive is the geneticist Henry Wu.  Played by B.D. Wong, he’s the only character from 1993’s Jurassic Park who reappears in 2015’s Jurassic World.


Meanwhile, Attenborough’s casting is a symptom of one of the film’s worst features.  As played by the cuddly, twinkly Attenborough – who one year later would play Santa Claus in a remake of Miracle on 34th Street – the John Hammond in the film is way nicer than the one in the book.  The original, fictional Hammond is a callous, conniving and delusional arsehole who should’ve been played by Donald Pleasence.


Spielberg couldn’t bring himself to be nasty to Hammond, whom he no doubt regarded as a kindred spirit.  Hammond at his dinosaur theme park, like Spielberg in Hollywood, is merely trying to be a showman.  He wants to wow the masses by showing them sights they’d only seen before in their dreams.  How could he be bad?  Thus, we get a maudlin scene where Hammond explains his motives to Dern’s character by reminiscing about his first venture in the entertainment business – a flea circus.  (Attenborough also gives Hammond the worst Scottish accent in movie history, so he havers to Dern about bringing his wee flea circus “doon sooth” to London “frae Scotland”.)  Look at the size of the fleas in his circus now, Spielberg is saying.  What a visionary!


(c) BBC


The softening of Hammond’s character infects the rest of the film.  Though some of the velociraptor and tyrannosaurus-rex scenes are scary, it’s all a bit too upbeat.  Spielberg wants us to be awed by Hammond’s dinosaurs, not to shit ourselves at them.  John Williams’ musical score adds to the problem – his Jurassic Park theme, according to www.billboard.com, oozes with ‘astonishment, joy and wonder’; but since this is supposedly a sci-fi horror movie, shouldn’t it be oozing with some old-fashioned fear too?  And Crichton’s cynicism, about man’s inability to control the forces that he unleashes with his technological toys, is gone, needless to say.


But my biggest frustration about the film was that while Spielberg portrays Hammond as being like Walt Disney, the park isn’t like Disneyland – and it ought to be.  In the novel Crichton wonderfully juxtaposes the primeval and the high-tech.  There might be hordes of monstrous reptiles from earth’s distant past stumping around the wilds of Hammond’s island, but at the same time the place bristles with state-of-the-art sensors and cameras and is honeycombed with service tunnels crammed full of power-cables.  At its centre is Hammond’s console-packed control room where he squats like a space-age spider in a technological web.  The joy of the book is watching all this technology slowly, gradually start to malfunction and break down – until finally it’s useless.  And meanwhile, the prehistoric stars of the show are clawing at the scenery, hungry to get at the humans who’ve been pulling the levers behind it.


You don’t really get this impression in the film.  Attenborough’s control room looks a bit dingy, like he’s set it up in his garden shed.  And the dinosaurs just seem to be out in big fields with big fences around them – nothing in the background but foliage, nothing underneath but soil.  This Jurassic Park is more like Jurassic Farm.


No, while I sat through Jurassic Park in a cinema 22 years ago, I didn’t feel like I was watching a classic.  The main thing I felt was a great sense of disappointment – crushing me as effectively as if one of the behemoths onscreen had suddenly stepped out into the auditorium and trod on me.  For the authentic Jurassic Park thrill-ride, check out Crichton’s book.


Mountfield, music and revenge from beyond the grave


From www.wwcomics.com


In the early 1950s American kids didn’t know how lucky they were.  Thanks to the publishing company EC Comics, headed by the visionary William Gaines, they had not one, not two, but three splendidly warped and gruesome horror comics to read, to enjoy, to be inspired by, and to be thoroughly corrupted by.  This trio were Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear.


Each comic contained stories of the macabre, morbid and horrible and each had its own sepulchral host to introduce the stories – the Crypt Keeper (Tales), the Vault Keeper (Vault) and the Old Witch (Haunt).  After each story had reached its grisly denouement, the host would invariably reappear and go ‘Heh, heh, heh!” and generally not show much sympathy for the story’s protagonist, who’d just been eaten, dismembered, disembowelled, strangled or drained of blood.  Often populating these tales were weird and eldritch monsters and spectacularly-mouldering zombies, which were drawn with lip-smacking, finger-licking relish by great comic-book artists like Jack Davis and Graham Ingels.


Unfortunately, Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear were too good to last.  Uptight and up-his-own-arse psychiatrist Dr Fredric Wertham penned two magazine articles in 1948, Horror in the Nursery and The Psychopathology of Comic Books, and then in 1954 a book called Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that America’s unruly comic-book industry was turning the younger generation into a rabble of lawless, bloodthirsty and sexually-depraved delinquents.  Despite Wertham’s loopiness – he had a particular beef with Wonder Woman, whom he believed promoted lesbianism because she was independent and powerful and didn’t need a man to cling to – his allegations struck a chord in the US Congress in those paranoid McCarthy-ite times.  A new regulatory code for comics – i.e. censorship – was introduced and Gaines was forced to close his three infamous titles.  Needless to say, they’ve been massively influential ever since.  The work of everyone from Stephen King to Steven Spielberg has, at one time or other, shown a little of that old, nasty EC magic.  And I’m sure that if I possessed a few mint-condition copies of Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror or Haunt of Fear, I could sell them on eBay and retire tomorrow on the proceeds.


A common trope in the Tales / Vault / Haunt stories was that of revenge from beyond the grave.  An evil scumbag murders someone in order to claim an inheritance or settle a score.  Then at a later date, the cadaver of the victim comes back to life, scrabbles its way out of the ground and goes shuffling off to find the perpetrator of the crime and punish him or her, horribly.  By this point the victim looks pretty yucky.  Decompositional fluids are oozing out, pieces of rotting flesh are falling off and eyeballs are dangling down.  So the murderer gets a bit of a surprise when that victim turns up on his or her doorstep.


I’ve just had a short story published under the pseudonym of Jim Mountfield, which is the name I put on my stories when they fall into the ‘horror’ category.  This story was partly inspired by the old EC comics and their common theme of revenge from beyond the grave.  One day I asked myself a question: what crime could possibly be so vile that it’d induce me to return from the dead and wreak vengeance on the perpetrator?


After thinking about it, I identified one such atrocity.  It involved music.


I imagined my funeral service.  I imagined that I’d left strict instructions about the music I wanted played at the close of my funeral service – about my remains being carried away to the sound of some old blues song, for instance, or a John Barry composition, or for the sake of irony, Highway to Hell by AC/DC.  But out of malice, someone ignored my instructions and played some really crap music instead.  Something really naff, and crass, and nauseating.


Angels, say, by Robbie Williams.  Actually, I once read somewhere that Williams’ saccharine anthem really is the song that gets played most at funerals in Great Britain.  This fact makes me feel embarrassed to British.


What a horrible thought.  Then the mourners would leave the church saying to one another, “Well, fancy that!  I never knew he was a Robbie Williams fan!”  And that’s how I’d be remembered.  As a lover of Robbie f***ing Williams.  Yes, I think that colossal indignity would be enough to bring me back in zombie form, seeking retribution.


(c) The Daily Telegraph


And so I had an idea for the beginning of a story.  The funeral of a man who’d spent his life being a John Peel-type music obsessive is taking place.  He’d owned a record collection that ran to tens of thousands of albums.  And he’d asked his best friend to play a few of his very-most favourite songs at the ceremony’s end.  But a spiteful relative intervenes and plays the ghastly Angels instead.  And then there are consequences – supernatural consequences, and nasty ones.


This tale of revenge from beyond the grave, and good and bad music, is called The Groove; and it has just appeared in the kindle magazine Hellfire Crossroads, issue 5.  It can be downloaded here:




From www.amazon.co.uk