Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 7



One depressing thing about living in Colombo during the past year-and-a-half is seeing the city’s traffic get progressively worse.  Galle Road, at one end of my street, has always been congested.  Unfortunately, at the street’s other end, Marine Drive – which as its name suggests runs alongside the Indian Ocean – has become busier and busier and now, around rush hour, it’s a nightmare to travel along.


In the past it was common for traffic to move between Galle Road and Marine Drive by scooting in and out of my little street and seventy-odd others – collectively known as ‘the lanes’ because some of them are simply called 8th Lane, 13th Lane, 17th Lane, etc. – that link the two thoroughfares like rungs connecting the two shafts of a ladder.  However, to help prevent the lanes from becoming congested too, a lot of them have recently had one-way-systems imposed on them.  You can enter them from Galle Road, or from Marine Drive, but you can’t enter them from both.  For instance, my street is now accessible only from Galle Road.  Turn into it from Marine Drive and you’re breaking the law.


Drivers were initially blasé about the new rules, but it soon became clear that the police meant business enforcing them.  I’ve been in both a taxi and an auto-rickshaw which got stopped by the cops, and whose driver got a bollocking, because they’d picked me up whilst going the wrong way along my street and had illegally emerged from it onto Galle Road.


To make sure that drivers got the message about the new one-way rules in the lanes, this curiously worded sign appeared at the entrances of some of them a few months ago.  Below a message written in Sinhala, the sign declares in English: LANE DISCIPLINE.  And below that is an ominous reminder / warning: LAW IS ACTIVE.



Actually, it sounds like the lyrical accompaniment you’d find on a tune by some late 1970s / early 1980s German industrial band.  A robotic voice intoning over a harsh drone of noise, “Lane discipline…” and a moment later a cacophony of equally robotic voices croaking the refrain, “Law is active!”


“Lane discipline…  Law is active!  Lane discipline…  Law is active!  Lane discipline…  Law is active!”  Yes, that’s got a non-groovy, non-melodic and definitely Orwellian ring to it.  I’m sure Einstὔrzende Neubauten would approve.




From the New Statesman


Not unexpectedly, the Independent newspaper is to cease print production at the end of March.  Thereafter, it plans to continue as a digital-only publication written by a handful of journalists retained from the print version.  But most of its existing staff face redundancy.


The Independent’s demise as a physical entity comes 30 years after it was founded by a trio of journalists – Andreas Whittam Smith, Stephen Glover and Matthew Symonds – in a bid to create a newspaper that didn’t have a proprietor and didn’t suffer from proprietorial interference and bias.  Hence its title and the catchy marketing slogan that accompanied its 1986 launch: “It is.  Are you?”


(c) The Guardian


It was a noble goal – and still is.  Especially as the British print media is largely the property of multimillionaires – the 4th Viscount Rothermere, the Barclay Brothers, soft-porn magnate Richard Desmond and old-what’s-his-face, you know, Jerry Hall’s hunky bloke – whose enthusiasm for right-wing politics goes hand in hand with their enthusiasm for paying as little tax as possible.


The Independent had a happy childhood.  At one point its circulation was above 400,000 and it managed to outsell the Times.  And despite Private Eye dubbing it the ‘Indescribably Boring’, its reputation for journalistic integrity was clearly a selling point.  I have to confess, though, that my reason for starting to read it while I was a 1980s college-student wasn’t because of its journalistic integrity.  It was because I knew a girl who did read the Independent for its journalistic integrity, and I fancied her and wanted to impress her by reading it too.


Of course, claiming that a newspaper is entirely independent and neutral – “free from party political bias, free from proprietorial influence” as its masthead used to say – is nonsense, as editors always have to take positions.  Politically and culturally, the Independent belonged to the centre-left, which must have helped it lure a few readers away from the Guardian.


But it was also pro-market.  This was possibly due to its existence being an indirect result of Rupert Murdoch’s actions.  In 1986 Murdoch shifted his newspapers to a new high-tech printing plant at Wapping, East London, and subsequently won an industrial confrontation with the print-workers’ union.  This supposedly freed British newspaper production from old and restrictive printing practices.  Peter Wilby, one-time editor of the Independent’s sister-paper the Independent on Sunday, has written that at the time “it seemed that anyone with a bit of seed capital could set up and run a profitable newspaper.”


Ironically, of all the British newspapers that were born post-Wapping – a group that included not just the Independent but Today, the News on Sunday, the Sunday Correspondent and the European – only the tits-and-aliens-obsessed Sunday Sport will still be on our newsstands after March.


The Independent’s fortunes began to falter in 1993 when Murdoch tore a chunk out of its readership by slashing the price of the Times.  By the mid-1990s it’d acquired what it was never supposed to acquire – a proprietor, in the form of Irish multimillionaire Tony O’Reilly.  Later, in 2010, it passed into the hands of the Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev and at the same time it was rumoured that Rod Liddle, right-wing rentagob columnist in the Sunday Times and Spectator, was going to be its new editor.  The rumour didn’t become reality – giving Liddle editorship of the Independent made as much sense as giving management of the British Museum to ISIS – but it did little to convey the impression that the Independent was now on securer ground.


Crazily, before the 2015 general election, the newspaper chose to back the existing Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.  This no doubt turned off readers who’d bought it because it and the Guardian were the only major daily newspapers reporting things from a centre-left perspective.  (Its Wikipedia entry gives its current circulation at just under 58,000.  But when I checked the Press Gazette, its January 2016 figure was 55,193, a drop of 10% in the past year.)


One late success story was the appearance in 2010 of its sister-paper the i, which initially cost 20 pence, was 56 tabloid-sized pages long and was intended as a mini-version of the Independent suitable for people in a hurry, such as commuters.  Last month the i was selling 271,859 copies daily.  However, it’s also been announced that Lebedev has sold the i to the publisher Johnson Press and I suspect its glory days are behind it too – Johnson Press acquired the Scotsman from Barclay Brothers in 2005 and managed the difficult feat of making it even more shit than it was when the terrible twins owned it.


I haven’t been impressed by the Independent for a long time, though admittedly I haven’t lived much in the UK recently and usually I’ve only looked at its website.  And that website is pretty poor, which doesn’t bode well for its going completely online after March.  The site is awkward to navigate and many of its stories are reminiscent of the dire UK edition of the Huffington Post, i.e. they look like they’ve been cobbled together from what the journalists read on Twitter.  For instance, today’s online Independent headlines include YOKO ONO, YES, I’M A WITCH TOO; TENNENT’S ASKED WHY IT DOESN’T DO A LOW-CALORIE LAGER, GIVES A WONDERFULLY SCOTTISH REPLY; I’VE DONNED A WONDERWOMAN COSTUME FOR THE LAST TIME; and SHIA LaBEOUF ‘PUNCHES MAN IN THE FACE’ AT OXFORD LIFT STUNT.  Probably not the sturdy journalistic stuff that 30 years ago Whittam Smith, Glover and Symonds envisioned their newspaper having.


I also find it hard to love its comment pages, which give prominence to the likes of arch-Blairite John Rentoul and cantankerous literary snob Howard Jacobson.  Meanwhile, its comment-threads have been saturated in recent years with the rantings of xenophobic, UKIP-and-worse trolls.  A skim down the racist and misogynistic vitriol posted below anything written by Uganda-born Shia Muslim journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is enough to make you give up hope for humanity.


Still, a few bright spots remain in the Independent during its twilight.  The work of its Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, one of the few members of the British press knowledgeable about the Arab world, is always worth reading; and I’ve enjoyed Christopher Fowler’s column Invisible Ink in the culture pages of the Independent on Sunday about once-popular, now-forgotten authors.  I hope that if they don’t resurface in the wholly-online Independent, both writers find new outlets.  Though in Fisk’s case, given the extreme right-wing mind-set that possesses most of the remaining British press, I’m not holding my breath.




What America could have been




Is there anything more repulsive in the universe – this universe or any other universe – at the moment than Donald Trump, the blustering, pea-brained, racist, Balmedie Beach-mutilating, four-times-bankrupt and hideously-haired frontrunner in the current race to be Republican nominee for the President of the United States?


Well, yes.  There is.


Just as the most contemptible kid at school wasn’t the psychopathic bully who went around beating the shit out of everyone, but the lesser, beta-male thugs who stayed out of his way but then tried to emulate him by beating up his victims again when he wasn’t around, so Jeb Bush, one of Trump’s competitors in the Republican-nomination race, is deserving of even more disdain than Trump is.  For if there’s one thing worse than a big-mouthed arse like Trump, it’s a chump who believes that Trump’s toxic qualities are something to aspire to.


Three days ago, Bush – the brother of hapless ex-president George W. and a candidate who earned only 7% in the latest Republican-nomination polls for the states of North and South Carolina ( – tried to attract support by proving that he’s as macho and not-to-be-messed-with a dude as he imagines Trump to be.  With Trump recently vowing to abolish all gun-free zones in America, including schools, and to undo any gun-control legislation that might be enacted by President Obama, Bush thought he would bolster his failing campaign by out-gunning the gun-insane Trump.


So he posted on Twitter a picture of his brand new handgun with the name Gov. Jeb Bush stencilled along its barrel.  Accompanying the picture was a single word: America.  And that, according to Jeb, is the thing that America and being American are all about.  A gun.




Once I’d got past the tsunami of contempt I felt at Bush for assuming that he’d impress Americans – and in the wider regions of the Twitter-sphere, the rest of humanity – with this equation that America equals tools for killing and maiming people, I started to feel sad.  Because if he’d wanted to send a message about America that was actually worthy of America, there were a vast array of people and things he could have tweeted a picture of.


Here are just a very few possible examples of what Jeb Bush’s ‘America’ tweet could have been.


Neil Armstrong.  Sergeant Bilko.  Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.  Ray Bradbury.  James Brown.  Rachel Carson.  Johnny Cash.  The cell phone.  Raymond Chandler.  Cheers.  The Chrysler Building.  The Civil Rights Act.  The Cohen Brothers.  The Declaration of Independence.  Walt Disney.  Amelia Earhart.  Thomas Edison.  The electric guitar.  Elvis.  F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Benjamin Franklin.  The Golden Gate Bridge.  The Harley Davidson motorcycle.   Bill Hicks.  John Lee Hooker.  The Hoover Dam.  Edward Hopper.  Edwin Hubble and the Hubble Telescope.  The Internet.  Jim Jarmusch.  Martin Luther King.  Harper Lee.  Stan Lee.  Ursula K. Le Guin.  The light bulb.  Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.  Frank Lloyd Wright.  David Lynch.  The Marshall Plan.  The Marx Brothers.  The Moog synthesiser.  Mount Rushmore.  John Muir.  NASA.  Georgia O’Keeffe.  The Panama Canal.  Gram Parsons.  Edgar Allan Poe.  Jackson Pollock.  Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.  Martin Scorsese.  Nina Simone.  South Park.  Harriet Beecher Stowe.  True Detective.  Mark Twain.  Trans-oceanic cable communication.  Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground.  Orson Welles.  Warner Brothers cartoons.  The Wright Brothers.  The Wurlitzer jukebox.  And ZZ Top.


But no.  Jeb Bush stuck a picture of a gun on his tweet because to him that’s the essence of America.  What a dumbshit.


Reasons to hate the Daily Mail: number 17,662




As you’ll no doubt be aware, there are many, many, many reasons to hate the Daily Mail. 


Your reasons for loathing it might be historical ones, most notoriously its being a shout-sheet for Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists in the mid-1930s and its subsequent demonization of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler.  Or you might despise it because of its attitude towards science, which is about as enlightened as that of the Roman Inquisition in the latter half of the 16th century.  Or you might hold it in utter contempt for its homophobia, examples of which have included its infamous 1993 headline ABORTION HOPE AFTER ‘GAY GENES’ FINDING and columnist Jan Moir’s evidence-free insinuation that singer Stephen Gately’s homosexuality contributed to his premature death in 2009, something that earned her the Bigot of the Year Award from the gay rights organisation Stonewall.  Or you might want to go and firebomb its offices because of its website’s fondness for showing photographs of celebrities’ and aristocrats’ pubescent daughters, making it a legitimate place for paedophiles to stop and jerk off at.  (Describing Heidi Klum’s eight-year-old daughter as a ‘leggy beauty’ in 2013 was a particular low.)


Or you might just view the never-ending diet that the newspaper serves up of ignorance, prurience, grubbiness, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, small-mindedness, snobbery, racism, misogyny, Little Englander-ism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, immigrant-bashing, anti-intellectualism, tittle-tattle, curtain-twitching, pseudo-scientific quackery, petty-bourgeois fulmination and general all-round barking right-wing insanity and conclude there’s no hope left for the human race and try to book yourself a one-way passage on the next space probe to Mars.


My policy towards the Daily Mail has been to regard it as something unpleasant but also to accept the unfortunate fact of its existence and try my best to ignore it.  As you would, say, with diarrhoea.  Or gonorrhoea.  Or North Korea.


Last Thursday, though, it did something so obnoxious that I feel obliged to break my just-ignore-the-f***ing-thing rule and comment on it.


Page three of that day’s Mail contained an article by some hack called Sarah Rainey.  It showed the face of the actress Gillian Anderson, who’s been in the news for her return to the role that first made her famous in 1993 – that of FBI agent Dana Scully in the popular sci-fi / horror TV series The X-Files, which has lately been revived for a new series.  The 47-year-old Ms Anderson’s face was porcupined with arrows, attached to little panels wherein Rainey speculated about different bits of ‘work’ that might have been done to maintain the youthfulness of her features.  And ‘speculate’ was the operative word.  “Hints that she has had a dermal filler…”  “…’the classic look of well-administered Botox’, says one expert…”  “Suggestion of a cosmetic procedure…”  “Possible surgery on her lower eyelids…”  Etc., etc.  (The italics are mine.)


Incidentally, I should say that unlike many people I’m not a fan of The X-Files.  In fact, I regarded the show’s main plotline, which had Scully and her FBI partner, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), discovering a super-conspiracy involving UFOs, alien abductions and government cover-ups as being torturously convoluted.  It was also as illogical and silly as the claims about UFOs, abductions and cover-ups made in real life by people like Whitley Strieber.


But, having said that (and mindful of the fact that my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, is a big X-Files fan and is liable to punch me in the face if I slag off the show completely), I should add that I quite liked some of the show’s stand-alone episodes.  These followed a ‘monster-of-the-week’ format and usually saw Mulder and Scully investigating cases where mutant humanoid cockroach-men, their mandibles dripping with toxic venom, lurked disgustingly in the sewers under the city.


And I admire Gillian Anderson for a lot of her other film and TV work – for instance, her semi-regular turn in the 2013-2015 TV show Hannibal as Dr Du Maurier, the psychotherapist who has the unenviable job of providing her fellow psychotherapist, the carnivorous Hannibal Lecter, with psychotherapy himself.  I also thought she was excellent in Kevin Macdonald’s 2006 movie The Last King of Scotland.  It says it all in that film that the James McAvoy character, confronted with a choice between spending his time down in the Ugandan jungle with the sultry Ms Anderson and hanging out with Idi Amin in the Kampala Holiday Inn wearing the world’s loudest Hawaiian shirts, chooses the latter option.  What a plonker.


Anyway, the Mail’s treatment of Gillian Anderson – who responded to the article on Twitter by unsubtly but accurately describing it as ‘bollocks’ – shows how you can’t win with the Daily Mail if you’re a woman, and especially not if you’re a woman in her thirties or older.  Dare to be youthful in appearance and the rag is immediately accusing you of indulging in nip-and-tucks and Botox injections.  But dare to show a line, sag or wrinkle and it sneers at you for letting yourself go.  Roy Greenslade, the Guardian’s media correspondent, recently condemned a Mail article that mocked the Duchess of Cambridge for looking a bit rumpled and tired during a shopping trip.  My admiration for the Royal Family is about as great as my admiration for haemorrhoids, but even I found the article spectacularly mean-spirited.


What’s really depressing about the Daily Mail is that it’s the only national daily newspaper in Britain read by more women than men.   According to a 2014 article at, 52.5% of its readership is female.


Furthermore, many of the paper’s most abusive columnists in recent years have been women: Jan Moir, Sarah Vine, Amanda Platell, Melanie Phillips and, in the Mail Online, ὔber-gobshite Katie Hopkins.  Though such is the amount of spite, scorn and vitriol emanating from this shower that I sometimes find it difficult to think of them as women, or even as human beings.  I visualise them more as mutant humanoid cockroach-ladies, their mandibles dripping with toxic venom, lurking disgustingly in the sewers under Fleet Street.


Which, actually, makes them sound like a case for Mulder and Scully.


(c) 20th Century Fox Television


It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… a Borders railway



This may look like an ordinary train at the side of an ordinary platform in Edinburgh’s Waverley Station one wintry Sunday morning.  But it’s a special train for me.  In fact, as I board it, I’m feeling excited — much more excited than I’d feel making a normal rail-journey from the station.


A glance at those electronic letters on the platform information screen explains why this train is special.  Its final three stops are Stow, Galashiels and Tweedbank, all of which are located in the Scottish Borders.  And prior to autumn last year, the Borders contained no railway stations at all.



For yes, this morning sees my first trip on the brand new Borders Railway, whose 35 miles of track began to be laid in 2012 and which finally opened for business on September 6th, 2015.  The price-tag came to £353 million, working out at more than £10 million per railway mile.  That sounds a lot, but it’s still only about a third of the cost of Edinburgh’s recently-installed, one-route-only and very controversial tram system.


It was one of the great injustices of 20th-century British transport policy that closures of railway lines during the 1950s and 1960s left the Borders as the only region in Britain not to have a single railway station on its territory.  The coastal line linking Edinburgh and Newcastle-upon-Tyne did run along its eastern edge but there were no stops where train passengers could get off on Borders soil – or where Borders travellers could get on board.  And actually, that coastal line was lucky it didn’t get the chop – Dr Richard Beeching, the technocratic civil servant whose 1963 report The Reshaping of British Railways resulted in Britain’s rail system losing 5000 miles of track, later expressed regret that he hadn’t axed it too, even if it meant cutting off Scotland’s capital city from the eastern side of England.


The Borders Railway constitutes a partial reopening of the Waverley Line, which was the last railway to run through the Borders and connected not only Edinburgh and Galashiels, but also Hawick and Carlisle.  It saw its final train in January 1969 and its closure provoked such a furious reaction that even a local Church of Scotland minister, the Reverend Brydon Maben, got arrested during protests.  And although that happened 47 years ago, you don’t have to go far in the Borders before you encounter someone who’ll still tell you angrily that the loss of the railways sounded the death-knell for the region’s economy.


Anyway, at eleven minutes past nine, the train trundles out of Waverley Station and past the bottom of Edinburgh’s ornately-summited Calton Hill.  It heads east to Brunstane and then turns and winds its way between various stops in southern Edinburgh and eastern Midlothian.  And then, at last, it begins to penetrate the Borders.  It’s here that I stop feeling excited and start feeling euphoric.



Looking out of the carriage, it occurs to me that I’m seeing something that for most of my life I’d never expected to see.  Those gentle folds of hills with their belts of trees and half-hidden white farmsteads; those fields with their criss-crossing drystane dykes and flocks of scattered sheep; and those glinting coils of blue river-water (the Gala Water, which accompanies the latter part of the line to Galashiels)…  Wow, I’m seeing gorgeous Borders countryside from a train-window.



Then the train stops again and through the window I spy a black-and-white platform sign saying ‘Stow’.  And for the first time in my life I’m in a functioning Borders railway station.



Seven miles further south, the train arrives at its penultimate stop, Galashiels, the Borders’ biggest town and the place where I have to get off.  The platform is on the far side of Ladhope Vale, the road passing the back of Galashiels Bus Station.  And guess what?  They’ve closed down the old, decrepit bus-station building and fenced off the area of bus-yard around it.  Instead, a new building has been erected at the other end of the yard, just across the road from the railway platform.  It’s called, grandly, ‘The Interchange’ and it’s basically a big box with two sides consisting mostly of slatted glass (which gives it a resemblance to a giant, grilled electric radiator).  The Interchange caters for both rail and bus passengers – the buses now line up along it in the unfenced-off part of the yard.  Yes, it looks a bit garish and obtrusive, but inside it’s an awful lot better than how the old bus station used to be.



So anyway, I’m in love with the Borders Railway already.  And evidently, so are a lot of other people; for by late January, little more than four months after it’d opened, the service had already logged up half-a-million passenger journeys. 


One important question remains, though.  Will the new line contribute anything to the regeneration of Galashiels?  The middle of the town certainly needs some regeneration.  As soon as I leave the train station – sorry, The Interchange – and cross the bridge over the Gala Water, I find myself in the supposed retailing artery of Channel Street, which is as depressing as hell.   Along the street’s length, I count 14 derelict shop-premises and / or ‘For Rent’ signs.  Even the local Poundstretcher is in the process of closing down.


Hatefully yours, Quentin


(c) FilmColony / The Weinstein Company


You may be one of those people who regard filmmaker Quentin Tarantino as a let-down.  You thought his early movies like 1992’s Reservoir Dogs and 1994’s Pulp Fiction showed tremendous potential and nodded approvingly at 1997’s Jackie Brown, which was calmer, less flashy and more reflective in tone and suggested an increasing maturity on Tarantino’s part.  But then you rolled your eyes at his 21st-century output: the Kill Bill movies in 2003 and 2004, Death Proof in 2007, Inglourious Basterds in 2009 and Django Unchained in 2012.


All that adolescent, cheesy stuff that you thought Tarantino had shaken off with Jackie Brown was suddenly back – squared, perhaps even cubed.  Copious references and homages to trashy old B and Z-grade genre movies.  Sequences of such violence and bloodiness that you wondered if he filmed them with windscreen-wipers fitted on his camera lenses.  Barrages of unsavoury racial epithets, particularly the n-word, usually fired off by or fired off at Samuel L. Jackson.  And scenes that went on and on and on because the characters in them never shut up, Tarantino being infatuated with the sound of his own voice (or his own dialogue), with the result that his films were hours longer than they needed to be.


Quentin, you’ve commonly thought over the past decade, I’m not angry with you.   I’m just disappointed.


Well, if you’re one of those people, I have good news.  You’re going to detest his latest, The Hateful Eight – ‘The eighth film by Quentin Tarantino’ as it’s grandly described on the credits – because in it he happily commits the above sins against mature filmmaking all over again.


That’s bad news for you, actually.  But it’s good news for me because I like the schlock-movie references, bloodshed and relentless talking in Tarantino’s movies.  (Admittedly, I get a bit fed up hearing the n-word all the time, but I suppose I can forgive him one over-indulgence.)  So I went home from seeing The Hateful Eight well-satisfied.


(c) FilmColony / The Weinstein Company


The movie is Tarantino’s second western and it takes place sometime after the American Civil War.  We meet half of the titular eight in the film’s first two ‘chapters’.  They are bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his unladylike lady prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh); another bounty hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson); and a former Confederate militiaman called Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims to be travelling to a town where, improbably, he’s just been appointed sheriff.  Warren and Mannix appear at different times to hitch a ride in Ruth’s private stagecoach, which makes him suspect they’re in cahoots to steal his prisoner and lift the bounty-money for her.  However, the animosity that develops between Warren and Mannix because of their war records – Warren served as a Yankee officer and was responsible for a lot of Confederate deaths – suggests that a secret alliance is unlikely.  That or they’re very good actors.


Chapter three sees the stagecoach arrive, just before a blizzard makes further travel impossible, at a store-cum-refuge in the middle of nowhere called Minnie’s Haberdashery.  And here the rest of the eight are introduced: Bob (Demian Bichir), a cheery Mexican who says he’s running the haberdashery for Minnie while she’s off visiting her mother; Mobray (Tim Roth), an aristocratic and garrulous Englishman who professes to be a hangman; Gage (Michael Madsen), a surly and solitary cowboy who spends his time scribbling his memoirs into a notebook; and Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), a sour old man whom Mannix and Warren recognise as a Confederate general of considerable repute or notoriety, depending on which side of the war they fought on.


Ruth is soon seething with paranoia because he sees these four strangers as additional possible threats to his prisoner and bounty.  But plenty of other questions emerge.  What’s really happened to Minnie and her staff at the haberdashery?  What became of the son whom Smithers is now in the territory searching for – and did Warren play a role in his death?  Is the letter that Warren keeps producing from his pocket and flashing around truly proof of a friendship he once had with Abraham Lincoln?  And is anyone in the snowbound haberdashery actually telling the truth about who they are and what they’re up to?


Chapter three ends with violence and the film’s first fatality.  By chapter four the blood is flowing freely and during chapters five and six…  Well, this is a Tarantino movie.  You know what to expect.


Several critics have pointed to Agatha Christie as a major inspiration for The Hateful Eight and dubbed it Ten Little Indians-out-west.  But the main template for the film’s plot, wherein a group stuck in a confined space try to identify one or more hostile imposters hiding among them, is surely Tarantino’s own Reservoir Dogs.  This is underscored by the fact that two of the original ‘Dogs’, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen, reappear here.


I should say that the film’s also reminiscent of John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing, partly because of the hidden-imposters plot, partly because of the bleak snowy setting and partly because of Kurt Russell being in it.  Russell, of course, played McCready, the embattled hero of The Thing.  Indeed there’s a scene in The Hateful Eight where one character forces the others at gunpoint to line up against a wall while he tries to figure out who the enemy is; which evokes the famous scene in The Thing where Russell ties up his remaining colleagues prior to doing a blood-test that’ll determine who’s human and who’s secretly got tentacles.


(c) FilmColony / The Weinstein Company


The way the common criticisms of him are framed, Tarantino just can’t win.  On one hand, it’s fashionable to deride him as a shallow, sensationalist gobshite whose work is a monument to his trashy taste in movies.  Yet his modus operandi is in many ways quite highbrow.  As an artist he’s as literary as he is cinematic, writing film-scripts like playwrights write plays.  He defines his characters as much by what they say as by what they do and how they look.  He takes genuine pleasure in the ebb and flow, and the cut and thrust, of dialogue.  And he gives his scenes a theatrical length that allows his actors and actresses space to properly act.  Incidentally, he also insists on dividing his films into ‘chapters’, which is a rather literary habit.


Of course, in doing this, he lays himself open to the other line of attack, i.e. that his films are uneconomical, excessively talky and never know when to stop.  (For the record, The Hateful Eight has an imposing running time of three hours and seven minutes.)


But if, like me, you appreciate a movie where words – as opposed to, say, CGI – are the thing that matters, you’ll find much to cherish in The Hateful Eight.  It helps that the words here come out of the mouths of a first-rate cast.  Jackson is his usual inimitable self as Marquis Warren (a character named after the writer, director and producer Charles Marquis Warren who specialised in westerns, both movies like 1951’s Only the Valiant, 1968’s Day of the Evil Gun and 1969’s Charro! and TV shows like Rawhide and Gunsmoke).  Russell and Bruce Dern are good value too and I suspect Tarantino cast them because of their past western credentials.  Russell played Wyatt Earp in Tombstone (1993) and Dern made several westerns in his youth, including 1972’s The Cowboys, at the end of which he shot John Wayne in the back – the scumbag.


But the most memorable performances are those by Walton Goggins as the gormless and unreliable Mannix, a man who needs to keep his limited number of wits about him if he’s to survive events in Minnie’s Haberdashery; by Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ruth’s prisoner Domergue, a sly, cackling and occasionally rabid creature whom you really wouldn’t want to be handcuffed to; and by Tim Roth as the delightfully pompous Mobray, who seems to channel Richard Harris’s English Bob character in Clint Eastwood’s classic 1992 western The Unforgiven.  Demian Bichir and Michael Madsen make less of an impression, though, never quite managing to elbow their way past the other, larger-than-life characters to claim part of the limelight for themselves.


I didn’t feel breathless after seeing The Hateful Eight in the way that I did after seeing Pulp Fiction 22 years ago; but I’d still rate it as Tarantino’s best movie since the 1990s.  It’s more substantial than the schlock-obsessed Kill Bill movies and Death Proof.  And it makes more sense than Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, both of which seemed to abandon the laws of logic whenever it suited Tarantino’s storytelling.  That said, I did detect one lapse of logic in it – when the tensions that’ve simmered between the Yankee Warren and the Confederate Mannix and Smithers boil over halfway through the film, you expect repercussions afterwards; but there aren’t repercussions and this sub-plot abruptly disappears.  Otherwise, and especially compared to its two predecessors, The Hateful Eight’s plot is fairly cogent.


The Hateful Eight won’t win Tarantino new fans or win back the respect of those who went off him post-Jackie Brown.  But if, after nearly a quarter-century, you still have a fondness for le cinéma Quentin-ique, this should keep you satisfied till the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino – which will hopefully be due sometime around 2020.


By the way, I like this picture of him with Miss Piggy.




Burma, by George


You know the feeling of pleasurable surprise and relief you get when you’re walking through a place you haven’t been in before, populated with people you don’t know, and ahead you suddenly spy a familiar face?  I had that feeling a while ago while I was walking along a street in Yangon, capital city of Myanmar.  Under the awning of a bookshop I spotted a kindly-looking face, liberally etched with lines and sporting an avuncular moustache, which could have belonged to some British character actor who specialised in playing crusty civil servants and harassed bureaucrats in post-war Ealing comedy films.


Yes, the face was that of the great English author, essayist and journalist George Orwell.  It was pictured on a poster advertising a new edition of his 1934 novel Burmese Days, which was set in Myanmar while it was still part of the British Empire, ruled from Delhi and known as Burma.  The edition advertised was a Burmese translation done by Maung Myint Kywe in 2013.



By coincidence, I’d read Burmese Days for the first time only months earlier.  As the Scottish political commentator and columnist Gerry Hassan has noted, Orwell “challenged three big issues of his day, Stalinism, Nazism and… Empire.”  Burmese Days, which draws on Orwell’s experiences as an officer in the Indian Imperial Police during the 1920s, sees him grapple with the third of those topics, the British Empire.


Incidentally, it’s still a topic capable of causing controversy.  Take, for example, the publicity given to a recent YouGov poll that suggested 44% of Britons believed their country’s record of imperialism was something to be proud of.  This is despite the Indian Famine of 1899-1900, which killed at least a million people and was brought about in part by the British colonial administrators’ belief in laissez-faire economics.  Despite the British Empire’s invention, during the Boer War, of concentration camps – in which 26,000 Boer women and children lost their lives.  Despite the 1919 Amritsar Massacre in Punjab, which may have caused as many as 1000 fatalities.  And despite the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya during the 1950s that led to 12,000 official deaths but possibly another 8,000 or more unofficial ones.  Oh, and let’s not forget Britain’s messy exit from the Asian sub-continent, which sparked the largest mass-migration in human history, the Partition of India, and which killed something between 200,000 and two million people.


Obviously, when I started to read Burmese Days, I didn’t expect Orwell to be singing the praises of British imperialism.  No, I expected him to slaughter it.  So how did the book measure up to my expectations?


What surprised me was that I didn’t think it was that stridently anti-Empire.  At least, Burmese Days doesn’t seem so much to condemn the greed, ruthlessness and hypocrisy behind the imperial system.  Rather, it focuses on the effects – most of them bad, admittedly – on the individuals working day to day at the business-end of it.  The British characters, living in a district called Kyauktada, are an exhausted, corrupted and brutalised lot.  Flory, the novel’s hero in theory if not in deed, is weak, indecisive and, ultimately, tragically stupid – but more on him in a minute.  Then there are characters such as Ellis, an out-and-out racist bastard; Lackersteen, a drunken lecher who, when his wife’s back is turned, will happily chase a bit of tail, whether it’s the local Burmese women or his own niece; and Lieutenant Verrall, whose youthful and dashing veneer only briefly disguises the fact that he’s an arrogant, stuck-up and untrustworthy arsehole of the highest, or lowest, order.


The British memsahibs are no better.  Mrs Lackersteen is a scandalmongering and scheming shrew who’s managed to spend decades in Burma without ever learning a word of the local language.  Meanwhile, her niece Elizabeth, who arrives part-way through the novel and becomes, for a while at least, an item with Flory, initially gives the impression of sophistication but soon proves to be vacuous and fickle.  Flory loses his appeal for her in part because he tries to acquaint her with the indigenous culture, which he finds fascinating but she thinks is primitive and disgusting.  A little later, she’s relieved to fall into Verrall’s arms instead – though Verrall, needless to say, drops her the moment he decides it’s time to sling his hook.


Yet Burmese Days isn’t just about British colonial types being horrid.  The natives are pretty awful too.  Local Burmese magistrate U Po Kyin is vile morally and physically.  Not only is he wickedly corrupt but he’s grossly obese and Orwell’s descriptions make him sound like a cross between Fu Manchu and Jabba the Hut.  Aware of his own evilness, U Po Kyin hopes to neutralise his bad karma (and avoid being reincarnated as a frog or a rat) by spending his later years building Buddhist pagodas.  Elsewhere, Ma Hla May, who at the start of the book is Flory’s mistress, is a vain and profligate creature who elicits no sympathy even though, on paper, she’s a victim of a white man’s wantonness.  She’s such a diva that we can understand why Flory has no qualms about ejecting her from his household when Elizabeth appears on the scene.


If the British Empire is to be despised, Orwell suggests here, it’s not so much because of its oppression of countries.  It’s because it brings out the worst and promotes the least savoury of what’s already in those countries.


(c) Penguin Books


It’s hard finding someone in Burmese Days whom you feel much sympathy for.  Flory is understanding towards and knowledgeable about the Burmese and has no illusions regarding the system he’s working for, but his wishy-washiness in front of his racist countrymen and his failure to see Elizabeth for what she is become annoying.  Meanwhile, his best friend in Kyauktada is an Indian doctor called Veraswami, who is clearly intelligent and decent but prey to a foolish idealism.  For Dr Veraswami is the only person in the novel who passionately believes that – surprise! – the British Empire is a force for the good, bringing civilisation to corners of the globe where it didn’t exist before.  This prompts some ironic discussions where Flory, one of the oppressors, argues against the Empire while Veraswami, one of the oppressed, argues for it.


Burmese Days’ main storyline concerns a scheme by U Po Kyin to destroy Veraswami.  The doctor, well aware of what U Po Kyin is up to, is desperate to join Kyauktada’s European Club, which he believes will give him sufficient status to protect him against the fat magistrate’s plots.  He pins his hopes on Flory nominating him for the club’s membership — though to do this, Flory will have to show courage and square up to the club’s more bigoted members, like Ellis and the Lackersteens, who’ll object to having an Indian in their social ranks.  Thus, we spend the book waiting for the feckless Flory to bottle it and abandon his friend Veraswami by failing to nominate him.


But in the end, this doesn’t happen.  What happens is that U Po Kyin eliminates Flory before he can (or can’t) get Veraswami into the club.  Just as Flory and Elizabeth rekindle their romance, the magistrate encourages the spurned Ma Hla May to create a very public scene that leaves Flory humiliated.  Revolted, Elizabeth dumps Flory again and he kills himself – though in depriving him of the shallow and insipid Elizabeth, you can’t help feeling that U Po Kyin and Ma Hla May have done him a favour.


It’s all good dramatic stuff, but I was left with the impression that the novel pulls its punches a little.  Because Flory isn’t given a chance to betray Veraswami, Burmese Days is never quite the damning indictment of the British colonial mind-set – which compels even a well-meaning character like Flory to do something utterly shameful – it should be.


By the way, I’ve made Burmese Days sound like a litany of grimness and despair, but in fact I thought it was an entertaining read.  A lot goes on in its pages, and not just the twists and turns of the intrigue between U Po Kyin and Veraswami and of Flory’s doomed romance with Elizabeth.  There are also episodes involving an attack by a buffalo, a hunting expedition, an earthquake, an assassination with dahs (Burmese swords), a rebellion and a riot.  And the narrative is nicely embroidered with Orwell’s descriptions of the landscapes and indigenous culture.  However, the fact that Burmese Days is so busy with incident and detail is another reason why I have difficulty in viewing it as primarily a work of anti-imperialist polemic.


On the other hand…  Last week, I finished reading Doris Lessing’s 1950 novel The Grass is Singing.  Now if you want a crushing condemnation of European colonialism, you should read that.  It truly is depressing.