When your neighbourhood collapses

 

Late on the morning of May 18th I was at my Colombo workplace when I was telephoned by my partner, who was back in our apartment.  She said that in the mid-morning she’d heard a cacophony of sirens – police cars, ambulances and / or fire engines – on the street outside.  Then, soon after that, she’d received a call from our local electrician, who’d been in the apartment the day before to check an electrical fault in a couple of our wall-sockets.

 

The electrician’s reason for ringing today was nothing to do with the condition of those sockets.  He’d just heard a news-flash saying that a building in our neighbourhood had collapsed and he wanted to make sure we were okay.

 

Reports about what’d happened were already appearing on the Internet.  It turned out that part of a big banquet / party / wedding reception complex called the Excellency, which stands behind the Savoy Cinema on Galle Road, had caved in.  The building’s façade remained intact but its back half, where some new floors were being constructed on top of an existing section, had suddenly fallen like the proverbial house of cards.  Trapped in the rubble were both members of the Excellency’s staff who’d been in the completed bit at the bottom and builders who’d been working in the under-construction bit at the top.

 

Not only were the emergency services soon on the scene to begin rescue efforts, but members of the Sri Lankan army were drafted in too.  By bad luck, shortly after the disaster happened, it started raining heavily and Colombo endured what was probably its wettest day so far of 2017, which meant that the rubble and dust that the rescuers were working in must have turned into a quagmire.

 

By the day’s end we’d heard reports that 23 people had been pulled out of the debris and taken to hospital and one person had later died of their injuries.  The bodies of two more victims were to be recovered from the flattened building over the next few days.

 

 

I walked past the place the following evening.  The soldiers were still present – indeed, one off-duty group of them sat and gazed out forlornly at the rain from the back of a truck parked next to our apartment building.  The stretch of street at the front of the Excellency had been sealed off with big white-and-red traffic cones, though the police guards posted there were tolerant of pedestrians walking through the closed-off area so long as they kept walking and didn’t make nuisances of themselves.

 

Considering what’d happened, the Excellency’s façade showed surprisingly little sign of damage.  If you peered down the alleyway at its side, you could make out a piece of still-standing wall with a pile of rubble at its bottom and, hanging above it, a broken, twisted mess of roofing.  Meanwhile, the floor of the Excellency’s front lobby was slathered with dried muddy footprints left by rescue-workers going to and coming from the devastation at the rear.  And one of its front windows had disintegrated and covered the street below in pieces of blue-tinted glass – it looked like there’d been a snowfall and then a thaw and now there was a thick slush full of lumps of melting ice.  At first, I thought that window might have been smashed by the rescuers, wanting to get some bulky rescue equipment into and through the building; but then, seeing how all the broken glass was lying outside rather than inside, it occurred to me that the window had probably been knocked out by the shock-waves from the collapse.

 

 

The pavement in front of the entrance to the Savoy Cinema was cordoned off with ropes and the building was atypically dark and silent.  A sign in the door said simply: “We are closed today.”

 

To see the collapsed building itself, you had to go onto the bridge where Galle Road crosses the Kirillapone Canal.  From there, you could view a giant, crumpled hole among the row of buildings backing onto the canal.  Debris and rubble oozed like a semi-solid effluent down into the canal-water below.  The whole, sad sight was framed between the big green fronds of the trees that grow near the bridge.

 

 

Barely had the disaster occurred than journalists got wind of the fact that the building had received inadequate planning permission.  The owner had been authorised to build three storeys by the canal – but at the time of the collapse the structure was five storeys high and the intention was to finally raise it to seven.

 

Initially, we’d heard rumours that the Excellency’s owner – whom, understandably, the police were keen to speak to – was ‘out of the country’.  However, on May 21st, news came through that he’d been arrested.

 

And without wishing to prejudice any upcoming trial, I can only say to that: “Good.”

 

 

RIP, Sir Roger

 

© Eon Productions

 

I feel slightly hypocritical to be paying tribute to Sir Roger Moore, the movie star and the third and longest-serving of the cinema’s James Bonds, who passed away yesterday at the age of 89.

 

As a serious Bond aficionado, especially regarding the original novels written by Ian Fleming, I was generally not impressed by the Bond movies Sir Roger made between 1974 and 1985, nor by the easy-going way that he inhabited the role.  And during the five years this blog has been in existence I was frequently unkind to him, making cruel puns about ‘Roger Mortis’ and the Bond movies getting ‘Rogered’ in the 1970s and 1980s, and dismissing his acting ability with ungentlemanly comparisons to planks and floorboards and blocks of wood.  Once, I even sniped that the makers of Guardians of the Galaxy (2015) should have hired him to play Groot the sentient alien tree rather than Vin Diesel.

 

However, two years ago, in a fit of remorse at my un-Rogerly ways, I posted a piece detailing all the admirable things about the venerable actor.  I mentioned how his third Bond movie, 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, was actually really good.  I pointed out that he was surprisingly effective as a rich, smug businessman going to pieces while a mysterious, malign and unseen doppelganger invades and takes over his life in the creepy psychological horror film The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970).  I also enthused about his 1971-72 TV series The Persuaders.  To be honest, the show itself wasn’t much cop but the theme music, composed by John Barry, made for the best TV theme tune ever.

 

And I highlighted the amount of humanitarian work he’d done as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, since 1991.  And he didn’t just express good will towards humans – he’d “also been involved in the campaign by PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, against the gruesome processes used in the making of foie gras and he helped to persuade the department store Selfridges to stop stocking the stuff.”

 

© The Independent

 

One thing mentioned in Sir Roger’s obituaries that I hadn’t known about was his loathing of fox hunting.  Despite the languidly aristocratic air he had both as Bond and as his real-life self, he slammed the brutal upper-class pastime with the declaration: “Sport hunting is a sickness, a perversion and a danger and should be recognised as such.  People who get their amusement from hunting and killing a defenceless animal can only be suffering from a mental disorder.  In a world with boundless opportunities for amusement, it’s detestable that anyone would choose to get their kicks from killing others who ask for nothing from life but the chance to remain alive.”

 

To be honest, if I hadn’t been obsessed with the Bond books and hadn’t formed some strong opinions about how Bond should be portrayed on screen, and if I’d come across Moore’s Bond movies at a younger age – I didn’t see any of them until I was a sullen teen of 14 or 15 years old – I probably would have really enjoyed them: all that funny, silly but exciting stuff with Jaws, Nick-Nack and Sheriff Pepper, all those laser-gun battles in outer space and gondoliers that turn into speedboats and alligators that can be used as stepping stones when you’re making your escape from Mr Big’s henchmen.  (Indeed, Daniel Craig did something similar with Komodo dragons in 2012’s Skyfall.)  As it turned out, millions of other filmgoers, less severe in their tastes than I was, really did enjoy them – and as I’ve admitted elsewhere on this blog, the Bond franchise was fantastically lucrative when Sir Roger played its title character.

 

I often wondered why the Bond producers cast Roger Moore in the first place.  But recently I read a book called James Bond: The Man and his World by Henry Chancellor, which observes that Moore was first suggested for the role by the Supreme Being in the Bond-verse, Ian Fleming himself.  According to Chancellor, in the early 1960s when the first of the Bond movies was on the drawing board – and before co-producer Harry Saltzman got his way and cast Sean Connery in the role – Fleming “initially suggested his friend David Niven.  When it was pointed out that Niven was too old he suggested the young Roger Moore, who was starring as The Saint on television.”  Ironically, both of Fleming’s suggestions would eventually get to play Bond, for Niven turned up as 007 in the ‘rogue’ 1967 production of Casino Royale, a swinging-sixties would-be comedy so dire and unfunny that it makes even the worst of Roger Moore’s Bond films look like masterpieces.

 

Expect open season on Jeremy Corbyn

 

© The Independent

 

In my previous blog-post I said going to a music concert was a way of enjoying culture “in one of its most egalitarian, communal and spontaneous forms.”  This makes Monday night’s bomb attack by an evil psychopath on a concert in Manchester seem especially heinous.  Mind you, it was made even worse by the fact that the bomber had targeted an event that would clearly be attended by many youngsters.

 

Afterwards, social media was dominated by reactions to the bombing, some of which rekindled your faith in human goodness – the way the city of Manchester came together, for example, to help those left injured or stranded by the attack – and some of which had the opposite effect.  Witness hatred-vomiters like Katie Hopkins, who tweeted a demand for a ‘final solution’; or Daily Telegraph hack Allison Pearson, who raved that thousands should be put in ‘internment camps’.  (If we’re going to intern potential trouble-makers, why not start by interning people who call for politicians to be decapitated, as Pearson’s headline-writers did for a Telegraph piece she wrote about Nicola Sturgeon not so long ago.)

 

Talking of newspapers, I have a queasy feeling that once campaigning for next month’s general election resumes – it’s currently suspended as a mark of respect for the Manchester bombing’s victims – there will be an awful lot of shit flung at Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn by the country’s many right-wing newspapers: the Telegraph, Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express and so on.  Against all expectations, Corbyn has enjoyed a decent election campaign so far.  Okay, he hasn’t been that more effective than his usual somnolent self, but his party has proposed some policies that seem to chime with the public mood and at least he’s been visible on the campaign trail, which is more than can be said for his opposite number, Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister Theresa May.  So far, she’s been woeful.  Her strategy this election seems to be to hide from the public, hide from journalists and hide from any questions that might involve even a modicum of spontaneous thought.  She’s hopelessly unable to think on her feet and on the rare occasions that a journalist who isn’t afraid to ask awkward questions gets near her – as Andrew Neil did in a BBC interview a few evenings ago – the results are cringeworthy.

 

In fact, throughout the campaign, the lead May has enjoyed over Corbyn, once vast and seemingly impregnable, has gradually shrunk.  The way things were going, I’d still have expected her to win; but Corbyn looked capable of polling more votes than Ed Miliband did in 2015 and May was no longer guaranteed the massive majority in the House of Commons that she assumed she’d get when she called the election in the first place.

 

What I expect will happen now, though, is that the majority of Britain’s newspapers, which are owned by various right-wing millionaire and billionaire moguls like Rupert Murdoch, Richard Desmond, Lord Rothermere and the Barclay Brothers and which have been rattled by the fact that their heroine Theresa hasn’t been performing as well as they’d expected, will exploit the Manchester bombing and hammer home the message that JEREMY… CORBYN… IS… SOFT… ON… TERRORISM!  They’ll go beyond that, in fact.  They’ll relentlessly smear him as a terrorist sympathiser and imply that anyone who votes for him is betraying the memory of those killed in Manchester.

 

Corbyn’s supposed weakness for terrorism comes from the fact, as a left-wing backbench MP in the 1980s, he supported the principle of a united Ireland and had dealings with the IRA.  Now a couple of decades ago, when the Northern Irish Troubles were at their worst, I was deeply irritated by the fact that for many left-wingers it was trendy to express solidarity with the IRA.  I say that as a Northern Irish Protestant who, among other things, briefly attended school with the boy who was killed when the IRA blew up Lord Mountbatten in 1978.  But Corbyn wasn’t the only British politician hobnobbing with the IRA back then.  The governments of Conservative Prime Ministers Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major spoke to them too, albeit surreptitiously.  So did the 1970s Labour government of Harold Wilson.

 

And even the most hard-line Northern Irish Protestant politician of the era, who spent decades bellowing, “NO SURRENDER TO THE IRA!”, ended up talking to, working with and from all accounts getting along rather well with one member of the organisation, at least.

 

© BBC

 

Meanwhile, post-Manchester, Theresa May will no doubt be portrayed by the press as an unflinching, Churchillian bulwark against the evils and dangers of terrorism.  But actually, back in March, she threatened our European allies that intelligence on terrorism could be withheld if Britain didn’t get its way in the forthcoming talks about Brexit.  (Murdoch’s Sun reported this with the jeering front-page headline YOUR MONEY OR YOUR LIVES.)  Yes, that was Teresa May making a veiled threat that Britain might put other Europeans at risk from terrorism if Brexit didn’t go swimmingly.  However, because of the way the newspapers are in contemporary Britain, I bet you won’t hear many journalists mention that between now and election day.

 

Edinburgh has fallen

 

From you.38degrees.org.uk

 

It was announced back in 2013 that the Picturehouse on Lothian Road, the main venue for rock and pop gigs in central Edinburgh, had been bought by big, bland, corporate pub-chain J.D. Wetherspoon and would be transformed into another of Wetherspoon’s big, bland, corporate pubs.  At the time, I lamented on this blog about how Edinburgh’s powers-that-be seemed hellbent on destroying any spaces where music fans could congregate and hear music played in its proper form, i.e. live.

 

I compared the situation in 2013 with how it’d been in the 1990s, when I’d lived in Edinburgh for a wee while: when you could go to gigs at The Venue at 17 Calton Road, “which started trading as The Jailhouse in the early 1980s and spent the next quarter-century hosting bands big and small” but which closed its doors in the mid-noughties; the Cas Rock on West Port, “now a bland glass building that houses, among other things, a Sainsbury supermarket”; and punk-loving pub the Tap O’Lauriston just up the road from the Cas Rock on Lauriston Place, “which was demolished to make way for a Novotel.”

 

Alas, the slaughter of Edinburgh’s gigging spots has shown no sign of abating since Wetherspoon banished live music from the Picturehouse.  The news broke at the end of last year that the nightclub, cabaret and music venue Electric Circus on Market Street is due to be taken over by the adjacent Fruitmarket Gallery, which plans to use the premises to “greatly improve and expand” its exhibition area and boost its “café, library and bookshop.”  It’s depressing to see culture in one of its most egalitarian, communal and spontaneous forms – being in the same room as some musicians giving it their all and sharing the experience with a like-minded crowd – being displaced like this in favour of culture in a far more elitist, moneyed and rarefied form.  (If you’ve ever had a nosey around the Fruitmarket Gallery’s existing bookshop and taken in the topics and prices of the books on sale, you’ll know what I mean.  It’s provides art for the few rather than the many, which is the opposite of the service provided by a good live-music place.)

 

© The Skinny

 

Also due to close – sometime this month in fact – is the Citrus Club on Grindlay Street, whose description on Google Reviews as a “no frills, black-walled dance club and live music venue with an emphasis on indie and retro sounds” chimes with my fond memories of it.

 

Now comes the news that the owners of Studio 24 on Calton Road, which functioned as a nightclub offering ‘eclectic’ (i.e. non-mainstream) music and occasional gigs, have decided to sell up following a long war of attrition waged by local residents complaining about noise levels and the city council imposing expensive soundproofing regulations.  In a statement, they said: “We’re gutted we’ve had to come to this decision, but with years of investing thousands upon thousands in soundproofing and legal fees in order to stay open, alongside complaining neighbours and harsh council-enforced sound restrictions, we feel these problems won’t leave us, with more complaints recently received and no real support from licensing standards officers, therefore threatening our ability to stay open.”

 

What’s particularly annoying is the fact that Studio 24, while admittedly not contained in the most gorgeous building in Edinburgh, was on the site before the soulless glass-and-concrete apartment buildings that’ve sprouted up around it.  The inhabitants of these complain about the noise from the Studio, which begs the question: if you want to live in brand new yuppie apartment with zero noise levels, why move into one that’s been built on a street next to a long-established and much-loved music club?  Shouldn’t you move into one instead that’s been built on a street next to a crematorium?

 

Given that Calton Road would probably be noisy even if Studio 24 wasn’t there – thanks to the trains entering and exiting nearby Waverley Station – I wonder if the noise complaints were a smokescreen for the real gripe, which was that the venue was luring so-called undesirables into the neighbourhood, lowering its tone and lowering potential property prices.

 

I’m depressed to see Studio 24 go because for a decade from the late 1990s, when I lived in Edinburgh, to the late noughties, when I’d still visit the city for a night out, I’d go there if it was hosting a heavy-metal or goth night.  I have to confess, though, that when I last went to a Studio 24 heavy-metal night, the guy at the desk clocked my time-worn features and asked politely if I didn’t want to check out the 1970s rock-nostalgia night being held upstairs instead.

 

Anyway, Edinburgh is now in the seriously embarrassing position of being the capital city of Scotland yet hardly having a decent music venue to its name.  It’s ridiculous that a city that makes such a hoo-ha about being the world’s cultural capital when the Festival and Fringe and a zillion well-heeled tourists set up camp there every August is, for the rest of the year, as musically bereft and barren as one of Simon Cowell’s armpits.

 

So music lovers of Edinburgh, heed my advice.  Your once-proud city has fallen – into the hands of a bunch of suits, nimbies and money-chasing ghouls whose iPods are no doubt crammed with James Blunt and Coldplay songs and whose idea of musical edginess is probably to tuck into a salad in the Hard Rock Café while a paunchy, balding cover band play Hotel California in the corner.  There’s only one thing you can do now.  Pack your bags.  And move to Glasgow.

 

But before you start packing, sign this petition to save Studio 24 on the off-chance it might work.

 

The sound of Soundgarden

 

From trashhits.com

 

Bloody hell.  It’s common knowledge that rock stars suffer from a high mortality rate.  Though superficially glamorous, their lifestyle is an emotionally bruising and dangerously hedonistic one.  But if you made your name as a rock star thanks to the grunge movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which was centred on Seattle and briefly made contemporary music feel thrilling again, it seems your life expectancy is short even by the short standards of rock stars generally.

 

I say this after hearing the sad news about the death of Chris Cornell, singer with the mighty grunge band Soundgarden, three days ago.  This means that not only the frontman of Soundgarden, but also those of Nirvana (Kurt Cobain), Alice in Chains (Layne Staley) and the Stone Temple Pilots (Scott Weiland) are now pushing up the proverbial daisies.  In fact, there can’t be many of those iconic grunge frontmen left now.  There’s just Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and the Screaming Trees’ Mark Lannegan.  Oh, and that bloke from Mudhoney.

 

For many years, a debate has raged in heavy metal circles about whether or not grunge music should be seen as a branch of heavy metal – indeed, broadcaster Sam Dunn devoted a whole episode of his TV documentary series Metal Evolution to the question and never quite reached a satisfactory answer.  However, Soundgarden were definitely the most metal of the grunge bands, initially at least.  While I was living in London in 1992, I went to see them play at the Town and Country Club (now the O2 Forum) in Kentish Town, where they were supported by the sludge / groove metal band Corrosion of Conformity.  Shortly before Soundgarden came on, a couple of technicians were on stage performing some last-minute soundchecks and the sledgehammering bass-sound that suddenly reverberated across the floor prompted one of the guys I was with to exclaim: “Christ!  I can feel that going right up my balls!”  Soundgarden duly took the stage.  The ensuing gig was as noise-some as the soundcheck had promised and sent many more vibrations through the audience’s trousers.  Afterwards, I felt like my testicles had well and truly trembled.

 

Two years later, Soundgarden released their finest album Superunknown, which showed they had more strings to their bow than simply being heavy and grungy.  It contained such great songs as the jaunty Spoonman and the irresistibly anthemic Black Hole Sun, whose lyrics (“Black hole sun…  Won’t you come… And wash away the rain?”) became so ingrained on a generation’s consciousness that nowadays sad middle-aged men with terrible singing voices sing them in the shower when they think nobody is listening.  (I should know.  I’m one of them.)  So compelling was Black Hole Sun that it was later covered by artists as diverse as Peter Frampton, Paul Anka, Anastacia and, inevitably, Weird Al Yankovic.  Soundgarden’s next album, Down on the Upside (1996), was less enthusiastically received but it did have the whoozy, trippy and strangely Lennon-esque number Blow up the Outside World.

 

After Soundgarden split in 1997 – they would reform in 2009 – Cornell’s most notable project was Audioslave, the group he formed with three former members of Rage Against the Machine (Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk).  Audioslave never quite reached the heights of either Soundgarden or Rage Against the Machine, though the song Conchise off their eponymously named debut album in 2002 is pretty epic.

 

And in 2006, as a solo artist, Cornell got to sing the theme song You Know My Name for that year’s Bond movie Casino Royale.  Cornell’s song didn’t altogether work as a Bond one, though he was a brave and worthy choice for a movie that took some brave and worthy risks overall – casting a new actor, Daniel Craig, in the role of Bond and also rebooting the entire franchise.  And whatever the song’s shortcomings, Cornell was still a thousand times better than Sam f**king Smith.

 

© Spin Magazine

 

Glasgow boys

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

The loose confederation of late 19th century artists known as the Glasgow Boys was just one aspect of Glaswegian culture that didn’t get a look-in when Scotland’s largest city was made European City of Culture for 1990.

 

Writing about the event 22 years later in his controversial essay Settlers and Colonists (2012), the Glaswegian writer and artist Alasdair Gray castigated the city’s councillors and their City of Culture managers for ignoring the Glasgow Boys and for also ignoring local theatrical writers, producers and performers like Archie Hind, Peter McDougall, John Byrne, David Hayman and Billy Connolly:  “…these transient administrators knew or cared nothing for these local achievements and were employed by equally ignorant or careless town councillors.  To both sorts the city’s past was mainly rumours of gang violence and radical Socialism, both of which should be forgotten.  New Labour wanted the City of Culture to attract foreign tourists and investors, so performances and shows were brought from outside Scotland.  Hardly anything Glaswegian was presented in Glasgow’s Year of Culture.”

 

Shortly before Gray penned Settlers and Colonists, the Glasgow Boys at least received a permanent showcase in the city where their circle had come into being.  In 2011, a permanent room dedicated to them and displaying more than 60 of their paintings was established at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.  This came in the wake of a hugely successful exhibition called Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880-1900 held at Kelvingrove and at London’s Royal Academy in 2010, which, incidentally, was the first exhibition devoted to them for more than 40 years.

 

According to a BBC news article written in 2011, the Glasgow Boys consisted of 23 artists, although their Wikipedia entry lists only 22 names.  (Who was that unlucky, unnamed 23rd Glasgow Boy, I wonder?)  In their paintings, they were motivated by a desire for realism and naturalism, for depicting what they really saw in the world around them – being stylised in terms of lighting, colour and symbolism if necessary, but without being formulaic.  This put them at loggerheads with the Scottish art establishment of the time, centred around Glasgow’s age-old rival, Edinburgh.  At the same time, their influences extended far beyond Scotland’s borders.  These included the Dutch impressionists, French realists and the general late 19th-century fad for all things Oriental.

 

At the end of last year, I got a chance to explore the Glasgow Boys Gallery at Kelvingrove.  Here are what I thought were its highlights.

 

Sir William Guthrie painted Old Willie – The Village Worthy (1886) featured at the top of this entry.  This practically acts as a manifesto for the Glasgow Boys, for instead of creating a flattering portraiture of somebody against a lush, comfortable background, Guthrie simply paints an old fellow in his everyday clothes against a common whitewashed wall and makes no effort to disguise or soften the weather-beaten aspect of his features.  Guthrie was also responsible for A Highland Funeral.  Depicting a group of black-clad mourners gathered around the doorway of the deceased, it’s about as bleak and Calvinistic a work as you can find in Scottish art.  Born in Greenock, Guthrie was the son of an evangelical church minister, so he probably knew this world well.

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

William Kennedy led a geographically varied life, spending time in the Scottish towns of Paisley and Stirling, in Paris, in Berkshire in England, and finally in Tangier.  Whilst living in Stirling he painted Stirling Station (1887-88), capturing the place in a dreamy purple twilight (which probably doesn’t come out very well in the illustration I’ve provided below).

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

Moving to more exotic subjects, George Henry’s Japanese Lady with a Fan (1894) is one of many works by this Ayrshire-born painter to have a Japanese theme.  Indeed, Henry and his friend and fellow Glasgow Boy Edward Atkinson (E.A.) Hornel spent a year-and-a-half in Japan in the early 1890s.

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

Also in Kelvingrove is the mystical painting The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe (1890), which I’ve seen attributed to George Henry with Hornel cited as an influence, but also seen described as a collaboration between Henry and Hornel.  If memory serves me correctly, this wasn’t actually on display in the Glasgow Boys Gallery when I was there.  Rather, it’d been squirrelled down to the basement where there was a temporary exhibition in progress, Alphonse Mucha – In Quest of Beauty.  The exhibition not only covered Mucha’s work but also looked at that of his contemporaries and possible influences, and I suppose there is something Mucha-esque about The Druids, in its content if not so much in its execution.

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

Born in Australia but brought up in Kirkcudbright, E.A. Hornel himself is the painter of the decorous and languid The Coming of Spring (1899).

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

I have to say The Coming of Spring is a contrast to another Hornel painting on display, The Brownie of Blednoch (1889), which was inspired by a poem written by William Nicholson in 1825.  The brownie of the title is a fearsome thing with grey-brown skin, Spock ears, a black, crooked mouth like one on an unlit Halloween lantern, eyes that resemble poached eggs and a beard that’s as long, swirling and tentacled as an octopus. But the sheep in the rocky landscape behind it seem strangely untroubled by its presence.

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

Lady killers

 

© Oscilloscope Laboratories

 

Last week, on two consecutive nights, I watched two recent black-comedy / horror movies about lady killers.  Note that I’m not using the term ‘lady killer’ in its idiomatic sense, meaning a handsome chap who has a winning and seductive way with the opposite sex; nor in one of its literal senses, meaning a murderer who specialises in killing women (which, unfortunately, is a premise of too many horror films – the killer is a crazy bloke with a mask and a machete and the victims are nubile, scantily-clad females.)

 

No, here, ‘lady killer’ means a lady.  Who kills.

 

The movies I saw were The Love Witch, which first surfaced in the UK at last year’s Edinburgh Film Festival; and Prevenge, which was released in the UK a few weeks ago.

 

The Love Witch is set in California, in the picturesque town of Arcata on the northern Californian coast.  (My better half, who’s Californian and who adored The Love Witch, pointed out that early on we see someone driving south from San Francisco to Arcata when they should be driving north.  But having them drive south means it’s easier to fit in pretty backdrops of the Pacific Ocean.)  And the film could only be set in California, because its cocktail of Age-of-Aquarius occult mysticism and permissive-era free love feels very West Coast.

 

Newly settled in Arcata is a young woman called Elaine, the titular witch, who declares that, “What I’m interested in is love.  You might say I’m addicted to love.”  And she wastes no time in searching for love in the form of a hunky ideal man.  Her musings on the subject suggest she’s read far too many Mills-and-Boon romances.  For instance: “What do men want?  Just a pretty girl to take care of them”; or “…men are very fragile.  They can get crushed down if you assert yourself too much”; or “Giving men sex is just a way of unlocking their love potential.”  No wonder one of Elaine’s female acquaintances retorts, “You sound as if you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy.”

 

To the men who encounter her, the gorgeous, saucy and happy-to-fall-into-bed Elaine seems almost too good to be true.  And as the saying goes, if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is.  Elaine gets through her men as single-mindedly as James Bond working his way through a bevy of Bond girls, seducing them, enjoying them and finally dumping them.  Though each time the dumping is a necessity because, invariably, the men wind up dead.

 

For most of the movie it’s questionable whether Elaine – who’s been using magic spells and potions to ensnare her men, though at no point is it made explicit that her magic really works – would be convicted of murder in a court of law.  The victims become neurotic and suffer heart attacks or commit suicide.  Is this Elaine’s doing?  Did she destroy their constitutions by ladling on the love-magic too strongly?  Or did she just trigger a physical / mental weakness that was already there?  That said, encouraging one poor dude to gulp down an eye-watering love potion probably doesn’t help.

 

© Oscilloscope Laboratories

 

The Love Witch isn’t perfect.  At two hours, it goes on a bit and it could probably have made the same points about sexual politics in 90 or 100 minutes.  Actress Samantha Robinson is excellent as the simultaneously giddy and sociopathic Elaine, but being in the character’s presence for so long gets a tad exhausting.

 

Nonetheless I recommend The Love Witch highly, not only for its sinisterly funny script and perfectly-pitched performances, but also for its look and style, all of which were masterminded by Anne Biller, its director, writer, producer, editor, set designer, costume designer and musical supervisor.  I haven’t seen such a lovely-looking horror movie since the days of the Italian maestro Mario BavaThe Love Witch treats us to a sumptuous palette: lavender wallpapers, scarlet upholstery, blue-purple-yellow stained glass, golden flames, crimson candles and – surely the must-have accessory for witches this season – a fetching red-and-black-fringed magic-circle rug.  Elaine herself first appears in a cherry-red sports car with matching frock, lipstick, nail varnish and suitcases, the red offset only by the soft blue crescents of her eye-shadow.  Everything is shot with a warm mellowness that recalls both the silly, psychedelic sixties and the goofy, glam-y seventies.

 

Certain scenes evoke periods further back in time.  Elaine frequents a pink-decorated Victorian tearoom where giant flower-laden hats are the thing to be seen in, the waitresses dress as maidservants and music is supplied by an Edward Burne Jones-style nymph with a harp.  And there’s a sequence where Elaine and her latest beau attend a medieval pageant staged by the local coven of witches and warlocks (who, it must be said, are generally less barmy than she is).  This features candy-stripe tents, scarlet-clad minstrels and jesters, ladies in virginally-white gowns and an equally white unicorn.  It harks back to the happy dayglo colours of old, medieval-set Hollywood kids’ movies like Jack the Giant Killer (1962).

 

© Kaleidoscope

 

The Love Witch fashions its surreal world out of such cultural flotsam and jetsam as old horror and fantasy movies, pulpy romantic fiction, hippy-dippy New Age tracts and cod pre-Raphaelite art, none of which bore much resemblance to reality in the first place.  In contrast, the world that Prevenge is set in is real, grim and very British.

 

It’s a place of soulless Travelodge-type hotel rooms, concrete underpasses and pedestrian bridges, hellhole Saturday-night city centres full of boozed-up louts and crap pubs trying to lure in punters with 1970s-theme nights.  But somehow, it’s streaked with a weird unreality too.  It’s a fitting if unhealthy environment for Ruth, played by Alice Lowe (also the film’s director and screenwriter).  She’s a lonely and depressed woman in the late stages of pregnancy who may be – probably is – going out of her mind.

 

Ruth had found a man, fallen in love and conceived a child with him…  But then things stopped going according to plan.  The man has died in an accident and now, seven months pregnant, she’s on her own.  But not wholly on her own because Ruth can hear the unborn child speaking to her – in a horrid, throaty voice that suggests she has a little Gollum gestating inside her.  And the advice it gives her is pretty one-note.  It’s ordering her to kill, and kill again.

 

At first it seems that the bloodthirsty foetus is inducing Ruth to kill randomly, but later we realise that the victims are loosely implicated in the death of its father / her partner.  Coincidentally, many of them are so anti-children and anti-family in their attitudes – a work-obsessed and self-isolating businesswoman, a shag-happy but commitment-fearing lothario, a sporty suburbanite who refuses to give money to children’s charities – that Ruth almost seems like a crazed vigilante acting on behalf of downtrodden and unappreciated mums-to-be everywhere.  Between the bloodletting, meanwhile, she keeps her appointments with a cheerful midwife (played by the excellent Jo Hartley) whose platitudes like “Baby knows what to do” unwittingly prolong Ruth’s killing spree.

 

Prevenge is Lowe’s first outing as a director – previously, she’d starred in and co-written the 2012 movie Sightseers, directed by Ben Wheatley.  While she hasn’t quite mastered all the tricks of the trade yet, she orchestrates some impressive sequences: for example, one set in a specialist pet-shop where close-ups of the creepy-crawlies on sale accompany the innuendo being spouted by the shop’s creepy-crawly owner (who offers at one point to show Ruth his ‘big snake’); or a sequence set at Halloween, simultaneously phantasmagorical and horrible, where Ruth tramps through the streets encountering both people dressed as ghouls and drunken yobs acting like ghouls.  Ruth is in costume herself, looking a little like the fearsome kuchisake-onna from Japanese urban myth.

 

Ruth seems able to kill with impunity and after a while the movie started to remind me of the Brett Easton Ellis novel American Psycho (1991), where the forces of law and order are also absent no matter how many bodies pile up.   (In Prevenge, the only evidence of the cops is the wail of a distant police siren, which facilitates a gag about high-pitched noises and lactation.)  While it’s easy to assume that Ruth is imagining the baby speaking to her, I found myself wondering if she was also imagining the whole thing, murders and all.  That’s the insinuation you eventually get about Patrick Bateman, the supposed killer in American Psycho.

 

A meditation on the more disturbing aspects of pregnancy – feelings of bodily invasion and loss of bodily control – Prevenge is gruelling in both tone and content.  But if you can handle that, it’s also very funny in its bleakly-observant way.

 

If only Elaine from The Love Witch could meet some of the men that Ruth meets in Prevenge – like the drunken D.J. Dan, whose technique with the ladies involves vomiting into his Afro wig just before attempting to French-kiss them.  A few encounters like that and Arcata’s Love Witch might be less addicted to love.

 

© Kaleidoscope

 

The leaning tower of Theresa

 

© BBC

 

I haven’t written anything about politics on this blog recently.  This is because writing about politics involves thinking about politics, and these days thinking about politics involves fighting off the urge to go away and shoot myself.  However, in the United Kingdom, a lot has been happening lately – the council elections in England, Scotland and Wales held two days ago and the unexpected announcement of a general election to be held on June 8th.  Thus, I guess I’d better say something.  Here goes.

 

Wow.  That was some speech by our Prime Minister Theresa May the other day, once she’d been to Buckingham Palace to inform the Queen about parliament being dissolved in preparation for the general election on June 8th.  May claimed that the European Union was out to get her, and her government, and by extension dear old Blighty itself: “Threats against Britain have been issued by European politicians and officials.  All of these acts have been deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election which will take place on June 8th.”

 

For someone who’s been making a big hoo-ha about the strength and stability of her leadership recently, these allegations about nasty Johnny Foreigner sounded particularly unhinged – not so much the utterances of a Prime Minister but the utterances of the crazy old lady who gets onto the bus and sits beside you and spends the ensuing journey wittering about how purple lizards are eating her feet.

 

And is it just me, or is the gurning May looking more and more like Bette Davis as the grotesque Jane Hudson in Robert Aldrich’s 1962 gothic classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

 

© Daily Mirror

© Warner Bros. / Seven Arts Productions

 

However, as Polonius remarks in Hamlet, “Though this be madness, yet there is madness in’t.”  Her diatribe against the Europeans might have made any sane listener think she was a basket-case; but many people, not necessarily sane, who in recent elections had been voting for the xenophobic right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party, aka UKIP, decided they liked the cut of May’s jib and voted instead for her Conservative Party at Thursday’s local-government elections.  As a result, the Conservatives surged in those elections, whereas UKIP’s representation on councils across Britain dropped from 146 to… one.

 

It’s good to see UKIP, the toxic tarantula of British politics, get stomped to death.  Unfortunately, that tarantula has been stomped on by a rabid gorilla, the Conservative Party, and it’s going to stomp on you next.

 

If these results are repeated in the June general election – and with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party looking so spectacularly useless, there’s no reason why they won’t – then the Conservatives will get a whopping majority in parliament and May will be queen of all she surveys, in Britain anyway.  Unfortunately, she’ll then have to try and negotiate Brexit, i.e. Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.  Which means sitting down with and spending the next few years in long, complicated and arduous talks with the very people she’s severely pissed off – the EU itself and its 27 member governments.

 

Already, May’s government has approached these negotiations with the finesse of Godzilla taking a stroll through downtown Tokyo.  Her initiation of Brexit on March 29th came with a warning that, in the event of no deal being agreed, the UK might be reluctant to share intelligence about terrorism with its former EU partners – a charmless threat that prompted the Sun newspaper to run the front-page headline: YOUR MONEY OR YOUR LIVES (“Trade with us and we’ll fight terror.”)  Although May says she disapproves of foreigners interfering in UK politics, she’s never spoken out against the constant, decades-long interference by one foreigner, the Sun’s proprietor Rupert Murdoch, who’s Australian-American.

 

Soon after came an insinuation by former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard that Britain could go to war with EU-member Spain over the sovereignty of Gibraltar.  (Cue the Sun again: UP YOURS, SENORS!)  I’m perfectly aware that Howard is an old idiot and not to be taken seriously, but it’s depressing that neither May nor anyone in her cabinet saw fit to condemn his comments.

 

Then, the other week, there was the now-infamous dinner attended by May and Jean Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, at which Juncker was astonished by how ill-informed and simplistic May was about the complexity and length of the negotiations ahead.  No wonder afterwards he got on the phone to Angela Merkel and warned her that the British PM “lived in another galaxy.”  Details of the dinner were leaked to a German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine, which seems to have inspired May’s rantings about EU interference in the forthcoming election.  Not that I imagine many of the British electorate reading the Frankfurter Allgemeine, or being able to read German for that matter.  I wonder if some of the people likely to vote for May can even read English.

 

Following the May-Juncker dinner debacle, just to make the Conservatives’ charm offensive of Europe complete, Ruth Davidson – May’s loyal lieutenant, ventriloquist dummy and mini-me in Scotland – suggested that Juncker’s comments weren’t to be taken seriously because he’d probably been drunk during the meal.  Yes, accusing your opposite numbers of being pissheads.  That’s the way to lay the groundwork for really successful negotiations.

 

It seems to me that Theresa May, once she has the general election in the bag, is in for a very long and very hard reality-check when the Brexit talks begin in earnest.  She may have reached the top of the pile in British politics by Euro-bashing but her words will return to haunt her.  After the abuse that’s been flung at it across the English Channel, is the EU going to show Britain a shred of sympathy or allow it a modicum of wriggle-room?  I doubt it.  Brexit looks set to be a disaster, ending with the UK tumbling out of the EU with no deal at all, something that sane economists agree would be a very bad thing indeed.

 

No doubt, though, many Conservative hardliners are rubbing their hands in glee at this prospect.  It’d wreck the British economy, yes.  But then they’d be free to build that economy up again from the wreckage, fashioning it into a low-tax, no-minimum-wage, regulation-free, zero-hour-contracts-galore monstrosity that fits their scary alt-right vision of Britain as Air Strip One / Tax Haven Two / Sweatshop Three.

 

In the short term, Theresa May has scaled the heights thanks to anti-European opportunism and calculation.  But I predict it’ll end badly once the Brexit process kicks in.  The Tower of Theresa has been built on rotten foundations and it’s going to topple.  Let’s hope Britain as we know it isn’t flattened beneath the rubble.

 

From madhatters.me.uk

 

And incidentally, if you need any more reasons not to vote Conservative in the forthcoming general election, here’s 30 of them. 

 

A night with Jim Mountfield

 

© Blood Moon Rising

 

Just a quick announcement that Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym under which I write horror fiction, has a new short story appearing in the spring edition of the magazine / ezine Blood Moon Rising.

 

The story is entitled The Ecosystem, it’s about someone having a bad night after experimenting with some unknown and dodgy drugs – in horror stories, the drugs are always dodgy – and it’s meant to be a nasty hallucinogenic piece of body-horror combining elements of the work of William S. Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft and Clive Barker.  (Warning – it might not be quite as good as them.)

 

The magazine’s website is here and, the last time I checked, the story itself is accessible here.

 

Dorothy – somewhere under the rainbow

 

© Penguin

 

Anyone who’s followed this blog over the last couple of years will know that I’ve been catching up with George Orwell’s less famous novels, i.e. those that aren’t Animal Farm (1945) or 1984 (1949).  I’ve read 1934’s Burmese Days, 1936’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying and 1939’s Coming Up for Air, all of which impressed me.  Recently, I finished reading what was for me Orwell’s final novel, 1935’s A Clergyman’s Daughter.  How does it measure up to the rest of Orwell’s fiction?

 

Well, I’d say A Clergyman’s Daughter is the weakest of the bunch, although the weakness is structural rather than to do with the content.  As usual, I was absorbed by Orwell’s prose and powers of description and characterisation; but the narrative devices he uses here are problematic.

 

Actually, outside of 1984, it’s perhaps the most ambitious of Orwell’s books too.  It portrays life in mid-1930s Britain across a wide range of social classes.  We meet characters from the hard-pressed working class and, below them, the underclass of beggars, derelicts and prostitutes for whom securing shelter on a winter’s night can be a matter of life and death; from the blunt and materialistic lower middle class, the petty bourgeoise, who here seem petty indeed; and from an upper middle class that’s on the slide, floundering financially if not yet in terms of social standing.  Dorothy Hare, the titular clergyman’s daughter, is an unhappy member of that last class.

 

Her father is the Reverend Charles Hare, Rector of St Athelstan’s Church in a Suffolk village called Knype Hill.  However, it’s clear from the very start – “As the alarm clock on the chest of drawers exploded like a horrid little bomb of bell metal, Dorothy, wrenched from the depths of some complex, troubling dream, awoke with a start and lay on her back looking into the darkness in extreme exhaustion” – that it’s his daughter who keeps his household, church and parish afloat, with the most meagre of resources.

 

Dorothy gets the food on his table, tends to his garden, types out his sermons, delivers his parish magazine, visits his parishioners, organises all the school plays, concerts, jumble sales, bazaars and pageants that bring a trickle of money to cover the most serious repairs needed by his near-ruinous church-building, serves as honorary secretary of three different church leagues and captains the local Girl Guides and, exhaustingly, struggles to pay or at least stave off the bills that come constantly through the vicarage door.  Her father is lazy, pompous, snobbish, bullying and contemptuous of his parishioners and his head is totally in the sand regarding the desperate state of his finances.  In his genteel way, he’s as monstrous as the most racist of the colonialists in Orwell’s previous novel, Burmese Days.  Meanwhile, the only thing that keeps Dorothy going is her Christian faith, which is so stringent that when she finds herself entertaining un-Christian thoughts she chastises herself by sticking a pin into her arm.

 

Ironically, the only person in the neighbourhood who seems aware of Dorothy’s plight is an atheistic and decadent artist called Warburton.  He enjoys Dorothy’s company and, despite multiple misgivings, she has some fondness for his.  But Orwell makes it plain that early on that Warburton is no lovable rogue – he’s a loathsome predator.  On page 41 we learn how once he “sat down beside her on the sofa and begun making love to her, violently, outrageously, even brutally.  It was practically an assault.”  (The preface to my edition of A Clergyman’s Daughter states that the original publisher, Gollancz, insisted that Orwell remove the phrase “tried to rape”.)  The fact that after this Dorothy still puts up with Warburton underlines how starved of friendship and attention she is in the rest of her existence.

 

Then 85 pages in, things change.  Dorothy is launched on a journey as unexpected and, in its way, as extraordinary as that of another Dorothy, in Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).  However, Orwell’s Dorothy ends up in no fairy-tale land, but in harsh 1930s working-class London.  She also arrives there, temporarily, without her memory.  Orwell’s account of how this happens is unsatisfactory.  Indeed, he doesn’t spend much time explaining it, suggesting he himself is unhappy with his plot machinations here.  It also involves a mighty coincidence, as Dorothy’s mishap occurs at the same moment that Warburton leaves Knype Hill for the continent.  As a result, the gossipy villagers assume that she’s run off with him and her father is too outraged to search for her.

 

The amnesic Dorothy falls in with some Cockney never-do-wells, who take her on what was a common autumn pilgrimage for people from London’s East End at the time – into the fields of Kent to pick the hop harvest.  Orwell writes this section of the book with a convincing eye for detail – he knows what he’s talking about since he went hop-picking himself in 1931.  (Actually, I once picked hops too, as a teenager in 1983.  I don’t suppose anyone does this now, modern British farms being so mechanised.)

 

 From pinterest.com

 

Later, there’s a curious 34-page section written in the style of a play, wherein Dorothy, now back in London with her memory restored, spends a night on the streets with a company of assorted down-and-outs whose one objective is to stop themselves freezing to death.  This piece of literary experimentation feels like something James Joyce might have done in Ulysses (1922).  It doesn’t feel like Orwell, though.

 

Then comes another twist to the plot – not much more believable than the last one – and Dorothy, unable to return to Knype Hill because of the scandal she’s allegedly caused, finds herself teaching at a small private school called Ringwood House Academy for Girls in a “repellent suburb ten or a dozen miles from London.”  Equally repellent is the school’s principal and owner, Mrs Creevy, of whom Orwell writes: “You could tell her at a glance for a person who knew exactly what she wanted, and would grasp it as ruthlessly as any machine.”  Dorothy gamely tries to up the standard of education the girls have received there, which has basically consisted of getting fragments of rote-learning and mindlessly copying passages into their jotters.  But predictably, her efforts to teach her young charges how to think, use their imaginations and enjoy the works of Shakespeare go down badly with their lower-middle-class shopkeeper parents, who have very different notions of what ‘education’ means.  They’re particularly horrified that she’s introduced their daughters to Macbeth, which contains disgusting words like ‘womb’.

 

This section lets Orwell take aim at the private schools that proliferated in 1930s England.  “At any given moment there are somewhere in the neighbourhood of ten thousand of them, of which less than a thousand are subject to Government inspection.  And though some of them are better than others, and a certain number, probably, are better than the council schools with which they compete, there is the same fundamental evil in all of them; that is, that they have ultimately no purpose except to make money….  Only the tiny minority of ‘recognised’ schools – less than one in ten – are officially tested to decide whether they keep up a reasonable educational standard.  As for the others, they are free to teach or not teach exactly as they choose.  No one controls or inspects them except the children’s parents – the blind leading the blind.”

 

Things end badly for Dorothy at Ringwood House Academy, but there’s yet another unlikely twist (and another unlikely coincidence involving Warburton) and she’s finally returned to Knype Hill, where she faces her biggest dilemma.  Does she simply return to doing what she’d done before, keeping her father’s shaky clerical enterprise on the road?  Because now, thanks to everything that she’s been through, she’s lost the spark that’d previously animated her – her belief in God.

 

Orwell was not proud of A Clergyman’s Daughter and referred to it as ‘a silly potboiler’.  It’s certainly much more than that although, as I’ve said, it’s damaged by the unlikeliness of the devices that move its plot from A to B and then to C.  However, if you treat it not as a novel but as a series of novellas – a triptych of stories giving accounts of the annual 1930s hop harvest, of a ghastly 1930s private school and of a decaying 1930s vicarage – it’s as fine as his other fiction.

 

© Daily Telegraph