Tri-tiquette

 

 

I’d better begin by defining my terms.  Every foreigner I know in Sri Lanka calls these little beetling vehicles ‘tuk-tuks’ after the similar vehicles that are found in Thailand.  But Sri Lankans themselves get a bit sniffy at the term.  Nor do they take kindly to the vehicles being called ‘auto-rickshaws’, as they are in India.  No, the preferred local terms seem to be ‘trishaws’ or plain old ‘three-wheelers’.

 

I’ve read a report that there are nearly a million tuk-tuks plying their trade – which is shuttling passengers and sometimes cargo across short distances – on the roads and streets of Sri Lanka.  This means that in a country with a population of 21 million there’s one tuk-tuk in existence for roughly every score of its citizens.  Mind you, you can believe those statistics when you see swarms of the things on the move at rush hour in downtown Colombo, passing you in weaving, buzzing streaks of red, blue and green.  (Occasionally, you see an ultra-cool black tuk-tuk.  The black one in my immediate neighbourhood is driven by a guy who also sports an awesome mullet.  He’s such a dude.)

 

 

The décor inside Sri Lanka’s tuk-tuks often reminds you of the country’s ethnic and religious diversity.  Mounted on the dashboard might be a figurine of Buddha, indicating that the driver is of the Buddhist persuasion; or a little statue of the cheery elephant-headed god Ganesha, indicating that he’s likely to be a Hindu; or a cross, indicating a Christian; or there might be a verse from the Koran adorning the windscreen, indicating a Muslim.  However, interior tuk-tuk design frequently incorporates non-religious themes too.  For some reason, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are a common motif, with Captain Jack Sparrow’s jolly face emblazoned across many a tuk-tuk’s upholstery.  You get dungeons-and-dragons imagery too, and Bollywood-type stuff, and pictures of Native Americans and Harley Davidsons; and occasionally a weird hallucinogenic mixture of the lot.

 

 

I’ve been on board tuk-tuks that have looked as bare and functional as the inside of a cardboard box.  On the other hand, I’ve been in ones whose interiors, bedecked with frills, tinsel and strings of coloured paper flowers, have resembled that of a 19th century Parisian bordello.  Once, I climbed into one that happened to be decorated with emblems of Newcastle United Football Club.  When I climbed out again at my destination, I mentioned to the driver that I’d lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for three years and I quite liked Newcastle United.  The guy looked stunned.  I suppose that of all the passengers he’d ever ferried around Colombo, I must have been the closest one to an actual, living, breathing Geordie.

 

Here are a few pieces of advice to foreign visitors to Colombo who decide to utilize the city’s immense army of tuk-tuks.

 

One.  Avoid taking tuk-tuks that have been parked opportunistically outside a shop or restaurant or hotel that might qualify as being (even slightly) ‘touristy’.  These are often guys who’ll try to pre-arrange a fare with you, and it’ll be considerably more than what it would be on a meter.  And if they do use a meter, don’t be surprised if the meter suffers from numerical diarrhea, skittering out higher and higher prices.  Instead, flog down a tuk-tuk that’s passing on the street – the driver’s less likely to be a vulture.

 

Two.  Make sure the tuk-tuk has a meter and the driver uses it.  And make sure that the starting price – and the blanket fare for the first 900 metres – on it is 50 rupees.  Yes, I have Sri Lankan friends and colleagues who tell me they can travel around on tuk-tuks for less, but as a relatively well-heeled Westerner I think 50 rupees is fine and fair.  Then, keep your eyes on the meter at the 0.9-of-a-kilometer stage.  For once that distance is reached, the price goes up and keeps going up every subsequent 100 metres.  Each time, the increase should be by four rupees: 54 rupees, then 58, then 62, and so on.  If the meter starts climbing in bigger chunks, you’re being fleeced.  Tell the driver to change the incremental charge to four – a surprising number of them will when they’re challenged about it.  If the driver refuses, just tell him to stop and then get out.  Don’t worry.  This is Colombo.  There’ll be another, hopefully-cheaper tuk-tuk along after a moment.

 

At nighttime, though, the charges are higher: 57.50 rupees as the customary starting charge and correspondingly more-expensive additional charges.  Also, if your tuk-tuk is stationary for a period – as it often is in Colombo’s traffic jams – you’ll notice the meter logging on an extra two-rupee-a-minute ‘waiting fee’.

 

Three.  If you’re taking a tuk-tuk into an area of the city that you don’t know very well, bring along a copy of the Colombo A-Z so that you can monitor where you’re going.  This will alert you to the driver trying to treat you to ‘the scenic route’.  (Or alternatively, they simply may not know where they’re going themselves.  Tuk-tuk drivers get lost with surprising frequency – they’re not like those London black-taxicab drivers who’ve spent years memorizing every nook and cranny of the city as ‘the Knowledge’.)  At the same time, bear in mind that Colombo’s one-way systems can be both torturous and illogical, and if the driver isn’t taking you the shortest, most direct way it may be because of these.

 

Four.  Keep your pockets stocked with plenty of change because many tuk-tuk drivers never seem to have any.

 

The sharks tend to operate in the centre of Colombo, where there are more tourists to rip off.  I usually don’t have issues with tuk-tuks in my neighbourhood, Wellawatta, which is a few kilometres away from the city-centre action.  And when you find yourself in other Sri Lankan cities and towns where meters are much less common – I was in Kandy last week and ended up paying 250 rupees for a journey that would have cost me about 100 in Colombo – you soon start to view the tuk-tuk-driving fraternity in the country’s capital as a fine, upstanding bunch of blokes.

 

 

Finally, I should say that one night I was travelling through Wellawatta in a tuk-tuk when we stopped at a red light and another tuk-tuk drew up beside us in the adjacent lane.  This one was covered in a camouflage pattern and had the words TUK-TUK SAFARI stenciled on its side.  Its driver was dressed like a great white hunter, complete with a pith helmet.  Also, the vehicle was open-roofed and in the back rode two foreign tourist ladies.  They weren’t sitting, but standing, so that their upper halves jutted through the gap in the roof.  They seemed to be surveying the street-life of nocturnal Colombo in the way that participants in a real safari would survey the animal-life of the African savannah.

 

My reaction to this?  I believe that if you pay money to go on a tuk-tuk safari around Colombo, you don’t deserve to live.

 

The man who gave zombies brains

 

From www.denofgeek.com

 

There are few things I enjoy more than a good zombie movie.  Thus, since the death of Pittsburgh filmmaker George A. Romero on June 16th, I’ve been wearing a black armband – because Romero was the zombie auteur extraordinaire.

 

Romero’s 1968 debut was Night of the Living Dead, a movie that’s been stupendously influential in at least three ways.  Firstly, filmed during nights and weekends over a period of seven months for a paltry $114,000 – the famous opening sequence took place in Pittsburgh’s out-of-town Evans City Cemetery for the simple reason that Romero figured he could film there for free, on the quiet, without getting hassled by the police – its success became a lasting inspiration for low-budget filmmakers everywhere.  It showed that with enough ingenuity, determination and talent you could accomplish something out of next-to-nothing.  No doubt when things were getting tough during the shoots of landmark but ultra-cheap horror films like the $300,000-budget Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or the $350,000-budget Evil Dead (1981) or the $60,000-budget Blair Witch Project (1999), their respective directors Tobe Hooper, Sam Raimi and Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez consoled themselves with the thought, “If old George could do it, so can I.”

 

Secondly, Night of the Living Dead wrestled horror movies away from the gothic costume dramas made by the likes of Hammer Films in Britain, Mario Bava in Italy and Roger Corman in the USA, which by the mid-1960s had become their comfort zone.  It dragged the genre into the present day and made it visceral, nihilistic and properly frightening.  The human characters having to cope with the horrible events in Night were ordinary Joes like those sitting watching them in the cinema audience.  This could happen to you, it was telling them.  And as none of those human characters got through the titular night alive, you really didn’t want it to happen to you.

 

© Image Ten / Laurel Group

 

And thirdly, Night introduced the world to zombies as it knows them today.  And it knows zombies very well today.  Popular culture is swarming with them, not only in blockbuster Hollywood movies like World War Z (2013) but in other media like TV shows, computer games, books and comics.  Whereas before Night zombies had been depicted as poor, lost souls brought back to life by cruel, capitalist zombie-masters using the power of voodoo and put to work in flour-mills and tin-mines, as in Universal’s White Zombie (1932) and Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies (1966), after Night they had a new template.  They became apocalyptic.  They rose from the dead in hundreds, then thousands, and then millions, and fed on living humanity – in scenes employing as much blood and gore as the movie-censors would allow.  If they bit you, you got infected, died and became a zombie yourself.  And the only way to stop the shambling, bite-y bastards was to “shoot ’em in the head”.

 

What I love about zombies of the Night of the Living Dead variety is that though they are mindless creatures, the movies themselves don’t have to be mindless.  Brilliantly, those shambling zombies can be a metaphor for all sorts of things – for proletarian workers, consumers, oppressed peoples, whatever – giving filmmakers endless opportunities for social comment.  Thus, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) reflects a modern Britain where anger is an increasingly common social phenomenon and terms like ‘road rage’ and ‘air rage’ have entered the popular vocabulary; its sequel Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later (2007) is an allegory about the post-war occupation of Iraq; and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) satirises a twenty-something slacker generation who can’t tell if someone’s a zombie or just pissed, hungover or zonked out.  And again, Romero set the agenda with Night, which channels the fears of late-1960s America.  The country’s racial tensions are symbolised by the fate of the black hero (Duane Jones), who survives the zombie onslaught only to be mistaken for one himself and shot dead by a supposed rescue-posse of trigger-happy rednecks.  Meanwhile, the rednecks’ zombie-shooting / burning activities are not unlike things going on in Vietnam at the time.

 

© Image Ten / Laurel Group

 

However, Night of the Living Dead wasn’t the first George A. Romero film I saw.  That honour belongs to a movie he made five years later called The Crazies, which turned up on late-night British TV in the 1970s.  The Crazies has similarities to Night but isn’t a zombie movie because it features people turning into murderous lunatics rather than into murderous walking corpses.  The story of the US Army trying, and failing, to contain a virus that gradually infects the population of a small rural town and drives them insane, The Crazies is basically Romero giving the military a kicking.

 

It’s the army who’ve secretly developed the virus as a potential biological weapon; who accidentally let it escape into the town’s water supply; and who prove useless in trying to maintain order – this is a rural American community and there are a lot of guns, and before long it isn’t just the infected townspeople who are violently resisting the gas-masked, biohazard-suited soldiers.  The army also bring in scientists to try to develop a vaccine but give them hopeless facilities – the local school’s science lab – and when one of them accidentally does stumble across a vaccine, more military bungling leads to his death and the smashing of the vital test tubes.  At the film’s end, they even fail to do an immunity test on the hero, who by now is the only uninfected person left in the town.

 

© Cambist Films

 

The Crazies isn’t perfect – its low budget sometimes means there’s a visible gap between what Romero aspires to and what he achieves on screen – but to my 13-year-old mind its blend of anarchy, violence, rebelliousness and, yes, humour was astonishing.  I’ve never forgotten scenes like the one where a soldier bursts into a rural homestead and encounters a sweet old granny doing some knitting, who then stabs him to death with a knitting needle.  A remake appeared in 2010 and, while it has some good moments, it’s ultimately unsatisfying.  This is largely because it focuses on the civilian characters and hardly shows anything of the military ones.  Of course, it’s the soldiers and their half-comical, half-horrifying ineptitude that makes the original so effective and enjoyable.

 

In 1978, Romero returned to bona-fide zombie moviemaking with Dawn of the Dead.  The shopping malls spreading across the American landscape at the time inspired him to revisit Night’s zombie apocalypse and film a more expensive and expansive sequel.  This has four survivors, led by a black SWAT officer (Ken Foree), taking refuge in an abandoned mall and fortifying it against the living dead.  Romero uses the setting to poke fun at both the sterility of consumerism – the foursome’s lives rapidly grow tedious despite their unlimited access to everything in the mall’s stores – and its idiocy, as more survivors show up and the two groups fight for possession of the building, though it contains enough supplies for everybody.  The zombies, meanwhile, become irrelevant.

 

© Laurel Group Inc

 

The shots of zombies shuffling mindlessly through the mall’s aisles and thoroughfares, staring with glazed eyes at the goods on display, is satire of the sledgehammer variety – but hey, it works.  Nearly forty years on, whenever I find myself in a shopping mall, I experience at least one uncomfortable moment where I imagine the shoppers around me not as human beings but as ambling cadavers.  Also, in keeping with its theme of excess, Dawn piles on the bloodletting, courtesy of Romero’s regular special-effects man Tom Savini.  In the opening minutes, Romero and Savini treat us to a close-up of an exploding head and the gore rarely relents after that.

 

Dawn has been remade too, with a Zack Snyder-directed Dawn of the Dead appearing in 2004.  It’s a film I have mixed feelings about.  On the one hand, the first 25 minutes are terrific and I love the credits sequence, which shows a montage of clips of unfolding zombie carnage accompanied by Johnny Cash singing The Man Comes Around (2002).  On the other hand, the film is devoid of satire – the zombies spend nearly all the film not being in the mall, so there are none of those marvellous shopper-zombie juxtapositions – and you get a general impression of things being played safe.  It’s a shame, as Naomi Klein’s anti-globalisation tract No Logo had been published a few years earlier and a big gory horror movie poking fun at brainless brand-hungry consumerism and mindless corporate greed would have been just the ticket.

 

© Laurel Group Inc

 

In 1986, Romero wrapped up his original zombie trilogy with Day of the Dead, which like The Crazies shows his utter contempt for the military – though by now his contempt for humanity generally seems intense too.  Day has the world overrun with zombies and focuses on an elite band of scientists and soldiers holed up in an underground nuclear missile silo, desperately trying to find a solution for the mayhem happening above.  Bitter arguments between the obsessed scientists and the brutish military eventually escalate into all-out warfare – so when the zombies swarm in at the end they seem the least mindless members of the cast.

 

Admittedly, Day has a couple of sympathetic humans, namely a philosophical Jamaican pilot played by Terry Alexander – Romero’s third black zombie-movie hero – and a slightly alcohol-pickled Irish radio operator (Jarlath Conroy), both of whom realise the battle has already been lost.  They just want to escape the silo, abandon the mainland and start afresh on a desert island.  However, the film’s most likeable character is actually a zombie, one nicknamed Bub (Sherman Howard) who’s been captured by the scientists and domesticated – sort of.  He can listen to music, pick up a phone and almost whisper a couple of words.  He has vague memories of his former life, when he was a soldier, because he knows how to salute and hold a gun.  He’s very fond of the scientist who looks after him and when that scientist is murdered by the repellent Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), he’s genuinely upset and you feel genuinely sorry for him.  And a climactic scene where Rhodes is torn apart by Bub’s zombie compadres while Bub looks on and gives him a farewell salute is one of the most satisfying moments in horror-film history.

 

© Laurel Entertainment Inc

 

On a more intimate scale than Dawn, with more talk and less action, Day was regarded as a disappointment by Romero enthusiasts when it was first released.  However, over the years, its reputation has grown.  It’s my favourite Romero movie and one of my favourite horror movies generally.  Meanwhile – surprise! – a remake appeared in 2008.  Unlike the other remakes I’ve mentioned, this one is absolute shite.

 

After Zack Snyder’s version of Dawn of the Dead made a lot of cash in 2004, Romero got the go-ahead – and considerable studio money – to make his first zombie picture in nearly 20 years.  The result was 2005’s Land of the Dead which, although it received some decent reviews, was disdained by many hardcore horror-film fans who saw it as evidence that Romero had sold out and / or lost his touch.  I think that’s unfair as, to me, Land is three-quarters of a good movie.  Its opening sequence is grotesquely superb, showing an abandoned (by humans) suburb whose zombie inhabitants now potter around in the way they did when they were alive.  A zombie commuter lumbers out of his front door with a dusty briefcase, some zombie musicians abortively try to play their old instruments at the local bandstand and a zombie gas-station attendant shuffles dutifully to his pumps whenever something sets off the motion-sensor bell in his hut.

 

I also like the movie’s set-up.  Presumably taking place several years after Night, Dawn and Day, Land has Dennis Hopper as a megalomaniac who’s created a human sanctuary (bounded by a river and an electric fence) in the middle of a decaying city.  There, the rich and powerful humans live in a luxury apartment block called Fiddler’s Green while the less well-off live in Oliver Twist-like conditions in the streets below.  To keep his society going, Hopper regularly sends out a military force into the surrounding wasteland in a huge armoured vehicle called the Dead Reckoning, which is half-tank and half-truck, to scavenge for supplies.  Trouble is, the zombies inhabiting the wasteland are developing rudimentary powers of thought and self-organisation and, miffed at getting splattered by Hopper’s military expeditions, they start to march towards his little enclave.  (Their leader is none other than the petrol pump attendant, played by black actor Eugene Clark.  In a series where the hero has always been black, this suggests Romero has now totally sided with the zombies.)

 

© Atmosphere-Entertainment MM / Romero-Grunwald Productions

 

Parallels with America’s wealth inequalities, its oil-driven foreign adventures and anti-American sentiment in the Middle East during the noughties are no doubt fully intentional.  I’d assumed that the Dennis Hopper character in Land represented George Bush Jr.  However, as the critic Kim Newman pointed out in an obituary for Romero in Sight and Sound magazine, the character is actually a property developer.  So maybe Romero had a premonition of who’d be sitting in the Oval Office in 2017.

 

Land’s main problem is that it’s anti-climactic.  The end scenes where the zombies penetrate the human enclave and then Fiddler’s Green are suitably gory and carnage-ridden.  But you’re waiting for the military force in the Dead Reckoning, led by Simon Baker and Asia Argento, to ride to the rescue and start kicking serious zombie ass.  When Baker, Argento and the gang finally arrive, though, all they do is blow up the electric fence to allow a few survivors to escape.  And, um, that’s it.

 

Still, Land is way better than the two zombie pictures Romero made subsequently.  2007’s Diary of the Dead has an interesting premise – it’s a found-footage movie about a group of young filmmakers who’re working far from home when a zombie apocalypse breaks out; and they decide to record their adventures on film, documentary-style, as they journey across an increasingly chaotic landscape.  What’s particularly interesting is how they intercut their own story with clips that people around the world are simultaneously uploading to the Internet – and this being Romero, those clips often show human beings taking advantage of the mayhem to act appallingly.  However, after a gripping opening section, the middle of the film becomes routine and predictable; and its final stretch is talky and ponderous to an extreme.

 

Survival of the Dead followed in 2009.  Set on an island off America’s northwest coast where a feud between two families escalates while society breaks down around them, it resembles a particularly scrappy episode of The Walking Dead TV show and is a sad final instalment in Romero’s zombie sextet.

 

In between zombies, Romero made other types of movies and a couple are very good indeed.  That said, I’m not a fan of his two collaborations with Stephen King, Creepshow (1982), an anthology film scripted by King in the style of the old EC horror comics, and The Dark Half (1993), an adaptation of one of King’s novels.  (Creepshow has its admirers and features an excellent cast – Adrienne Barbeau, Ted Danson, Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, E.G. Marshall, Leslie Nielsen and Fritz Weaver – but I find it unnecessarily hokey and slightly wasteful of Romero’s talents.)

 

© Libra Films International

 

But Martin (1978) is excellent.  It’s about a modern-day American teenager (John Amplas) who, clearly mentally disturbed, believes himself to be an 84-year-old vampire.  He ends up living in the Pittsburgh suburbs with his great-uncle, an elderly Lithuanian immigrant who, steeped in the lore and superstitions of his old country, is only too happy to take him at his word.  A disorientating mixture of blood-spilling, dreaminess, humour and melancholia, Martin would be worth re-watching in 2017 as a tonic to those wimpy Twilight books and movies that have defined teenaged vampires for the last decade.

 

Also praiseworthy is Romero’s 1981 non-horror movie Knightriders, which has a young Ed Harris in charge of a travelling medieval-style fair where the central attraction is the re-enactment of knightly jousting tournaments.  The gimmick is that there isn’t a horse in sight – the knights doing the jousting are bikers riding (and regularly falling off) motorcycles.  Furthermore, Harris, who sees his fair not as a business but a community, tries to live according to a knightly code of virtue and honour.  This does him few favours as the fair suffers money problems and attracts unwelcome attention from bloodsucking promoters and talent scouts, sensationalist journalists, crooked cops, rival motorcycle gangs and redneck crowds who just want to see motorbikes getting smashed.

 

© Laurel Productions

 

Knightriders is overlong and meandering and has about 15 characters too many, and at times it’s sentimental, melodramatic and hippy-dippy; but it’s also endearingly high-minded and decent-hearted.  It again shows Romero’s disdain for materialism and mindless conformism, though this time in human rather than metaphorical terms.  And Harris’s struggles in Knightriders reflect Romero’s uncomfortable relationship with the wider film industry, an industry that was all-too-happy to ignore him, exploit him, mess him around and rip him off.

 

In closing, I’ll say this to the spirit of George A. Romero.  Sir, you were responsible for a half-dozen films – the original Dead trilogy, The Crazies, Martin and Knightriders – that are extra-special ones for me.  I salute you.

 

© Laurel Entertainment Inc

 

The definite article

 

© Epic

 

I think it’s fair to say that 2017 does not feel like a good time to be alive.  Not only do we have a moron in the White House, a thug in the Kremlin and a zombie shambling around inside Number 10 Downing Street, but a chunk of ice as big as Delaware has collapsed off the side of Antarctica, scientists have announced that we’re now in earth’s sixth era of mass extinction, gonorrhoea has developed resistance to most antibiotics and become almost untreatable, and Jacob Rees-Mogg has procreated.

 

It’s surely a sign of these bleak times that I’ve found myself listening again to the music of post-punk / alternative band The The.

 

In existence since 1979, and graced with the most grammatically awkward name in musical history, The The is basically a one-man-operation by London singer, songwriter and musician Matt Johnson.  Other band-members have come and gone and come back again at different points in the studio and on stage, including former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and former Bowie guitarist Gail Ann Dorsey.  Also, a host of famous names have made one-off contributions to The The’s records – Johnson’s collaborators over the years have included Marc Almond, Neneh Cherry, Lloyd Cole, Jools Holland, Sinead O’Connor and J.G. ‘Foetus’ Thirlwell.

 

The The was especially prominent for a decade from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, releasing a quartet of albums – Soul Mining (1983), Infected (1986), Mind Bomb (1989) and Dusk (1993) – which uniquely captured the zeitgeist of the era.  I heard about the band while I was at college though, to be honest, I resisted listening to it for a long time because the set of students I knew there who were The The fans happened to be a bunch of smug, self-consciously trendy tossers reminiscent of the Rik Mayall character in TV’s The Young Ones (1982-84).  (That, of course, wasn’t Matt Johnson’s fault.)  It wasn’t until the late 1980s that my brother gave me a recording of Infected on a cassette tape and I sat down and experienced The The’s music for the first time.  The result was love at first listen.

 

© Some Bizarre / Epic

 

Johnson’s songs had some wonderfully catchy hooks; and despite the presence of guitars, drums, horns and harmonicas, they came with a precise, shiny, synth-y polish that – unlike a lot of 1980s music – still sounds fresh and invigorating today.  However, Johnson’s lyrics were, for the most part, grim.  He wasn’t afraid to sing about what was going on in the world around him and, in the 1980s, much of what was going on seemed bloody horrible: the Reagan-Thatcher love-in, the coming of the Yuppies, the AIDS epidemic, the Ayatollah, the Iran-Iraq War, Chernobyl, Bhopal, Hillsborough, the Lockerbie Bombing, Tiananmen Square.  I have to say, though, that in terms of horribleness the last year or two have certainly given the 1980s a run for their money and I wonder if that’s why I suddenly find the band very relevant and listenable again.

 

Also, Johnson was willing to put his voice up front – his words didn’t get buried in the mix.  Thus, when I played my The The collection again recently, I immediately found myself singing along to it, so familiar had the lyrics been to me back in the day.  When I heard the simultaneously funky and sinister Sweet Bird of Truth (1986), I started mouthing the lines along with its narrator, a battle-scarred, psychotic war veteran: “Across the beaches and cranes, rivers and trains / All the money I’ve made, bodies I’ve maimed / Time was when I seemed to know / Just like any other little G.I. Joe / Should I cry like a baby, die like a man / While the planet’s little wars start joining hands…”  The words rushed back to me too when I listened again to The Beat(en) Generation (1989), which lambasts the apathy and materialism of 1980s youth, with Johnson accusing them of being “raised on a diet of prejudice and misinformation” and pleading with them to “open your eyes, open your imagination.”  It’s entirely consistent with The The’s style that while Johnson fulminates and despairs vocally, a harmonica breezes happily beside him and threatens to turn into the intro from The Beatles’ Love Me Do (1962).

 

Then there’s Armageddon Days are Here (Again) (1989), which for obvious reasons still sounds potent in 2017: “Islam is rising, the Christians mobilising / The world is on its elbows and knees / It’s forgotten the message and worships the creed.”   Later, he notes sourly, “If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today / He’d be gunned down cold by the C.I.A.”  Or Heartland, (1986), which contains the lines, “This is the land where nothing changes / The land of red buses and blue-blooded babies / This is the place where pensioners are raped / And the hearts are being cut from the Welfare State,” and which ends with the refrain, “This is the 51st state of the U… S… A…”

 

Small wonder that when the music magazine Q reviewed a new The The album in the 1990s, it topped the review with the headline, CHEER UP, IT’S MATT JOHNSON.  Or as Johnson himself confessed in the lyrics of Slow Emotion Replay (1993), “Everybody knows what’s going wrong with the world / But I don’t even know what’s going on in myself.”

 

© Epic

 

Then in 1996, Johnson did something surprising.  He released a The The album called Hanky Panky that consisted entirely of cover versions by the hard-livin’ (and early-dyin’) country-and-western troubadour Hank Williams.  On the face of it, The The and Hank Williams seemed to belong in different musical universes, but the result was surprising enjoyable.  Its highlights were a dark and diseased-sounding version of Honky Tonkin’ (“When you are sad and lonely and have no place to go / Call me up, sweet baby, and bring along some dough…”)  and an exhilarating one of I Saw the Light (“I saw the light, I saw the light / No more darkness, no more night!”).

 

Admittedly, Hanky Panky wasn’t to everyone’s tastes.  I was living in Japan when the album came out and I lent it to a Japanese friend who was not only an aficionado of Hank Williams but also a country-and-western singer and country-and-western DJ.  (I should say he was influenced by Hank’s hazardous lifestyle as much as he was by his music.  Whenever he suffered an alcohol-fuelled mishap, such as incurring burns on his forearms after toppling onto a barbecue at a party, he’d shrug it off with the philosophical observation, “Well, that’s what Hank Williams would have done too.”)  He gave Hanky Panky a couple of spins on his local radio show but confessed to me afterwards that he and his listeners were baffled by it.

 

The The released one more ‘proper’ album, 2000’s Naked Self, which gets unfairly overlooked in retrospectives of the band.  Among its songs, December Sunlight is gorgeous and Boiling Point shows Johnson still able to evoke grim scenarios where everything seems to teeter on the edge of disaster.

 

Thereafter, the band appeared to drop off the radar.   But Johnson remained busy in a slightly different field, working on movie soundtracks (still under the moniker of The The).  In 2012 he provided the music for the award-winning documentary Moonbug, about the astronauts who took part in the Apollo space programme.  He also contributed to two films directed by his brother, Gerard Johnson: 2009’s Tony, a nihilistic low-fi horror movie about a lonely, introverted and bullied man living in a London block of flats who turns out to be a serial killer; and 2014’s Hyena, a crime drama that reworks Abel Ferrara’s legendary The Bad Lieutenant (1992) with corrupt London coppers and Albanian gangsters.  For someone who’d always put an emphasis on words, the non-vocal soundscapes Johnson creates for these films are surprisingly effective.  Sequences like the one at the end of Tony where the title character wanders through the cold, hostile London night, or the one at the start of Hyena where a police team raids a dodgy London club and proves to be as mindlessly violent as the gangsters running the place, are boosted immeasurably by the presence of his music.

 

© Lazarus Limited

 

Soundtrack work aside, though, I’m sure the past 15 years have been frustrating ones for The The fans desperate for Johnson to make another fully-fledged album.  However, the wait seems to be nearly over, for recently a new The The single, We Can’t Stop What’s Coming, was released and the band’s Wikipedia entry states that a new album is currently ‘in progress’.

 

In the meantime, if you feel a yearning for some sublimely catchy and groovy music combined with some of the angriest lyrics in pop and rock music, you could do far worse than listen to The The’s back catalogue.   Matt Johnson’s band really is the definite article.

 

Bad hombres

 

© Pan Macmillan      

 

I greatly admire Cormac McCarthy’s novels Blood Meridian (1985) and The Road (2006).  However, I hadn’t felt any overwhelming urge to read No Country for Old Men (2005) – another of McCarthy’s more famous works – because in 2007 I’d seen its Oscar-winning film adaptation by Joel and Ethan Coen and I’d heard that the film followed the book closely.

 

Thanks to the Coen Brothers, I already knew the characters and plot of No Country for Old Men.  Also, I found the film vaguely dissatisfying.  As I rather pretentiously explained to a friend in 2007, “It’s like a Frankenstein’s monster where Jean-Paul Sartre’s head is stitched onto Clint Eastwood’s body.”  What I meant was that for most of its running time the film is a lean, ruthless and nasty thriller, a gripping piece of modern western noir.  But then near the end, its remorseless storyline just stops.  And after that, there’s a protracted scene where Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Bell character visits an elderly relative and announces his intention to retire because, basically, the world is a terrible place and he can’t handle it any longer.  Thus, the film seems to peter out amid lamentations of angst and existentialism.

 

I’d assumed that, since it was supposedly a faithful adaptation of the book, the book would have a similarly dissatisfying ending.  Which admittedly is a bit unfair towards poor old Cormac McCarthy.

 

A while ago I was back in Scotland and I spotted a second-hand copy of No Country for Old Men, the book, on sale in a local charity shop.  And with that jolt of horror you get occasionally when you’re growing older and you realise how quickly time seems to be passing, it occurred to me that it’d been a whole decade since I’d seen the movie.  I’d also forgotten a lot of what’d happened in it.  This seemed, then, a good opportunity to buy the literary version of No Country for Old Men and acquaint myself with it.

 

Here’s my opinion and, inevitably, there are spoilers ahead both for the book and for the film.

 

My main impression after reading No Country for Old Men was that, yes, for the most part, the Coen Brothers were remarkably faithful to the original when they made their movie.  As the story unfolds – a hunter and Vietnam vet called Llewellyn Moss stumbles across the bloody, corpse-strewn aftermath of a drug-deal-gone-wrong on the remote Texas / Mexico border, lifts a satchel full of money and makes a run for it, only to be pursued by a gang of vengeful drug-dealing gangsters, as well as by a certain Anton Chigurh, a hitman so relentless, merciless and fearsome he makes the Terminator look like Bambi – I found near-identical scenes from the movie returning to my memory after ten years.

 

One difference between the book and the film that I noticed early on was when Moss, having scarpered with the money, nobly but foolishly decides to return to the scene of the massacre because he’d left behind one survivor, a badly-injured gangster who was begging for water.  When he comes back with some water for that survivor, the survivor is surviving no longer; and one of the gangs involved has sent along some new hoodlums to find out what’s happened to their drugs and money.  There follows a nail-biting chase across the desert, climaxing with Moss flinging himself into a river to escape the hoodlums.  In the film, the Coen Brothers ratchet up the suspense yet further by introducing a big attack dog that doesn’t appear in the book.  Even the river doesn’t deter the beast in its pursuit of Moss because it swims as fast as it runs.  Indeed, the dog is a crafty metaphorical foreshadowing of Anton Chigurh, who is soon pursuing Moss too.  If there’s one thing you want following you even less than a big attack dog, it’s him.

 

The book also has more of Sheriff Bell, the ageing lawman trying to find and save Moss whilst also keeping tabs on Carla Jean, Moss’s young wife.  At regular intervals, there are short chapters representing Bell’s stream-of-consciousness while he ruminates on existence and the general state of things.  “My daddy always told me to just do the best you know how and tell the truth…” he says at one point.  “And if you done somethin wrong just stand up and say you done it and say you’re sorry and get on with it.”  This makes him a likeable and sympathetic character, but not too much so.  Later, as we hear more of his musings, we realise some of his views are quite reactionary and probably if he was still around in 2016 – the story is set in the 1980s – he’d have voted for Donald Trump.  These interludes also prepare us for the gloomy philosophical ending, in a way that we weren’t prepared for it whilst watching the film.

 

© Miramax Films / Paramount Vantage

 

For much of the book and film, the plot is an increasingly desperate and vicious cat-and-mouse game between Moss and Chigurh, while various cannon-fodder Mexican gangsters turn up and get blown away.  McCarthy describes it all in his admirably economical and deceptively simple-looking prose, though lovers of punctuation will cringe at his brutal disregard for apostrophes and inverted commas.

 

It helps too that McCarthy seems au fait with the macho, rural and violent world he’s writing about: its gangland machinations, its police procedures, its vehicles, its guns: “The rifle had a Canjar trigger set to nine ounces and he pulled the rifle and the boot towards him with great care and sighted again and jacked the crosshairs slightly up the back of the animal standing most broadly to him…  Even with the heavy barrel and the muzzlebrake the rifle bucked up off the rest.  When he pulled the animals back into the scope he could see them all standing as before.  It took the 150-grain bullet the better part of a second to get there but it took the sound twice that.”  I know little about McCarthy’s background – he’s very reclusive – and I’ve no idea if he’s really the man’s man, the rugged Hemmingway type, that he comes across as here.  But the fact that he does come across like that gives the telling of the story an extra conviction.

 

I felt apprehensive as I approached the novel’s end.  Would the main storyline finish as abruptly and unsatisfyingly as it did in the film – which had Bell arriving at a motel for a rendezvous with Moss, only to discover that Moss has just been killed (offscreen) by some Mexicans?  Leaving only the scene where Bell decides to call it quits, plus one where Chigurh pays a visit to the now-widowed Carla Jean?  (In the film, it’s implied that he executes her.  In the book, it’s spelt out more clearly.)  I assume that by ending it like this the Coen Brothers believed they were making a statement about the fickleness of fate and the randomness of life and death – and by this late moment in the story, Moss had surely used up all of his nine lives.  But having spent the most of two hours rooting for him, I wanted something more than a brief, flippant reference to him dying.  Call me old-fashioned, but I’d have liked a little more closure with the character.

 

In the book, Moss dies with an equal sense of arbitrariness – Bell gets to the motel and finds out that his man has just been assassinated.  However, there’s more.  The Coen Brothers, it transpires, had made a major break with this section of the book because they left out a character, a female teenage runaway.  McCarthy has Moss pick the girl up while she’s hitchhiking and while he’s making the fateful journey to the motel.  To be honest, the girl isn’t much of a character, being a think-she-knows-everything teenage brat.  As someone who was once a thought-I-knew-everything teenage brat myself, I can speak with authority here.  But at least her naivete provides some context for Moss, who by now is feeling as old, jaded and world-weary as Bell.  (Later, at the motel, she offers to sleep with Moss, but wanting to stay faithful to Carla Jean he turns her down.)

 

When Moss finally shows up, yes, the Mexicans have intervened and Moss is dead, as was the case in the film.  However, the book has a deputy tell Bell what happened from the eyewitness reports: “…the Mexican started it.  Says he drug the woman out of her room and the other man (Moss) came out with a gun but when he seen the Mexican had a gun pointed at the woman’s head he laid his own piece down.  And whenever he done that the Mexican shoved the woman away and shot her and then turned and shot him….  Shot em with a goddamned machinegun.  Accordin to this witness the old boy fell down the steps and then he picked up his gun again and shot the Mexican.  Which I dont see how he done it.  He was shot all to pieces.”  So at least Moss dies making an honourable (if futile) self-sacrifice to save the teenager, and he goes down with guns blazing, taking out one last bad guy.  That’s more like the closure I was looking for.

 

I know people who’ve objected to both versions of No Country for Old Men because of another disappearing plotline, the one involving Anton Chigurh – who in the film was memorably played by Javier Bardem.  Both the book and film end with him still on the loose, presumably being unspeakably evil and continuing to kill people.  But I don’t mind that loose thread so much.  I find it appropriate that McCarthy wraps up the story with Bell lamenting about the darkness of the world; while Chigurh still lurks in that darkness as a symbolic bogeyman.

 

© Miramax Films / Paramount Vantage

 

And my overall verdict?  I’d give McCarthy’s novel an impressive 9 out of 10, compared with a less impressive but still decent 7 out of 10 for the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation – a couple of points being deducted on account of its ending.

 

Glorious international foodstuffs 3: kitfo

 

(c) San Diego Reader

 

I’m not particularly carnivorous in my eating habits.  I like chicken and fish but I’m sure I could survive if I was never allowed to eat red meat again, though probably I’d be tormented by an occasional craving for a bacon sandwich.  Thus, when I was first in Ethiopia, and when I was first out in a restaurant with my new Ethiopian colleagues, and when I first had a dishful of the local delicacy known as kitfo placed in front of me, I seriously wondered how much – or how little – of the stuff I’d be able to force down me.

 

Yes, kitfo can be intimidating for people who aren’t big eaters of red meat because it’s a dish consisting almost entirely of minced ox-meat – which, more intimidatingly still, comes uncooked.

 

However, its rawness is offset by the aromatic tastes of the things added to it – a spicy seasoning called mitmita and a ghee-like butter called niter kibe.  In fact, these offset the stark raw tang of the meat deliciously, and the dish is made yet more flavoursome by the ayib, a sort of Ethiopian cottage cheese, and gomen, collard greens, that it’s commonly served with.   And this being Ethiopia, where knives and forks are in short supply, it’s customary to eat kitfo by hand.  You scoop it up with torn-off strips of injera, the local, sour, spongy flatbread.  So you also get the taste of injera vying for attention in your now-crowded palate.

 

Thanks to these flavourings and accoutrements, I had surprisingly little difficulty eating that first helping of kitfo and during the following two years I became quite addicted to it.  And I missed it when I returned home to Scotland where, needless to say, Ethiopian restaurants are pretty thin on the ground.

 

Actually, I suspect that if you ordered kitfo in an Ethiopian restaurant in Europe, what you’d get would be leb-leb, which is kitfo in a lightly-cooked form – the rawness of the original being deemed a little too much for wimpy Western sensibilities.  But I’m sure a true connoisseur of Ethiopian cuisine would demand kitfo in all its visceral, uncooked glory.

 

I thought kitfo was great but I admit to having difficulty with kurt, another raw-meat staple of the Ethiopian food world.  Kurt is chunks of flesh freshly cut from a carcass in a sega-bet, an establishment that’s part restaurant and part butcher’s shop.  And… Well, that’s all you need to know.

 

From youtube.com

 

For me, the big difference between kitfo and kurt was that while the former meat-dish had any fat removed before being minced, the latter was served up with scraps of fat clinging to its outside and seams of fat lurking within it.  And it wasn’t the meat itself that dampened my enthusiasm for kurt, but those interminably-chewy, fatty bits I had to contend with.  (It didn’t help that my colleagues liked to entertain me with grisly tales of folk having tapeworms approximately half-a-mile long, which they’d presumably acquired whilst eating kurt in the sega-bet, extracted from their anuses.)

 

One condiment you get with kurt is a mustardy sauce called senafich and I’d slather the stuff with that to take my mind, or more precisely my taste buds, off its discomforting fat-content.

 

My local sega-bet was also the source of the cheapest tej in the neighbourhood.  Tej is a kind of smoky Ethiopian mead that I was extremely partial to.  So munching my way through half a freshly-slaughtered ox, fat and all, was the necessary evil I had to put up with in order to guzzle large quantities of Ethiopian honey-wine.

 

How did Ethiopians develop a fondness for eating raw meat in various permutations?  I’ve heard claims that at some point in history it grew out of a military necessity.  When Ethiopian fighters were on the move, they didn’t want to give their position away to the enemy and so they got into the habit of eating their meat raw.  This spared them having to light fires to cook on, which would produce tell-tale plumes of smoke.