I’ll get you, John McClane / Robin Hood / Harry Potter!


(c) Silver Pictures / Gordon Company / 20th Century Fox


I’ve been suffering from death exhaustion recently.  During the last few months the death-toll among the great and the good – Lemmy, David Bowie, etc. – has been appallingly high and when actor Alan Rickman also popped his clogs on January 14th, I simply hadn’t the energy to write and post yet another tribute on this blog.  However, I thought now, a fortnight after the event, I’d pen a few belated words in his memory.


Rickman was an acclaimed theatrical actor whose CV included Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Antony and Cleopatra), Chekov (The Seagull), Ibsen (John Gabriel Borkman), Noel Coward (Private Lives), Christopher Hampton (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) and Theresa Rebeck (Seminar).  But because I’ve lived for most of my life out in the sticks and away from the world’s great theatrical hubs, my only exposure to Rickman’s acting talents was through his movies.  Where, of course, he was fantastically good at being despicably bad.


Yes, Rickman may have found it a pain in the arse but for many people he was the greatest purveyor of cinematic villainy in the last 30 years.  Fiendishly dapper-looking in a suit but way too intelligent-sounding to make a regulation Hollywood leading man, and blessed with the ability (in the words of John Sessions) “to talk without actually letting his lips touch his teeth”, he was an inspired choice for the role of criminal mastermind Hans Gruber in Die Hard, the influential high-octane action / disaster movie of 1988.


(c) Silver Pictures / Gordon Company / 20th Century Fox


Gruber and his henchmen spoil Christmas for policeman John McClane (Bruce Willis) and his missus (Bonnie Bedelia) by turning up and hijacking the corporate skyscraper in which Mrs McClane and her colleagues are holding their festive works party.  And while the audience-members are officially on the side of Willis as he worms his way through the building’s ventilation shafts trying to foil Gruber’s plan – to pinch $640 million’s worth of bearer’s bonds from the building’s vault – I’m sure quite a few of them are secretly hoping that the vilely charming and entertaining Gruber will win.  He certainly gets the best lines.  When he takes Bedelia hostage and she accuses him of being “nothing but a common thief,” he retorts, “I am an exceptional thief, Mrs McClane.  And since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite.”


In fact, Rickman is so good in Die Hard that you really miss him in the sequel, 1990’s Die Hard 2.  His absence leaves a hole in the second film that’s so big you could fly one of its Boeing 747 jets through it.  Die Hard 2’s main baddie is played by William Sadler, an actor whom I like but who can muster only about 2½ on the Rickman Villainy Scale.  No wonder that for the series’ third episode, 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance, they brought in Jeremy Irons to play Hans Gruber’s equally evil kid brother, Simon Peter.  Wow, those Grubers must have been one dysfunctional family from hell.


Irons, by the way, was just one of many English thespians who must have thanked Rickman for the work he sent their way.  Once Rickman had set the trend for hiring highbrow English actors to play European (or Arab) scumbag villains in blockbusting Hollywood action movies, they were all at it: Charles Dance (in 1993’s The Last Action Hero), Art Malik (in 1994’s True Lies), David Suchet (in 1996’s Executive Decision) Gary Oldman (in 1997’s Air Force One), etc.  Things got so extreme that in the 1993 Sylvester Stallone movie Cliffhanger, the evil baddie was played by an American actor, John Lithgow, but the filmmakers got him to sound English.


Happily, Die Hard wasn’t Rickman’s only foray into screen villainy for, three years later, he appeared in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as the Sheriff of Nottingham.  Rickman was dubious about accepting the part and told the playwright, scriptwriter and director Stephen Poliakoff beforehand, “I’m about to ruin my career!”  In particular, he had a low opinion of the script and later confessed to rewriting his dialogue away from the set, in a Pizza Hut, with some friends (one of them the comedienne Ruby Wax).


(c) Morgan Creek / Warner Brothers


Now on paper Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves should be dire.  It has the twin handicaps of a flat, leaden (and all-American) performance by Kevin Costner in the title role; and a theme song, Bryan Adams’ Everything I do, I do it for You, which was so shite it spent 16 consecutive weeks at number one in the UK singles chart and, even today, is commonly played at the weddings of people with no taste in music whatsoever.  However, Rickman was a great actor and, like all great actors, he could appear in a piece of crap and make it entertaining.  Which Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is, at least for as long as he’s onscreen.


Once again, Rickman gets the best lines – well, he would do if he had Ruby Wax secretly doctoring them.  When he threatens to cut out Robin Hood’s heart “with a spoon” and Sir Guy of Gisborne asks him why a spoon and not an axe, he retorts: “Because it’s dull, you twit!  It’ll hurt more.”  (Later, after he stabs Gisborne to death, he comments, “At least I didn’t use a spoon.”)  And he’s truly horrid when he loses his temper: “Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings!”  And there’s worse: “Cancel Christmas!”  It’s a barnstorming performance that would scarcely look out of place in a pantomime, but audiences loved him for it.  It even netted him a BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1992.  Accepting the award from Helen Mirren, Rickman noted wryly, “This will be a healthy reminder that subtlety isn’t everything.”


When J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels started getting the film treatment in the early noughties, there was of course only one man the producers could turn to when it came to casting Hogwarts’ evilest schoolmaster, Professor Snape – though later Harry Potter instalments suggest that Snape might not be as rotten as he appears to be.  I like the books but don’t think much of the films.  I find them convoluted and stodgy; and in trying to be faithful to the myriad twists and turns of Rowling’s plots, they paradoxically don’t leave much space onscreen for her characters to come to life.  That said, Rickman is one of the best things in them.


(c) Heyday Films / 1492 Productions / Warner Brothers


Elsewhere, Rickman essayed further villainy in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).  And he was sort-of-villainous as Éamon de Valera in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996); where, to quote the critic Roger Ebert, de Valera, the dominant figure of 20th-century Irish politics, is portrayed as a “weak, mannered, snivelling prima donna whose grandstanding led to decades of unnecessary bloodshed in, and over, Ireland.”  Rickman also excelled at science fiction, playing a Mr Spock-type figure in the amusing Star Trek piss-take, Galaxy Quest (1999) and providing suitably lugubrious vocals for Marvin the Paranoid Android in the movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005).


His death two weeks ago was greeted with dismay by many actors and actresses who’d worked with him: Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes, Daniel Radcliffe, Kate Winslet, Brian Cox, Colin Firth and so on.  I could understand their sense of loss – he seemed like a great bloke.  Though especially when he was playing a shit.


Another 25 Scots words that must not die


Today is January 25th and this evening is Burns Night – commemorating the 257th anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s national bard and globally-loved ‘ploughman-poet’ Robert Burns.  And as usual, I’ll mark the occasion by listing 25 words and expressions that I like from the medium in which Burns wrote his poetry, the Scots language.  25 words and expressions that, despite the onslaught of modern-day standardised TV-friendly, IT-friendly English, still appear in speech and writing north of the border.


From etims.net


Bertie Auld (adj), as in “It’s Bertie Auld tonight!” – rhyming slang for ‘cauld’, the Scottish pronunciation of ‘cold’.  Bertie Auld was a Scottish footballer who played for Celtic, Hibernian, Dumbarton and Birmingham City and whose finest hour was surely his membership of the Lisbon Lions, the Celtic team that won the European Cup in 1967.  I first encountered this term when a character used it in an Irvine Welsh novella I was reading, contained in Welsh’s 1994 collection The Acid House and called A Smart C**t.  (Yes, Irvine is so hard-core that even his story titles have to be asterixed.)


Breenge (v) – to go, rush, dash.


Callant (n) – a lad or young man.  The Common Riding festival held annually in the Borders town of Jedburgh is called the Callant’s Festival.  Accordingly, the festival’s principal man is called the Callant.


Carlin (n) – an old woman, hag or witch.  Throughout Scotland there are stone circles, standing stones and odd rock formations that are known as carlin stones, presumably because people once linked them to the supernatural and imagined that witches would perform unsavoury rituals at them.


From themodernantiquarian.com


Dunt (n / v) – a heavy but dull-sounding blow.  The word appears in an old Scottish saying, “Words are but wind, but dunts are the devil,” which I guess is a version of “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you.”


Eejit (n) – idiot.  Inevitably, in 2008, when Dundonian poet Matthew Fitt got around to translating Roald Dahl’s 1980 children’s book The Twits into Scots, he retitled it… The Eejits.


Flyte (v) – to trade insults in the form of verse.  This combative literary tradition can be found in Norse and Anglo-Saxon cultures, but flyting was made an art-form in 15th / 16th-century Scotland by poets like William Dunbar, Walter Kennedy and Sir David Lyndsay.  There’s a poetic account of one flyting contest between Dunbar and Kennedy that’s called, unsurprisingly, The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie and consists of 28 stanzas of anti-Kennedy abuse penned by Dunbar and another 41 stanzas of Kennedy sticking it back to Dunbar.  According to Wikipedia, this work contains “the earliest recorded use of the word ‘shit’ as a personal insult.”  Thus, flyting was the Scottish Middle-Ages literary equivalent of two rappers dissing each other in their ‘rhymes’; and Dunbar and Kennedy were the Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls of their day.


Gallus (adj) – a word that’s probably used by one or two Glaswegians when describing themselves, meaning bold, cheeky, reckless, show-offy and irrepressible.  However, the online Collins Dictionary tells me that gallus is derived from the word ‘gallows’ and it originally meant ‘fit for the gallows’.  Which is appropriate in a way.  On a few occasions I’ve tried to have a quiet, reflective pint in a Glaswegian pub, only to have my space invaded and my meditation disrupted by a would-be gallus local wanting to entertain me with his amazing patter.  With the result that I’d have liked to see that gallus Glaswegian strung up on a gallows.


From wikipedia.org


Gloaming (n) – The period after sunset but before it gets completely dark.  It inspired the famous 1911 song Roamin’ in the Gloamin’, written and performed by Sir Harry Lauder.  The song’s chorus goes: “Roamin’ in the gloamin’ on the bonnie banks o’ Clyde / Roamin’ in the gloamin’ wi ma lassie by ma side!”  There’s also a song by Radiohead called The Gloaming, found on their 2003 album Hail to the Thief, which you’ll be surprised to hear is a wee bit less jaunty than the Harry Lauder song.


Guddle (n) – a confused mess (similar to a ‘muddle’).  Guddle also exists in Scots as a verb and means to catch a fish with your bare hands, using the mysterious technique of tickling the fish’s belly.


Harled (adj) – a harled building has had its external stonework covered in a mixture of lime and gravel, giving it a roughcast coating that protects it against the worst of the Scottish elements.  Famous harled buildings include Stirling Castle and Aberdeenshire’s Crathes Castle.


Hirple (v) – to hobble or limp.


Howk (v) – to dig, rake or poke around in.  Once upon a time, the activity of manually picking potatoes out of the ground was called tattiehowking.  A more abusive derivation is binhowker, meaning someone who has to find sustenance by rummaging in other people’s bins.


Jakey (n) – a down-at-heels, worse-for-wear vagrant with an alcohol dependency – the alcohol in question usually being Buckfast Tonic Wine or Carlsberg Special Brew.  The Scottish-based, English-born bestselling author J.K. Rowling is sometimes referred to as Jakey Rowling by Scottish-independence enthusiasts, irritated at her high-profile support for Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom.


(c) The Sun


Janny (n) – a janitor.


Kent yer faither! (idiom) – (I) knew your father!  In other words, “Don’t give yourself airs and graces because I know you’re from humble stock, same as the rest of us.”  I’ve never heard anyone use this as a putdown, but I’ve heard folk complain about the ‘kent-yer-faither syndrome’ in Scotland, i.e. Scotland’s a place where if you manage to improve yourself and be a success, you have deal with a bunch of jealous, moaning gits trying to cut you down to size.


Makar (n) – a poet or bard.  In 2004, the Scottish Parliament established the post of ‘Scots Makar’, i.e. a national bard or poet laureate.  The post has been occupied by the late Edwin Morgan and, since 2011, by Liz Lochhead.


(c) STV


Rammy (n) – a fight or brawl.  A stairheid rammy is a brawl that breaks out among the womenfolk in the staircases and on the landings of Scotland’s urban tenement buildings.  During the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, stairhead rammies took place in Scotland’s TV studios too.  A television debate between then-SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont was described afterwards by journalist Ruth Wishart as “a right good stairheid rammy” that “made strong men avert their eyes”.


Scooby (n), as in “I havenae a Scooby” – rhyming slang for ‘clue’, as in “I haven’t a clue.”  Scooby refers to Scooby Doo, the famous American TV cartoon dog who accompanied some ‘meddling kids’, without whose investigations many, many, many criminals “would have gotten away with it.”


Shilpit (adj) – thin, pale and weak-looking.


From bushcraftuk.com


Spurtle (n) – a long wooden utensil once used in Scottish cooking, sometimes a spatula for turning over oatcakes, sometimes a stick for stirring porridge.  I can’t recall the name of the story it was in, but I vividly remember reading a description of a sheep’s carcass lying on a Scottish hillside with its four stiff legs “sticking up like spurtles”.


Thrawn (adj) – stubborn, obstinate and bloody-minded, inclined to do the opposite of what everyone urges you to do.  However, there’s a macabre short story called Thrawn Janet by Robert Louis Stevenson, in which the word has a different meaning – ‘twisted’ or ‘deformed’.  The title character is described as having “her neck thrawn, and her heid on ae side, like a body that has been hangit


Trews (n) – tartan trousers, once worn by Scotland’s southern regiments and regarded as a traditional garment of the country’s Lowlands (although in reality, like kilts, trews originated in the Highlands).  I’ve heard it said that trews were the prototype for the tartan plus-fours that golfers used to wear.  Scotland’s ebullient, publicity-loving former First Minister Alex Salmond had a fondness for trews and was pictured wearing them on several occasions.  Although looking at those pictures now, I think that even the world’s biggest Salmond-admirer would have to admit that Alex Salmond + trews = sight for sore eyes.


(c) The Daily Record


Vennel (n) – an alleyway or narrow lane.  See also wynd and close.


Winch (v) – to be romantically involved with someone; though I’ve heard it used in more graphic situations where it clearly meant ‘get off with’ or ‘stick your tongue down the throat of’ someone.  Winch is a verb that seems to add some effort to the act of getting romantically acquainted – it makes it sound like it requires heavy lifting.  Yes, if you’re going to winch someone, you’re going to have to grit your teeth and shed some sweat.


(c) Hanna-Barbera Productions, Inc


Crock lobster


(c) Element Pictures / Scarlet Films


We’re almost three weeks into 2016 and I haven’t had a rant about anything yet.  But never fear.  I’ve recently seen the new dystopian comedy movie The Lobster, directed by the man who made 2009’s Dogtooth, Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos.  And yes, it’s left me in full ranting mode.


The Lobster tells the story of David, played by Colin Farrell, who’s been dumped by his wife and is thus in a pickle – because he lives in a weird future society where coupledom is sacred and being single is so unacceptable that singletons are sent to a facility called the Hotel, which really is like a big bland hotel, and given 45 days there to pair off.


Anyone who remains a bachelor or spinster by the end of the 45 days faces a strange punishment.  They get surgically transformed into an animal of their choice.  David’s decided that, in the worst-case scenario, he’ll become a lobster because “lobsters live for over 100 years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives.”  This fate has already befallen David’s brother, who’s been turned into a dog and who accompanies him to the Hotel.


I thought The Lobster’s bizarre premise sounded appealing – especially nowadays, when you can hardly move without tripping over yet another lame romantic-comedy movie from the USA or Britain broadcasting the message that there’s something wrong with you if you’re single; and the only route to happiness is to be shacked up and in lurve with somebody.  I’d welcome a sharp black comedy that craps over those irritating rom-coms and their facile assumption that happiness = coupledom.


Even more promisingly, The Lobster had amassed a score of 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, the film-review aggregator website.  So I headed to see it with high hopes.


Looking at that Rotten Tomatoes score now, though, I can only surmise that my funny bone is located in a very different place from where it’s located in the majority of the world’s film critics.  For the film failed to coax a single laugh out of me.  I don’t think there was a single moment during its 118-minute running time when my lips formed even an approximation of a smile.


(c) Element Pictures / Scarlet Films


The first thing that bugged me about The Lobster was an issue of personal taste.  It’s one of those dystopian science fiction movies that are supposedly set in the future, but actually take place in the present day.  Everyone looks the same, dresses the same, drives the same cars, lives in the same houses, potters around the same furniture, etc., as they do now.  This approach I always find patronising.  The filmmakers are telling me that terrible stuff is happening in this future society they’re depicting.  But hey, if you think about it – nudge, nudge, wink, wink – the same terrible stuff is happening to us today!  Look – this is really our society now!  Wow!  Thank you, Mr Intellectual Filmmakers.  I’m much too thick to have worked that out by myself.


I suppose this is one of many things that we can blame the French for.  French-directed sci-fi movies like Jean-Luc Goddard’s Alphaville (filmed in contemporary Paris), Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (filmed in contemporary locations in England and France) and Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch (filmed in contemporary Glasgow) tried the same shtick in 1965, 1966 and 1979 respectively.


Incidentally, the big sci-fi element of The Lobster, the transformation of humans into animals, is neither shown nor developed.  It disappears from the plot halfway through and I suspect Lanthimos only included it in the first place because it gave him an opportunity to show some extreme black-comedy scenes where cute animals get abused.  Remember, though, that the cute animals being abused aren’t really animals – they’re transformed people.


Now I enjoy a bit of cute-animal abuse as much as the next heartless brute – for example, the scene in A Fish Called Wanda (1988) where a Yorkshire terrier gets flattened by a steamroller.  But during The Lobster, somehow, even the images of a cute donkey being shot in the head and David’s cute dog / brother getting kicked to death failed to raise a chuckle from me.


The film also suffers from a busy soundtrack.  For one thing, you have some very intrusive background music of the classical / stringed variety.  And then there’s a voice-over by Rachel Weisz, who plays one of a band of fugitive non-conformists called the Loners, who hide out in a nearby forest, live strictly as singletons and stage guerrilla attacks on the couple-obsessed society they’ve run away from.  (Later in the film, David escapes from the Hotel and joins the Loners, only to violate their moral code too by forming a romantic attachment with the Weisz character.)  It’s rarely a good sign when you get a voice-over in a movie – having someone tell you what’s going on usually means that the writers don’t think their script is good enough to show you what’s going on.  And it doesn’t help either that Weisz’s flat, strained voice is hard to listen to.  Which brings me to the acting…


(c) Element Pictures / Scarlet Films


I can’t deny that the cast is good.  Not only are there Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, but also John C. Reilly, Olivia Coleman, Ashley Jensen and James Bond alumni Léa Seydoux and Ben Wishaw.  In the later scenes, when David is living in the forest with the Loners, even the ubiquitous Irish actor Michael Smiley shows his face, although it’s a bit unclear what he’s doing there.  (I suspect Smiley was in another part of the forest shooting a different movie – probably some low-budget British horror effort with a title like The Outpost IV – when Lanthimos and co. noticed him and shouted, “Hey, Michael!  Do you want to be in our movie too?  Come over here for a few minutes!”  Actually, he should have stayed with The Outpost IV.) 


Alas, the quality cast is hamstrung by the fact that everyone performs in a stilted, numb and naïve manner, which presumably is how the citizens would behave in a stultifying society that worships domesticity.  But the stiltedness of the performances becomes wearying.  Farrell’s dazed, not-all-there mannerisms are most tiring of all because we’re with him for the whole film.  You end up feeling you’ve spent two hours stuck in a lift with Father Dougal McGuire from Father Ted.


And yes, two hours is much too long for this movie.  At sixty percent of that length, it might’ve got away with it – introducing us to its ideas and then buggering off before the novelty wore off.  By the time that David joins the Loners in the forest, I was mentally pleading for things to stop.  But The Lobster just keeps going on and on and on.


By the way, those forest scenes reminded me of the Woody Allen movies Bananas (1971) and Sleeper (1973), wherein Allen finds himself living reluctantly with guerrilla-groups in the wilderness.  Oh, how I longed for a gag in The Lobster where Colin Farrell asks for “grapefruit segments, two poached eggs, cinnamon toast and regular coffee” at the camp mess and gets served mashed lizard instead, or mucks up his basic weapons training by holding onto the grenade and throwing the pin, or is urinated on while practising camouflaging himself as a bush, which is what happened to Woody Allen in those ‘early, funny ones’.


The Lobster has one thing going for it, which is some gorgeous Irish scenery – it was filmed in the countryside of County Kerry.  But that was the only good thing as far as I was concerned.  After two hours, I was relieved to escape from its claws.


(c) Element Pictures / Scarlet Films


Bowie’s mural



I always had this idea that David Bowie spent his childhood in a nice big house in a beautiful expanse of English countryside.  I assumed this because I once saw a version of the classic animated Christmas movie The Snowman (1982) that he narrated.  He appears in the movie’s live-action introduction and tells us about an extraordinary event that happened to him one wintertime when he was a little boy: “That winter brought the heaviest snow I’d ever seen.  The snow fell steadily all through the night and when I woke up, the room was filled with light and silence, and I knew then it was to be a magical day…”  What happens is that little David leaves his country house, trudges out into the snowy fields and makes a snowman, and this snowman comes to life, befriends him and takes him to the North Pole to visit Santa Claus.  Wow, I thought.  No wonder Bowie went on to make all those weird albums like Space Oddity (1969) and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) after he’d grown up!




However, when Bowie sadly passed away on January 10th, I discovered that he’d actually been born and raised in south London, first in the district of Brixton and then in the suburb of Bromley.  Which meant that he hadn’t spent his childhood in the English countryside, and he hadn’t built a snowman that came to life, and he hadn’t met Santa Claus at the North Pole.  Damn it, David – you lied to me!


But no matter.  Folk in Brixton are understandably proud that David Bowie hailed from their neck of the woods and a while back someone painted a picture of him from his Ziggy Stardust / Aladdin Sane period on a wall in Tunstall Road there.  As soon as Bowie’s death was announced, this mural became a place of pilgrimage for Bowie-philes and was quickly transformed into a shrine to his memory.


Coincidentally, the other day, I was visiting a mate in Brixton and I happened across the Bowie mural / shrine – well, I could hardly miss it, since it’s at the mouth of Tunstall Road just across from the entrance to the local tube station.  By this time, the wall with Bowie’s red-lightning-streaked features was propping up a waist-high scrum of offerings – mainly bouquets of flowers, but there were also candles, dolls, teddy bears, action-figures, wine bottles, beer-bottles, letters, cards, pictures and, for some odd reason, a tin of spam.



Meanwhile, people had stuck up more flowers, pictures and letters on the brickwork around the mural, as well as newspaper cuttings and even a vintage issue of Jackie, that ‘weekly magazine for girls’ once published by D.C. Thomson, which had Bowie on its cover.  (It also boasted of having pin-ups inside for ‘Bryan Ferry, Elvis, Alice Cooper and Noddy Holder’, so it was vintage indeed.)



The wall had acquired a few pieces of Bowie-related graffiti, but that was nothing compared to the white-backgrounded hoarding just along from the mural, which in the past few days had become smothered in scribbled tributes and epitaphs to the departed rock god.  Many of these messages were cosmic in tone, in accordance with his early 1970s stage persona: ‘Rest in space’, ‘See you on our red planet’, ‘Our star in the sky’ and so on.


I found it ironic that the ads on those hoardings, which Bowie’s fans had so defaced, were for various beauty products.  Surely, I thought, in view of what Bowie did to popularise the use of make-up – among boys as much as among girls – the cosmetics industry wouldn’t begrudge this small act of vandalism by the great man’s admirers?



Bowie’s movies


(c) British Lion Films


The late David Bowie’s acting career was as long as his musical one.  According to his Wikipedia filmography, he made his first celluloid appearance in 1967.  Incidentally, 1967 was also the year that he released his most famous – and most embarrassing – early single, the catchy but terrible novelty song The Laughing Gnome, the chorus of which goes, “Ha-ha-ha, hee-hee-hee, I’m a laughing gnome and you can’t catch me!” 


Bowie’s first film was a cinematic short called The Image and it was written and directed by Michael Armstrong, who shortly afterwards would be responsible for the gory (by the standards of the time) horror movies The Haunted House of Horror (1969) and Mark of the Devil (1970).  Armstrong had planned to use Bowie again in The Haunted House of Horror, playing a character who’s revealed near the end as being a psychotic killer – which would have given us the entertaining spectacle of Bowie stabbing Frankie Avalon, who headed the cast, to death at the movie’s climax.  However, Bowie’s involvement didn’t happen and the role went instead to an actor called Julian Barnes, whom I assume isn’t the same Julian Barnes as the prestigious author of Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), England, England (1998) and Arthur & George (2005).


Bowie’s acting ability was never likely to win him an Oscar and he appeared in some awful duds (like 1986’s overhyped Absolute Beginners).  However, in the right sort of movie, and in the right sort of role, and with the right sort of director, he could be memorable.  So here are a few of my favourite Bowie movies.  By the way, I haven’t seen the 1983 World War II prisoner-of-war movie Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, in which he starred alongside Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tom Conti and the mighty Kitano Takeshi, but people whose opinions I respect tell me it’s a good ’un.


In 1976, he gave one of his best performances in the Nicholas Roeg-directed The Man Who Fell to Earth.  Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, a billionaire who, Richard-Branson-style, is trying to build his own spaceship.  What the world doesn’t know (initially) is that Newton is an alien who’s been tasked with saving his home planet, which is threatened by a cataclysmic drought, and he plans to use the spaceship to transport water there from earth.  But before he can accomplish his mission, he succumbs to several human bad habits, including alcoholism and watching way too much television.   Also, the US government finds out what he really is, imprisons him and carries out tests on him as if he were a humanoid lab rat.  By the movie’s end, Newton is free again, but still stuck on earth and still addicted to the bottle.  Oh, and – irony alert! – he’s accidentally become a rock star.


The Man Who Fell to Earth is puzzlingly non-linear and surreal, even by Roeg’s standards, but it’s really helped by having Bowie in the main role – the aura of strange alien-ness that his appearance had in real life does him no harm here.  He also gives the addiction-prone Newton an appropriate sense of vulnerability and frailty, which might have been the result of Bowie having a severe addiction himself at the time, to cocaine.


(c) MGM / UA Entertainment


Seven years later, Tony Scott – little brother of Ridley – directed him in The Hunger, a movie that seems almost like a stylistic prototype for the Goth sub-culture that sprang up soon afterwards in the 1980s (a sub-culture that, like several others, was heavily influenced by Bowie himself).  It even begins with a sequence set in a night club where a pair of vampires pick up two young victims while Bauhaus perform Bela Lugosi’s Dead live on stage.


Bowie plays John, who’s the immortal companion of an immortal lady vampire called Miriam (Catherine Deneuve).  What Miriam sneakily hasn’t told John is that eternal life doesn’t mean eternal youth for her vampirised companions.  Rather, after living it up Dorian-Gray-style for 200 years, they’re suddenly stricken with rapid aging and become shambling, mummified living-dead people whom Miriam keeps locked away in her attic.  The sequence where Bowie’s 200 years’ grace comes to an end, he starts to age and he hurries to a clinic to consult a doctor (Susan Sarandon), only to grow older even while he’s sitting in her waiting room, is both macabre and amusing.  It seems particularly mordant these days, given the hoo-ha there’s been lately about patient waiting times in Britain’s National Health Service – if the right-wing newspapers are to be believed, you could die of old age whilst waiting to see an NHS doctor.


One Bowie movie that hardly ever gets mentioned is 1985’s Into the Night, directed by John Landis, which is a strange, meandering and improvised-feeling comedy-thriller about a insomniac (Jeff Goldblum) and his involvement with a sexy gemstone-smuggler (Michelle Pfeifer), various villains and a cache of priceless emeralds that once belonged to the Shah of Iran.  Bowie plays an English hitman called Colin Morris and is only in the film for a couple of minutes, but the sequence in which he figures is memorably spooky.  It takes place in a penthouse, still and silent except for a television set that’s showing 1948’s Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein – and the reason it’s so still and silent, Goldblum realises as he prowls around while Abbot and Costello prattle in the background, is because Bowie has just slaughtered everyone there.


(c) CIBY Pictures / New Line Cinema


Bowie was also good in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, the movie spin-off from Lynch’s popular TV series Twin Peaks, although his role in it was no bigger than his role in Into the Night – clearly, a little bit of cinematic Bowie goes a long way.  Bowie plays Phillip Jeffries, an FBI agent who’s been mysteriously missing for two years but who one morning suddenly steps out of an elevator at FBI headquarters.  He proceeds to babble gibberish at Twin Peaks regulars Dale Cooper, Albert Rosenfield and Gordon Cole (Kyle McLachlan, Miguel Ferrer and Lynch himself): “Who do you think this is, there…?  I found something.  And then there they were!”  Then he narrates a trippy dream montage involving dwarves, killers, masks, disembodied mouths and long-nosed phantoms.  And then he vanishes into thin air.  “He’s gone!” squawks McLachlan.  “He was never here!” retorts Ferrer.  This is a David Lynch movie, so don’t expect any explanations of what the hell just happened.


There’s been a lot of talk about a new series of Twin Peaks that Lynch will be unveiling in 2017.  Alas, I guess there’s now no way that Phillip Jeffries will be reappearing in it.


Lastly, Bowie might not have been too happy about this, but I suspect that for many people – especially those who were kids during the 1980s – his most famous role was as Jareth, the baby-stealing King of the Goblins, in Jim Henson’s daft but lovable fantasy movie Labyrinth (1986).  As the dandified Jareth, Bowie was game enough to don super-tight leggings, long gloves, a ruffle shirt, a Regency jacket, pointy eyebrows and a monstrous fright-wig that even Andy Warhol would have thought twice about wearing.


And there are some jolly scenes where Bowie gets to sing and dance with Henson’s muppet-esque goblins — although every time I watch Labyrinth I expect him to burst into: “Ha-ha-ha, hee-hee-hee, I’m the Goblin King and you can’t catch me!”


(c) Lucasfilm / TriStar Pictures


Bowie’s music


(c) BBC


That was weird.  On Sunday afternoon I was in a cinema waiting for the start of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight when an advertisement was shown for the new David Bowie album Blackstar.  The ad included footage of the old boy himself, singing into a microphone – looking a bit thin and frail, it must be said, but then he always did look a bit thin and frail.


Almost exactly 24 hours later, I’m sitting in a pub in Edinburgh and a friend tells me that David Bowie has just died.  What?!


I nearly find myself suspecting that Bowie hasn’t kicked the bucket at all.  That this Bowie-is-dead stuff is really the latest piece of art / musical theatre that the famously enigmatic star has devised, only this time involving not just himself and his musical collaborators but the entire world media and the music-loving public.  That it’s a more elaborate reworking of the Paul McCartney-is-dead urban legend that was spawned by supposed clues in the Revolution 9 track on the White Album (1968) and the cover of Abbey Road (1969).  And in a few days’ time it’ll be announced that – surprise! – Bowie was only play-acting and he’s actually still alive.  Well, his latest single is called Lazarus.


I think I was unlucky with Bowie because the period during which I got seriously into music – i.e. my teens – was the period during which he appeared most like a normal rock star.  That’s to say for an initial few years he seemed both ubiquitous and brilliant; but then, like nearly every other rock star, his ideas seemed to dry up and he went into apparently terminal decline.


But how brilliant he was to begin with.  When I was 13 or 14, he’d turn up on Top of the Pops singing ace songs like Boys Keep Swinging (1979) or Fashion (1980), which would be discussed at length by me and my mates the next day at school in Peebles, our hometown in Scotland.  (I also remember how our local newspaper, the Peeblesshire News, would print a chart of the week’s best-selling singles at the town’s record shop under the headline On the Turntable.  One week somebody in the Peeblesshire mistakenly transcribed Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging as Boys Keep Swimming – a gaffe that was reprinted in prestigious British music-mag the New Musical Express for the nation’s amusement.)


1980 saw Bowie secure the number-one spot with his single Ashes to Ashes, which seemed a big event indeed.  The day after the announcement that Ashes to Ashes had topped the chart, I recall one classmate saying with finger-wagging solemnly: “See they folk whae dinnae like the song?  They’re just tae stupid tae understand it.”   By the way, the image of Bowie made up as a white-faced pierrot in the video for Ashes to Ashes has for some reason haunted me ever since.


From www.youtube.com


A year later, Bowie was back at number one, this time collaborating with Queen for the single Under Pressure.  I didn’t rate Under Pressure highly at the time, though in the years since it’s grown on me.  It’s just a pity that the song was demeaned when gormless hip-hopper Vanilla Ice incorporated its bassline into his wretched 1990 single Ice Ice Baby.  (I remember being at a disco in the clubhouse of Peebles Rugby Club one night when the DJ put on Ice Ice Baby.  The bassline started and everyone cheered and hurried onto the dance floor, thinking it was David Bowie and Queen.  Then the lyrics started – “Yo!  Let’s kick it!  Ice, ice baby…” – and everyone threw up their hands in horror, shouted, “Och, shite!  It’s Vanilla Ice!” and cleared off the dance floor again.)


In 1983 Bowie hooked up with musician and producer Nile Rodgers for his Let’s Dance album.  Around then I heard serious long-term Bowie-philes grumble about the great man finally losing it and / or selling out.  Nonetheless I liked that album’s singles, Let’s Dance, China Girl and Modern Love, because although they had typically flashy 1980s production values there still seemed enough of Bowie’s other-worldliness in them to make them special.  Unfortunately, thereafter, Bowie did lose it.  Subsequent albums like Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987) were lacklustre, he arsed around doing duets with the likes of Mick Jagger and Tina Turner, and he seemed more interested in his acting career.  (His heavy involvement in the cinematic train-wreck that was Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners in 1986 did nothing for his street-cred either.)  By the time he unveiled his dire Tin Machine project in 1989 I decided that things were well and truly over for Mr B.


People whose opinions I respect tell me that Bowie began to get good again from the mid-1990s onwards, with albums like Black Tie White Noise (1993) and Heathen (2002), but by then I was too busy listening to other bands, musicians and singers to pay him much attention.


It wasn’t until the noughties, when I started reading a lot about the types of music I liked – in books such as Lucifer Rising (2000) and Goth Chic (2002), both by rock journalist and author Gavin Baddaley – that I realised how important and influential Bowie had been.  A score of musical genres during the 1980s and 1990s, including Goth, indie, synth, industrial and Britpop, were hugely in debt to him.  That encouraged me to start listening to his back catalogue, to albums such as the soaring Hunky Dory (1971) and the apocalyptic Diamond Dogs (1974).  (I remember having a schoolmate called Roger Small, who was one of those annoying folk who, no matter how hard you tried to be cool, always seemed to be ten times cooler than you were.  I also recall him having the words Diamond Dogs scrawled in blue biro across the surface of the canvas satchel he used as a schoolbag.  So now I understand why he was cooler than me.)  And of course I’ve had the pleasure of listening to Bowie’s celebrated ‘Berlin’ trilogy of albums: Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979).


(c) RCA Records


Bowie looms large among the influences and inspirations for many of my favourite bands: Joy Division, Bauhaus, Depeche Mode, the Cure, the Smiths, Nine Inch Nails, Suede, the Smashing Pumpkins, Pulp, Marilyn Manson, LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire.  Indeed, if he hadn’t existed, half the bands I’m into wouldn’t have been half as good.


For that reason, I’m now going to head off and sink a few drinks to the old fellow’s memory.  Cheers, David.


Insult our national food at your peril


From www.fluidlondon.co.uk


In the news this past week has been a Scotsman called Michael Mcfeat, who works for a gold-mining firm in Kyrgyzstan and who faces deportation from that country because, it’s alleged, he posted an unflattering comment on his Facebook page about its national dish, a type of sausage called chuchuk.


What hurt the feelings of the Kyrgyzstanis – from his co-workers, who were so angry that they staged a brief strike at their goldmine, up to the Kyrgyzstani authorities, who supposedly considered imprisoning him for five years for ‘racial hatred’ before opting to deport him – was his likening of their beloved chuchuk to a horse’s penis.


I find it ironic that a Scotsman should be thrown out someone else’s country for bad-mouthing the food there.  After all, if Scotland ever becomes independent and adopts a policy of deporting and banning everybody who insults its food, then the Scottish Immigration Service and Scottish Homeland Security will be very busy indeed.


There’s been a long tradition of outsiders slagging off Scottish food.  The essay A Perfect Description of the People and Country of Scotland, which was published in 1659 and may have been penned by English courtier and politician (and hater of Scottish King James VI) Sir Anthony Weldon, observes that the Scots “have a good store of fish, and good for those that eat it raw; but if it comes once into their hands it is worse (than) if it were three days old.”  Scottish butter and cheese are not to be sampled by any man “that loves his life.”  And fruit is not a fixture on Scottish menus because “for their Grandsire Adam’s sake, they never planted any.”


A century later, in his celebrated Dictionary of the English Language, crusty Englishman Dr Samuel Johnson gave this definition for that mainstay of Scottish porridge, the oat: “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”


From www.examiner.com


Outsiders’ opinions of Scottish food and the Scottish diet generally have been no less harsh in the supposedly politically correct 21st century.  In 2010, Sidcup-born Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle wrote: “an estimated 57% of Scotland’s GDP is expended on beer, smack and those pies composed of boiled sheep’s gizzards with a hole in the top where you put the ketchup.”  A year later, Michael Hanlon, who comes from Bristol and is the Daily Mail’s science editor – the Daily Mail’s science editor?  Now that’s a contradiction in terms – wrote: “I was at university in Scotland in the mid-1980s and I remember the canteen food, dominated by deep-fried meat, overcooked vegetables and far, far too much salt.”


And notoriously snobbish food critic A. A. Gill – like Liddle, another member of the Sunday Times’ rogue’s gallery of obnoxious columnists – once described Scotland as “unquestionably the worst country in Europe to eat out in – or the worst country that didn’t once have a communist dictator.  The place is hoaching with some of the best raw ingredients in the world, yet finding a scallop on a menu is like trying to go dogging in Riyadh.  Scots die younger not just because of the cholesterol, but, in the end, because they can’t face another dinner.”  Gill, incidentally, was born in Edinburgh, which is maybe why he tried to show his Scottish street-credibility by using a Scots word like ‘hoaching’ (meaning ‘full’ or ‘infested’); but he’s lived in England from the age of one and displays all the attributes of a stereotypical snotty upper-class Englishman.


I suppose it doesn’t help that Scotland’s most famous culinary item is the haggis, a mash of oatmeal, suet, onion, salt, spices, stock, sheep’s lungs, sheep’s heart and sheep’s liver traditionally (though not usually these days) boiled inside a sheep’s stomach.  This has inspired a million jibes and sneers – like, for example, the famous piece of doggerel by someone called Lils Emslie: ‘One often yearns / For the Land of Burns / The only snag is / The haggis.’  Or as I remember the London-published Q magazine describing haggis less poetically in the 1990s, it’s ‘a bag of shite’.


Things got even worse some years ago when the world’s media discovered that certain chip-shops in Scotland were offering punters the experience of eating deep-fried Mars bars.  This didn’t go down well with the confectioner Mars, Inc. who warned that “deep-frying one of our products would go against our commitment to promoting healthy, active lifestyles.”  Definitely not a fan of Scotland’s deep-fried Mars bars is New Zealander Monica Galleti, one of the presenters of the TV show Masterchef: The Professionals and until last year the senior souschef at La Gavroche in London, who’s confessed: “I had a deep-fried Mars bar once and if I was giving it a score, it’d be a zero.  It wasn’t great.  The taste was awful.  In fact, everything about it was wrong so I definitely don’t want to be near another one.”


Well, for the record, let me say that personally I love Scottish food.  I love scoffing haggis, stovies, mince-and-tatties, neeps-and-tatties, cock-a-leekie soup, Scotch broth, Arbroath smokies, oatcakes and tattie scones.  And I fully believe porridge to be the Breakfast of Kings and Cullen skink to be the Soup of the Gods.  And even the less healthy stuff, the black puddings, white puddings, Lorne sausage, bridies, Scotch pies and Scotch eggs, is delicious if you eat it once in a while and if you buy it in a place that cooks it properly.  So as far as I’m concerned, anyone who claims that Scottish food is uneatable is a bigger horse’s penis than the most equinely phallic-looking chuchuk in Kyrgyzstan.


Thankfully, the value of Scottish food is recognised by at least one authority from foreign parts.  That wise and honourable person is the New York chef and author Anthony Bourdain, who’s presented the TV shows No Reservations (2005-2012) and Parts Unknown (2013-present).  Bourdain is no food snob.  During his culinary travels, he treats the stuff that ordinary, local people like to eat with genuine respect and enthusiasm.


Here is a youtube clip of Bourdain sampling the joys of the Mermaid Fish Bar on Edinburgh’s Leith Walk, in the company of Scottish crime writer Iain Rankin.




And in this clip he identifies deep-fried haggis as “his personal favourite”.  He also rhapsodises about Scottish fried haddock: “battered and floating adrift in a sea of mysterious life-giving oil, the accumulated flavours of many magical things as it bobs like Noah’s Ark, bringing life in all its infinitive variety…”




For that comment alone, I think a future independent Scotland ought to make Bourdain an honorary Scottish citizen.  Come to think of it, an independent Scotland ought to make him its National Bard.


(c) The Herald


Movie mood music


(c) Stage 6 Films


Recently, I wondered what my favourite pieces of ‘movie mood music’ were.


By movie mood music, I mean compositions that are instrumental – sorry, Celine, no singing (or in your case, caterwauling) allowed.  I also mean compositions that fit closely with certain scenes or themes in the films they accompany, to the point where it’s difficult to imagine one without the other.  And I mean compositions that aren’t so grandiose that they need to be belted out by whole orchestras.  No, they have to be intimate.


For that last reason I’ve excluded film music by the likes of John Williams, Danny Elfman, Bernard Herrman and John Barry.  And for the sake of simplicity and brevity, I’ve limited my choices to the 21st century.  So, alas, I’ve had to eschew such composers as Lalo Schifrin, Henry Mancini, Ennio Morricone and John Carpenter too.


Anyway, here are half-a-dozen such tracks from half-a-dozen movies that I can listen to repeatedly and always feel ‘moved’ by.


I’m old enough to remember Clint Mansell before he became a famous film composer.  For he was once lead singer with the unglamorous ‘grebo’ band Pop Will Eat Itself, whose finest hour was probably the hit single Get the Girl! Kill the Baddies! in 1993.  I was thus a wee bit surprised in 1998 when I went to a cinema to see Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and discovered that its marvellously frantic and pulsing music was the work of a now reinvented Mr Mansell.


Aronofsky is the director with whom Mansell is most associated.  He’s contributed scores to subsequent Aronofsky movies like Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2005), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010) and Noah (2014).  But for my money his greatest work is for the Duncan Jones-directed Moon (2009).  In particular, I love Welcome to Lunar Industries, the first tune on that film’s soundtrack album.  Its plaintive piano sound captures both the loneliness of the film’s setting – the moon’s surface – and the melancholy of its storyline, which is about the sole human inhabitant (Sam Rockwell) of a futuristic lunar mining installation discovering the tragic truth about who and what he really is.




Incidentally, Mansell has teamed up with director Ben Wheatley for his adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel High Rise, to be released later this year.  I can’t wait to see – and hear – that.


(c) Columbia Pictures


Similarly, Trent Reznor has a background as a rock musician.  He’s the mastermind behind the excellent industrial / synth / metal band Nine Inch Nails.  Unlike Mansell, though, he’s kept his original job going whilst also providing music for films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and Gone Girl (2014), not to mention assembling the brilliant musical soundtrack for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers back in 1994.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl were both directed by David Fincher, and it’s from another Fincher movie that Reznor worked on, 2010’s biopic of billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg The Social Network, that I’ve picked my next piece of music, Intriguing Possibilities.  With an urgent, high-tech sound that’s practically Reznor’s trademark, Intriguing Possibilities suggests the context of dizzyingly-fast technological change that facilitates Zuckerberg’s rise to fame and fortune.  It also suggests the entrepreneurial thought processes whirring endlessly inside Zuckerberg’s head.




I’ve heard people say that Intriguing Possibilities turns up too on the soundtrack to 2011’s Drive, but I can’t remember hearing it when I watched that movie on DVD a little while ago.


(c) Legendary Pictures / Syncopy


As Clint Mansell is to Darren Aronofsky and Trent Reznor is to David Fincher, so German composer Hans Zimmer is to Christopher Nolan.  So far he’s worked on Nolan’s Batman trilogy (2005, 2008 and 2012), Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014).  (Actually, Zimmer has had an equally productive, if less famous association with Ridley Scott – at my last count he’d worked on a half-dozen Scott movies, including 2000’s Gladiator.)


I really can’t not nominate Zimmer’s instrumental Time, which plays near the end of Inception when Leonardo Di Caprio and his team wake up from their dream-hacking mission and Di Caprio then goes home and is reunited with his children.  It’s a gorgeous piece of music and, again, it manages to capture the different themes running through the film.  Its grander moments evoke Inception‘s big ideas about taking dreams and transforming them into spectacular cinematic backdrops; while its more intimate moments reflect the personal trauma that’s quietly but mercilessly haunting its lead character.




Now onto something darker.  John Murphy’s In the House in a Heartbeat has appeared on various soundtracks, including the KickAss movies (2010 and 2013).  It’s even been used on the BBC’s motoring show Top Gear as an accompaniment for the antics of Jeremy Clarkson and co.  However, for me, In the House in a Heartbeat is about one thing only.  It’s about being chased by an army of slavering, hyperactive, blood-spewing zombies.  For yes, it’s the signature tune of the 28 Days Later movies.


(c) 20th Century Fox 


In Danny Boyle’s original 28 Days Later (2002), it plays during the climax when the zombie-virus breaks loose in a storm-lashed mansion-house where the civilian good guys and military bad guys are holed up.  During the sequel, 28 Weeks Later (2007), it plays on no fewer than three occasions: most memorably at the beginning, when Robert Carlyle legs it from an under-siege farmhouse, only to discover that lots of zombies are rushing across the surrounding fields towards himActually, that scene came to mind one day when I went jogging and In the House in a Heartbeat started playing on my Walkman – I did a lot of nervous looking-back over my shoulder.




Danny Boyle teased recently that he might return to direct a third film, called – what else? – 28 Months Later.  So I hope that Mr Murphy’s memorable tune will accompany more scenes of zombie-fuelled mayhem in future.  Its structure – uneasily gentle and mannered to begin with, then building to a thunderous climax – nicely mirrors the films’ plots, where civilisation gives way to nightmarish chaos.


(c) BFI / Film4


Even darker is the instrumental Death composed and performed by Mica Levi for the 2014 arthouse sci-fi / horror movie Under the Skin, in which Scarlet Johansson plays an alien vampire-ess preying on lecherous men in modern-day Glasgow.  The squealing, squalling and thudding Death accompanies the scenes where Johansson’s victims are lured into her apartment and meet a fate so unpleasantly weird that it’d give even David Cronenberg the jitters.  If Venus flytraps were sentient beings, Death is probably the sort of music they’d use to serenade one another.




Finally, I have to mention something by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who’ve overseen the music for films such as The Proposition (2007), The Road (2010) and Lawless (2012).  I think I’ll go for Another Rather Lovely Thing, from the soundtrack of the stylish and elegiac western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, directed by Andrew Dominik and released in 2007. The eighth item on the soundtrack album, it’s a wistful, ruminative and, befitting its title, rather lovely thing.




(c) Warner Bros


Peebles pummelled by Frank


After encounters in November and December with Abigail, Barney, Clodagh, Desmond and Eva, Scotland got a drubbing on the second-last day of the year from Frank.  I’m talking about storms – for this season the UK Met Office and Ireland’s Met Éireann have decided to give these ‘severe weather’ events names.


Storm Frank began to assail these islands on December 28th and two days later he – it – made life a misery for people in my home town of Peebles in the Scottish Borders.


The Met had posted a flooding warning for the Eddleston Water, the stream flowing through my family’s farm on the north side of Peebles, where I’ve been spending Christmas and New Year.  But for the duration of Storm Frank the stream was reasonably well-behaved.  It’d actually been worse on Boxing Day, when it’d been swollen with melting snow and had flooded a few adjacent fields.


I assumed from the state of the Eddleston Water that Storm Frank hadn’t been as bad as people feared and on December 30th I walked into Peebles with the intention of visiting my Dad, who these days stays in Peebles Nursing Home.  The home is located at the edge of Tweed Green, beside the River Tweed, which bisects the town as it flows from west to east.  I should mention that the Eddleston Water rises between the Pentland and Moorfoot Hills to the north, where the rain hadn’t been quite so heavy.  Whereas the Tweed emerges from the Moffat Hills to the southeast of Peebles, which had received a drenching.


I arrived on Peebles High Street, noticed a crowd of people standing on Tweed Bridge and gazing down over its sides, and went to investigate.  Looking eastwards from the bridge, I was greeted by this sight:



The river had expanded to four or five times its normal width, swallowing Tweed Green and the children’s playground on either side and leaving the rows of trees growing along them up to their waists in raging brown floodwater.  On my immediate left, the water had filled the arches below Port Brae, which descends to the green from the bridge.  Only the roof of the nearby wishing well was still visible.  And a little further along, a woman could be seen up to her knees in water, looking forlornly at a wall of sandbags that were fighting a losing battle at the front of her Tweed Green-facing house.



On the bridge’s other side, meanwhile, I saw that Peebles Swimming Pool now occupied the centre of a much bigger pool.



I left the bridge – wondering if it might collapse into the torrent under the weight of people who were taking selfies on it – and started walking up the town’s High Street.  Halfway along, an alleyway called School Brae sprouts from its side and leads down to Tweed Green.  I followed the brae and discovered that its bottom end vanished into a mire of water and gunge that contained, among other things, a trio of capsized wheelie bins.  While I was taking photographs here, a gust of wind suddenly rushed across the green and nearly knocked me onto my back.



My next port-of-call was St Andrews Leckie Parish Church at the High Street’s east end.  Its grounds look over the eastern part of Tweed Green, where Peebles Nursing Home is situated.  From there I could see that there was no way I would make it to the home and visit my Dad that day.  The flood had reached the top of the wall running along the building’s front yard and, worryingly, water had already penetrated the wall and was filling the yard itself.  At least the sandbags massed against the front door were still in view, suggesting the building itself hadn’t been breached – yet.



Water was also lapping about the gates of the steps below Leckie Church, which give church-goers access to Tweed Green.  The water was topped with a layer of muck, scum and garbage.  Lumbering through this floating midden was a TV cameraman – I later learned he worked for Sky News – who was togged out in chest waders.  I remember thinking at the time that he seemed as happy as the proverbial ‘pig in shit’.  Well, he captured some dramatic-looking footage of the flood, so no doubt he was happy.


I heard that several hours later, after dark, a decision was made to evacuate the nursing home.  By this time my father and the other residents had been moved up to its first floor.  They were never in any danger – there were policemen, paramedics, the local mountain rescue team and about a dozen fire-engines’ worth of firemen on hand to move them at a moment’s notice – but several of them, including my Dad, had their rooms on the ground floor.  These ended up knee-deep in water and some valuable possessions were destroyed.  I heard, for instance, about one poor old lady losing a lifetime’s worth of photographs in an album.  My Dad, though, was lucky enough to suffer nothing more than some soaked clothes and sodden Christmas cards.


Meanwhile, behind the home, the engorged river managed to flood streets like Tweed Avenue and Walker’s Haugh.  On the TV that evening I watched news reports about people there being taken from their homes in inflatable dinghies.  Further along, the green of the town’s bowling club was submerged, as was the main pitch for Peebles Rugby Club.  The water moved with enough force to mangle the fencing around the rugby pitch and someone told me a couple of mysterious picnic tables, presumably from some scenic spot upstream, were dumped unceremoniously on its turf.  And in neighbouring Whitestone Park, which descends to the river from the Innerleithen Road, the flood marked its highest level by leaving a giant scummy ‘tide-mark’ near the top of the slope, not far short of the gates opening onto the road.


One disorientating thing was how fast the Tweed’s level seemed to go down again.  A day later, its waters were back within their banks and people were able to get to work cleaning up the affected areas.  The next day also happened to be December 31st, Hogmanay, and the town’s main event for that – a torch-lit procession in the early evening, which had the torch-bearers crossing Tweed Green – went ahead as planned.  I’m glad that it did, actually.  It symbolised the return of some degree of normalcy.



My Dad and his fellow-residents at the Peebles Nursing Home have now been transferred to a facility in the town of Galashiels, 18 miles down the road.  Physically, they’re unscathed.  But suddenly getting uprooted from an environment where they felt comfortable and at ease with the surroundings, faces and routine can’t have been good for their sense of well-being.


Anyway.  Global warming, climate change, El Nino, the jet stream…  No doubt there’ll be debate about what has given rise to Storm Frank and this wildly unpredictable winter weather, which has just resulted in Britain having its warmest and wettest December since 1910.  But whatever the cause of it, my town and family certainly felt its effect last week.