The Great British horror show


(c) International Business Times


I’m a big fan of horror movies but I can’t say I’ve been enjoying this new horror movie that stars the entire population of Britain and that’s been playing endlessly since last Thursday morning.  What’s it called again?  I Know What EU Did Last SummerThe BrexorcistHalloween 4: The Return of Michael Gove?


Actually, these past days of epic-scale tragedy and farce, which have followed Britain’s decision in the referendum-vote of June 23rd to leave the European Union, put me in mind of several horror films.  These are the films I’m reminded of and why.


(c) Daily Telegraph

(c) British Lion Films


When I see Nigel Farage and his supporters in those rural provinces of the UK that voted to quit the EU despite them being heavily dependent on EU subsidies, I think of The Wicker Man (1973).  In this, a posh aristocrat convinces his simple-minded countryside followers that the bountifulness of their harvests and the richness of their coffers depends, not very logically, on them occasionally sacrificing a virgin.  In Farage’s case, he persuaded them to sacrifice their EU membership.  The film ends with the latest sacrifice, played by Edward Woodward, predicting that the next time the harvests fail and the coffers are empty, the countryside folk will be sticking the aristocrat himself into a wicker man and setting it alight.  So if this analogy holds, things may end unhappily for Nigel (but happily for the rest of us).


(c) Warner Brothers / Transatlantic Pictures


When I see Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, I think of Alfred’s Hitchcock’s dark psychological thriller Rope (1948).  This begins with two vain aesthetes, Brandon and Phillip, committing a murder to show their intellectual superiority.  Then they spend the rest of the film unravelling through guilt at what they’ve done and fear of being found out.  Since the referendum result, our very own Brandon and Philip have been looking increasingly sweaty and twitchy while, no doubt, the thought “Oh my God, what the f**k have we done?” grows ever shriller in their heads,


When I don’t see George Osbourne – he seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth since the vote, despite the fact that he’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and despite the fact that the pound and markets generally have gone into freefall – I obviously think of The Invisible Man (1933).


(c) Universal Pictures


When I see the Labour Party currently tearing itself apart over the issue of the leadership, or non-leadership, of Jeremy Corbyn during the referendum campaign – the last time I’d checked, there’d been eleven resignations from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet – I think of the virus in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) that instantly transforms its victims into red-eyed, slavering, vomiting, hyperactive and very bitey zombies.  Though if the somnolent Corbyn himself got infected he’d probably just dribble a little bit onto his cardigan.


When I see Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister and the only leader in the past few days to actually display qualities of leadership, I think of Sigourney Weaver in Aliens (1986).  From her base in Edinburgh, peering south towards the madness that’s engulfed Westminster, Sturgeon must feel like Weaver in her spaceship while it circles the space-colony planet where hideous and slimy things have happened.  (Though ‘nuking them from orbit’ isn’t an option here.)


When I see close-ups of Michael Gove’s face, I think of the baby in David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977).


(c) Daily Telegraph

(c) Libra Films International


Whereas when I see Boris Johnson, I think of the midget blonde monsters spawned by Samantha Eggar in David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1980).


(c) Evening Standard

(c) New World Pictures


Mind you, that’s when I’m not thinking of the creepy kids in Village of the Damned (1960).


(c) MGM


And when I see the whole sorry mess, with the triumphant leaders of the Brexit campaign now admitting that – duh! – they didn’t actually have a plan about what to do in the event of them winning, I think of the Final Destination series.  In those movies, it’s never quite clear what the final destination is.  But you have a pretty good idea that everyone involved is going to die horribly.


The best and worst of Britain


(c) BBC

(c) The Guardian


I suspect every British person with access to the Internet is currently typing out and posting their tuppence-worth about the murder of Jo Cox, the Labour Party MP for Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire and a pro-European politician with a track record in helping refugees and victims of oppression.  I’m not in the UK at the moment, but I still have a British passport and I have access to the Internet.  So here’s my tuppence-worth.


I’m suspicious when people talk about cause and effect.  Events definitely have reasons and actions definitely have consequences, but to my mind the patterns of causes that contribute to something happening and the patterns of effects that emanate from it happening are too complex to be fully understood.  It’s more complicated than the model of a row of dominoes simply knocking each other down, which seems to be the common assumption when folk engage in discussions, debates and arguments.  A didn’t just cause B, thanks to which C happened.  More likely, A-L caused M, thanks to which N-Z happened.


More importantly, I’m wary of the concept of cause and effect because if you treat actions only in terms of their consequences, you rob those actions of their own intrinsic worth.


So I’m not going to say that Cox’s murder, at the hands of a man with a history of mental illness and links to at least one white supremacist organisation, was the result of anything in particular.  Not even the result of the belligerent, poisonous atmosphere that’s been evident in Britain recently as campaigning has heated and attitudes have hardened in the lead-up to the referendum on June 23rd about whether or not Britain should remain in the European Union.  Not even the result of the anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner rhetoric that’s been amped up by the ‘Leave’ side, particularly by Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party, who shortly before Cox’s murder unveiled a new campaign poster bearing the words BREAKING POINT and a picture of a long, dense crowd of refugees receding into the distance.


No, I’m not going to argue that Cox’s murder was the result of anything done by Farage and his anti-EU allies, despite the fact that I regard Farage as a ratbag opportunist of the highest order – forever peddling the shtick that he’s a man of the people and a crusader against the political, financial and business elites who’ve deprived ordinary citizens of power over their own lives, when in fact he’s a former public schoolboy (Dulwich College, alma mater of P.G. Wodehouse, Michael Powell, C.S. Forester and Dennis Wheatley) and a former commodity broker who’s worked for Drexel Burnham Lambert, Credit Lyonnais Rouse, Refco and Natexis Metals.  (In this respect he’s no better than that other populist denouncer of the ruling elite, Donald Trump, who’s so un-elite that he was worth $200,000 – the equivalent of about a million dollars today – when he graduated from college in 1968.)


That said, I don’t feel much sympathy for right-wing pro-leave commentators like James Delingpole, who’s been whinging about ‘journalists, PR men and politicians’ linking Cox’s murder with the alarmist tone of the Leave campaign.  “(D)o you genuinely, sincerely believe,” he lamented on, “that Thomas Mair, the suspected gunman who killed Jo Cox, is representative of the 50 percent or more of British people who believe that our country would be a better, freer, more prosperous, secure and democratically accountable place outside the EU?”  In fact, I feel no sympathy at all for Delingpole while he fulminates about his cause being framed within an unflattering narrative that he doesn’t like; because if there’s one thing that Delingpole and his chums in Britain’s mainly right-wing press are very good at doing, it’s taking causes they don’t like and framing them within unflattering narratives.


Hence, those people campaigning for a ‘yes’ vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum were portrayed in Britain’s right-wing tabloids as extremists who said beastly things to J.K. Rowling on Twitter and flung eggs at Labour MP Jim Murphy.  The Murphy egg-chucking incident was reported with such horror that you’d have thought Scotland was about to undergo its own version of Kristallnacht; though in retrospect and after events on June 16th it seems pretty mild.  Sure, the ‘yes’ side had a few nutters on its fringes but so did the ‘no side’.  However, the newspapers ignored abuse and death-threats against leading lights on the independence side like Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and Jim Sillars because they didn’t fit the desired narrative.


And I have no doubt that we’d be getting a major narrative rammed down our throats at the moment if on June 16th a mentally unstable Muslim man had shouted “ISIS!” and attacked and killed someone campaigning for a ‘leave’ vote.  Intriguingly, despite Thomas Mair name-checking a far-right organisation during the attack – he shouted “Britain First” while stabbing and shooting Cox to death – Britain’s newspapers have refrained from calling it a ‘terrorist’ incident and have emphasised the man’s psychiatric problems.  You’re allowed to do that under the British press rulebook if the perpetrator of an atrocity is a white bloke.


Instead, I’ll just ask you to make a comparison.  On the morning of June 16th, Farage launched his new BREAKING POINT campaign poster.  The people depicted in it, standing in their hundreds, extending back into the distance, are actually refugees who’ve fled the civil war in Syria and ended up in Croatia, which, it’s fair to say, isn’t that close to Britain.  I assume those refugees are frightened and traumatised by the experiences they’ve been through, but UKIP’s message is clear.  “These are scary people and they’re coming your way!  Be afraid, Britain, very afraid!  Vote to leave the EU or prepare to die!”  At least one child is visible in the picture, near the front of the queue and on the right.  And as people who’ve studied the original picture have pointed out, there’s actually a white guy at the very front.  But UKIP stuck a panel with the message “Leave the European Union on June 23rd” on the poster to hide his face, presumably because it wasn’t chillingly brown enough.




It has also been pointed out that Farage’s poster bears an uncanny resemblance to a clip of old Nazi propaganda that rants about undesirables flooding “Europe’s cities after the last war… parasites, undermining their host countries.”  That’s the Nazis, you know.  Adolf Hitler, World War II and all that.  Didn’t we British fight against those Nazis, and their fascism and hatred of the other?  In doing so, didn’t we achieve our ‘finest hour’, to quote Winston Churchill, whom I understand is a bit of a hero in Nigel Farage’s house?


Compare the BREAKING POINT poster with the career of Jo Cox.  For seven years she was employed with the aid group Oxfam and her involvement in its humanitarian campaigns led to her working with oppressed people in Sudan and Afghanistan.  She was also an advisor to the anti-slavery charity, the Freedom Fund.  After she became an MP, she campaigned for the creation of civilian safe havens within Syria and she chaired the All Parties Friends of Syria group.  During her maiden speech in the House of Commons, she praised her constituents in Yorkshire, of all races and creeds, saying: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”


So which of the two – that UKIP poster or the life of Jo Cox – do you think represents the best of Britain and which represents the worst?  And if you have to stop and think about that question…  Well, I can only say that I hope you and Nigel are very happy together.


Who to annoy next


© Dog Eat Dog Films / IMG Films


I could imagine Where to Invade Next, the new documentary by left-wing American filmmaker Michael Moore, annoying a lot of right-wing folks in the USA – if any of those folks were ever likely to sit down and watch a Michael Moore movie.


A gentle and humorous travelogue with a political slant, Where to Invade Next sees Moore ambling in his usual manner, like a cross between a docile grizzly bear and the Honey Monster, across various European countries (plus Tunisia in northern Africa), identifying various good things in their political and social systems and ‘claiming’ them for America – because these good things don’t exist in his less enlightened and more capitalist home country.


For example, Moore chooses Italy’s generous system of paid leave, which is absent in the USA even though, as he points out, productivity levels in both countries are about the same.  He chooses Slovenia’s policy of free tuition in higher education, something that in the States you pay for out of your own wallet (or your parents pay for out of their own wallets).  He chooses Iceland’s decision after its 2008-2011 financial meltdown to stick the 26 bankers responsible in jail, whist noting that the only equivalent banker to do porridge in the USA was a chap, Kareem Serageldin, who (probably entirely coincidentally) had a Muslim-sounding name.


Yes, I’d love to see America’s usual right-wing suspects – Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and of course current Republican Deranged Blowhard-in-Chief Donald Trump – watch Moore as he gradually and affably belittles the American Way in Where to Invade Next, until blood vessels start popping in their faces and smoke starts pouring out of their ears.  Indeed, one major American right-wing bawbag appears in the documentary: former Texan governor Rick Perry, shown during an episode where Moore highlights the gulf between the French approach to teaching sex education in schools, i.e. being mature, realistic and accepting about it, and the considerably more puritanical and scaremongering American approach.  In a clip from a TV interview, quizzed about why Texas has the third-highest rate of teen pregnancy in the country despite school programmes promoting abstinence, Perry splutters: “Abstinence… works!”  No wonder the live TV audience titters in the background.


Critics of Moore’s partisan style of filmmaking will no doubt complain about his selectivity.  He turns a blind eye to the negative aspects of the countries he visits.  He praises Italy’s paid-leave system but discretely ignores its unemployment rate (11.7% two months ago, compared with an American rate of 5%).  From his enthusiasm for all things French, you’d never guess that strikes have been ravaging the place lately in response to its government’s proposed labour-law reforms.  And he honours Tunisia’s reproductive health clinics and its commitment to women’s rights in its post-revolution constitution, drafted in 2014.  But as my partner immediately pointed out – both of us lived in Tunisia for three years, before, during and after the 2011 revolution – women have a much higher chance of being harassed on Tunisian streets than they do on American ones. 


Incidentally, whilst in Tunisia, Moore interviews Rachid Ghannouchi, the co-founder and guiding light of the former Islamist governing party, Ennahda.  Ghannouchi, whilst boldly declaring that the state has no right to tell people how to behave in their own homes, manages to shoot himself in the foot by noting that in his home, he tells his wife to cover her hair.


© Dog Eat Dog Films / IMG Films


To be fair, along the way, Moore makes the odd admission that not everything is hunky-dory.   As I’ve said, he mentions Iceland’s recent economic crisis – if only to highlight the fact that 26 greedy and reckless Icelandic bankers were banged away afterwards.  (Wonderfully, the prosecutor who got them sent down was called Thor.)


And I wondered if, while he was heaping praise on Norway for its penal system, which attempts to treat its inmates as human beings, emphasises rehabilitation over punishment and has achieved a reoffending rate amongst released prisoners that’s 60% lower than the equivalent rate in the States, Moore would mention the notorious Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik.  He does, though again to reinforce his own argument.  He interviews the father of one of Breivik’s 77 victims, who refuses to call for a harsher punishment (like the death sentence) for his child’s killer.  That, he says, would be going down the ‘evolutionary ladder’ to Breivik’s level and betraying the tolerant Norwegian values that the ‘piece of scum’ had wanted to destroy.


I have to say that the clip Moore uses to highlight the niceness of Norway’s maximum security prison made me wonder if it was actually nice at all.  He shows a video made by the prison staff as a way of welcoming new convicts.  It has the warders singing We are the World, the ghastly saccharine anthem first recorded by USA For Africa back in 1985.  Surely a few minutes of exposure to that would reduce the most hardened criminal in Scandinavia to a quivering jelly.


Indeed, Moore’s simplistic ‘this-is-good-why-don’t-we-do-the-same?’ methodology is critiqued by at least one of his European interviewees – a Portuguese health expert who observes that you can’t just implement in the USA the Portuguese policy of not arresting drug users.  That’s because in Portugal there’s a back-up system of health and social-welfare measures to help people who use and abuse drugs.  Without such back-up, which doesn’t exist in the States, the relaxed Portuguese approach to drug use simply wouldn’t work.


Nevertheless, in some ways, Moore’s rose-tinted – some would say downright biased – glasses are what gives the film its charm.  Partly this is because daily we get subjected to downright biased accounts of what’s going on in the world from the right; from right-wing shock-jocks in right-wing news outlets like Fox News, the Spectator and the Daily Mail.  So it’s cheering to have the same thing coming from the left for a change.  Also, Moore’s approach gives the film an agreeable sense of optimism.  There’s bad shit happening in America, he’s saying, but hey, the Europeans have implemented humane solutions to these problems and surely it’s not beyond our ken to solve them humanely too.


Indeed, what makes the film most subversive is Moore’s habit, throughout, of observing that the Europeans’ solutions were all, at some time in history, devised by Americans and / or first introduced in the USA.


It’s telling that Moore felt no urge to visit the United Kingdom during Where to Invade Next to pinch any good, humane ideas from us; presumably because we have none.  And with the referendum when Britain decides whether to remain in or leave the European Union fast approaching, I can understand why Britain’s own tribe of right-wing idiots like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith are so desperate for us to leave it.  Horrid ideas are rife on the continent, like paid vacation time for workers, decent school meals, effective sex education, free tuition in higher education, prisons that rehabilitate prisoners and tolerant drugs policies that actually reduce the number of people taking drugs.  No wonder that bunch want us to distance ourselves as much as possible from the place.


© Dog Eat Dog Films / IMG Films


Bad to the bone


© Caliber Media Company / RLJ Entertainment


A while back on this blog I mentioned the film Bone Tomahawk, which was released in late 2015.  A fusion of two cinematic genres I’m fond of, the western movie and the horror movie, it was written and directed by S. Craig Zahler.  I’ve finally caught up with Bone Tomahawk on DVD and, I’m pleased to say, I think it’s as good as the 89% rating it got on the online film-review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.  Wow – for once, the world’s movie critics and I seem to be in agreement.


As a western Bone Tomahawk is charmingly traditional.  It involves a posse of mismatched characters – is there any other sort of posse in western movies? – riding off into the wilderness, searching for a handful of people who’ve been abducted from their frontier town.  The posse are excellently played by a quartet of actors: the whiskered Kurt Russell as a getting-on-a-bit but still not-to-be-messed-with sheriff; Patrick Wilson as a domesticated ex-cowboy whose wife is among the abductees; Matthew Fox as an insouciant dandy with a violent past – though he dresses in white, he’d definitely have been the Man In Black if this film had been made 60 years ago; and Richard Jenkins as Russell’s ‘back-up deputy’, a position that was evidently given to him because while he was too old and doddery to be allowed to become a real deputy, Russell didn’t have the heart to disappoint him by not making him a deputy at all.


Jenkins, actually, steals the show.  His ramblings are by turn wry, melancholic and idiotic, are occasionally profound and are always entertaining.  He joins a noble tradition of gnarly character actors who’ve played doddery old sheriff’s deputies in western movies, including Walter Brennan in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) and Arthur Hunnicutt in Hawks’ El Dorado (1966).  The scenes between Jenkins and Russell are a joy and their last one together even brings a tear to the eye.


But just before you rush out to rent Bone Tomahawk expecting it to rekindle happy childhood memories of watching James Stewart and Audie Murphy bumping along on horseback beside a cattle drive whilst Maureen O’Hara bakes them apple pie back at the ranch-house…  I should remind you that this is also a horror movie.  Zahler cunningly disguises the fact by devoting much of the running time to his four heroes journeying through the wilds, talking, philosophising, bickering, getting to know each other and allowing us to get to know (and like) them too.  But at the end of their quest, in Bone Tomahawk‘s final half-hour, there’s a horror movie ready to pounce…


© Caliber Media Company / RLJ Entertainment


Admittedly, Bone Tomahawk also has a horror-movie prologue at its beginning.  It opens with a pair of bushwhacking cut-throats stumbling across and violating a remote, mysterious burial ground, much to the annoyance of some unseen but very belligerent locals.  (The pair are played by the great veteran B-movie actor Sid Haig, who’s been in everything from Jack Hill’s Foxy Brown (1974) to Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997); and David Arquette, who was also a cast-member in the last horror-western movie I really enjoyed, Antonia Bird’s Ravenous back in 1999.)  In fact, the owners of the burial ground are so pissed off that they spend the next 11 days pursuing one of the cutthroats and eventually he leads them to the frontier town that’s home to Russell, Jenkins and co.  Making the most of their visit, they promptly carry away a couple of the townspeople.


But the abductors aren’t Indians, as the white folks in town assume.  The one native-American townsperson, a chap nicknamed the Professor (Zane McClamon) who’s probably the most erudite person in the whole film, identifies the culprits as cave-dwelling “troglodytes”: a “spoilt bloodline of inbred animals that rape and eat their own mothers.”


And when Russell’s posse finally catch up with those troglodytes…  Well, let’s just say that Zahler signals the switch from western to horror pretty spectacularly.  In order to show what the trogs are capable of, he subjects us to a scene of jaw-dropping brutality.  My better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, and I are pretty hardened movie-watchers.  We could sit through three Lucio Fulci zombie movies back-to-back first thing in the morning and still eat a hearty breakfast afterwards.  But even we found that scene in Bone Tomahawk so harsh that we had to pause the DVD for a minute and go, “Phew!”


Zahler knows what he’s doing.  Most modern horror filmmakers would never allow such a leisurely build-up – there’d have to be death and horror every ten minutes – but he wants to give us time to get familiar with his characters.  And once those characters have our affections, then he hits us with the death and horror, meaning that we’re on the edge of our seats thereafter, wanting them to get out of it alive.  (The Borderlands, the British horror movie from 2013, benefitted from a similar approach.)


Zahler’s also clever in orchestrating his plot so that near the end his characters’ survival depends on the member of their group who’s least physically able to deal with the trogs.  It’s one thing to end a film with Superman – or some cool, indestructible Clint Eastwood type – fighting off the villains.  But the result is far more suspenseful when the person in question is the opposite of Superman, someone with the odds stacked against him.


Bone Tomahawk is a bold movie, partly because it attempts to meld two genres that aren’t often melded; and partly because its creator isn’t afraid to make some unfashionable choices with the plot.  It’s a movie, then, with a lot of guts.  In all senses of the phrase.


© Caliber Media Company / RLJ Entertainment


Britain’s number-one pub argument settled




Sean Connery.


There.  That’s conclusively settled the argument that flares up regularly in pubs the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, especially after the participants have sunk a few pints.  It’s Sean Connery.


The argument, of course, centres on the question, “Who is the best James Bond?” And I suspect it’s been raging a lot lately, stoked up by reports that the most recent incumbent in the role, Daniel Craig, has decided to call it a day and the Bond producers have started looking for a replacement.  Currently Tom Hiddleston seems to be the media’s favourite, although the actor himself said at the weekend, “I don’t think that announcement is coming.”


Anyway, I’ll go further and offer a ranking of all the actors who’ve played James Bond over the years, from best to worst.  This is an official Eon-Film-series list, though.  I’ve made no mention of Bond actors from ‘rogue’ productions such as Barry Nelson, who played 007 in a 1954 adaptation of Casino Royale for the CBS TV anthology show Climax!; or David Niven, who played him in another adaptation of Casino Royale, the dire, zany, swinging-sixties comedy released by Columbia Pictures in 1967.


So in descending order, we have:


  1. Sean Connery
  2. Timothy Dalton
  3. Daniel Craig
  4. Pierce Brosnan
  5. George Lazenby
  6. Roger Moore


(c) Eon Productions


To be honest, in my opinion, anyone who doesn’t think that Connery is the best Bond needs his or her head examined.  He swaggered in at the start of the film series, dark and Byronic but equipped with that inimitable Scottish burr, and made the role his own.  He invested Bond with a ruthless but suave lethalness, a threatening but graceful physicality, a cruel but entertaining laconicism.  In fact, 54 years ago, Connery was such a revelation in the role that even Bond’s literary creator Ian Fleming, still alive and still writing at the time, was sufficiently inspired to put a bit of the brooding ex-Edinburgh-milkman into his spy-hero.  No doubt Fleming had Connery in mind when he ended his final Bond novel The Man with the Golden Gun, published posthumously in 1965, with Bond turning down the offer of a knighthood.  “I am a Scottish peasant,” he retorts, “and will always feel at home being a Scottish peasant.”


It has to be said that at the turn of the century when Connery himself was offered a knighthood, he displayed none of Bond’s reluctance.  He took it and promptly became Sir Sean.  (Or Ssshhhir Sean.)


Yet having just said that Connery is the best Bond, I must confess that he isn’t quite my favourite Bond.  That accolade goes to number two on my list, the Welsh actor Timothy Dalton, who played him in the movies The Living Daylights (1987) and Licenced to Kill (1989).  Mainly this is because I’d read most of Ian Fleming’s novels at an early age, before I saw any of the films; and Dalton struck me as the actor who came closest to portraying Bond in the way Fleming had imagined him and the way I’d first imagined him from the books.  (While researching the role, Dalton read the original literary canon, so this was to be expected.)  His was an edgier and more troubled 007.  It’s fitting that The Living Daylights begins by using the plot of the Fleming short story of the same name, which has Bond refusing to kill an enemy sniper – a woman – and declaring bitterly that the secret service can sack him for all he cares.


(c) Eon Productions


Alas, Dalton didn’t capture the imagination of the public, who still seemed in thrall to the jokey tone of the previous Bond movies of the 1970s and early 1980s.  He wasn’t helped either by Britain’s fickle film critics.  They’d spent years moaning that the Bond films had become ‘too silly’.  But as soon as someone tried to toughen up the films, they started moaning that the series had lost its lovable silliness.


Ironically, Daniel Craig has approached the role in a similar way – a minimum of silliness, a maximum of seriousness – and won much acclaim in recent years.  Today’s world just happened to more ready for Craig’s approach.  It was less ready when Dalton did the same thing 30 years ago.  Anyway, I’d put Craig third in my list of Bonds, while fourth place goes to that genial Irishman Pierce Brosnan.  I like Brosnan as an actor and at his best he showed some grit in the role; but overall his version of Bond was a bit too bland for my tastes.   He also was unlucky with the quality of some of his films.  His swansong in the role, 2002’s Die Another Day, is a particular stinker.


Fifth, and second from the bottom, is Australian George Lazenby, who definitely wasn’t much cop as an actor.  Ironically, his one outing as Bond, 1968’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is perhaps the best movie of the lot.  It’s arguable that because it’s very different from the usual entries in the series – wistful in tone and tragic in its ending – the awkward and uncertain Lazenby actually fits the bill.  Despite his limitations, or perhaps because of them, Lazenby is acceptable in the context because he projects a weaker, more vulnerable Bond.  I couldn’t imagine ‘Big Sean’ breenging through On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in his usual insouciant manner and the film having the same emotional impact.


And finally…  Well, if you’re a regular reader of this blog and you’ve seen my previous posts about the Bond movies, you’ll hardly raise an eyebrow in surprise at who occupies the bottom of my list.  (Actually, raising an eyebrow was about the extent of the acting he did in the role.)  Still, his Bond movies were massively popular in their day – during his reign as 007 the franchise made millions.  So even if I didn’t think much of old Roger, vast numbers of other people evidently did.




When he was king


(c) PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Gramercy Pictures


The world seems a smaller, sadder and quieter place after the passing of boxing superstar and all-round sporting legend Muhammad Ali yesterday.


Smaller, sadder, quieter and also less eloquent, less witty and less entertaining: for Ali was a rare thing, a sportsman who’d honed his words to be as devastating as the way he’d honed his body.  You could fill a book with his pronouncements, witticisms and (usually) good-natured insults.  Of Sonny Liston, he said: “The man needs talking lessons.  The man needs boxing lessons.  And since he’s gonna fight me, he needs falling lessons.”  Of George Foreman: “I’ve seen George Foreman shadow boxing and the shadow won.”  Of Joe Frazier: “Joe Frazier is so ugly that when he cries, the tears turn around and go down the back of his head.”  On his refusal to serve in the US Army and fight in Vietnam, he said bluntly: “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.  No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”  On aging: “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”  (Well, that’s me told.)  And of course, on his less-than-modest self: “I’m not the greatest, I’m the double-greatest.  Not only do I knock ’em out, I pick the round.  I’m the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skilfullest fighter in the ring today.”


In his prime, his gob was massive and his patter was relentless; but still he was an idealistic man who wasn’t afraid to make bold and unpopular decisions.  However out-of-favour he temporarily became, though, through actions such as affiliating himself with the Nation of Islam or refusing the draft, he still ended up the best-known and best-liked American on the planet.  I got a sense of his universal appeal one winter’s day in 1996, while I was living in Sapporo on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.  Out on a freezing ice-and-snow-covered street I encountered a prim, middle-aged lady whom I knew as the mother of one of my Japanese friends.  Where, I asked, was she off to on an inhospitable day like this?  Oh, she said with an eager gleam in her eyes, she was going to the cinema — which was showing When We were Kings, the acclaimed and just-released documentary about Ali’s legendary ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, i.e. his bout with George Foreman for the world heavyweight title in Kinshasa in Zaire in 1974.  The fact that a Japanese housewife could be hurrying to see a documentary about a black American boxer who’d fought his last fight 15 years earlier was a sign of the weird and wonderful world that Ali had created.


And in fact I remember that Ali-Foreman fight of 1974 – when it rumbled, in the jungle.  I was a kid in Northern Ireland and no doubt all sorts of Troubles-related mayhem was happening that day, as it seemed to happen every day back then.  But the Rumble was the only thing anyone wanted to talk about the next morning.  We were discussing it, my eight and nine-year-old compadres and I, in the primary-school classroom.  Why, even our primary school teacher – another prim middle-aged lady – was talking excitedly about how Ali had beat Foreman.  And it was the same a year later when he took on Joe Frazier during the ‘Thrilla in Manilla’.  The next day we were rabbiting on about that too.


He was a divisive figure for a long time in the US, but 1970s Britain loved him.  He never seemed to be off British telly.  (Did Ali apply his publicity machine equally to every country in the world, I wonder, or did he just get a special kick out of indulging the limeys across the Atlantic?)  He was interviewed several times by Michael Parkinson.  He appeared on This is Your Life with Eamon Andrews.  He sent a cheeky filmed message to English football manager Brian Clough, a man who famously produced as much hot air as he did: “Clough, that’s enough.  Stop it!”   Christ, he even turned up on Jim’ll Fix It and I seem to remember him giving Jimmy Savile a friendly, joshing tap on the chin.  It’s just a pity he didn’t punch Savile’s horrible greasy face down his throat and out of his arse.


Ali’s boxing career didn’t end happily.  His 1980 fight against Larry Holmes, for instance, was a horror show.  It’s said that afterwards Holmes felt so bad about beating Ali so humiliatingly that he sat crying in his dressing room.  Thereafter, of course, Ali had to suffer the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s Disease – an affliction whose worst crime, perhaps, was to rob him, the most articulate of men, of the ability to articulate himself.


So it’s best to remember him by watching When We Were Kings, a documentary that captures the glory (and, admittedly, some of the grotesqueness) of the Rumble in the Jungle.  It shows you Ali at the peak of his greatness and a surprisingly dark and threatening George Foreman.  (This might come as a shock to a younger generation who know George primarily as the patron of the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine.)  It also allows you to see the 20th century’s most opulently corrupt dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who’d arranged the staging of the fight in Zaire.  And some of the 20th century’s greatest musicians, like James Brown and B.B. King, whom Mobutu had flown in for a musical gala to accompany it.  And the 20 century’s biggest literary ego, Norman Mailer, who was there to report on it.


Norman Mailer, actually, got a book out the event, 1975’s The Fight, which is well worth a read.  It provides a fascinating insight into the mind of the man who believed he was the greatest.  (It also mentions Muhammad Ali.)


(c) Penguin Books


Muhammad was a giant but he achieved his worldwide celebrity on account of his talents: his athleticism, his grace, his wit, his humour and his bloody-mindedness.  Which puts the modern-day celebrity of, say, Kim Kardashian into pitiful perspective.  And as someone who eventually became one of America’s greatest ambassadors to the rest of humanity – regardless of the often uneasy relationship between him and his mother country – it’s worth remembering that he was a Muslim.  Donald Trump, take note.


The Golding notebook


(c) The Guardian


During my youth I read a number of books by William Golding.  I read Lord of the Flies (1954) as a schoolboy, of course.  While he was teaching it as a set text on the English syllabus, my teacher recommended a couple of other novels by Golding and I tracked down and read them too.  These were The Inheritors (1955), Pincher Martin (1956) and The Spire (1964).  Somewhere along the way, I also read The Scorpion God (1971), consisting of three novellas that were set in prehistory, ancient Rome and ancient Egypt.  But for a long time afterwards, that was that as far as William Golding was concerned for me.


Then a few years back, in a second-hand bookshop, I picked up a set of novels that comprised Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth trilogy: Rites of Passage (1980), Close Quarters (1987) and Fire Down Below (1989).  I greatly enjoyed them, especially the first one, which in the year of its publication had won the Booker Prize.  No doubt one reason why I liked them so much was the fact that I’m a sucker for any sort of story taking place in a ship, on the high seas, in historical times.  Anyway, the trilogy reminded me that there were several books by Golding I still hadn’t read – books that seemed to remain below the radar, out of sight and out of mind, while everyone raved on about Lord of the Flies.  So I vowed to read the rest of Golding’s fiction.


I recently completed my quest, having read five more William Golding novels in the last two-to-three years.  Coincidentally, each one of the five was published in a different decade during the second half of the 20th century: the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.  Here’s what I thought of them.


Free Fall (1959)


Golding’s meditation on fate, free will, memory and regret has an Englishman called Mountjoy – who’s a talented artist but a troubled human being – end up in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II.  There, he gets incarcerated in a terrifyingly black and unknowable room with the promise that he’s soon to be tortured.  The German officer who’s placed him in it was, disturbingly, a psychiatrist in his pre-war civilian past.


Alone in the darkness, struggling to retain his sanity, “trapped without hope”, the artist relives parts of his life: his impoverished childhood, his adoption by a priest, his schooldays when he alternated between the influences of a sympathetic, rational-minded science teacher and a sadistic religious-education one, and his tragic relationship with a young woman.


It’s an uneven book.  I read it two years ago and can still remember the prison-camp scenes and the childhood ones vividly, although other parts of it have faded in my memory.  But overall, Free Fall had a considerable impact on me and it’s definitely an underrated novel in the Golding canon.


3.5 out of 5, I’d say.


(c) Faber Books


The Pyramid (1967)


The Pyramid is a trilogy of connected novellas concerning a young man – later, not-so-young – called Oliver and his relationship with the small market town in ‘middle England’ in which he grows up.  Its cover-blurb would have you believe that The Pyramid represents William Golding lightening up and attempting to write something funny.  And the central novella is funny, dealing with Oliver’s involvement in a production by the town’s amateur operatic society, organised by an outside professional producer who, it becomes clear, is utterly contemptuous of his small-town charges and is also a drunken reprobate.


But the first story, dealing with Oliver’s first love affair, is actually very troubling.  The way he ends up treating the object of his affections makes us wonder if the barbarism that soon surfaces on the island in Lord of the Flies is actually any further away from the teenaged characters here, in England.  Meanwhile, the final story has a sad, with-the-wisdom-of-hindsight flavour as Oliver looks back on the life of the eccentric and ostracised woman who taught him to play piano.  It ends with a savage twist that gives a new perspective to what has gone before.


I struggled with the first story in The Pyramid, but the second and third ones are very well-told.  For all its pastoral charm, incidentally, the town is portrayed as being rife both with social snobbery and with the curtain-twitching desire to know and gossip about everyone else’s business.  Actually, it doesn’t sound that much more hospitable an environment for Golding’s characters than the desert island in Lord of the Flies or the prehistoric forest in The Inheritors.


My verdict? Another 3.5 out of 5.


Darkness Visible (1979)


For me, Darkness Visible was where Golding lost the plot.  Literally lost it – for though there are tracts of memorable writing here, the plot is too bizarrely convoluted for it to be enjoyable.  We get a social misfit called Matty, grotesquely disfigured in his childhood thanks to a German bomb during the London Blitz, who grows up with possible supernatural powers, including the ability to converse with spirits; a pair of attractive but sociopathic twin girls called Sophie and Toni, whom we first see stoning a duckling to death as it swims past on a river; an episode dealing with Matty’s schooldays and his encounters with a paedophilic schoolmaster; a detour to Australia, where Matty almost gets castrated by an Aborigine; and a criminal plot, hatched by one of the twins, to kidnap the child of a wealthy oil sheik from the English boarding school where Matty has found work as a handyman.  Darkness Visible feels like Golding throwing his hands up in disgust at the 1970s, a decade of oil shortages, terrorism and general doom and gloom.  But the disgust he tries to express here comes out in too garbled a form.


2.5 out of 5 for this one.


(c) Faber Books


The Paper Men (1984)


For all its faults, I prefer Darkness Visible, which at least had some memorable sections, to The Paper Men, which isn’t memorable at all.  Indeed, The Paper Men is another example of why, for me, so much British literature sucked in the 1980s – because it’s about writers.  (The situation reached its nadir in 1984, when the Booker Prize managed to have on its six-book shortlist five books that had novelists, biographers, literary critics and literary lecturers as their main characters.)  Surely, if you’re a writer, nothing is more pointless, irrelevant and incestuous than writing about other writers?  Yes, they say you should write about what you know, but why write about something that’s of no interest to the 99.999% of the world’s population who aren’t writers?


Worse, The Paper Men is about an ageing writer called Wilfred Barclay being pursued by a single-minded academic who wants to get hold of his personal papers so that he can write Barclay’s biography.  This makes it a particularly up-its-own-arse variant on the above – a campus novel.  (In the 1980s you could hardly move for the number of campus novels around, penned by the likes of David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury and Howard Jacobson.)  The ruefully abrupt ending to The Paper Men sticks in my mind, but I can barely remember anything about the 190 pages that preceded it.


2 out of 5 (and I’m being generous).


The Double Tongue (1995)


After The Paper Men, I thought I’d read everything by William Golding.  But then I discovered that a final novel, The Double Tongue, had been published two years after his death in 1993.  I didn’t expect much of it, since what was published was a second draft – and if he’d lived a little longer, Golding would’ve done another draft before submitting it to his publisher.  Thus, as it stands, The Double Tongue is an unfinished version.


But I found the book surprisingly enjoyable.  The story of a girl called Arieka who becomes a priestess at the Oracle of Delphi on Greece’s Mount Parnassus, at a time when the Romans are flexing their muscles in the direction of the Ancient Greeks, it’s brisk, wry and melancholic.  It’s probably not quite what Golding had intended, and it’s not in the same league as something like Robert Graves’s classic 1934 novel I, Claudius (which also features an appearance by the Oracle of Delphi).  But The Double Tongue at least ends William Golding’s career on a positive note.


A solid 3 out of 5.


(c) Farrar, Straus and Giroux