Algiers’ Jardin d’Essai

 

 

The Jardin d’Essai du Hamma is a botanical garden in southern central Algiers.  It occupies about 140 acres of ground between the Mediterranean shore and a hillside that bears two more Algiers landmarks, the Musée National des Beaux Arts and the Martyrs’ Monument.  Founded in 1832, the garden spent most of the first decade of the 21st century closed to visitors whilst restoration work was going on.  It reopened in 2009 and currently contains an estimated total of 1200 different plant species.

 

I wandered in there on a Saturday afternoon, which was the busiest point of the Algiers weekend, and the place was swarming with sightseers.  Particularly popular was the little zoo at the coastal end of the garden.  A half-dozen families were queuing outside its entrance building — a handsome white structure that was decorated with bas-reliefs showing lions, swans, pelicans, flamingos and, most strikingly, peacocks with turquoise and yellow plumage.  Thankfully, unlike a lot of zoos I’ve walked past, this one didn’t exude the squalid, smothering stench of animals being kept in too-close proximity to one another.  Not that I went into it, though.  I’m definitely not a fan of zoos.

 

 

Despite the crowds, the garden was pleasant way of passing an hour.  I saw some very aged trees whose roots were almost as tangled and dense as their branches above; while their bark had become as creased and veined as a crone’s skin.  And I was impressed by some palm trees whose trunks were engulfed in a thick, shaggy parasitic growth that made them look, as they loomed over me, like giant yetis or sasquatches.

 

 

A few areas of the garden had titles that would have broken the Trades Description Act if this had been in the United Kingdom.  The path called ‘Bamboo Alley’ didn’t actually have much bamboo along it; except for its final strait before it opened into the garden’s main thoroughfare, where two thick clumps of bamboo tilted drunkenly overhead from either corner.  Just beyond, on the thoroughfare itself, you got a good view of the Martyrs’ Monument crowning the hill above.

 

 

Also, the section called the ‘Jardin Français’ didn’t seem very French to me and another section called the ‘Jardin Anglais’ didn’t seem very English.

 

 

The Jardin Anglais contained a couple of hulking white statues of ladies in flowing dresses and extravagant headdresses – maybe they were an Algerian sculptor’s idea of what English ladies would look like in an English country-house garden.  Unappealingly, when you looked at them closely, you discovered that their chalk-white surfaces were peppered with graffiti.  One statue depicted two ladies standing so closely together they resembled Siamese twins.  Another statue was of a single lady, holding up her arms.  The plaster or stone that’d originally formed one of her arms had crumbled away, leaving just the metal frame that’d supported it; so that she looked like she was doing an impersonation of Arnold Schwarzenegger after he’d stripped off his synthetic arm-skin and arm-flesh in 1991’s Terminator II.

 

 

In search of East Anglia

 

 

A feature on the BBC news website last week made me smile.  It was about East Anglia, a region of England I’ve studied in twice, worked in once and lived in for a total of nearly two years.  The feature posed this question: where exactly is the place?

 

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-36130219

 

The location of East Anglia became a national news item in 2002 while, coincidentally, I was working in what I assumed was East Anglia’s southern half, County Suffolk.  This was during the broadcast of the third season of the TV reality show Big Brother.  Notoriously, that season’s most famous Big Brother housemate, the brash but not cerebrally over-endowed Jade Goody, claimed that East Anglia was somewhere ‘abroad’ – possibly next to Tunisia.  (East Anglians weren’t the only victims of her cluelessness.  Not a great advertisement for Britain’s geography teachers, Jade also thought the United States was a non-English-speaking country, Portugal was a part of Spain and Rio de Janeiro was a bloke.)

 

However, if we know East Anglia is a region of England, why is there any mystery about where it is?  Maybe the mystery is really about what it is.  Personally, I’d always assumed East Anglia consisted of Counties Norfolk and Suffolk in the rump-shaped part of England east of the Wash.  However, in terms of landscape, I suppose you could stretch the definition to include the Fenland district of north-east Cambridgeshire.  Here, you get the same flat, damp and spookily featureless Fens that appear in eastern Norfolk, that are commonly associated with East Anglia and that have inspired countless cruel jokes about yokels, inbreeding, webbed hands and duelling banjos.  The Fens extend westwards across Cambridgeshire as far as the town of Peterborough.

 

 

Actually, that accords with something said in the BBC feature by Vic Morgan, who works at the University of East Anglia’s Centre of East Anglian Studies.  He points out that the Kingdom of the East Angles in the 7th century “covered what we now call Norfolk, Suffolk and a bit of Cambridgeshire.”

 

But as the feature also observes, the concept of East Anglia can be more elastic than that depending on whom you speak to.  The Visit East Anglia website covers Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire – and County Essex to the south.  The East Anglian Orienteering Association has members not only in Norfolk and Suffolk, but also in Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, most of Essex, northern Buckinghamshire and southern Northamptonshire.  And the East Anglia Air Ambulance Service covers Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire during the day while at night it caters for Essex and Hertfordshire too.

 

 

I’m sensitive about the subject of East Anglia’s boundaries because of something that happened seven years ago, while I was studying for a Master’s degree at the University of East Anglia in Norfolk’s county town, Norwich.  As well as studying there, I regularly wrote articles for the UEA’s student newspaper, Concrete.  One day I wrote a piece for Concrete’s travel section about the Suffolk coast.  I made a throwaway remark about Felixstowe being the southernmost coastal town not only in Suffolk but in East Anglia as a whole.  Immediately after this was published, Concrete received a letter from a foaming-at-the-mouth reader who came from Essex.  He condemned me for my ignorance.  Did I not know, he raged, that East Anglia includes Essex, which means the region has coastal towns south of Felixstowe, like Harwich, Clacton-on-Sea and Southend?

 

Concrete’s editor asked me for a reply to the letter, so I did some research into the topic.  I asked a mate who until recently had worked as a farmer in the Norfolk countryside.  Yes, he said, the East Anglia branch of the National Farmers Union represented Essex as well as Norfolk and Suffolk.  And when I popped into the Anglia Television building in Norwich, the receptionist told me that the station broadcast as far as Southend in southern Essex.

 

 

However, most definitions I heard or read said East Anglia was ‘chiefly’ or ‘generally’ Norfolk and Suffolk, while Essex’s status as part of it seemed second-class at best.  Wikipedia, for example, said that “sometimes Essex is also considered part of the region”; while a British Council webpage mused that “some even argue that Essex is now part of the region” (my italics).

 

When I inquired at the Norfolk Heritage Centre, I was told bluntly that East Anglia consisted of Norfolk and Suffolk only.  Essex didn’t qualify because “it borders on London, so it’s considered one of the Home Counties.”  The point was also made that historically East Anglia and Essex had been two separate Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, which was another reason to make a distinction.

 

But what clinched it for me was the fact that back in 1992 I’d actually spent six months working in Essex.  During my time there I never saw anything or heard anyone say anything to suggest that I was in East Anglia, or that the people around me considered themselves East Anglians.

 

East Anglia is one my favourite places in Britain.  I love its landscapes: the Broads to the east, the Fens to the west, the salt marshes along the northern coast, the ‘Constable country’ at the very south.  And its historical monuments: Norwich and St Edmundsbury Cathedrals, Orford Castle, Castle Acre Priory, the Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Sutton Hoo, the many out-of-the-way little churches.  And its historical and supernatural legends: the lost city of Dunwich, Matthew Hopkins, Margaret Catchpole, Black Shuck, the Wild Man of Orford.  And its literary connections: M.R. James, Agatha Christie, George Orwell, P.D. James, Graham Swift and Philip Pullman, Oh, and it’s produced a couple of great heavy metal bands too, like Extreme Noise Terror and Cradle of Filth.

 

What adds to the place’s mystique is the fact that it feels distant and apart from the rest of England.  And it would lose that mystique if it extended right to the edge of London.  So sorry, Essex men and Essex women; but when I think of East Anglia, I don’t think of you.

 

 

His Ollie-ness

 

(c) Constable

 

I recently read What Fresh Lunacy is This?, a biography of the late and legendarily hellraising British movie star Oliver – ‘Ollie’ – Reed.  Written in 2013 by the film journalist Robert Sellers, it’s a brisk and engaging book.  Sellers knows and delivers what his core readership wants, which is a detailed account of Ollie’s outrageous booze-fuelled antics during four decades of stardom.  But he’s also aware of Ollie’s films and gives these due attention and respect.

 

Sellers’ book fully conveys the paradox of Oliver Reed.  On one hand he was often kind-hearted, funny, loyal, boundlessly generous and impeccably good-mannered.  On the other hand his character also contained a Pandora’s Box of vices: petulance, childishness, boorishness, cruelty and obnoxiousness.  And usually what unlocked that box was the alcohol consumed during his interminable drinking sprees.

 

From moviemorlocks.com

 

What Fresh Lunacy is This? cites several possible reasons why Ollie poured so much liquor down his neck.  He was at heart a shy man and booze bolstered his confidence.  He was conscious of being both well-to-do and an actor, two things he didn’t much care for; and booze was his way of bonding with the common folk whom he felt much more comfortable with – builders, soldiers, sailors, gardeners, road-workers.  Later, he realised he was frittering his talents away on sub-standard movies and booze provided an outlet for his frustration.  And, ever the showman, he felt obliged to give the Great British public what they wanted, which was the spectacle of him raising hell on an apocalyptic scale.  The book never identifies which of these was the prime motivation for his behaviour.  I suspect it was a combination of them all.

 

What often gets overlooked in accounts of Ollie’s life is the fact that he was a very fine actor, one of the most memorably intense and brooding ones that the British film industry produced.  His CV contained some treasurable performances: as King in Joseph Losey’s The Damned (1963); Gerald Crich in Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969); Father Urbain Grandier in Russell’s The Devils (1971); Athos in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) and Four Musketeers (1974); Dr Raglan in David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979); Vulcan in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen (1988); and Proximo in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000).  Thankfully, Sellers’ book gives his acting the credit it deserves.

 

Anyway, here are a few new facts I learned about Ollie whilst reading What Fresh Lunacy is This?

 

Ollie’s grandfather was Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was, in the words of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “one of the great figures of the English theatre” and “the most successful actor-manager of his time”.  Beerbohm Tree’s half-brother and Ollie’s great uncle, meanwhile, was the essayist, humourist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm whose one-and-only novel, Zuleika Dobson (1911), is ranked by the Modern Library publishing company at number 59 in the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.  Ollie bought the film rights to Great Uncle Max’s book but never managed to get it to the screen.

 

(c) The Rank Film Organisation

 

I’d known that, early in his career, Ollie had appeared briefly in The Bulldog Breed (1960), a gormless and irritating comedy featuring the gormless and irritating Norman Wisdom. He plays the leader of a gang of hoodlums who waylay Norman at a cinema and give him a (well-deserved in my opinion) kicking.  What I hadn’t known that one of the sailors who rescue Norman from the hoodlums was played by an equally young and un-famous Michael Caine.

 

In 1962 Ollie appeared in the swashbuckler Captain Clegg, one of several movies he made for the British studio Hammer Films, alongside the much-loved and gentlemanly horror-movie star Peter Cushing.  Noticing how Reed rather overacted in a scene where his character gets shot in the arm, Cushing later wrote him a letter of advice.  “I think you’re going to go a very long way, Oliver,” the letter said.  “But always remember, if you are hurt, you don’t have to act hurt.  If somebody grabs you, just blink.  The screen is so big that even the slightest movement makes the point.”  Ollie took Cushing’s suggestion on board.  His best performances are distinguished by their stillness and understatement.  He conveys a great deal with only a modicum of expression and movement.

 

The 1967 comedy I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Isname was among a half-dozen films Ollie made for the famously gobby director Michael Winner.  Generally, Winner and him got along like a house on fire.  But one day, Ollie’s patience snapped when he had to film a scene where he was propelling a punt along the River Cam in Cambridge with, at one end of it, a cameraman and Michael Winner barking directions through a megaphone.  Ollie got so fed up with Winner “f**king rabbiting on in that grating voice of his” that eventually he jumped off the punt, taking the pole with him, and swam ashore – leaving Winner (“shouting and screaming and gesticulating so ferociously that he almost capsized the boat”) and his cameraman helplessly adrift on the river.

 

(c) The Guardian

 

Ken Russell’s The Devils saw Ollie appear alongside the actress and fervent left-wing political activist Vanessa Redgrave who, during filming, wanted to show solidarity with a one-day strike organised by the Trade Union movement against the early-1970s Conservative government.  She tried to get the performers and crew on the set to stop work and walk off it.  Ollie was having none of this, believing that a day’s strike-action was the last thing Britain’s beleaguered film industry needed.  The pair of them had a furious ten-minute confrontation about it in his dressing room, which culminated in Redgrave bursting into tears.  “So I put my arms around her,” recollected the gallant Ollie, “and gave her a cuddle.  Then I slapped her on the bottom and sent her back to her own dressing room.”

 

In the early 1970s, Ken Russell and Ollie were working on an ultimately-unrealised project about the quartet of knights who killed Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral in the 12th century.  Discussing the film in the great hall of Ollie’s country mansion one night, the pair of them somehow ended up in a swordfight that climaxed with Russell slashing open Ollie’s shirt, and his chest underneath, with a rusty six-foot broadsword.  “Excellent!” enthused the wounded hell-raiser.  “Now we’re blood brothers.”

 

Ollie’s 1981 movie Venom is the story of a house where a hostage situation is taking place and where, somehow, an ultra-poisonous black mamba snake is also slithering around loose, endangering both hostages and hostage-takers.  It’s infamous for the rivalry that existed on set between Ollie and his co-star, the great but deranged Polish-German actor Klaus Kinski.  Venom’s director, Piers Haggard, noted that Kinski “had no sense of humour”; whereas Ollie “had a fabulous sense of humour, very wicked… and he definitely liked a laugh at Klaus Kinski’s expense.”  One day Haggard was informed that the film’s financiers, the aristocratic Anglo-Irish Guinness family, would be visiting the set, but soon forgot all about it.  When Lord Guinness, his wife and children were ushered in, they were treated to an unscripted scene where Ollie, laughing like a maniac, came charging down a staircase pursued by an enraged Kinski who was screaming, “You f**king English c**t!”, presumably because he’d just been on the receiving end of an Ollie-prank.  Small wonder that Haggard claimed the black mamba had been the easiest cast-member to work with.

 

(c) Morrison Film Group / Handmade Films / Paramount

 

By the early 1980s, his career on the slide, Ollie made movies in some unlikely places with some unlikely backers.  The historical epic Lion of the Desert (1981) was filmed in Libya and funded by Colonel Gaddafi.  Meanwhile, A Clash of Loyalties (1983) was a personal project of Saddam Hussein and was made in Iraq even though the Iran / Iraq War was in full swing at the time.  Holed up in a large, boring hotel when they weren’t filming, Ollie’s antics kept the crew entertained.  On one occasion he created such a rumpus that several Arab guests pulled out guns, believing that the hotel was being attacked.

 

The early 1980s was also when Ollie had his penis – ‘the mighty mallet’ as he called it – tattooed and he liked nothing better than to whip it out in public and show people the results of the tattooist’s art.  Whilst making Castaway for the renowned British director Nicholas Roeg in the Seychelles in the mid-1980s, a dislike developed between Ollie and the producer’s assistant.  One day he spied her eating a meal in a restaurant, crept up behind her, loosened the tattooed mallet and dropped it onto her shoulder.  She promptly stabbed it with her fork.  Ollie did not attempt this stunt again.

 

Ollie cemented his reputation as a booze-monster with a string of drunken appearances on British TV chat shows during the late 1980s and early 1990s: Aspel and Company, Des O’Connor Tonight, After Dark and The Word.  In doing so, he effectively doomed what was left of his movie career since producers became too frightened of his reputation to hire him – as Sellers puts it, he was “the sniper at his own assassination”.  At least on Des O’Connor Tonight he befriended a fellow guest, the Liverpudlian comedian Stan Boardman.  When Boardman performed on the island of Guernsey, where by now Reed was living for tax purposes, he invited him to the gig.  There, Ollie didn’t take kindly to an audience-member who was heckling Boardman.  The comedian recalled how Ollie grabbed the heckler, “gave him a big bear hug, lifted him up on to his feet, dragged him out onto the dance floor and they collapsed together in front of about three hundred people.”  The next day, Stan and Ollie headed for a restaurant where by coincidence the exact same heckler was sitting having a meal.  Renewing hostilities, Ollie flung himself on top of him and they ended up rolling about the floor, knocking crockery everywhere.  The man eventually fled the restaurant.  Presumably he never heckled Stan Boardman again.

 

In 1999 Ollie died in Malta, where he’d been making Gladiator for Ridley Scott.  I knew he’d expired in an establishment in Valetta called the Pub, from a heart attack seemingly caused by over-exertion – he’d just been knocking back rums and arm-wrestling with a bunch of young ratings from a Royal Navy warship.   (In fact, I knew that very well because I’d drunk in the Pub in Valetta myself on a few occasions.)  However, I hadn’t known that his death happened by accident.  His original intention that day had been to have a quiet meal with his wife at a nearby Chinese restaurant, but the restaurant had been closed and instead they’d wandered into the Pub and encountered the sailors.

 

I like to think there’s a parallel universe where the Chinese restaurant had been open that fateful day, so that Ollie avoided the Pub, the ratings and the heart attack and survived to make a few more films – buoyed by the success of Gladiator and the acclaim that his performance in it received.  (As Proximo, he’s one of the best things in the movie.)  Who knows?  He might have worked with the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Danny Boyle, Michael Winterbottom and the Coen Brothers; and made a couple more pictures with old acquaintances such as Terry Gilliam, David Cronenberg and Ridley Scott.

 

(c) Scott Free Productions

 

A blood moon over Mountfield

 

(c) BBC

 

Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym under which I write horror stories, has had a new piece of fiction published.  It appears in the spring 2016 edition of a magazine called Blood Moon Rising.

 

The story is a short and nasty piece called The Balloon.  However, despite its shortness and nastiness, it’s a good example of the unlikely and random way that different elements of a story can come together and form a single whole.  A bit of the story originates in one place, another bit originates in a different place, and so on.  Thus, the writer ends up like Frankenstein, sewing parts of different bodies together to make a brand new creature.  (And that’s an appropriate analogy when you’re talking about horror stories.)

 

A while back, I read an interview with the Dutch director Tom Six, the man who gave us such yummy movies as The Human Centipede (2009), The Human Centipede II (2011) and – surprise! – The Human Centipede III (2015), which are about stitching people’s mouths to other people’s anuses so that they end up as a crawling, conjoined chain of bodies with a single alimentary tract.  It goes without saying that everyone who isn’t at the front of the human centipede gets a ‘bum’ deal.

 

Asked how he’d come up with such a crazed idea in the first place, Six claims he thought of it after watching a news report about a paedophile.  “His crimes were so awful I asked myself, ‘What’s the most extreme punishment that could be handed out to him?’”  Then Six answered his own question by imagining some highly unsavoury mouth-to-bum surgery.

 

From blogs.indiewire.com

 

This surprised me, by the way.  I’d always assumed Six came up with the idea for The Human Centipede after he’d asked himself: “What’s the grossest thing I can stick in a horror movie, so that blood-and-gore-obsessed teenagers the world over will shell out money to see it and make me a fortune?”

 

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32656480

 

Anyway, that got me thinking: what’s the most extreme punishment I could give to a paedophile in a story?

 

It also made me remember something.  A decade ago, I’d been travelling in Cambodia and one night in Phnom Penh, having drunk a few beers too many, I wandered into what looked like a nice relaxed beer garden with an outdoor bar in the middle of it.  Gradually, though, I realised that the Cambodian barmaids there seemed a bit too young; while the customers – all Western men – seemed a bit too old.  And leery.

 

I ended up sitting at the bar counter opposite a slightly Lolita-esque barmaid and I started lecturing her about how she ought to pack in her job, get away from these dirty old men, go back to school and get some proper qualifications.  Being rather pissed, I spoke too loudly, and I soon noticed that there were a couple of sleazy-looking British men sitting along the counter from me, muttering at me in disapproval.  But I had the sense to get my beer down me and stride out of that dubious joint before I got into a fight.

 

The next day, I took a boat along the Tonle Sap River to Siem Reap, which is near the crumbling, jungle-overrun but still stunning temple complex at Angkor Wat.   Somehow, those two things, the grotesque punters in that bar in Phnom Penh and the venerable temples of Angkor Wat, got linked in my mind.

 

Then, two years ago in India, I visited a different sort of historical site.  This was the Qutab complex in Delhi, where the massive Qutab Minar minaret built between the 12th and 14th centuries soars above an area of ruins, courtyards, pillars, pavilions, lawns, hedgerows and trees.  There, I saw something else that lodged in my mind.  As I wrote in my notebook at the time: “At least one end of the Qutab site was below the level of the neighbouring road.  There were railings along the roadside and a group of little kids had gathered behind them.  Apparently, they’d been playing with a big red balloon and the balloon had come down on the wrong side of the railings, into the grounds of the site, and landed on top of some medieval masonry a couple of yards below them.  Now they were yelling down through the railings, trying to get the attention of some visitor who’d be kind and brave enough to clamber up onto the masonry and retrieve their balloon for them.”

 

And then all the story elements were in place: temple-ruins half-swallowed by the jungle, like in Angkor Wat; a lost kid’s balloon, like I’d seen at Qutab Minar; and a squalid old tourist who’s in a southern Asian country not to sightsee but because of his unhealthy interest in the country’s youngsters, which was the impression I’d got of those bar-customers in Phnom Penh.  And from this, I managed to write The Balloon.

 

The magazine featuring the story can be accessed online, here:

 

http://www.bloodmoonrisingmagazine.com/bloodmoonrisingmagazine64.html

 

From www.bloodmoonrisingmagazine.com

 

And the last time I checked, The Balloon itself was available here.  Read it if you dare.

 

http://www.bloodmoonrisingmagazine.com/shortstory647.html

 

An elevating experience

 

 

A little while back, while I was doing some temporary work in Algiers, I was housed in an apartment on the seventh floor of an eight-floor colonial-era building in the city centre.  The building had a triangular stairwell, with flights of stair climbing two of its sides and landings with the apartment entrance-doors on its third side.  Climbing up and down that stairwell made you feel you were ascending and descending the inside of a giant Toblerone.  Fortunately for those who didn’t fancy huffing-and-puffing their way up the stairs to the building’s higher floors, the stairwell was also equipped with a lift: the quaintest old lift I have ever seen.

 

This lift was basically a wooden box with thin oblong windows all around it and ornately-handled doors that opened out from the middle of its front side as if they were on a big cabinet.  It had a brown-varnished but scuffed and scratched exterior, with a crescent of whorled, seashell-like carvings above its doors.  Clamped around it was a thick metal superstructure that was also attached to the lift cables.  There was no enclosed lift shaft.  Rather, the thing shuttled up and down inside a flimsy-looking frame of poles and railings.

 

 

Inside, there was just about room for two people – something reinforced by a warning sign saying that the weight-limit was 150 kilogrammes.  When I used it in company, I couldn’t help thinking of the famously claustrophobic video for the 1985 song by the Cure, Close to You, which had the band attempting to perform inside a wardrobe.  (It was best not to think, though, about the video’s ending, which had the wardrobe, with Robert Smith and his crew still inside, plunging off a cliff.)

 

The railings on each landing included a set of external gates that you had to negotiate your way past after the lift had reached your floor.  These were patterned with columns of inverted triangles and had almost a hint of Charles Rennie Mackintosh about them.  When you’d stepped out and shut the lift-doors and gates behind you, you pressed a button on the gate-frame that sent the lift back to the stairwell’s bottom.  That was the only time it descended, when it was returning from its destination-floor.  You couldn’t summon it when you wanted to go from your landing to the ground – so the building’s stairs were still well-used, by people going downwards.

 

 

To make the lift work, you stepped inside it on the ground floor and inserted and twisted a key in a slot next to the floor-buttons.  Then it rose, very slowly and accompanied by a creaking of moving cables and clanking of turning wheels, through the Toblerone-shaped stairwell.  Riding in the thing was always unnerving, because of its slowness and wobbliness. 

 

It was particularly unnerving at night.  The lift had a light-bulb in its ceiling but that didn’t work for the month I was living there. The ascension of the lift would trigger motion-sensor-activated lights on a couple of the landings, but most of my journey to the seventh floor would be spent in darkness – while around me the creaking and clanking of the lift mechanism sounded like ghosts rattling their chains.

 

If the lift had felt a little more secure, I would have found using it a charming experience.  It resembled a device in a steampunk novel.  But it didn’t feel secure – and I must confess that, whenever I used it, part of me was always bricking it.

 

 

Nothing but the Ruth

 

(c) Channel 4

 

Imagine what would have happened if during my schooldays I’d arrived home one afternoon and told my mum in a jubilant voice: “Mum!  I had a big test today and I got 22% of the answers right!  And thanks to my superb result everyone now thinks I’m amazingly clever!  Even the principal’s so impressed by my brilliance that in future she’s going to defer to my judgement in all decisions affecting the school!”

 

Actually, this is what would have happened.  My mother would have promptly whacked me around the lug for being a lazy waste-of-space who hadn’t done any studying for an important test and had got 78% of the answers wrong.  After that she would have taken me to a psychiatrist to have my disturbing narcissism and delusions of grandeur treated.

 

Yet the mainstream media has adopted a similar attitude in its reporting of the Scottish Conservative Party’s performance in the Scottish parliamentary election on May 5th.  Leading the Scottish Conservatives is 37-year-old Ruth Davidson, a politician who’ll do anything for a scrap of publicity.  The gregarious Davidson will ride a tank, sit on top of a bull, dress up in Highland dress and pretend to play the bagpipes.  She’ll do anything, in fact, except stick the word ‘Conservative’ on her party’s promotional literature.  Scottish Tories like Ruth, you see, are a wee shy about identifying themselves as Conservatives.  That’s because since the reign of Margaret Thatcher Conservativism in Scotland has been, to borrow a simile from Billy Connolly, “as popular as a fart in a spacesuit”.

 

(c) Daily Telegraph

 

What happened in last week’s election was this.  The Scottish National Party got 46.5% of the votes, up 1.1% on their previous performance, though they finished with 63 seats, six less than last time, and narrowly missed getting an overall majority in the parliament.  Labour got 22.6% and 24 seats, 9.2% and 13 seats down on last time.  The Greens and Liberal Democrats won six seats and five seats respectively.  And the Tories, traditionally loathed in Scotland?  They actually showed some improvement.  They increased their share of the vote by 8.1% to 22% and their number of seats by 16 to 31, making them the second-biggest party in the parliament.  Though thanks to the vagaries of the Scottish electoral system, they finished seven seats ahead of Labour, who got 0.6% more of the vote than they did.

 

So the Tories did reasonably well – but only in terms of expectations and compared with their dismal performances in Scotland in the recent past.  And let’s put things in perspective.  In the UK general election of 1987, the Tories polled 24% of the votes in Scotland – and that was with another female figurehead, the aforementioned Margaret Thatcher.  In fact, by 1987, it’d become common knowledge that most Scots hated old Maggie’s guts and the feeling was no doubt mutual.  This was when the satirical TV show Spitting Image was doing gags about Thatcher slashing a map of Scotland with a razor-fingered Freddy Krueger glove and Number 10 Downing Street having a secret laboratory where men in white coats administered Tory policies to struggling, squealing rats that wore kilts.

 

So last week Ruth and her gang still fell two percent short of what their party achieved in Scotland in the last election that they were led by Margaret Thatcher, the great bête noir of late-20th-century Scottish politics.

 

Mind you, as soon as I heard about Ruth Davidson’s result, I grimaced.  I knew what was coming next.  No matter what the reality, the Scottish mainstream press – which consists largely of right-wing rags like the Scottish Daily Mail, Scottish Daily Express, Scotsman and Scottish editions of the Times and Daily Telegraph – was going to have a gigantic right-wing orgasm.  It was going to give us Ruth, the whole Ruth, and nothing but the Ruth.  And it did.  The Daily Mail proclaimed her better-than-expected showing with the headline THE ROAR OF MIDDLE SCOTLAND.  (Because its volume was turned down to 22%, I assume it was a very quiet roar.)  The Express’s front page shrieked SNP INDYREF 2 PLAN IN SHREDS, in the belief that because Ruth has less than a quarter of the seats in the Scottish parliament and less than half the seats of the SNP, she can now boss First Minister Nicola Sturgeon around.  Starting by ordering her not to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence.  Aye, that’s you told, Nicky.

 

Meanwhile, Scotland’s legion of right-wing journalists, columnists and commentators seemed to come in their venerable tweed breeks.  The Spectator’s Alex Massie, for instance, penned a piece about the Scottish Tories’ supposed revival entitled THE UNION STRIKES BACK, which was accompanied by a picture of Ruth Davidson’s head photo-shopped onto Princess Leia’s body.  Someone should remind Massie that the folk who did the striking back in the celebrated 1980 sci-fi fantasy movie were the Empire, who were space-Nazis led by Darth Vader – probably not the analogy he was looking for.

 

Time for a reality check, guys.  The SNP may not have enough seats to be a majority in the Scottish parliament but there is a pro-Scottish-independence majority – the Greens support the cause too and if you add them to the SNP you get a total of 69 seats, nine more than the combined number of pro-unionist Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat ones.  And even if this wasn’t the case, the Daily Express’s claims about a second independence referendum being thwarted would be disingenuous.  It’s well-known that Nicola Sturgeon has no intention of holding a second referendum anytime soon.  She intends to wait a few years until she feels confident that independence has enough support to win the next referendum.

 

And somehow I don’t think the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats will be in any hurry to line up behind ‘Team Ruth’ and launch a great unionist uprising against the SNP government.  Both parties now have bitter experience of getting humped at the polls after becoming too closely associated with the Tories.  Labour suffered badly after they shared the same platform as them during the referendum campaign, as did the Liberal Democrats after they formed a coalition with them at Westminster in 2011.

 

In fact, if I was a moderate voter in Scotland who wanted to maintain the link with the United Kingdom, I’d feel very uneasy about Ruth Davidson and co. now being the main voices of unionism in the Scottish parliament.  Unionism will now be associated more than ever with the Toryism that prevails in Westminster and all that that entails: a posh Eton-educated Tory Prime Minister who’s worth millions and who benefited financially from a Panama offshore trust; a ruling Tory cabal who in their youth would strut arrogantly around Oxford dressed in tailcoats, waistcoats and bowties and smash up restaurants; a Tory health minister whose policies have sparked the first full walkout in the history of England’s NHS;  a Tory London mayoral candidate whose campaign against the eventual winner Sadiq Khan was a revolting exercise in anti-Muslim racism; a Tory government whose intention to cut £4 billion from disabled people’s benefits was deemed so ‘morally indefensible’ by its Work and Pensions Minister that he quit in protest; a Tory government that scrapped child poverty targets and wanted to turn away 3000 abandoned Syrian children; a Tory government that’s outsourced the country’s nuclear industry to China and bowed and scraped to Saudi Arabia, the world’s most notorious financer of terrorism.

 

Ruth Davidson might try to play down the fact, but at the end of the day she’s still Scottish branch manager for the unpleasant outfit calling the shots at Westminster.  And underneath her grin and her big bubbly laugh and her general veneer of bonhomie, I can’t help suspecting there’s lurks a nasty little right-wing homunculus that looks a bit like this:

 

From order-order.com

 

Or perhaps like this:

 

(c) The Guardian 

 

Or perhaps even like this:

 

(c) The Guardian

 

Ballard rises

 

(c) Recorded Picture Company / Film4 / StudioCanal

 

J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise, about a community living in a towering luxury apartment complex who gradually lose their marbles and grow dysfunctional and then dystopian, was first published in 1975.  However, I read it a decade later, after I’d become a massive fan of Ballard’s stories of psychological and sociological aberration.  So in my mind the novel is connected more with the 1980s.  I imagined the book’s well-heeled but losing-it characters as sleek Thatcherite yuppies.  Indeed, a few years after I read it, the Canary Wharf business district, including the 50-floor One Canada Square that for many years was Britain’s tallest building, started to spring up in east London.

 

Now, an additional three decades later, director Ben Wheatley, producer Jeremy Thomas and scriptwriter Amy Jump have unveiled their film version of High Rise and given it a strongly retro-1970s aesthetic.  Thus, when I watched it the other day, it was slightly discombobulating to see a book written in the 1970s, read by me in the 1980s, brought to the screen in the 2010s and set in a world that is the filmmakers’ exaggerated reimagining of the 1970s.

 

Just how retro-1970s is Wheatley and co.’s take on High Rise?  Answer: very.  There’s the stylistically gruesome 1970s – blokes wear flared trousers and have shit moustaches (Luke Evans’ moustache is particularly shit), ladies totter about on platform heels, everyone puffs on cigarettes.  There’s the happy, silly 1970s – Abba get referenced with a version of SOS, though it’s actually Portishead doing a slow, spooky rendition of the song.  And there’s the apocalyptic 1970s, the 1970s that had Britain’s conservatives worried their country was going to hell in a handcart – we catch a glimpse of Mary Whitehouse’s least favourite children’s comic, the notoriously violent Action (or ‘the seven-penny nightmare’ as it was dubbed by horrified tabloids); and we hear punk rock arrive in the form of Mark E. Smith of the Fall snarling his way through 1979’s Industrial Estate.  And the piles of garbage that accumulate with disconcerting speed in the high-rise building’s foyer bring to mind Britain’s strike-plagued Winter of Discontent in 1978/79.

 

(c) Recorded Picture Company / Film4 / StudioCanal

 

It’s no surprise that Wheatley has opted for this setting because 1970s British culture is clearly a big influence on him.  His earlier movies Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013) owe much to the 1970s British ‘folk horror’ films The Wicker Man (1973) and Blood on Satan Claw (1970); while his amusing black comedy about caravanning serial killers, Sightseers (2012), is a reworking of the famous 1976 TV play by Mike Leigh, Nuts in May (with a body count, obviously).  He’s also described the visionary British directors Nicholas Roeg, Ken Russell and John Boorman, all of whom hit their creative peak in the 1970s, as ‘the holy trinity’ for him.  I wonder if he was attracted to High Rise not so much because of the chance to film a J.G. Ballard novel as because of the fact that long ago it’d been a directorial project for his one of his heroes, Nicholas Roeg.

 

That’s not to say that Wheatley’s cinematic tastes diminish High Rise as an adaptation of a literary work.  It doesn’t lose the peculiar flavour of the original novel or its author. In fact, compared to the previous big movie versions of Ballard’s work, Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987) and David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), both of which bear the unmistakable stamp of their directors’ personalities, High Rise is the most Ballardian film of a Ballardian book yet.

 

We get that strange combination, so typical of Ballard, of well-bred, buttoned-up Englishness – like boys in a posh boarding school, the men in High Rise refer to one another by their surnames – and creeping madness.  In High Rise, like in much of his fiction, the characters tend not to resist the cataclysm that’s taking place around them. They conspire with and embrace it instead.  Here, while life in the building gradually goes tits-up through an escalating series of lift malfunctions, power-failures, water-stoppages and outbreaks of anti-social behaviour, its inhabitants don’t seem that bothered.  They celebrate the process by partying in the corridors and need little incentive before they graduate to staging raids against rival floors and finally to killing each other.

 

Tom Hiddleston neatly captures this unsettling blend of conventionality and insanity, repression and regression, in his portrayal of the main character, Robert Laing.  He’s a gentleman physiologist who moves into one of the building’s shiny new apartments but who never gets around to unpacking the stacks of boxes containing his possessions.  He ends up wearing the metallic grey paint he’s bought for redecorating the place like war-paint.  (This is after he nearly beats to death a customer who also wants the paint in the building’s 15th-storey supermarket: “It’s my paint!”)  By the movie’s finish – which also serves as its prologue – Hiddleston is acting out the novel’s opening line, which incidentally is one of the greatest opening lines in modern British literature: “As he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

 

(c) Recorded Picture Company / Film4 / StudioCanal

 

Wheatley is also well-served by the supporting cast, which includes Luke Evans, Sienna Miller, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Reece Shearsmith and Bill Paterson; and, in the role of Royal, the architect who designed the high rise and now lives at its top in an opulent penthouse surrounded by rooftop gardens, Jeremy Irons.  Early on, we see Irons and his wife hosting a fancy dress party with the theme of the Palace of Versailles, the Ancien Régime and Louis XVI, which is tempting fate when the less wealthy families on the lower floors are already getting pissed off about the faltering infrastructure.

 

High Rise won’t be everyone’s cup of tea and it doesn’t surprise me that it’s received mixed reviews, with detractors throwing around terms like ‘muddle’ and ‘dog’s dinner’.  Anyone expecting a straightforward yarn wherein folk in a block of flats go Lord of the Flies will be disappointed.  Ballard was never terribly interested in linear narratives and Wheatley honours the tradition by providing scenes that seem randomly hallucinogenic, comedic and horrific.  Like Ballard’s fiction generally, the film is stuffed with ideas that are played around with for a while before being discarded.  And given that some of the characters appear a bit unhinged even when the high rise is functioning normally, it’s a bit difficult to develop a logical plot here.  How do you chart a descent into collective madness when several participants seem mad anyway?

 

Nonetheless, I greatly enjoyed High Rise and I assume other fans of J.G. Ballard’s work will enjoy it too; and I suspect the great man himself – who died in 2009 – would have got a big kick out of it.  I found the film enthralling and compulsive, disturbing and at times unfathomable; and since seeing it I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.  Which is the same effect that Ballard’s books have always had on me.  A result for Ben Wheatley, I’d say.

 

From www.miskatonic-london.com

 

The strife of Brian

 

(c) Daily Record

 

At the end of March we said goodbye to the great Edinburgh-born comic performer Ronnie Corbett, one of whose catchphrases was: “And it’s good night from him.”  One month later, on April 29th, we bade farewell to another great Scottish comedy talent.  For the journalist, political commentator and former Labour MP Brian Wilson penned his final column for the Scotsman newspaper.  It was good night from him too.

 

When I call Wilson a Scottish comedy talent, I’m thinking of a particular strain of Scottish comedy.  I’m thinking of Walt Disney’s Scrooge McDuck, and John Laurie’s Private Frazer in the much-loved wartime sitcom Dad’s Army, and the Reverend I.M. Jolly, one of the characters essayed by the late Rikki Fulton in his sketch show Scotch and Wry.  Like those three, Brian Wilson is dour and crabbit and negative, traits commonly attributed to the Scots, but is so over-the-top about it that he becomes hilarious.  Though there’s a slight difference.  The actors and animators who created Scrooge McDuck, Private Frazer and the Reverend I.M. Jolly weren’t being serious.  When the glowering, gurning, face-like-a-skelped-arse Wilson sits down at his computer and thumps out another thousand-word missive of misery and more misery for the Scotsman, he is being serious.  He means it.  That’s the real him.  Which usually makes me fall off my perch laughing.

 

Before I continue, I should say that Scotland’s Brian Wilson is no relation to the American Brian Wilson, the singer-songwriter responsible for the sunny, upbeat tunes of the Beach Boys during the 1960s – though somehow, sinisterly, his work also inspired the murderous hippy cult-leader Charles Manson.  Our Brian certainly has none of his American namesake’s sunniness.  In fact, he calls to mind the famous quote by P.G. Wodehouse that it “has never been hard to tell the difference between a Scotsman with a grievance and ray of sunshine.”  Wilson is so immersed in doom and gloom that he’d make even the weakest, wateriest ray of sunshine appear as coruscating as a gamma-ray burst from a star turning supernova.

 

And while American Brian had the dubious honour of influencing Charles Manson, Scottish Brian will tell you that anyone who disagrees with his politics – especially members of the Scottish National Party and other folk favouring greater autonomy or outright independence for Scotland – is Charles Manson.

 

Wilson has opposed the transfer of political power to Scotland for a very long time.  Back in 1979, for instance, he chaired the Labour Vote No Campaign during the debate about the establishment of a devolved Scottish parliament in Edinburgh.  No doubt he was happy, or at least a shade less grim than usual, when the proposed parliament came to naught thanks to a rigged referendum whereby a majority of Scots voted in favour of it but, the rules decreed, not enough of them voted for it.  Subsequently, during the 1980s, the absence of a Scottish parliament left Margaret Thatcher free to have her wicked way with Scotland from her base in Westminster.  Even when his own Labour Party, finally back in power in 1997, moved to create that long-delayed Scottish parliament, Wilson was still harrumphing and huffing about it.  Small wonder he became known as the Abominable ‘No’ Man.

 

From twitter.com/dalriadan39

 

In his final Scotsman appearance on April 29th, Wilson claimed there were two reasons for his long-standing opposition to a Scottish parliament.  Firstly, he feared that decision-making would become unfairly centralised in Scotland, i.e. in Edinburgh – though how that’s worse than the old set-up, when big decisions affecting Scotland were made 400 miles south in London, is beyond me.  Secondly, and what I suspect was Wilson’s real reason, he predicted that a Scottish parliament would sooner or later stop being run by the Labour party and start being run by the SNP – which happened after the Scottish election of 2007.  “Since 1997, Scottish Labour might have done better through a more acute awareness of having constructed – with the best of motives – its own potential scaffold.”

 

Wilson, it’s fair to say, hasn’t been impressed by the SNP regime that’s run Scotland since 2007 (and is set to continue running it after yesterday’s Scottish parliamentary election, in which the SNP won 63 seats and the Labour Party won only 24).  In his valedictory column he blasts it for “a constant agenda of grievance and betrayal”, for “self-inflicted timidity and under-achievement”, for “a poverty of ideas”, for “a spiral of decline”, for “a cruel hoax”, for “a con trick”.  All of which have put Scotland not on “a mythical motorway to independence but a slow road to mediocrity”.

 

Well, there are several things I think Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP government should be criticised for.  But it’s a bit rich for this abuse to come from a former stalwart of the Scottish Labour Party.  For if you want a lesson in what mediocrity, under-achievement and creative poverty are about, you need look no further than the bad old days when Wilson’s party dominated Scotland.  This was the era when political commentators joked that Labour votes in Scotland were weighed rather than counted; and in Glasgow you could stick a red rosette on a monkey and it’d get voted into Westminster.  Actually, looking at the evidence, the red rosette / monkey scenario must have actually happened in a number of cases.

 

Among the mediocre, under-achieving and creatively constipated Labour MPs that Scotland had representing it were such specimens as Lanark and Hamilton East’s Jimmy Hood, who once declared he’d oppose Scottish independence even if it made the Scottish people better off – the fact that as an MP he was busy claiming £1000-a-month second-home expenses in London no doubt had something to do with his keenness to keep Westminster running the show.  And Midlothian’s David Hamilton, who in 2015 did his bit for the battle against sexism by describing Nicola Sturgeon (and her hairstyle) as “the wee lassie with a tin helmet on”.  And Glasgow South West’s Ian Davidson, who charmingly predicted that after 2014’s referendum on independence the debate would carry on only “in the sense there is a large number of wounded still to be bayoneted”.  And Renfrewshire West’s Tommy Graham, who was chucked out of Labour in 1998 after he allegedly smeared fellow MP Gordon McMaster about having a homosexual relationship – McMaster had committed suicide the year before and in his suicide note he named Graham as a tormentor.

 

Among this shower – who became known as the ‘low-flying Jimmies’ because of their lack of ambition in anything other than being cannon-fodder for Labour at Westminster and enjoying all the perks that came with being MPs – any Scottish Labour politicians who dared to display minds of their own were either politely side-lined, like Linlithgow’s Tam Dalyell, or unceremoniously forced out, like Falkirk’s Dennis Canavan.  With numpties like these populating the Westminster opposition benches during the 1980s and 1990s, it’s no surprise Mrs Thatcher’s Tories had a free run to do whatever they liked in Scotland.

 

Unlike most of his Caledonian compadres, Brian Wilson at least had a brain.  And under Tony Blair he served as a Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, for Industry and Energy and for the Scottish Office.  No doubt for him those years when Labour, or New Labour as they’d been brightly rebranded, were back in power was a golden age of enlightenment and progressiveness.  Though many would disagree.  The Guardian’s environmental correspondent George Monbiot, writing in response to something Wilson himself had penned for his newspaper, described New Labour as an outfit for whom the important things in life were “keeping faith with the banks, the corporate press, the banks, a tollbooth economy and market fundamentalism” and “voting for the Iraq War, for Trident, for identity cards, for 3,500 new criminal offences, including the criminalisation of most kinds of peaceful protest.”

 

http://www.monbiot.com/2014/09/09/england-the-brave/

 

Wilson was a big supporter of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and he subsequently became Tony Blair’s special envoy for the country’s ‘reconstruction’.

 

http://www.theyworkforyou.com/mp/10644/brian_wilson/cunninghame_north/divisions?policy=1049

 

But I’d hate this entry to be a complete hatchet job.  Is there anything good I can say about Brian Wilson?  Well, he can at least string a proper sentence together.  He’s had enough journalistic practice – as a young man he co-founded, published and wrote for the respected newspaper the West Highland Free Press.  His columns in the Scotsman have been mercifully free of the gibberish filling the pieces that his former-fellow-Scottish-Labour MP and ex-Scottish-Labour leader Jim Murphy writes for the New Statesman these days.

 

He’s campaigned tirelessly for the promotion of the Gaelic language in Scotland and for me anything that preserves cultural diversity is to be applauded.  That said, most of the Gaelic speakers I’ve known – and I knew a lot during the years I lived in Aberdeen – didn’t really trust him and any respect they had for him was grudging at best.

 

He’s had a sane attitude to energy policy, favouring a combination of renewables and nuclear power.  I don’t like the idea of nuclear power, but I think with global warming hanging over us like the Sword of Damocles we don’t have any choice now but to continue using it.  Mind you, I suspect Wilson’s opinions on the subject are coloured by his private financial interests.  From 2003 to 2004 he was director of a company called Virtual Utility Limited, which supposedly was involved in windfarms; while in 2005 he was appointed non-executive director of AMEC Nuclear Holdings Ltd, the ‘nuclear services arm’ of AMEC plc.

 

Oh, and while he was special envoy to Iraq, who won part of a half-billion-pound deal to reconstruct the country’s water and sewage systems?  Why, AMEC did!  Funny, that.

 

http://powerbase.info/index.php/Brian_Wilson

 

Algiers’ Musée National des Beaux Arts

 

 

After you emerge from the Jardin d’Essais Metro Station in front of the Musée National des Beaux Arts – or as Google Translate explains it, accurately for once, the National Museum of Fine Arts – in Algiers, you are promptly confronted by the best and worst that the city has to offer.  At the top of the metro steps you find yourself at the base of a hill.  The museum is a little way up the hillside while the Maqam Echahid – the Monument of the Martyrs – is perched at the top, its three broad curved legs making it look like an alien landing module that’s been sent down from an orbiting alien spaceship.

 

 

Meanwhile, set in the bottom of the slope is a curved and pillared alcove containing ten or more gorgeous, if slightly bit faded, tiled mosaics.  I’ve seen other instances of these in Algiers and they really add to the city’s charm.

 

 

Alas, once you start up the stone steps that climb from the alcove to the museum entrance, you find yourself ascending a stairway of crap.  It would be nice if they could sweep up the old leaves lying there, some of which have been lying for so long that they’ve decomposed into brown gunk, but at least that crap is organic, biodegradable crap.  What’s unforgivable are the discarded newspapers, plastic bags, drinks cans and – worst of all – plastic water bottles mixed in with the leaves.  They really make the approach to the museum look like shit.

 

 

The museum itself isn’t spectacular but its contents are nicely balanced between the old and new.  In the lobby, for instance, you get a 17th century statue of King Solomon looking like a very tall, elongated version of one of the Lewis Chessmen that adorn the banner of this blog; while upstairs there’s Aicha Haddad’s L’Arbre de l’Espoir, which is basically a tree made out of spanners and metal nuts.  Exploring the place makes a perfectly pleasant way to spend an hour or two.

 

I wasn’t allowed to take photos on the premises, unfortunately, except on a terrace that runs along the front of the building’s top floor and gives a splendid view over the nearby park, the Jardin d’Essais, and then the Mediterranean Sea.  A mock Roman mosaic covers the terrace’s floor and lining its sides are pillars, some slightly-dusty plants and, every couple of pillars along, a stone statue or bust.  There are also two small garden areas behind it, containing pink-flowered bushes, a palm tree and more statues.  It’s an agreeable place to hang out for a while.  No wonder that, while I was there, it was populated with young, hipster-type Algerians doing just that, hanging out.

 

 

The thing for which I’m most grateful to the Musée National des Beaux Arts is that it introduced me to the work of the 20th-century Algerian artist Mohammed Racim.   It says in his Wikipedia entry that the scenes he painted were set in “an imagined past, before the arrival of the French colonisers, when the indigenous were the masters of the Maghreb.  The people of Algeria, prior to the French arrival, appear in his works as prosperous, given to fine textiles and costumes and the arts of music, architecture and gardening”.  Here are a few examples of his baroque, colourful and generally gorgeous art.

 

(c) Musée National des Beaux Arts

 

Ken does (Klaus) Barbie

 

(c) Independent

 

Ken Livingstone, former London Mayor, former Labour MP and now presumably former key ally of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, has dug holes for himself before.  But, somehow, he’s always managed to escape from them.  However, it’s difficult to see how Ken – or more precisely, Ken’s political career – can escape from the hole he dug for himself three days ago.  This time, Ken didn’t just dig a hole.  He dug a very deep hole; and then he used the shovel to commit ritual hara-kiri and dropped to the bottom of that hole; and then in his dying convulsions he dislodged the loose dirt above so much that it all fell in on top of him.

 

Ergo: politically, Ken is dead and buried.

 

If you’re in Britain – and unless this past week you’ve been living as far underground as Ken’s career is now – you’ll know what the furore is about.  Ken claimed that Adolf Hitler was “supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing 6,000,000 Jews”, a comment which got him suspended him from the Labour Party.  It also prompted the Jewish comedian David Baddiel to muse on twitter: “Is it just me, or is there a possibility Hitler was actually a tiny bit mental even in 1933?”

 

Ken has past form in this area.  In 2005, he told Evening Standard journalist Oliver Finegold, whom he knew to be Jewish, that he was behaving “like a concentration camp guard.  You’re just doing it because you’re paid to, aren’t you?”  He’s also once told the Iraqi-Jewish property developers the Reuben Brothers to “go back to Iran and see if they can do better under the ayatollahs”; and claimed that London’s Jewish community had started supporting Margaret Thatcher as it “got richer”.  That last comment was made in 2014 and must have brought joy to the heart of Labour’s then-leader Ed Miliband, the son of Polish Jews.

 

Ken spouted his Hitler / Zionism guff in defence of the Labour MP for Bradford West, Naz Shah.  Two days earlier, she’d been accused of antisemitism when it transpired that in 2014 she’d reposted a Facebook meme calling for Israelis to be re-located to the United States.  At the time she’d joked that this “might save them some pocket money.”

 

Needless to say, the British media is now filled with stories not just about Ken, Naz and antisemitism in the pro-Corbyn left wing of the Labour Party; but also about the furious reaction to this by figures on the party’s more Israel-friendly right wing, which has inspired headlines about civil war in the party and possible leadership coups.  None of this has helped Labour’s cause a week before parliamentary elections in Scotland and Wales, council ones in England and mayoral ones in London.

 

(c) Swindon Advertiser

 

I’ve always been fairly left-wing in my outlook.  It’s always seemed the right (as opposed to right-wing) way to be.  You seek fairness for those whom society treats less well: women, the poor, ethnic minorities, etc.  And, as a logical extension of that, you believe everyone deserves equal respect.  However, during my youth I gradually realised that in some left-wing circles there were groups it was okay not to like – groups of people you could hiss and boo and actively malign.

 

These included Israelis, though here the antipathy was usually prefaced by: “I’m not anti-Jewish, I’m just anti-Israel”.  Also, white South Africans, who were supposed to be apartheid-loving gits, the lot of them, living lives of luxury whilst around them their black countrymen suffered; and those beastly boorish Protestants who spent their time oppressing Roman Catholics over in Northern Ireland.  This last assumption made things a wee bit problematic for me because I’d been born in Northern Ireland, a Protestant; and had lived there for 11 years before my family moved to Scotland.

 

The more I think about it now, the more uncomfortable it feels in retrospect.  For instance, shortly after starting college, I met some students who shared my politics and got into what seemed, for a few heartening minutes, like the first intelligent, adult political discussion I’d had in my life.  At last, I thought, I was among articulate kindred spirits.  But then the topic shifted to Northern Ireland and suddenly I felt less confident.  A few anti-Protestant things were said.  Then I piped up.  “Well,” I began apologetically, “I’m afraid I’m a Northern Irish Protestant…”  I felt furious with myself afterwards.  Why had I felt the need to use that regretful “I’m afraid”?  Why apologise to them for being what I was?  I should have said, “Piss off, we’re not all like that.”  It wasn’t as if I was the Reverend Ian Paisley – I’d never stood on a pulpit or a stage and damned Catholics to hell.  My politics were the antithesis of he and his ilk represented.  Yet I’d sensed the mood of group disapproval and I’d kowtowed to it.

 

Too often, that’s the way it works on the left.  Its more zealous believers have a crass tendency to group communities into good guy and bad guys – ignoring the truth that inside every community you’ll find good guys, and bad guys, and guys of countless shades of goodness and badness in between.  Northern Ireland’s Protestant community contained bigoted blowhards like the Reverend Ian Paisley; but it also contained liberal souls like Ivan Cooper, one-time politician and civil rights activist (who had the traumatic experience of organising the 1972 protest march that ended with 14 civilians being shot dead by troops on Bloody Sunday).

 

The left’s criticisms of Israel often come clothed in terms that show a similarly-offensive tendency to generalise.  The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu treats Palestinians horribly; therefore all Israelis approve of the Palestinians being treated horribly.  But that’s garbage.  Plenty of Israelis detest Netanyahu for what he’s doing.  I know – in my time I’ve met a few of them.

 

Netanyahu may be a malevolent old tosser, but to blame everyone who has the misfortune of being governed by him for what he’s doing?  That makes as much sense as blaming Ken Livingstone, Naz Shah, Jeremy Corbyn and every Labour supporter in Britain for what David Cameron’s Conservative government is doing at Westminster – attempting to cut disability benefits, refusing to give sanctuary to 3000 abandoned Syrian children, etc.  Politics is thankfully more sophisticated in Scotland nowadays, but on more than one occasion during the 1980s I heard people say that everyone in England was a wanker because “they all voted for Maggie Thatcher.”

 

Meanwhile, there’s a left-wing school of thought arguing that Israel’s creation in 1948 was a terrible mistake that brought untold suffering; and the mistake ought to be corrected by dismantling Israel.  But the creation of nation states has caused suffering throughout history.  Take Australia, for instance.  I haven’t heard anyone suggest that Australia, despite the near-extermination of the Aboriginal peoples who were originally there, should now have its non-indigenous inhabitants relocated to Europe or North America – which Naz Shah’s Facebook meme proposed for Israel.  Blaming millions of people just for being in a country, because their forefathers moved there, propelled by the machinations of history, is a cruel and futile policy.  It’s surely more sensible now to put efforts into promoting good government in such countries, government that treats all citizens with respect and decency.

 

Anyway, returning to Ken – I’m actually slightly sad to see him end up like this.  I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him, but I thought Ken (whom I heard speak once, thoughtfully and eloquently, at the 2011 Green Fair in London’s Regent’s Park) was, in his prime, a bold, quick-witted and entertaining politician.  I’ve known a few Conservative-minded Londoners who expressed respect for him as Mayor because, at the end of the day, whatever the hue of his politics, he genuinely wanted the best for the city.  And only a total, bigoted thicko would object to his moving response to the London bombings in 2005.

 

Admittedly, as a Northern Irish Protestant, I did blanche when, in 1983, he invited Sinn Fein leader and Provisional IRA mouthpiece Gerry Adams to London as an honoured guest of the Greater London Council (which he was then leader of).  Still, a quarter-century later, in 2007, Ian ‘No surrender to the IRA’ Paisley did a deal with Sinn Fein that allowed him to become First Minister of Northern Ireland while ex-IRA man Martin McGuinness served as his deputy.  So at least Ken’s courting of Sinn Fein and the IRA was less hypocritical than ‘Big Ian’s’.

 

And generally he did a better job as Mayor of London than his successor, that old-Etonian, Latin-spouting, tousle-haired idiot man-child Boris Johnson.  Boris has form himself in saying offensive things about groups of people.  He once, for example, described Africans as “tribal warriors” who “break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.”  But Boris-comments like those haven’t attracted the opprobrium in the British press that the Ken-comments have.  No doubt because most of Britain’s newspapers are right-wing and, while they’re happy to call Ken a racist arse, they think that Boris is the bees’ knees.

 

(c) The Guardian