Yet more scary pictures for Halloween


Today is October 31st – or as it’s known in the Christian calendar, All Hallow’s Eve.  Or in the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain  Or to pretty much everyone on the planet these days, Halloween.


Halloween is the time of year when, to quote Vincent Price in the Michael Jackson song Thriller, “darkness falls across the land… creatures crawl in search of blood… demons squeal in sheer delight…” and – yikes! – “grizzly ghouls from every tomb are closing in to seal your doom”.  And it’s also the time of year when, on this blog, I like to present a selection of creepy paintings and illustrations that, during the previous year, have caught my fancy.


To set the scene this Halloween is an etching called The Lonely Tower by the 19th-century artist Samuel Palmer (, which can be seen at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.  It’s a wonderfully atmospheric piece that conveys both the bleakness and the mystery of the nocturnal world.



On to a picture of a terrifying monster – one of the most ancient and awe-inspiring monsters in English-speaking culture.  It’s Grendel in Beowulf.  However, painted by the Italian twins Anna and Elena Balbusso (, it mixes to disconcerting effect the simplicity of a children’s-book illustration with the gory savagery of the oldest surviving poem in the English language.



Meanwhile, here’s a spooky item from the Scottish artist Fiona Michie, whose work can be viewed at  It reminds me very much of the short story The Company of Wolves by one of my all-time favourite authors, Angela Carter – which in 1984 was made into one of British cinema’s most phantasmagorical movies by writer-director Neil Jordan.



Halloween wouldn’t be Halloween without mention of horror fiction’s supreme writer, Edgar Allan Poe.  And if you’re talking about Poe, you can’t ignore the great Irish stained-glass and literary artist Harry Clarke, who was surely Poe’s greatest illustrator (  Here’s one of his most chilling pictures, a depiction of the luckless Madeline Usher after she’s escaped from her entombment in The Fall of the House of Usher.



If Poe was the horror-fiction king of the 19th century, then his equivalent in the 20th century was the retiring Rhode Island writer H.P. Lovecraft, whose tales of cosmic and existentialist horror also inspired an array of artists.  For instance, here’s a work by the English artist Ian Miller (  It adorned the cover of a cheap paperback edition of Lovecraft’s fiction many years ago, but it perfectly conveys Lovecraft’s obsession with the idea of horrid and nightmarishly-incomprehensible things lurking just beyond the parameters of human experience.



And here’s another Lovecraft-inspired picture from the great French artist Philippe Druillet (  Druillet is better known as a science-fiction artist, but when his sci-fi sensibilities combine with the macabre, the results are impressively creepy — in a colourful, comic-book way.



Moving on, this stark statement about the biggest horror we face during our existences – that of the passing of time, and aging, and decay – has always chilled my blood.  Thank you for that, Mr Francisco Goya.  Very recently, I reached my half-century, so your cosy and charming little painting Time has really made me feel good about myself (



And once you reach old age and decrepitude, there’s only one thing more to look forward to — death itself.  I feel this illustration by the 19th century German artist Alfred Rethel captures the omnipresence of death when you’re in your twilight years very nicely.  Well, not nicely – depressingly.  Rethel had more than his share of depressing experiences himself.  He was believed to have been stricken with insanity following an an accident he had during his childhood.  Also, he passed away at the early age of 42 (



Meanwhile, for an eastern meditation on the topics of death and decay, you need look no further than this painting by the distinguished Indian artist Ganesh Pyne:



A more up-to-date item now – an diabolic but sexy painting by the modern-day artist John Coulthart, done for the cover of an album by the greatest Goth / black metal band to ever emerge from County Suffolk, Cradle of Filth.  The album is called Bitter Suites to Succubi — I’ll leave you to figure out the pun.  Coulthart, incidentally, writes an eclectic and informative blog ( and I never miss his daily postings.



Having started with an eerie and evocative picture by Samuel Palmer, here is something similarly eerie and evocative to end on.  It’s an illustration by the French 19th-century artist Gustave Dore for one of the most famously unsettling poems in English literature, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  Sinister, desolate and downright weird, it sums up the spirit of the poem perfectly (



And finally on Halloween night…  Here, courtesy of the San Francisco writer and artist Dan Brereton (, is one dedicated to the ladies out there.  Happy Halloween!



The silver temple



To local people in Yangon, the Myanmar capital, Sein Yaung Chi Pagoda is known by the nickname of ‘Diamond Reflections.’  But when I first saw it jutting above the city’s rooftops, I thought of it as ‘the Silver Temple’.


However you regard it, as silvery or diamond-like, there’s no disputing that the pagoda is a striking piece of architecture.  When the sun’s out and the mirrored scales that cover it are shining brightly, it’s a beautiful thing indeed.



Slightly too tall and thin to be described as a pyramid, slightly too short and stout to be called a needle, Sein Yaung Chi Pagoda occupies an oddly quiet enclosure off the side of a busy road running north to the much larger Shwedagon Pagoda, about which I blogged a fortnight ago.  Once you get accustomed to the near-hallucinogenic gleam from its external walls, you start to take in the details around it – especially the tiled or mirrored alcoves that run along its side and rear and are home to an array of deities.  Some of these figures are serene and monk-like, others are fierce and warrior-esque, and others again are elegant and feminine.  All share their abodes with vases of fresh flowers and scatterings of spent tapers.



You also notice what looks like a banyan tree, with a tendrilous trunk that’s been painted gold, rising from a hexagonal dais at the back of the pagoda.  Huddling around its trunk, under its branches, are an assortment of different-sized Buddhas plus a clutter of bric-a-brac such as flowers, tapers, bowls, animal figures and food-and-drink offerings.



Outside the entrance gates, a statue depicts an elephant and monkey – the latter, appropriately, monkeying about on the latter’s trunk.  I believe there’s a Thai Buddhist story about Buddha living in solitude in a forest for a while.  During his sojourn there, an elephant would shove a huge, sun-heated boulder into a nearby pool every day, to supply him with warm bathwater; and a monkey came to him once and offered him a honeycomb as food.  (Buddha politely declined this second gift, pointing out that squeezing the honey from the comb would kill the bees still inside it.)  I wonder if the statue is a reference to that.



Wings versus wizardry





Some time ago I had a good friend who moved into a charming little cottage in a charming little village perched on an estuary-mouth on the English coast.  The village was known locally as ‘The Ferry’ and she found its inhabitants warm and welcoming.  There was one topic, however, that caused their countenances to darken and their voices to grow ominous.  “Whatever you do,” they’d say to my friend in a warning tone, whilst glancing fearfully towards a hall in the village centre that hosted, among other things, the meetings of the local residents’ committee, “whatever you do, don’t get involved in Ferry politics!”


I sometimes wonder if J.K. Rowling, the English-born bestselling author of the Harry Potter novels, has questioned the wisdom of getting involved in the politics of the charming little place to which she moved, back in 1993: Scotland, which is on the English coast too – right up on top of it – and also has a local residents’ committee, which holds meetings in the Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh.


Ever since she announced that she was donating a million pounds of her money to Better Together, the organisation that campaigned successfully for a ‘no’ vote in the referendum on Scottish independence last September, it seems J.K. has rarely been out of the newspapers.  Often this is because she’s been in unseemly twitter spats with supporters of Scottish independence who’re narked about her intervention in the referendum.


There was another spat two days ago when the author attended the Rugby World Cup match between Scotland and Australia – which, against all expectations, Scotland came within a hair of winning.  Indeed, Scotland would have won it if the South African referee Craig Joubert hadn’t made an error in the final minute and awarded a match-winning penalty kick to Australia.  By the way, I’m not saying that because I’m biased towards Scotland.  The sport’s governing body, World Rugby, have since said Joubert was wrong to give Australia the penalty.


In the midst of the excitement and eventual heartbreak, J.K. was exchanging tweets with the Glaswegian journalist, novelist and TV presenter Muriel Gray.  Like J.K., Ms Gray is no friend of the Scottish-independence cause.  Their musings about Scotland’s heroic but ultimately doomed rugby performance were interrupted by the arrival of a tweet from one Stuart Campbell, who calls himself ‘the Reverend’ Stuart Campbell to differentiate him from the football player Stuart Campbell.  His Tweet told J.K. and Muriel bluntly: “You two can both f*** off.  You don’t think we’re a nation at all.”


The Reverend Stuart Campbell is a former games designer and journalist and these days he runs a political website called Wings over Scotland.  This is devoted to Scottish independence and to uncovering errors, inconsistencies and contradictions in the coverage that the mainstream British media gives to Scotland, to the independence cause and to its main proponent, the Scottish National Party.  Nearly all the established media outlets north and south of the border hate the idea that Scotland might one day leave the United Kingdom and their Scottish coverage is pretty one-sided.  The Reverend felt that someone had to challenge them on this coverage.  He was, he said, “fed up of shouting at the TV when Newsnight Scotland was on.”


(c) STV


Wings over Scotland has a busy and lively twitter feed, but after the Reverend sent that particular tweet it got very busy.  And lively.  He groused that “Rowling’s set a million bed-wetters after me,” for soon he was being accused of being “vile”, “bitter and twisted”, “everything that’s wrong with Scotland”, “everything that’s wrong in a human,” a “narrow-minded tosspot”, “a bitter wank”, a “Neanderthal demagogue”, “the biggest fascist on twitter / planet”, “a dysfunctional f***wit” who eats “bile for breakfast”, etc.


At least there was one upside.  “J.K.’s wee troll army,” he tweeted later, “have taken my mind off that clown Joubert.”


J.K. Rowling herself responded: “I know Scotland’s a nation.  I live there, you see.  I pay tax there and contribute more than bile there.”  And it wasn’t long before Scottish National Party leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted herself: “Note to my fellow independence supporters.  People who disagree are not anti-Scottish.  Does our cause no good to hurl abuse (and it’s wrong).”


Predictably, the story was soon all over the media – starting in the UK edition of the Huffington Post, which ran the headline: J.K. ROWLING JUST PERFECTLY HANDLED A SCOTTISH RUGBY FAN’S MISDIRECTED ANGER.  The Huffington Post headline was a fair indication of whose side subsequent newspaper articles would take: J.K. is lovely, the Reverend is ghastly.  Poor old Muriel Gray’s role in the affair, incidentally, was soon forgotten.


Well, I like Wings over Scotland, which admittedly can be brutal but is no more brutal than the political and journalistic worlds that it scrutinises.  And I also like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels.  Though not so much the later ones and definitely not Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  (I mean, what was going on there?  All those horcruxes to destroy and all those sacred objects to track down…  And Neville Longbottom producing the Sword of Gryffindor out of the Sorting Hat at the end – how did that happen?  Jesus, J.K.!)  So where do I stand regarding this stramash between the two?


I agree with Nicola Sturgeon.  People are entitled to cheer on Scotland in a sports match if they want to.  Even if they voted ‘no’ in the referendum to stop Scotland becoming independent.  Yes, which is illogical because, strictly speaking, Scotland shouldn’t be participating in the Rugby World Cup at all because it isn’t an independent country like Australia or Japan or Italy are.  But…  What the hell?  It’s only a game.  (Not that it felt like only a game the other day, when Craig bloody Joubert blew his final whistle.)  And I think the Reverend made an arse of himself when he sent that abusive tweet.  To be fair, he did so at a traumatic moment and I suspect he’d consumed a few beverages by that point too.  As I know only too well from personal experience, people say stupid things when they’re ‘tired and emotional’.


At the same time, though, the media coverage of this has been pretty hypocritical.  For instance, J.K. has been cheered and the Reverend booed by journalists like Chris Deerin and Alex Massie, both of whom have taken the shilling from the Daily Mail, a newspaper that’s caused J.K. much distress in the past.  In 2013 the Mail had to apologise to her and pay her damages after it misreported some comments she’d made about the congregation of a Scottish church where she’d worked part-time in the 1990s.  She also hates the negativity with which the Mail portrays single mothers – as she was once – so much so that she made it the favourite reading matter of the Dursleys, the reactionary and oafish human family whom Harry Potter has to live with when he isn’t at Hogwarts.




One wonders how Britain’s mainly right-wing newspapers would treat J.K. these days if she hadn’t thrown her hat into the ring during the Scottish independence debate and come out as an opponent of the Scottish nationalists – because her previous political activity had been in support of another of those newspapers’ bête noirs.  In 2008, she donated a million pounds to the Labour Party, run at the time by her friend and then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown.  Much of the British press, which had been busy deriding, ridiculing and tormenting the hapless Brown, sneered at her for this.  HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF DOWNING STREET was a typical headline.  If J.K. had never opened her mouth about Scottish independence but had remained vocal in support of the Labour Party, I suspect many journalists now wouldn’t be treating her as a cool and courageous slayer of Scottish-independence trolls but as a demented old socialist bag-lady.


These days J.K. still supports Labour, though quietly.  After this year’s general election, which saw the Scottish branch of the Labour Party – led by the inept Jim Murphy – lose 40 of its 41 previously-held seats in Scotland, she tried to console Murphy by making him an honorary member of the House of Gryffindor at Hogwarts.  Hmmm.  If Jim Murphy had been there at the time of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and had applied his talents to the climactic Battle of Hogwarts, I suspect Lord Voldemort would have won and would now be ruling the universe.


This might seem sacrilegious to those millions of pubescent schoolkids the world over who worship her as the creator of Harry Potter, but I don’t think J.K. is as sweet, pure and fluffy as her reputation suggests.  She’s a shrewd and calculating operator, I reckon.  When she entered the Scottish independence debate, she was quick to invoke her world-conquering franchise.  She wrote about “a fringe of nationalists who like to demonise anyone who is not blindly and unquestionably pro-independence and I suspect, notwithstanding the fact that I’ve lived in Scotland for twenty-one years and plan to remain here for the rest of my life, that they might judge me ‘insufficiently’ Scottish to have a valid view…  However, when people try to make this debate about the purity of your lineage, things start getting a little Death Eaterish for my taste.” 


She didn’t say all supporters of independence were like Death Eaters – the fascistic cult of wizards in her Harry Potter novels, led by Voldemort, who promote the purity of the wizard race and despise other breeds, such as humans – but the press were only too happy to report that she had, with headlines like J.K. ROWLING CALLS THE SNP DEATH EATERS.  And I’m sure that Rowling, with her past experiences of being misquoted by newspapers, knew what would happen when she used such loaded language.


J.K. also knows how to weaponise herself on behalf of the Labour Party.  A few days before this year’s general election, when the polls were predicting that the Labour Party would suffer an absolute humping from the SNP in Scotland, J.K. happened to speak to the press about the twitter abuse she’d had from pro-independence supporters during the referendum campaign.  Thus, a rash of J.K. ROWLING TALKS OF ABUSE FROM SNP TROLLS-type headlines appeared in the newspapers just before the Scottish public, a good proportion of whom were thinking about voting SNP rather than Labour, headed down to the polling stations.  Perfect timing, I’d say.


To conclude.  The Reverend should be sorry for behaving like a knob and next time, after a traumatic sporting event, he should think before he tweets.  Apart from reasons of basic human civility, it’s in his own interests.  The journalists of the British media loathe Wings over Scotland because it has the temerity to subject their pronouncements to forensic scrutiny.  They’ll do anything for an opportunity to give its founder a kicking.  And on this occasion, he certainly gave them an opportunity.


At the same time, I don’t think J.K. is as saintly as the newspapers make her out to be – and they only say she’s saintly when it suits their purposes.  I’m not claiming that under her cuddly exterior she’s mean and ruthless, but I do think she has the guile to make a bloody formidable politician one day.  Though by saying she has the makings of a good politician, I’m in danger of implying that she is mean and ruthless.


Incidentally, J.K., should you ever stumble across this blog-post and feel I’ve been unnecessarily harsh on your character, don’t worry.  You can always chastise me by making me an honorary member of the House of Slytherin.  Come to think of it, I’d like to be a member of the House of Slytherin.  The kids in Slytherin are cool.  They get to dress stylishly in black, and strut around, and sneer imperiously, and snarl things like, “You’re a dickhead, Ron Weasley!”


Yes, they’re far groovier than those wretched goody-two-shoes diddies in the House of Gryffindor.  I mean, that’s where Jim Murphy hangs out, for Christ’s sake.


(c) Warner Bros / Heyday Films


Staying power



Back in July I was exploring Dalry Cemetery, which is a little way west of the centre of Edinburgh, when I discovered a tombstone for one George Cupples – a ‘novelist’ , ‘critic’ and ‘philologist’ who died in 1891 at the age of 69.  The stone had been erected by “a few of his very oldest friends in recognition of the various literary gifts and attainments of the author and in loving memory of the simple, upright and reverent character of the man.”


George who? I thought.


A search for George Cupples on the Internet didn’t yield much information.  (There was slightly more about his wife, Anne Jane Cupples, who’d been a children’s author and who’d corresponded with Charles Darwin.  Anne moved to New Zealand after George’s death and I assume she’s buried there.)  According to Cupples “wrote dozens of nautical novels, such as The Green Hand: A Sea Story (1856), The Two Frigates: or, Captain Bisset’s Legacy (1859) and Captain Herbert: A Sea Story (1864).”  An entry on another site,, which appears to have been written in 1917 and is pretty purple in its prose, describes Cupples thus: “a happy combination of the genuine and most agreeable traits of that hearty and outspoken variety of man, the literary Scotchman.”  It also calls The Green Hand ‘one of the best sea stories ever written’.


So – with his many seafaring adventure novels, George Cupples could have been a Victorian equivalent of Patrick O’Brian, whose books about Captain Jack Aubrey and physician Stephen Maturin on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars are so beloved today.  But who remembers Cupples in 2015?  I hadn’t heard of him.  I only know his name now because I found myself by the gates of Dalry Cemetery the other month and decided to take a look inside.


Fame is elusive in the literary world – and even if you’re one of the few who manage to achieve some fame, there’s no guarantee that you’ll hold onto it for long.  A case in point is the early 20th-century thriller writer Edgar Wallace, who in his heyday could boast that he’d written a quarter of all the books being read in England at the time.  Yet today, he’s forgotten.  Well, not quite forgotten.  There’s a pub named after him on Essex Street in London and a website dedicated to him at  And in remote corners of the Internet I’ve discovered lovers of obscure movies enthusing about the Krimi films – a set of stylistically-distinctive movie adaptations of Wallace’s stories, filmed during the 1960s in Germany (where Wallace had also been a big deal).  Oh, and trivia experts will identify Wallace as the man who co-wrote Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong back in 1933.




But who actually reads Edgar Wallace nowadays?  Very few folk, I’d say.  Which is a big comedown for a man who, less than a century ago, provided the English public with a quarter of its reading matter.


Another name that springs to mind when discussing the here-today-gone-tomorrow fickleness of literary fame is that of Dennis Wheatley, whose wartime, espionage, historical and black-magic thrillers were ubiquitous in Britain between the 1930s and 1970s.  However, Wheatley’s books seemed to drop off the radar the moment that he died in 1977.  Twenty years later, I remember the British Film Institute Companion to Horror dismissing Wheatley with a withering comment along the lines of “hugely popular in his day, terribly unfashionable now.”


Actually, Wheatley seems slightly better remembered than Wallace is.  I doubt if many people are perusing a Wheatley novel at this moment in time, but there are things written about him on the Internet.  And they’re nearly all in regard to one part of his oeuvre – the clutch of novels he wrote about Satanism and the occult, most famously The Devil Rides Out (1935) and To the Devil a Daughter (1953).  That was the stuff by Wheatley that I read as a kid – potboilers crammed with things that seemed cool to me, such as astral projection, demonic possession, revived corpses, evil slug-like elemental beings from other planes of existence, diabolic homunculi needing virginal blood to come to life, chalk pentacles offering protection from the powers of darkness, and blasphemous sabbats climaxing in the summoning of the Goat of Mendes (that’s the Devil to you and me).  An additional attraction for my 12 / 13-year-old self was that in the 1970s Wheatley’s occult thrillers were published by Arrow Books in a variety of saucy covers.  Each book was adorned with a picture of a naked, big-breasted lady dancing around a flame while some Satanic-looking artefact (a skull, a ghost’s head, a broken cross, a devilish-looking African mask) hovered in the foreground.


(c) Arrow


With those books, Wheatley had, possibly unwittingly, tapped into the zeitgeist – because by the countercultural 1960s, many people were fascinated by magic, mysticism, meditation, transcendence and any sort of esoterica that was going.  Indeed, Wheatley is said to have based the character of Mocata, the villain in The Devil Rides Out, on the notorious English occultist and magician Aleister Crowley.  By 1967, the younger generation considered Crowley such a dude that he was one of the figures depicted on the cover of the legendary Beatles album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.


Yet Wheatley wasn’t embraced by the generations that came after him and he didn’t achieve any large, lasting measure of fame.  (His meagre legacy is in contrast to that of another writer who dealt in dark and macabre subject-matter, H.P. Lovecraft, who by the late 1960s had a psychedelic rock band named after him and whose influence today seems to be everywhere: in books, films, music and gaming.)  Wheatley’s fiction simply wasn’t built to last.  No matter how intrigued he or she might be by the occult stuff in Wheatley’s books, a modern reader would surely be turned off by his stuck-up and reactionary tone.  His heroes were crusty right-wing aristocrats and his villains were revolting foreigners and / or anybody whom he disapproved of politically.  For instance, he has trade unionists, pop musicians and lesbians in league with the Devil in The Satanist (1960); and the civil rights movement aligned with Auld Nick in Gateway to Hell (1970).  All in all, the snobbishness and crankiness that permeates his writing has dated it very badly.


Incidentally, one thing that’s helped Wheatley to be remembered – faintly – is the fact that a few of his books were filmed.  Most notably, The Devil Rides Out was turned into a well-regarded movie by Hammer Films in 1968.


The impermanence of literary fame was recently the subject of a blog entry by the writer Christopher Priest:  Priest presents a list of names of bestselling authors from the 1930s and asks how many of them are known today: Hervey Allen, James Hilton, Dorothea Brande, Alexis Carrel, Hans Werfel and Munro Leaf.  Well, you might know Hilton as the creator of Shangri-La in Lost Horizon (1933) and the world’s saintliest schoolmaster in Goodbye Mr Chips (1934), but that’s about it.


Then Priest lists some bestselling writers from the 1970s – Harold Robbins, Mickey Spillane, Michael Crichton, Jacqueline Susann, Frederick Forsyth, Mario Puzo, Len Deighton and the lately-departed Jackie Collins – and asks how well they’re lasting in the posterity stakes.  “Most of those names are admittedly more familiar than those of Hervey Allen and his contemporaries, but I suspect their familiarity rests on the fact that popular films were made of their novels and are still being shown on TV.  I also wonder how many people are still actually reading The Valley of the Dolls (1966) or The Dream Merchants (1949) or The Odessa File (1972)?”


To that second list I could add more names: Morris West, Judith Krantz, Sidney Sheldon, Leon Uris, Alastair MacLean…  God, what has happened to Alastair MacLean?  His action-adventure books about World War II and the Cold War seemed to be regulation reading for schoolboys in the 1970s.  During my schooldays, I’d see lads everywhere with their noses deep in dog-eared copies of, say, Ice Station Zebra (1963) or Where Eagles Dare (1967).  Nowadays, though, his books seem to have slipped into the ether.  When MacLean’s name does come up in conversation, it’s usually in relation to the movies made out of his books – the two I’ve mentioned were both filmed in 1968 by John Sturges and Brian Hutton – rather than the books themselves.  (The fact that the people having those conversations are invariably aging men like myself, who remember seeing the movies on TV when they were kids, doesn’t suggest that MacLean will survive much longer in the popular consciousness.)


(c) Fawcett Crest


Priest goes on to speculate about how long the names of our current crop of bestselling authors will be remembered.  Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t expect future generations to be poring over the works of E.L. James, or Stephenie Meyer, or Jeffrey Archer, or Dan Brown on their 22nd-century versions of the kindle.  


He’s also dismissive about the prospects of those practitioners of ‘the modern literary novel, at least in Britain’: “Although they enjoy critical admiration and (one gathers) impressive sales figures, the books by Ian McEwen, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes are unlikely to survive much beyond their authors’ physical demise.  McEwen is a skilful stylist but he has an unoriginal mind and an unadventurous approach to fiction.  Barnes is a writer of middle-class dilettantism…  Amis is a more complex problem because he is ambitious and committed, and probably more intelligent than the other two, but as a novelist he peaked more than thirty years ago with his novel Money (1984)…”


Actually, I’d disagree with Priest here because I think McEwen’s work is likely to stay popular longer than the aloof, disdainful and stylistically up-its-own-arse oeuvre of Amis.  For example, I found McEwen’s Atonement (2001) readable and engaging, even if it was somewhat unoriginal and free in its ‘borrowings’.  (In 2006, McEwen had to answer allegations of plagiarism about Atonement.  It was claimed that he’d grafted into the novel material taken from a 1977 memoir by the romantic novelist and wartime nurse Lucilla Andrews:  Also, I think that McEwen’s early fiction – the short stories in Last Love, First Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets (1978) and the novel The Cement Garden (1978) – is so unsettling and bizarre that it’ll continue to be read in the future, at least, by a small number of aficionados of literary weirdness.


(c) The Independent


On the other hand, Priest predicts longevity for the works of Stephen King, whose best efforts he considers “intelligent, unexpected, personal, original in concept and told with ruthless skill.”  He expects the same for J.K. Rowling, whose books will be passed from parents to children: “It’s worth pointing out that that generation of first Harry Potter readers is now approaching the age of their own early parentage – the wheels of posterity are turning smoothly.”  And he thinks the works of Sir Terry Pratchett will survive too.  Indeed, he believes Pratchett’s books “a dead cert for long-term classic status. They are written for a popular audience…  They have been commercially successful, not just in Britain and the USA, but in languages and countries all around the world.  The books are not liked by many: they are loved and admired by millions.”


So if you’re an author who yearns for immortality, what do you need to do?  Obviously, first of all, be popular – and properly popular.  You’re not just aiming at a highbrow readership.  You have to write for the plebs too.  As Priest says at the start of his piece, “(f)rom the plays of William Shakespeare, through the novels of the Bronte sisters, the social novels of Charles Dickens, the scientific romances of H. G. Wells, virtually every work of literature that becomes recognized as a classic was conceived and written in the first place for a popular audience.”


Also, if you want people to at least remember your name — even if they no longer read your books — get your work turned into films.  I’m sure the reason why some people have a vestigial memory of Dennis Wheatley is because of the film version of The Devil Rides Out, which still turns up regularly on TV.  The same reason helps explain why Edgar Wallace and Alastair MacLean are still talked about (though admittedly in small doses).  And if that’s the case, the long-term prospects for Stephen King and J.K. Rowling must be good.


And if you want your name to survive after your death even a tiny bit, make sure your readership has survived into the era of the Internet.  Thanks to the Web, fans of obscure and fading writers – no matter how dispersed they are physically – can hook up with one another, and converse, and form communities.  That’s why a sliver of Edgar Wallace remains, just about, at


Alas, that wasn’t an option for poor George Cupples, who was dead, buried and forgotten long before the advent of modern communications technology.




Anyone interested in authors who’ve been badly treated by posterity, who for one reason or other have faded into the fog of the past, should read the fascinating Invisible Ink columns penned for the Independent newspaper by another literary Christopher, the crime and horror writer Christopher Fowler.  You’ll find many of them collected here:




A Buddhist wonderland



Every evening since I’d arrived in Yangon, I’d viewed Shwedagon Pagoda from my hotel window.  It was a gorgeous, golden-glowing apparition that dominated the city’s skyline.  So when I went to visit the pagoda one Saturday afternoon, I expected to see it close-up and in detail – but that and nothing more.


Well, I found the massive pagoda in all its glory – its architectural features including, as you look up its 99-metre bulk, several terraces, a bell, a turban band, an inverted alms bowl, lotus petals, a banana bud, an umbrella crown, a vane and, right at the top, a diamond bud.  But I wasn’t prepared for the palaver and hurly-burly going on amid a congestion of structures surrounding it.  It was an experience I can liken only to being in a Buddhist wonderland.  A Buddhist Disneyland, even.


For, yes, the great pagoda is hemmed in by a veritable forest of smaller but still-striking edifices.  Piercing up around it are countless golden spires and pinnacles, and tapering, tiered and baroquely-ornate roofs.  These belong to several different arrangements of stupas, including four that mark the cardinal directions, four more that mark the corners of the plinth on which Shwedagon Pagoda stands, and another sixty that ring its circumference; and to pavilions that serve as museums, galleries and rest centres, and to others again that serve as places of worship and meditation.



The pagoda is encircled by a marble-floored thoroughfare.  Countless visitors wander along this, swarming around and in and out of the smaller structures, their bare soles insulated against the heat of the sun-baked tiles by a long green strip of matting.


Incidentally, there’s free wifi here courtesy of Redlink Communications.  So the environs of Shwedagon Pagoda must be one of the most cosmic and meditative places in the world to sit and surf the Web.



While I explored, I heard loud, sonorous clangs as visitors struck the many bells hanging about the site.  I also passed elderly monks, swathed in dark crimson robes.  And I marvelled at the number of Buddha statues on display.  It was as if a giant Buddha statue-making machine had gone into overdrive, and its off-switch had stopped working, and it kept churning out more and more of the things.  I particularly liked the many ‘electro-Buddhas’ whose heads were haloed with swirling multi-coloured lights.



One building there contains a replica of the ‘sacred tooth’ of Buddha – the real tooth is allegedly contained in a temple in Kandy in Sri Lanka.  However, Shwedagon Pagoda can boast an impressive number of original relics.  Contained within the great gold-plated dome are, for instance, eight hairs said to have belonged to the Gautama Buddha; plus the reputed staff of the Kakusandha Buddha, the reputed water-filter of the Konagamana Buddha and a reputed fragment of the robe of the Kassapa Buddha.



I loved the seemingly infinite number of details around the pagoda – the human figurines, both serene and jovial; the squatting lions; the coiled snakes; the sphinxes gazing down from rooftop corners; the serpentine dragons descending from those corners to the floor.  But after an hour, mentally, I felt a bit knackered by it all – there was so much to see that I ended up suffering from sensory overload and visual exhaustion.



Shwedagon Pagda might be one of the most sacred sites in Myanmar but as usual, when it comes to unscrupulous city developers and unscrupulous city development-projects, nothing is really sacred.  Lately there was controversy in Yangon about several proposals for new buildings close to the pagoda that, allegedly, would block views of it and spoil the ambience of its neighbourhood.  A particular outcry was raised about a thing called Dagon City One, a proposed development of luxury apartment buildings involving nine hectares of land belonging to Myanmar’s military and 300 million dollars of American money.


After noisy lobbying by indignant Buddhist monks and scholars, and by Yangon’s citizenry, the government announced that the projects would be shelved.  Let’s hope people stay vigilant about future development.  I would hate it if a few years from now the golden nighttime gorgeousness of Shwedagon Pagoda was obscured by a London-style Gherkin, or a London-style Walkie-Talkie, or a London-style Shard.



A muckle crocodile



Nearly 100 metres high, the gold-plated and jewel-studded stupa of Shwedagon Pagoda stands on Singuttara Hill and dominates the skyline of Yangon.


To reach it from its southern side, you first have to enter a passageway at the junction of Uhtaung Bo Road and Shwedagon Pagoda Road, which is housed in a long, spired pavilion climbing the hillside.  Inside, the alternating staircases and stretches of gently-rising floor are flanked by varnished red columns; and set behind those columns are rows of little shops selling figurines, flowers and religious souvenirs.



Yes, the passageway is really a tourist-shop drag.  But I have to say that it looks very smart.  There’s barely an ounce of the tattiness that you’ll find among the tourist-stalls crowding the entrances of most popular religious sites in the world.  In fact, you have to remove your shoes and hand them in at a reception desk at the bottom of the passageway, before you enter it.  Here, evidently, even treading between the souvenir shops qualifies as treading on sacred ground.


There are other entrances to Shwedagon Pagoda, on its east, north and west, but I don’t know if their approaches are as grand as this one.


I tried to take photographs as I ascended the passageway, but my cheap camera was defeated by the subdued but shimmering light that filtered into it through the various openings along its sides.  Here’s the only photograph that achieved anything close to clarity.  (For some reason, someone had left an open umbrella abandoned in the middle of the floor behind me.)



As I climbed the final flight of stairs leading to the entrance of the pagoda proper, I realised that the low, open walls on either side had, reclining on top of them, two monstrously big and monstrously long crocodile statues; their backs notched and serpentine, their jaws frozen in a bemused rictus, their eyes bulging and sinister.  And immediately I found myself thinking of the children’s poem Crocodile, written in Scots by the late J.K. Annand, which goes thus:


“When doukin in the River Nile,

I met a muckle crocodile.

He flicked his tail, he blinked his ee,

Syne bared his ugsome teeth at me.


Says I, ‘I never saw the like,

Cleanin your teeth maun be a fike!

What sort a besom do ye hae,

Tae brush a set o teeth like thae?’


The crocodile said, ‘Nane ava.

I never brush my teeth at aa!

A wee bird redds them up, ye see,

And saves me monie – a dentist’s fee!’”