Manly stuff

 

(c) Planet Stories

 

I’d heard the name of the American writer Manly Wade Wellman before.  He was, for instance, one of the people to whom Stephen King dedicated his non-fiction book Dance Macabre back in 1982.  But I was unfamiliar with his work until recently when I picked up a collection of his fantasy-horror fiction called Who Fears the Devil?, published by Planet Stories in 2010, 24 years after Wellman’s death.

 

The short stories in Who Fears the Devil? are set in the Appalachian Mountains, whose wilderness areas and remote human settlements are evoked by Wellman as vividly and convincingly as, say, the towns, woods and hills of New England that form a frequent backdrop to the tales of H.P. Lovecraft; or those neighbourly mid-western small towns, all porches and picket fences, that feature prominently in the work of Ray Bradbury.

 

Wellman, a prolific writer of pulp detective, science fiction, horror and western fiction who also spent his later decades teaching at the University of North Carolina, captures the stark grandeur of this environment – dizzying mountains, mysterious forests, secluded valleys, frothing brooks and tumultuous waterfalls.  He also nails the character of its human inhabitants, their innocence and good-naturedness conveyed in the cadences of their speech.  Practically every page of Wellman’s Appalachian stories seems to ring with unpretentious but pleasingly musical dialogue, his mountain characters trading such utterances as: “Do my possible best…”, “Won’t be no better singing and dancing the day these young ones marry up…”, “I’ve known men kill them themselves because she’d put her heart back in her pocket on them…”, “I’m right sorry…” and “I hear that somebody around here took a shot at my great-grandboy…”  (Admittedly, there isn’t much good-naturedness conveyed in that last utterance.)

 

Roaming these mountains, valleys and forests is Wellman’s most famous creation, Silver John, who earns a crust here and there as an itinerant singer and guitarist.  John, who made his first appearance in 1951 in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is no simple-minded hick.  Like many American men of his generation, he’s travelled – albeit in an unplanned manner, doing military service for Uncle Sam during World War II.  He’s also well-read and learned, able to discuss Freud and Sir James Hopkins Jeans’ The Mysterious Universe when the need arises.  And he’s similarly well-informed about the fields of folklore, superstition and the paranormal – which is just as well, because wherever he wanders, he seems to encounter trouble in the form of supernatural deities, mythical monsters and havoc-wreaking human dabblers in the occult.

 

Basically, Wellman’s Silver John stories are the adventures of a psychic investigator discovering, battling and defeating the forces of darkness, which come in different guises in each instalment.  In effect, the John stories are The X-Files without the FBI, the suits or the torturous alien / UFO conspiracy plot; or Scooby Doo without the meddling kids, the Scooby snacks or the Mystery Machine; but with hillbillies, dungarees and lots of Appalachian folk songs and balladry instead.

 

From talesofmytery.blogspot.com

 

There’s something supernatural about John himself, though.  For one thing, at the start of each story he usually finds himself performing a song that, spookily, prefigures or comments on the supernatural events that come later.  Thus, when he sings Little Black Train (a song popularised in real life by Woody Guthrie) early on in a story of the same name, it’s no surprise that an appearance is soon made by a phantom and, yes, death-dealing black train: “The little black train is rolling in / To call for you tonight…”

 

John’s nickname, incidentally, comes from the strings on his guitar, which are made of silver.  As supernatural creatures are known for not liking silver – silver bullets being the main way to kill a werewolf, for example – John is able on more than one occasion to ward off evil using his music.  Indeed, in the story O Ugly Bird! he resorts to using his silver-stringed guitar as a club and just clobbers the monster with it.

 

There’s a bewildering variety of strange and creepy things going on in these stories.  With its theme of unspeakable beings from other universes, One Other comes close to the science-fictional horrors of H.P. Lovecraft.  Meanwhile, Walk Like a Mountain deals with a giant who claims lineage from Biblical figures like Goliath and who’s also in the mould of John Henry, the superhuman railroad worker from 19th-century American folklore.  On cue, Silver John starts playing a John Henry folksong on his guitar: “The mountain was high, the sun was low / John laid down his hammer and died…”

 

Both Call Me from the Valley and Trill Coaster’s Burden feature old mountain customs and superstitions.  Call Me includes a ‘dumb supper’, which was a midnight ritual enacted by young women as a way of conjuring up the image of the person they were destined to marry.  And Trill is about ‘sin-eating’, which Silver John explains thus: “Somebody dies after a bad life, and a friend or paid person agrees that the sin will be his, not the dead one’s.  It’s still done here and there, far back off from towns and main roads.”

 

Nobody Ever Goes There, an account of a weird town divided in two by a river, where one half is populated and one half is deserted and where for some unspoken reason nobody from the populated half of town ever crosses the bridge to the unpopulated half, is worthy of an episode of The Twilight Zone.  Most outré of all, though, is The Desrick on Yandro, which charmingly postulates a whole ecosystem of undiscovered mythological creatures living on a remote North Carolina mountain: the Bammat, “something hairy-like, with big ears and a long wiggly nose and twisty white teeth sticking out of its mouth”, the Behinder, which can’t be described “for it’s always behind the man or woman it wants to grab,” the Skim which just “kites through the air” and the Culverin, “that can shoot pebbles with its mouth.”  Alas, once these fabulous beasties have done their turn in The Desrick on Yandro, they don’t reappear and aren’t mentioned again in Wellman’s stories.

 

Manly Wade Wellman’s writings about Silver John are richly imagined, utterly charming, hard to forget and unlike anything else I’ve read.  Actually, they’re so rich and peculiar that it’s difficult to digest more than one or two of them in one sitting.  It’s best to treat Who Fears the Devil? like a box of chocolates – not to be gorged on but to be dipped into occasionally, so that you have sufficient time to savour each of its treats.

 

Cramping their style

 

© Trebuchet Magazine

 

I’ve just finished reading Journey to the Centre of the Cramps, written by music journalist Dick Porter and dealing with the American rock band the Cramps, who blazed a sonic trail for three memorable decades from the mid-1970s to the late noughties.

 

The Cramps wore an awful lot of influences on their black-leather sleeves but somehow managed to meld those influences into a sound and style quite unlike anyone or anything else.  They took as inspiration classic 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, surf music, garage rock, the velocity and bad attitude of punk and the darkness and glamour (but not the pomposity) of goth.  The band’s heart and soul were guitarist Poison Ivy (Kirsty Wallace), who was responsible for their sometimes juddering, sometimes twangy, always captivating guitar sound and who wasn’t averse to posing for album-cover photos in high heels, fishnets, suspenders, shades, devil’s horns and body-hugging PVC; and her romantic and musical partner, the towering vocalist Lux Interior (Erik Purkhiser), whose sepulchral voice and ghoulish lyrics channelled a 1950s American childhood spent immersed in trashy horror, sci-fi and exploitation movies and gruesome sensationalist comics like Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt.

 

© The Medicine Label

 

Under Ivy and Lux’s supervision, the Cramps became a Frankenstein’s Monster fashioned out of pieces of Elvis, Ricky Nelson, Link Wray, Dick Dale, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Roger Corman, Russ Meyer, Ed Wood, the Marquis de Sade and the Addams Family; but this was no lumbering misshapen monster.  This was something cadaverously elegant and it rocked.

 

As usual, I came late to the party.  I didn’t get into the Cramps until the late 1980s, a dozen years after they’d started, thanks to my brother giving me a crackly cassette-tape recording of their 1983 compilation album Off the Bone.  (On the other side of the cassette was the 1988 Sugarcubes album Life’s Too Good.  Wow, those were the days.)  But at least by then I’d heard of the Cramps.  Indeed, the band had been credited with inventing their own musical genre, psychobilly.  And their alleged progeny, such raucous psychobilly combos as the Meteors, Guano Batz and King Kurt, with their greased quiffs, brothel creepers, tattoos and fondness for slapping a double bass, had lately been rampaging through the sweatier, dingier music venues of 1980s Britain.

 

As Porter’s book notes, the Cramps were certainly responsible for the term ‘psychobilly’ – because they’d made the word up and stuck it on a promotional flyer when they were trying to get themselves noticed in New York a decade earlier.  But they maintained a polite and slightly bemused distance from the musical scene they were supposed to have spawned.  Porter quotes Poison Ivy as saying, “I think our songs have a more sensuous tempo.  I’m not sure what exactly defines psychobilly but it seems to have taken on a life of its own.  But it’s not quite what we do.”  Porter himself observes that “whereas the Cramps drew on a smorgasbord of influences that included R&B and doo-wop, the psychobilly groups tended to eschew blues-based influences and splice rockabilly to a punk template that hadn’t existed back when the Cramps got started.”

 

© The AV Club

 

Anyway, as soon as I heard Off the Bone, I was hooked.  And I snapped up their releases in subsequent years – albums like Stay Sick (1990), Look Mom No Head (1991) and Flamejob (1994), which were choc-a-bloc with irresistible songs like Bikini Girls with Machine Guns, Creature from the Black Leather Lagoon, Journey to the Centre of a Girl, All Women are Bad, I Wanna Get in your Pants, Eyeball in my Martini, Bend Over I’ll Drive, Let’s Get F***ed Up and Naked Girl Falling Down the Stairs.  Even now, when I’m feeling a little down or stressed about something, I only have to listen to one of those songs, with Lux Interior singing his macabre, funny and innuendo-laden lyrics and Poison Ivy’s guitar buzzing or stuttering behind him, and after a minute I’ll feel right as rain again.

 

Take Naked Girl Falling Down the Stairs, for instance: “I fell in love at a terrible pace…  When someone gave her a shove down a staircase…”  I mean, how can anyone not love a song called Naked Girl Falling Down the Stairs?

 

I never saw them live, though, which is something I really regret now.

 

Porter’s book suffers from a problem typical of rock biographies.  It’s interesting while it describes how its subjects started life and struggled to establish themselves musically.  But then, once a certain level of success and fame has been reached, it becomes an inevitably less-interesting litany of record-deals, album releases, tours and line-up changes.  (Outside the creative nucleus of Ivy and Lux, the Cramps underwent a lot of line-up changes.  Among some 20 band-members over the years, only guitarists Bryan Gregory and Kid Congo Powers, bassists Candy Del Mar and Slim Chance and drummers Nick Knox and Harry Drumdini were around long enough to make much impression.)  Tellingly, it takes Porter about 200 pages to get to the end of the Cramps’ first decade; but then the remaining two decades of Cramps history are shoehorned into the book’s remaining fifty pages.

 

From The Roper Files – Word Press.com

 

One thing that reflects well on Porter is how he acknowledges the Cramps’ powers of musicianship.  He details the skill, attention to detail and hard graft that went into composing and recording their songs, which gives the lie to the perception of the band (popular among certain snooty British music critics) as a kitschy, campy and not-to-be-taken-seriously novelty act.  Ivy and Lux were extremely knowledgeable about their influences and extremely committed about what they did – and they put the work in.  Their finished songs might’ve made it look and sound easy, but this illusion of effortlessness was the result of high standards of talent and professionalism behind the scenes.

 

Inevitably, the book ends on a melancholy note, for in 2009 Lux Interior died suddenly and unexpectedly from a tear in his aortic wall.  Not only did his death deprive rock ‘n’ roll music of one of its most striking and amusing figures; but it also brought the curtain down both on his lifelong romantic and creative partnership with Poison Ivy and on the Cramps themselves.

 

That partnership and the band were of course one and the same thing.  As Poison Ivy remarked to the author in 2006, “That’s all the Cramps is – a folie à deux.”

 

© Omnibus Press

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: Gruene

 

 

I’d like to write more about my travels a while ago in the United States of America.  Mind you, that’s felt difficult to do since the events of last week.  It’s hard to summon the necessary enthusiasm and positivity when you’re aware that the USA, the place you’re writing about, has just elected to its helm someone with the grace, intellect and attractiveness of a shaved baboon that’s been dipped in a vat of orange paint.

 

Anyway, here goes.  Here are a few words about the little town of Gruene in Texas.

 

Founded beside the Guadalupe River by German settlers in the 1840s, its economy originally based on cotton, Gruene was lucky not to disappear from the map a century later.  By the 1950s, a series of misfortunes, including the loss of the town’s cotton gin in a fire, a cotton-destroying infestation by boll weevils and the construction nearby of a highway, had stripped Gruene of its trade, driven away its population and turned it into a ghost town.  Then, in the 1970s, its derelict but architecturally-precious, turn-of-the-century buildings came close to being flattened and replaced by condominiums.  Before that happened, however, an architecture student called Chip Kaufman stumbled across the former town during a kayaking trip.  Kaufman was so impressed by what he found there that he persuaded the developers to back off and the authorities to preserve Gruene as a site of historical importance.

 

Now restored and repopulated, and with a new economy powered by tourism, Gruene exists in the 21st century as a district within the city limits of New Braunfels.

 

 

What caused Chip Kaufman to stop his kayak, get out, go exploring and discover the abandoned Gruene was the sight of an old water tower jutting above some treetops at the riverside.  That water tower still dominates the townscape, its tank sporting a conical roof and with name GRUENE emblazoned across it for all to see.  It’s supported by four long slender legs and, like a skinny fifth leg, a vertical pipe descends to the ground from the middle of its rounded base.  Despite having two legs too many, the structure still resembles one of the Martian war machines in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.

 

Most of the buildings that the tower looks down on have painted or varnished wooded walls – the varnish baked dry in the sun, the paintwork gently scabbed or peeling – and corrugated-iron roofs.  I also saw a few buildings that were entirely made of iron, their walls as well as roofs a patchwork of corrugated metal sheets.  The iron usually showed a drizzle of dark red rust, which wasn’t displeasing to look at.

 

 

The most famous building in town is Gruene Hall, built in 1878 and one of the oldest dance halls in Texas.  According to its Wikipedia entry, it’s hosted gigs by “Willie Nelson, George Strait, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Lyle Lovett, Hal Ketchum, Gregg Allman and many more”.

 

 

The hall was smaller than I’d expected, consisting of a white-painted timber façade with a modest entrance and several narrow windows and, behind that, a long, low building under the inverted V of another rusting corrugated-iron roof.  The entrance takes you into a bar area that’s appropriately saloon-like, thanks to some wide-brimmed hats hanging on pegs, a counter fashioned out of wooden panels and scuffed planks and a sign announcing WELCOME COWBOYS.

 

 

Past this area is the dance-hall proper.  The acts perform on a stage at its far end, in front of a painted backdrop depicting some rustic Texan valley.  There are long, high gaps in its sidewalls, covered with chicken-wire, which allow you to view what’s happening outside while you sit at one of the tables and sup your beer.  And opposite the stage-end, a couple of big hatchways give audiences access to the serving area of the front bar.  Decorating the wall above the hatchways are a row of coloured electrical beer signs, glowing gorgeously in the hall’s shadowy interior: Budweiser, Coors, Shiner, Lone Star, Dos Equis and Heineken, their names etched in lines, curls and squiggles of fluorescent white, red, orange and green.

 

 

The rest of Gruene is a hodgepodge of souvenir shops, antiques stores, arts-and-crafts places and wine-tasting centres.  One shop I wandered into housed a glorious clutter of Americana – old automobile lamps, number plates and exhaust pipes, illuminated bar signs, beer signs and signs from gas-stands and gas pumps, framed pictures of Marilyn, Elvis and John Wayne.  I was less impressed, though, by the Texan God-bothering T-shirt hanging out on the porch.

 

 

Despite the crowds of visitors, I found Gruene a peaceful and beguiling place.  Particularly tranquil was the scene down by the Guadalupe River, where you can spend time in the shade of the trees, listening to the rustle of water and doing that hippie ‘communing with nature’ thing.  While I was there, I even spied three cyclists go past on the road.  I think during the whole of my time in car-crazy Texas, that was the only moment when I saw anyone attempting to ride a bicycle.

 

So all praise to Chip Kaufman for managing to convince the developers in the 1970s to leave Gruene alone and save it for the edification of future generations.  Though I suspect the outcome might’ve been less happy for the town if those forces of real estate had borne the name ‘Trump’.

 

 

Tartanising Trump

 

© BBC

 

Almost immediately after the news that Donald Trump had won the US presidency, I had a depressing thought – admittedly, one of many depressing thoughts.  How long would it be before the scribes of Scotland’s unionist media and the orators of its unionist political parties started using Trump’s victory as a weapon against the Scottish National Party, and against SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and against everyone who voted for Scottish independence when there was a referendum about it in 2014?

 

Answer: not long.  Writing recently in the Scottish Daily Mail, journalist Paul Sinclair – once an advisor to former Scottish Labour Party leader Johann Lamont, now a contributor to one of the most right-wing newspapers in Britain – compared Nicola Sturgeon to Hillary Clinton.  “The public don’t seem to like husband and wife – or indeed wife and husband – teams any more… Miss Sturgeon may turn out to be Scotland’s Hillary-plus – utterly defeated without the consolation of even Hillary’s plus points.”  Sinclair’s reasoning seems to be that Sturgeon is a woman, which is what Hillary Clinton is; and she’s married, which is also true of Hillary Clinton; and her husband is involved in politics like Hillary Clinton’s husband is (although Nicola’s hubby, the SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, is possibly a wee bit less in the public eye than Hillary’s one); so all that makes her a Scottish equivalent of Hillary Clinton, who has just lost an election and is a loser.

 

Therefore, Nicola = Loser.  Though the equation that the article suggests to me is Paul Sinclair = Tosser.  I’m not providing a link to the article, by the way, because it’s published by the Daily Mail and for me Daily Mail = Wankers.

 

A more popular narrative that’s surfaced among Scottish unionists over the past week, though, is one equating the independence movement not with Hillary Clinton, but with Donald Trump – and for that matter, with that previous example of extreme electoral nuttiness back in June, Britain voting for Brexit from the European Union.

 

The reliably and wilfully ignorant Scottish Labour commentator Ian Smart tweeted two days after the Trump victory that “it’s increasingly clear we resisted a worrying rising tide in September 2014.”  This was echoed in a tweet by Conservative Member of the Scottish Parliament Murdo Fraser: “If it was mostly poorly-educated working-class males who voted Trump, wasn’t it the same demographic that largely voted yes in 2014?”

 

Actually, I will digress for a moment about Murdo Fraser, who only last month declared on Twitter, “I’m British and I’m staying that way.”  I remember him as a fellow student during my college days at Aberdeen in the 1980s, where he was a member of the FCS, the Federation of Conservative Students.  The FCS were an organisation so obnoxiously right-wing that they embarrassed even Norman Tebbit, who was then Conservative Party Chairman and not much left of Vlad the Impaler in his own political beliefs; and he had them disbanded in 1986.  When Murdo and his FCS mates weren’t strutting around the campus waving the Union Jack, they were behaving like pillocks towards gay students, singing “Hang Nelson Mandela!” at discos whenever the DJ played the Special AKA anthem Free Nelson Mandela, and making nuisances of themselves in pubs yelling “F*** the Pope!”  But I guess that for Murdo, white, Protestant British nationalism is all good; whereas Scottish nationalism is unspeakably bad.

 

© The National

 

The same theme was reiterated in a slightly subtler form by Scottish Daily Mail journalist Chris Deerin, who wrote on November 12th: “Trump’s triumphed, Britain’s Brexiting, Le Pen’s close enough to being La Presidente…  The three most powerful words in politics are Take Back Control.  The world is engaged in one of its cyclical bouts of disaggregation, having bumped up against the reality, yet again, that our species is intractably tribal, pre-dominantly self-interested and, when it comes down to it, pretty psychologically basic…  why, in 2014, did Scotland buck the trend?  Put another way, what’s wrong (or right) with us…?  How the SNP’s leaders must curse their luck that they were forced to go first.”

 

Again, I’m not providing a link to Deerin’s article because it’s in the Daily Mail.  And again, Daily Mail = Wankers.

 

Well, this may be news to the likes of Ian Smart, Murdo Fraser and Chris Deerin, but in 2014 Donald Trump was on their side.  He wanted Scots to vote against independence, not for it, and after the result was announced in favour of ‘no’ he hailed it as “a great decision”.  The ‘no’ side also enjoyed the backing of UKIP’s Nigel Farage, who since Trump’s victory seems to have become the orange-skinned ogre’s new British best pal and appointed himself as unofficial go-between for Trump Tower and Downing Street.  Also backing a Scottish ‘no’ was British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who’s recently claimed that there’s “a lot to be positive about” Trump’s presidency and berated Europeans for whingeing about him.  All the right-wing newspapers who backed Brexit and are now warming to the prospect of a Trump presidency, such as the Daily Telegraph and that odious scum-sheet the Daily Express, were vociferous ‘no’ supporters as well.  As were the UK’s equivalents of the Trump-endorsing Ku Klux Klan, like the National Front, British National Party and English and Scottish Defence Leagues.

 

Thanks to the rejection of independence in 2014, Scotland is now locked inside a Brexiting and increasing xenophobic Britain that looks set to carve out a new international role for itself as a loathsome wee sidekick to the big-mouthed, ignorant, bigoted, misogynistic Trump.  Incidentally, those who wanted Scotland to become independent in 2014 were also keen to remove the nuclear submarines and their cargoes of Trident missiles from their home at Clyde Naval Base, 25 miles from the city of Glasgow, and expel them from the country.  But because of the ‘no’ vote, these weapons of mass destruction will be based in Scotland for the foreseeable future and from next year their usage will depend on the whims of a belligerent ignoramus in Washington.  (Only a British nationalist as deluded as Murdo Fraser would believe that Britain’s supposed nuclear deterrent is actually controlled from London.)

 

Voting ‘no’ in September 2014 was the equivalent of voting ‘leave’ in June 2016 and voting for Trump in November 2016.  And if you can’t see that, you need your head examined.

 

And just when you thought 2016 couldn’t get any worse…

 

© Columbia

 

I’ve just read in the news that the great Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen has passed away.  With Donald Trump newly elected to the White House, I suspect Cohen decided it was time to check out because the world had reached a point where it was even more depressing than one of his songs.

 

Cohen produced many tunes that were marvellous because of their very sadness.  Their melancholia was delicious.  No wonder his most recent album, released only last month, was called You Want It Darker – he knew what his audience expected of him.

 

I’m not a great fan of 1984’s Hallelujah (1984), perhaps his most famous song, which for me has just been covered (and X-Factored) to death.  But I love The Stranger Song, Winter Lady and Sisters of Mercy from his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), all of which featured on the soundtrack to Robert Altman’s classic western movie McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971).

 

© Warner Bros

 

Indeed, the beginning of McCabe and Mrs Miller where Warren Beatty and his horses plod across a bleak, windswept mountainside to reach the muddy, back-of-beyond frontier town that’s the setting for the film’s action, to the strains of The Stranger Song, is my all-time-favourite opening sequence in a western.  Though I have to admit that starting the film with a Leonard Cohen song gives the game away somewhat.  The moment Cohen starts singing, you just know there’s going to be an unhappy ending.  Warren Beatty is going to die.

 

Incidentally, the other day, I was watching Taika Waititi’s amusing comedy-drama Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) when, suddenly and unexpectedly, Cohen started playing on the soundtrack. This was during a bleak-looking sequence where Sam Neil and Julian Dennison struggle across some wintry New Zealand mountains.  Of course, this was an affectionate nod by Waititi towards McCabe and Mrs Miller, though the song played here wasn’t The Stranger Song.  It was The Partisan, a 1969 cover Cohen did of La Complainte du Partisan, written in 1943 by Emmanuel D’Astier de la Vigerie and Anna Marly.

 

© Defender Films / Piki Films / Curious

 

Two other Cohen songs I’m fond of that also have a strong cinematic connection are Waiting for a Miracle and The Future, both off the 1992 album The Future.  These book-end Oliver Stone’s ferocious 1994 movie about the American media’s adulation of two mass-murderers, Natural Born Killers.  The slow, gruffly-intoned and doom-laden Waiting for a Miracle plays at the film’s opening, which sees Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis arrive in a fly-ridden, redneck-infested diner in the New Mexico desert.  The song warns you that something horrible is about to happen.  And yes, since this is an Oliver Stone movie, something horrible soon does happen.

 

Played at the close of Natural Born KillersThe Future is a jauntier affair, but it contains the worrying refrain, “I’ve seen the future, brother – it is murder.”  Actually, I rather hope that Cohen has arranged for that to be played at his funeral service.  Then the joke really will be on us.

 

© Regency Enterprises / Warner Bros

 

Numpties and Trumpties

 

In my previous blog-entry, posted yesterday, I wondered if a majority of voters in the United States would be dumb enough to vote into power the environment-wrecking, Mexican-baiting, Muslim-hating, tax-avoiding, pussy-grabbing Donald Trump – just as a few months ago a majority of the British electorate stupidly chainsawed off their own noses to spite their faces by voting to leave the European Union.

 

Well, an emphatic answer to that question has just been delivered: yes.  Truly, 2016 will go down in the history books as the year when the Anglo-Saxon nations decided to commit political, economic and social hara-kiri.

 

So what do the next four years with President Donald Trump at the helm hold for the USA and for the rest of the world?  I suppose the best-case scenario is that the White House merely becomes an even crasser, more vulgar, more embarrassing and more grotesque version of this:

 

From www.theconversation.com

 

And as for the worst-case scenario?  Well, I guess that would probably be something like this:

 

© Lucasfilm Ltd / 20th Century Fox

 

Let’s just hope he keeps his stubby little fingers away from the controls of the Death Star.  Good luck, everybody.

 

Will the new moronism strike again?

 

From paxonbothhouses.blogspot.com

 

At one point in James Cameron’s masterly 1986 movie Aliens, an exasperated Sigourney Weaver demands, “Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away?”  As someone who’s been out of the United Kingdom for a while, I often find myself asking the same question.

 

I’ve asked it during the last four-and-a-half months especially.  That’s since June 23rd, when a narrow majority of the UK electorate voted for Brexit, i.e. leaving the European Union.

 

It’s well-documented that many Brexit supporters came from areas and social classes that feel most disfranchised in modern-day Britain and feel most distant from the country’s centres of political, economic and cultural power (which are invariably in London).  So they followed the advice of the likes of Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson and used the Brexit referendum as a means to raise a middle finger at the establishment.

 

Of course, there’s no way that Farage, Gove or Johnson could be described as members of the British establishment.  Oh no.  Not Nigel Farage, who was educated at Dulwich College and once worked as a commodity trader in the City of London; not Michael Gove, who was educated at Oxford University and served as a president of the Oxford Union and worked as a journalist with the Times and Spectator; and certainly not Boris Johnson, who was educated at Eton College and Oxford University and worked as a journalist with the Times, Spectator and Daily Telegraph.  Wot, establishment?  Not us, guvnor.

 

Often, the areas most strongly in favour of Brexit were the ones most economically dependent on the EU.  According to the Financial Times, East Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire sends a bigger proportion of its exports to the EU than anywhere else in Britain, yet in June 65% of its voters told the EU to go and get stuffed.  Similarly, many Brexit voters came from the poorer end of society, where food security is a constant worry.  With Britain having to import 40% of its food these days, and the pound weakening post-Brexit, and the likelihood of post-EU tariffs being added to many imports, the prices of things on the supermarket shelves can only rocket upwards.  So with Brexit likely to f**k up your local economy and f**k up your household budget, voting for it was probably, you know, stupid.

 

Still, I’m sure that such anti-establishment rebels as Nigel Farage (who’s worth about three million pounds according to www.the-net-worth.com) and Boris Johnson (who’s earned twice as much as the prime minister in the last two years according to the Daily Mail) will be sharing the pain with you.

 

From www.christopherfowler.co.uk

 

In another example of Brexit stupidity, Boris Johnson enthused at this year’s Conservative Party conference about Britain being a world leader in ‘soft’ power, i.e. diplomatic, cultural, economic and educational influence.  He spoke of “the vast and subtle and persuasive extension of British influence around the world that goes with having a language that was invented and perfected in this country, and now has more speakers than any other language on earth.”  He described the ‘gentle, kindly gunboats of British soft power’ going ‘up the creeks and inlets of every continent on earth’ captained by such British cultural icons as ‘Jeremy Clarkson’, ‘J.K. Rowling’ and ‘the BBC’.

 

Johnson got it wrong about English having the most speakers of any language – in 2015, 962 million people spoke English compared to the 1090 million who spoke Mandarin Chinese – but Britain has topped tables of countries ranked by their estimated soft power.  In July 2015, an article in the Economist cited as possible reasons for this Britain’s ‘chart-topping music albums’, the ‘foreign following of its football teams’, its universities ‘attracting vast numbers of foreign students’ and the country generally having a good ‘engagement’ with the world.

 

That was in 2015, mind you, a year before Brexit.  Now is it not just really, really, really stupid for Johnson to brag about Britain’s soft-power capacity when he’s championed the cause that’s f***ed that capacity up its arse?  The vote and the toxic shenanigans that followed – racists suddenly feeling entitled to verbally and physically assault foreigners on the streets, the obnoxious anti-European, anti-foreigner rhetoric displayed at the Tory Party conference – must have snookered Britain’s soft-power status.  No wonder that a fortnight ago it was reported that the number of European students applying to British universities has dropped by 9%.

 

Having soft power depends on people around the world liking and respecting you.  Brexit and its legacy have changed that for Britain, and not just in terms of how the rest of Europe views it – I can see attitudes changing too in southern Asia, where I live now.  Until very recently, Britain was regarded as being a bit starchy and old-fashioned, but cool – sort of like Colin Firth in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014).  Now Britain is regarded as an international village idiot, gibbering and self-harming in its hovel somewhere beyond the outskirts of Europe.

 

Of course, just now, anyone daring to question the wisdom of Brexit is labelled a traitor by Brexit-crazy British politicians and Brexit-crazy British newspapers (shit-sheets like the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Sun and the increasingly crass Daily Telegraph).  Doubters, prevaricators and sceptics are accused of unpatriotically talking the country down.  Concerned economists are dismissed as untrustworthy ‘experts’ – as Michael Gove said memorably, the British “have had enough of experts.”  Fie on you, traitorous experts, for having the temerity to know stuff!

 

Meanwhile, any critic of Brexit with cultural leanings is damned as a ‘left-wing luvvie’.  This label has even been attached to the former England football-team captain Gary Lineker, who recently tweeted his discomfort at post-Brexit Britain and the hostility of attitudes towards children from the ‘Calais Jungle’ migrant camp in France.

 

Generally, being slightly less-than-enthusiastic about Brexit marks you out as a member of the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ who voted to remain in the EU – a sneering minority accounting for a mere 48% of the votes cast.  That’s the derisive term used by Britain’s gloriously Brexiting Prime Minister Theresa May, who back in June had supported Britain remaining in the EU.

 

It feels like a new virus that turns people into morons is on the loose.  And it feels like Britain has succumbed to an epidemic of this new moronism.

 

From www.newscorpse.com

 

Alas, it seems that the same infection has taken hold in the United States too.  For today is when American voters go to the polls to elect the 45th president of the USA.  The choice ought to be simple.  They must decide between Hillary Clinton, an uninspiring, uncharismatic technocrat who carries too much political baggage for comfort, but who has plenty of government experience and who at least isn’t mad; and one Donald John Trump.

 

That’s the billionaire Donald Trump who’s suffered six bankruptcies (so far) in his hotel and casino businesses; who believes Mexicans to be rapists; who wants to ban Muslims from the USA; who’s endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan; who likes to grab women by the pussy; who dismisses climate change as a hoax; who’s flattened the environmentally-precious Balmedie Beach in Aberdeenshire in order to build a golf course that he promised would employ 6000 people (but by 2016 had employed only 200); who established an alleged educational institution that violated New York State law by calling itself a ‘university’; who managed to wangle his way out of paying taxes by claiming a loss of 916 million dollars in 1995; who’s hinted that gun-owners ought to shoot Clinton; who’s promised to lock Clinton up if he wins; who’s refused to accept the result if he loses; who has a man-crush on Vladimir Putin; who’s wondered aloud what the point is of having nuclear weapons if you can’t use them.

 

Donald Trump is a garrulous gob-shite, a bigoted bell-end, a maggoty skidmark on the boxer shorts of American politics.  Oh, and his suntan looks like radioactive slurry.  And his hairdo’s so hideous it may as well be the pubes of Satan.

 

Clinton or Trump?  It should be a no-brainer.  However, Trump is in with a shout of winning the presidency – a 35% probability according to polling supremo Nate Silver – which suggests that an awful lot of Americans have developed ‘no-brain syndrome’.

 

Will the new moronism that’s afflicted Britain strike again?  I guess this time tomorrow we’ll know.

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

The Saint is a dick

 

© Avon Publications

 

When it comes to Simon Templar, aka the Saint, the heroic crime-fighter created by author Leslie Charteris, most people of my mature vintage think of one man only.  Visualising Templar, who’s slightly on the wrong side of the law himself but who’s always on the right side of virtue, we see his immaculate leather shoes filled by the equally immaculate, if rather plastic Roger Moore.

 

For much of the 1960s, Moore played him in six series and 118 episodes of the TV series The Saint, which was then endlessly repeated on television during my childhood in the 1970s.  Moore didn’t always wear a tuxedo and bowtie when he essayed Templar, and he did occasionally have a hair out of place.  But Roger Moore in a tuxedo and bowtie without a hair out of place is certainly how the character looks in my imagination.

 

So closely is Moore associated with the role that it’s easy to forget that other actors played Templar before and after him.  Movies about the Saint were made as early as 1938, which saw the release of The Saint in New York starring Louis Hayward.  A glut of Saint films followed, with the character played most often – seven times – by the silken-voiced George Sanders.  He also appeared on the radio, most notably with Vincent Price filling the role in a show broadcast from 1947 to 1951.  Yes, those early adaptations of the Saint featured some sumptuous-sounding actors.  If Sanders was silken, Price’s tones were downright velvety.

 

Nine years after Roger Moore had quit as Templar, an attempt was made to revive the Saint on television with 1978’s Return of the Saint, starring Ian Ogilvy.  I like Ogilvy because he appeared in some old British horror movies I’m partial to, including The Sorcerers (1967), Witchfinder General (1968) – which also starred that old radio Saint, Vincent Price – and From Beyond the Grave (1973).  And I think it’s sweet that more recently Ogilvy has reinvented himself as a children’s author.  But the 1970s TV series was definitely a damp squib.  Also unsuccessful was a final 1997 film version, which had Val Kilmer in the title role.

 

 © Coronet Books

 

But enough about films, television and radio.  What of the fifty-odd books featuring Templar that appeared between 1928 and 1997 and were mainly written by Leslie Charteris?  (Later, there were collaborations, including one between Charteris and the science-fiction author Harry Harrison; and after Charteris’s death in 1993, two final books were written by other people.)  I’d never read any of those, so for me the print version of the Saint was an unknown quantity.

 

In 2013, many of the Saint books were republished by Mulholland Books and I recently discovered a batch of them on sale at one of my local bookshops.  Keen to sample the literary Simon Templar, I bought The Saint Meets his Match (1931) and the book that inspired the first-ever film version, The Saint in New York (1935).

 

The Saint Meets his Match does not begin well: “The big car had been sliding through the night like a great black slug with wide, flaming eyes that seared the road and carved a blazing tunnel of light through the darkness under the over-arching trees; and then the eyes were suddenly blinded, and the smooth pace of the slug grew slower and slower until it groped to a shadowy standstill under the hedge.”  I find it difficult to envision a slug sliding, or a slug with eyes flaming, or a tunnel of light being carved, or a car groping, or a standstill being shadowy.  And to get five such tortured similes in the first sentence of a book is a bit off-putting.  However, once Charteris’s prose calms down and the story gets going, what follows is quite engaging.

 

It sees Templar tangling with a crime gang dramatically known as the Angels of Doom.  Then he unexpectedly finds himself allied with the gang’s female mastermind, Jill Trelawney, who with her ‘tawny-golden’ eyes and ‘cornfield gold’ hair is as beautiful as she is clever and dangerous.  It transpires that Jill is really using the gang as a means to locate and get revenge on the men she believes were responsible for her father’s death – an Assistant Commissioner of Police who died in despondency and disgrace after being accused of leaking information about police operations to the criminal underworld.  Not only is she convinced that her father was framed and the culprits are still at large, but one of them is still operating high in the ranks of Scotland Yard.  When on page 81 she identifies the first of them and shoots him dead, it’s clear that she means business.

 

You don’t have to be a genius to figure out, early on, who the real villain / information-leaker is at Scotland Yard, but the story plays out pleasantly enough.  You get languid aristocratic baddies with names like ‘Lord Essenden’ being nefarious in their stately country houses.  And taking orders from them and doing their dirty work, you also get stereotypical old-school British hoodlums with names like ‘Pinky Budd’ and ‘Slinky Dyson’ who drop their aitches and say ‘what’ instead of ‘who’ or ‘which’.

 

Mind you, I suspect that even the most naïve and sheltered of Charteris’s 1930s readers, who might have believed Pinky and Slinky were realistic figures of gritty, cutting-edge crime fiction, would have found the events on page 157 hard to swallow.  Here, Templar and Jill are imperilled in a subterranean chamber under Lord Essenden’s mansion that’s rapidly filling with water: “The stream beside the wall had been four feet wide when he had first seen it.  Now it was twice that width, and there was a turbulent flurry in its dark waters…  And it rose with an appalling speed…”  Still, any book that threatens its heroes with death-by-drowning in a flooding underground chamber is okay by me.

 

What I did find problematic with the book is the fact that Templar seems a bit of a dick.  I don’t mean ‘dick’ as in ‘private dick’, i.e. a ‘private eye’.  I mean ‘dick’ as in ‘dickhead’, i.e. a ‘knob-end’, ‘arsehole’ and ‘tosser’.  Clearly in love with himself, he saunters through the book dispensing hopefully-witty insults and being irritatingly flippant.  No doubt Charteris intended him as a buccaneering, laughing-at-danger daredevil, but he just comes across the wrong way.  I know Roger Moore played him with a smug insouciance (which was also how he played James Bond later on), but I don’t remember him being as annoying as the literary Saint.

 

© ITC Entertainment Group / Peter Rodgers Organisation

 

One character who puts up with a lot of bullshit from Templar is the lugubrious policeman Inspector Claude Eustace Teal, who in the books is both his wary ally and his nemesis – Templar himself is regarded as a criminal and Teal would put the cuffs on him if he got the chance.  When they first cross paths here, Templar taunts him by calling him, “Claude Eustace old corpuscle” and demands, “Do you want a tip for the Two Thousand, or have you come to borrow money?”  Later, when Templar threatens him, “I shall throw you down the stairs and out into the street with such violence that you will bounce from here to Harrod’s,” you just wish that Teal would turn around and arrest his ass.

 

At least in The Saint in New York, Templar’s prattish-ness feels less of an issue.  Probably this is because he’s in a different milieu, one populated by a meaner breed of villains – Big Apple gangsters who, for example, will kidnap a child and have no qualms about killing her if their demands aren’t met.  With them, you can almost forgive Templar his facetiousness.  It takes a certain courage to take the piss out of someone who’ll shoot you in the face if they don’t appreciate the joke.

 

Structurally The Saint in New York isn’t that different from The Saint Meets his Match.  Again, there’s a theme of revenge, with Templar aligning himself with an American millionaire who wants to take out the scumbag gangsters who murdered his son.  Again, there’s mystery, about who the Mr Big figure pulling the strings of those gangsters really is.  And again, you’ll already have a good hunch about who that Mr Big figure is early on in the book.  It’s more downbeat, though, with a somewhat melancholy ending.  Let’s just say that this time the Saint doesn’t get the girl.

 

I found the books diverting and, even after eighty years, they stand up reasonably well.  That said, I’m in no rush to read another instalment of the Saint’s adventures.  I’ve spent enough time in Mr Simon Templar’s company to last me for a while, thank you.

 

From World Collectors Net