Literary things

 

© The Turman-Foster Company / Universal Pictures

 

I reckon John Carpenter’s 1982 movie The Thing is one of the best horror films ever.  Its story of a shape-shifting alien organism that infiltrates a base in Antarctica, absorbing and assuming the forms of more and more of the base’s human (and canine) personnel, is a masterpiece of claustrophobia, paranoia and all-round scariness.

 

And its special effects, courtesy of make-up / effects genius Rob Bottin, massively raised the bar for what was achievable in horror movies at the time.  During those moments when it reveals itself, Bottin’s alien thingy is a hellish, glistening, squirming, tentacled nightmare made of bits and pieces of all the Earth creatures it’s consumed already.  It resembles a canvas painted / splattered simultaneously by Hieronymus Bosch and Jackson Pollock.

 

What makes Bottin’s work all the more remarkable – and believable – is that it consists of real, solid, practical effects.  For The Thing was made in the days was before digital technology took over and filmmakers went crazy using cartoonish and insubstantial-looking computer-generated imagery.  (That’s the reason why I’ve never bothered watching Matthijs van Heijningen Jr’s 2011 prequel to Carpenter’s movie, also called The Thing.  Although practical special effects had been used during the prequel’s shooting, craven studio executives had CGI superimposed over those practical effects in post-production.)

 

This summer I’d wanted to write something about The Thing on this blog to commemorate the fact that a quarter-century had now passed since it was released in the middle of 1982.  Then the other day I realised that 1982 was not a quarter-century ago.  It was actually 35 years ago and I’m a decade older than I thought I was.  Oh dear…

 

But rather than write about the movie itself, as countless film critics, commentators and enthusiasts have over the years, I thought I’d look instead at its literary roots.  Because The Thing is an adaptation (scripted by Bill Lancaster, son of Burt) of a novella called Who Goes There?, written by science-fiction writer and editor John W. Campbell and published in 1938.

 

Who Goes There? had already been filmed in 1951 as The Thing from Another World, directed by Christian Nyby and produced by the legendary Howard Hawks.  The 1951 version keeps the story’s basic premise of the crew of a polar camp (though here at the North rather than the South Pole) coming up against a malevolent alien.  But instead of depicting it as a shape-shifting beastie, which would have been difficult to do convincingly in 1951, the Hawks / Nyby film merely depicts it as a lumbering, pasty-skinned, dome-headed, spiky-fingered muscle-man played by none other than James Arness, later to star in the 1950s-1970s Western TV show Gunsmoke.   Howard Hawks’s trademark no-nonsense directorial style and brisk, punchy dialogue are much in evidence in The Thing from Another World and it’s often been speculated that he shot most of the film himself rather than Nyby.

 

© Winchester Pictures Corporation / RKO

 

John Carpenter was a well-known admirer of Howard Hawks and his 1976 movie Assault on Precinct 13 in particular shows a big Hawksian influence.  So when Carpenter’s version of The Thing was announced, I suspect many critics assumed it’d be a straightforward remake of the 1951 movie.  And I suspect that’s why it got such a hostile reception when it was released in 1982 – for although the movie has since been reappraised and is now regarded as a sci-fi / horror classic, it initially earned Carpenter some of the worst reviews of his career.  (I seem to remember the Observer slamming it under the headline JUST ONE DAMNED THING AFTER ANOTHER.)  Those 1982 critics got something very different from what they were expecting and didn’t react well.

 

What they got, in fact, was a film capturing the shape-shifting concept of the alien in the real source material, the 1938 story by John W. Campbell – a story most of those critics were probably unfamiliar with.

 

I recently came across and read Who Goes There? online.  What did I think of it?

 

Well, what I immediately thought after reading it was “Phew!”  Experienced in 2017, with its dollops of torturous pose and pages upon pages of dialogue-framed exposition, Campbell’s story is hard going indeed.

 

© Rocket Ride Books

 

It’s fun to see so many character-names that crop up in Carpenter’s film – McReady, Blair, Copper, Garry, Norris, Clark, Benning – but the descriptions of those characters are madly overwrought.  The hero, McReady, is likened by Campbell to “a figure from some forgotten myth, a looming, bronze statue that held life, and walked.  Six-feet-four inches he stood…  And he was bronze – his great red-bronze beard, the heavy hair that matched it.  The gnarled, corded hands gripping, relaxing on the table planks were bronze.  Even the deep-sunken eyes beneath the heavy brows were bronze.”  This Wagnerian, and bronze, version of McReady is far removed from the morose, tetchy git played by Kurt Russell in the film.

 

The scientist Blair, meanwhile, is described with this peculiar sentence: “His little birdlike motions of suppressed eagerness danced his shadow across the fringe of dingy grey underwear hanging from the low ceiling, the equatorial quiff of stiff, greying hair around his naked skull a comical halo about the shadow’s head.”  At least he sounds more like his cinematic incarnation (who’s played by the character actor Wilfred Brimley).

 

How the characters discover and bring into their camp their soon-to-be-unwelcome visitor is related in three pages of conversational backstory, which includes such unlikely pieces of dialogue as: “Right there, where that buried thing was, there is an ice-drowned mountain ridge, a granite wall of unshakable strength that has dammed back the ice creeping from the south.”   Later, as the Thing starts to imitate the base’s inhabitants, there are many talky pages where people speculate on its biology, its capabilities and how it can be detected; and also where they start to crack up with paranoia.  “You sit as still as a bunch of graven images,” exclaims one man while his colleagues regard him suspiciously.  “You don’t say a word, but oh Lord, what expressive eyes you’ve got.  They roll around like a bunch of glass marbles spilling down a table.  They wink and blink and stare and whisper things.”

 

There are moments when Campbell’s prose does convey the bleakness of the situation, recording how the Antarctic wind created an “uneasy, malicious gurgling in the pipe of the galley stove” and how “the snow picked up by the mumbling wind fled in level, blinding lines across the face of the buried camp”.  But overall, as far as its writing is concerned, Who Goes There? is a work to be endured rather than enjoyed.   It isn’t a patch on that other famous 1930s tale of Antarctica-set horror, H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936).

 

I was surprised, then, and a little relieved that there’s less of Who Goes There? in John Carpenter’s The Thing than I’d expected.  That said, the story does provide the film with its most celebrated scene, the ‘blood-test’ one wherein McReady hits on a method of identifying who’s-been-got and who’s not.  Though while John W. Campbell has McReady laboriously testing the blood of some 35 base-members, in the movie John Carpenter wisely waits until there’s only half-a-dozen men left standing.  As a result, his enactment of the scene is much more intense, focused and suspenseful.

 

© Classics Illustrated

 

And to be fair to Campbell, his story clarifies the Thing’s modus operandi more than the film, which at times is hazy about just what McReady and the rest are up against.  For example, watching The Thing, I was initially puzzled by the idea that the intruder could take the form of more than one victim at a time.  In the story, it’s made clear that when it absorbs an organism it adds the organism’s body mass to its own; and when the organism is replaced, it hives off again with the original’s massMeanwhile, the original Thing goes back to its original bulk too, free to absorb and replicate something else.

 

Then there’s the sub-plot with Blair.  In both the novella and film, Blair loses his mind as the horror unfolds and is locked up for his own (and everyone else’s) safety.  It later becomes apparent that he’s part of the Thing too, has its alien intelligence, and has spent his time in captivity assembling a mysterious machine.  The novella describes how he’s imprisoned in an equipment storeroom, where he uses pieces of the equipment to fashion a small anti-gravity device that’ll transport him from Antarctica to a populated continent where he can start replicating.  The film is murkier about what he’s up to.  There’s a glimpse of some sort of capsule, like a mini-flying saucer, but that’s all.  I was left with the impression that Blair had somehow managed to construct a spacecraft out of empty soup cans and pieces of string.

 

Finally, I should point out that Who Goes There? isn’t the only literary work connected with the scary world of The Thing.  In 2010, Clarkesworld Magazine published a short story called The Things, written by Peter Watts, which retells the events of Carpenter’s movie through the eyes – if that’s the word – of the Thing itself.

 

Here, the Thing isn’t such a bad old thing.  It genuinely believes it’s doing the humans a favour by taking them over, which it describes as an act of ‘communion’.  It views their biology as ‘ill-adapted’, ‘inefficient’ and ‘disabled’ and wants to ‘fix’ them.  At times, it’s repulsed by their physical circumstances, calling their brains ‘tumours’ and their bodies ‘bony caverns’.  No wonder it’s upset when the humans respond to its kindness by using flamethrowers on it.

 

A thought-provoking and bleakly-amusing take on John Carpenter’s movie from the very last character in it you’d expect, Peter Watts’ The Things can be read on this webpage.  Meanwhile, John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? is available for reading here.  The 2010 story is 7,000 words long while the 1938 one clocks in at a hefty 30,000 words; and comparing them, I have to say I agree with the old adage that the best Things come in small packages.

 

© The Turman-Foster Company / Universal Pictures

 

No call to get snippy with Fargo

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

If I had one problem with Fargo (1996), the crime / thriller / comedy / drama movie written, produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, it was that it was over too soon.  Fargo creates a strange, mesmerizing world that’s set amid the white winter wastes of North Dakota and Minnesota and that rings with the music of the inhabitants’ whimsical speech patterns (“Yah, you betcha!”).  It’s a bleak and cruel world where a hapless shmuck with no aptitude for criminality (William H. Macy) tries his hand at criminality anyway and gets mercilessly punished for it, with bad luck and his own incompetence landing him in an ever-deepening morass of violence and bloodshed.  But it’s simultaneously a cozy and life-affirming world where the whole vicious mess is sorted out by a resourceful and heavily pregnant policewoman (Francis McDormand) whose most aggressive line is a schoolmarm-ish “You’ve no call to get snippy with me!”

 

I found Fargo’s world so captivating that I felt disappointed when after 98 minutes it ended – though admittedly it ended spectacularly, with Steve Buscemi being force-fed into a wood-chipping machine.

 

When it was announced a few years ago that author, screenwriter and producer Noah Hawley was masterminding a ten-episode, ten-hour TV version of Fargo, I should’ve been pleased at the prospect of getting six times the dose of Fargo-the-movie.  But I felt wary.  For one thing, I thought, surely even the best TV programme-maker in the world would struggle to capture the peculiar spirit of a Coen Brothers movie.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

And I had mixed feelings when I watched the first episodes of the first season of Fargo in 2014.  It was enjoyable, yes, but I was dissatisfied at how it took key character-types from the movie – the bungling loser becoming a criminal (Martin Freeman instead of Macy), the shrewd but gentle-natured police-lady (Allison Tolman instead of McDormand) – and simply tweaked their situations a bit.  Hence, Freeman goes through the same vortex of panic and misery that Macy goes through, but unlike his movie counterpart he apparently emerges from it stronger and richer; while Tolman isn’t pregnant, but the wife of one of her police colleagues is.  The show wasn’t a carbon-copy of the original, then, but it felt like a considerable imitation.

 

However, what makes a difference in season one of Fargo, from the off, is Billy Bob Thornton’s performance as Lorne Malvo.  A fearsome hitman, Malvo doesn’t just kill folk.  He also enjoys manipulating and corrupting people whom he comes across, as he does early on with Lester Nygaard, Freeman’s character.  It’s no surprise when at one point he mentions himself being in the Garden of Eden.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

In fact, after a few episodes Fargo season one seemed to escape from the shadow of its cinematic predecessor.  It became unafraid to take risks and do its own thing and generally grew more confident and rewarding.  I particularly liked how in episode 8 it suddenly hopped forward a year or so from its original setting of 2006 and the characters and their circumstances were suddenly transformed – Tolman’s character, Molly, becoming a wife and expectant mother, Lester Nygaard ceasing to be a sniveling weasel and morphing into a successful salesman who seems to have it made.  Though inevitably, fate intervenes when Nygaard pops off to a Las Vegas awards ceremony to pick up a prize and inadvertently crosses paths with Malvo again.

 

Fargo season one became pretty good, then, but it was never perfect.  As the cringing Nygaard, Freeman met the bill physically but faltered somewhat with the Minnesota accent.  Also, the script’s fondness for introducing character duos – not only a pair of other hitmen called Mr Wrench and Mr Numbers, but also a pair of bumbling FBI agents called Agent Pepper and Agent Budge – made me wonder what other duos might appear before the show was over.  Maybe Mr Kidd and Mr Wint from Diamonds are Forever (1971)?

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Season one was boosted by the presence of Keith Carradine in the role of Lou, Molly’s dad and a former policeman.  In one scene, he describes a violent case he experienced in 1979 where there were dead bodies “one after another… probably if you stacked ’em high, you could’ve climbed to the second floor.”  Fargo season two, shown in 2015, tells the story of that case with Patrick Wilson playing a younger version of Lou.  The reason for the multitude of corpses is that 1979 sees gang warfare break out in North Dakota, triggered when the Kansas City syndicate decides to muscle in on a gangster family who’ve been running Fargo city’s underworld for generations.  In a typical twist, these gangsters aren’t Italian in origin but German.  They’re the Gerhardts, fond of eating schnitzel and reminiscing about their forefathers’ exploits on the losing side in World War I.

 

The Gerhardts contain wise heads (Jean Smart, Angus Sampson) and less wise heads (Jeffrey Donovan, Kieran Culkan), though predictably it’s the less wise heads who have the biggest influence on events and bullets are soon flying.  Complicating the situation is a giddy beautician called Peggy, played by Kirsten Dunst – this season’s variation on the hapless-schmuck-getting-mired-in-criminality-and-chaos.  She accidentally smashes her car into a key member of the Gerhardt family one night and instead of driving to the nearest hospital drives home with his bloodied body still sprawled across the bonnet.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

While the first season poked fun at the American Dream, thanks to Lester Nygaard going from zero to hero in his profession after he’s murdered one person and been an accomplice in the murder of a couple of others, season two is explicit in its satirical target.  It’s set at the dawn of the Reagan era, when big corporate businesses got carte blanche to stomp the life out of their smaller competitors, something symbolized by the unequal battle between the Kansas City syndicate and Fargo’s Gerhardts.  Underlining the satire is an appearance in episode 5 by the soon-to-be president Ronald Reagan (played by Bruce Campbell – yay!) who’s campaigning in the neighbourhood.  Lou, who’s a Vietnam veteran, is assigned to Reagan’s security detail and the pair of them start chatting and swapping war memories, though Lou soon realizes that his befuddled charge is talking about the war movies he made as an actor.

 

While the ruthless, corporate way the world is heading sounds the death-knell for the Gerhardts, Fargo season two is not without optimism.  Hope for the future is embodied in Lou’s family unit – his ailing but loving wife (Cristin Milioti), his kindly father-in-law (Ted Danson) and his little daughter, whom we know will grow up to be the heroine of season one.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Fargo’s second season is splendid television – as good as Hannibal (2013-15), True Detective (2014-15) or anything else I’ve seen in recent years.  It’s not, I should say, a straightforward gangster thriller because it’s peppered with strange Coen-esque moments.  Along the way we’re treated to black-and-white clips from fictional Ronald Reagan movies and – in a nod to that late-1970s blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – a giant UFO that appears at crucial moments in the plot.  If you love the whacked-out whimsy of the Coen-verse, as I do, you’ll find the visitations of this UFO delightful.  If you don’t, you may feel like putting your foot through your TV set.

 

Season three of Fargo aired earlier this year and I’ve just finished watching a box-set of it.  Obviously, it had a lot to live up to.  Noah Hawley bravely doesn’t try to emulate the slap-bang action of the previous season and dials things down – even when mass bloodshed occurs in season three, it largely does so offscreen.  The result is a lower-key variation on the Fargo formula, with more bleakness and ambiguity and a suggestion that even the very best characters may not be living happily ever after.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Set in 2010, the third season starts with two business partners, Emmit (Ewan McGregor, whose Minnesota accent is more convincing than Martin Freeman’s) and Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg), discovering that the contract they signed with a shady company that lent them money and bailed them out during the economic crisis two years earlier has some troubling small-print.  One day, an emissary from the shady company called V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) turns up out of the blue and informs them that he’s their new partner.  He’ll be making changes to their operations and expanding them into some new and unorthodox areas.

 

Emmit also has to deal with his brother Ray, who’s played too by McGregor.  Jacob-and-Esau-style, Ray blames Emmit for cheating him out of his birthright (a collection of valuable stamps) and dooming him to a deadbeat existence as a parole officer.   Ray is urged on in this sibling quarrel by his girlfriend Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an ex-felon who’s actually one of his parolees.  When the embittered Ray blackmails another of his parolees into burgling Emmit’s house for him, we enter that now-familiar Fargo territory where Things Start to Go Wrong.

 

There are some hilarious early scenes where Emmit and Sy watch helplessly while their company is taken over by the mysterious but clearly criminal Varga – whom Thewlis basically plays as the devil, though a devil with the manner of a world-weary, disheveled schoolmaster who’s constantly having to explain things in very simple terms to very stupid schoolchildren.  But the humour rapidly sours.  Although they’re a pair of self-satisfied and not-very-bright shysters, neither Emmit nor Sy are that bad and neither of them deserve the tribulations that are soon visited upon them, Job-like.  Sy, a Coen-esque character with the demeanor (and effectiveness) of an angry chihuahua, is touchingly loyal to Emmit and you feel quite upset at his eventual fate.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Similar ambiguity exists elsewhere.  Ray is an oaf whose petulant actions result in misery and death, but he at least shows genuine love for Nikki.  Meanwhile, Nikki is capable of resorting to murder to have her way, but when Varga gets forcefully involved in the Ray-Emmit feud and she declares war against him – she even enlists the help of the hitman Mr Wrench from season one – we find ourselves cheering her on.

 

Representing the forces of goodness this time is Carrie Coon as police chief Gloria Burgle.  Compared with Alison Tolman and Patrick Wilson in the previous seasons, she has a smaller support base – a 13-year-old son and a policewoman buddy (Olivia Sandoval) and that’s about it.  Her husband has left her and her stepfather is dead before the end of episode one.  And what she’s up against is frightening.  While the Kansas City syndicate in season two represented big business, Thewlis’s Varga, a man apparently without identity or history but able to commandeer computers and the Internet to do whatever he wants, is symbolic of the vast, practically-omnipotent multinationals that exist today and are richer and more powerful than most countries.

 

Hawley pushes the envelope with season three.  One episode contains animated segments involving a wandering robot – Gloria discovers that her late stepfather once wrote science-fiction stories under another name, belatedly reads one of his novels and visualises its plot in cartoon form.  At other points, the show approaches the supernatural weirdness of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017) with Ray Wise (who was in Twin Peaks) turning up as a character who might be God to David Thewlis’s devil.  In this morally-unstable universe, however, God’s appearances are less frequent and consistent than those of his adversary.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

The early episodes of Fargo season three suffer from pacing problems, when more could be happening and happening more quickly.  But it does build to a suspenseful climax and the scene where Gloria and Varga finally come face to face is quietly brilliant.  It’s not as great as season two, but it’s great in parts.

 

And near the end of the final episode, after so many hours of Fargo-related TV, when Jeff Russo’s melancholic but majestic theme music swirled up on the soundtrack, do you know what?  I thought, shit.  It’s still over too soon.

 

Rockin’ in the Sri world

 

 

After three years of moaning about how rubbish the live-music scene in Colombo seemed to be, about how in the evenings I’d go along to a fancy hotel bar-lounge that was advertising a live ‘rock’ band and find myself sitting amid a gaggle of immaculately-dressed wealthy Sri Lankans and various sweaty, overweight foreign tourists listening to some blokes in their late-middle-age wibbling their way through a jazz-funk rendition of Lionel Richie’s Hello, I finally resolved the other weekend to get off my lazy, wrinkly arse and head out into the city’s meaner streets and track down some proper live music.

 

I found some too in a venue called the Keg Pub.  (The street it was on, T.B. Jaya Mawatha near Lake Beira, wasn’t even that mean, although the joint across the road where I stopped off for some rice and curry looked a bit rough).  The Keg was hosting something called Rock n’ Roll 2017 (ii), an evening of Sri Lankan acoustic performers and rock bands, the latter sporting such names as Island Mafia, The Soul and Paranoid Earthling.  Its Facebook page exhorted me to bring my ‘best buds’, ‘drinking buds’ and ‘chickas’, which when I consulted the online Urban Dictionary I discovered meant a ‘sexy Latin lady friend’.  Unfortunately, the person who trebles as my best buddy, drinking buddy and sexy chicka, i.e. Mrs Blood and Porridge, was unable to come along and I attended alone.

 

The event certainly felt like the real deal when I arrived and paid my money at the door and received a stamp on my arm and a paper bracelet to wear around my wrist – possibly the last time I was stamped and braceleted like that was when I saw Megadeth and Korn in Chicago back in 1995.  Also promising were the sights that assailed me when I walked through the door: semi-darkness, lots of people dressed in black and a sizeable island-bar at which I could slump whilst viewing the stage.   Oh, and the oldest person already there looked about 20 years younger than me, which also boded well for me not having to endure an arthritic jazz-funk workout of Hello.

 

That said, no matter how rock-and-roll the atmosphere, I couldn’t escape the fact that I was still in a Sri Lankan pub.  Because there was a TV screen, on the wall, showing bloody cricket for the entire evening.

 

 

Much of the night’s music consisted of cover versions rather than original material, which I suppose had its upside and its downside.  The upside was that because the performers were playing world-famous songs by world-famous bands, I was at least getting some quality stuff.  The downside was that I’d heard some of those songs a million times already and become sick of them.  Plus, it didn’t grant me much insight into what’s really happening in the rock-music scene in this country at the moment.

 

Still, there might be conclusions to be drawn about the Sri Lankan musical temperament from the fact that nobody blinked when one band went straight from a Nirvana song to Survivor’s Sylvester Stallone-empowering Eye of the Tiger – not something you could do among die-hard Nirvana fans in many Western countries and expect to live.  Or that a duo who’d been treating us to blues versions of AC/DC numbers then treated us to a Bon Jovi one without ruffling any feathers, even though in my book that’s the equivalent of a Robert De Niro retrospective that partners Raging Bull (1980) with Dirty Grandpa (2016).

 

 

Significantly, later bands introduced some reggae music into the evening’s mix.  Even a rendition of the Dylan / Hendrix favourite All Along the Watchtower had a reggae-ish interlude added to it.  Maybe that’s a consequence of living on such a hot, sultry island.  A rock-and-roll gathering can’t be loud and fast and bolshy for too long.  No, the heat soon encourages everyone to chill and go a bit Bob Marley.

 

One thing I have to say.  Paranoid Earthling, whose Wikipedia entry tells me are a ‘grunge, experimental, psychedelic, stoner rock, heavy metal’ band from Kandy, came onstage late in the evening with a welcoming cry of “How ya motherfuckas doin’ tonight?” and proved to be epic.  They played their own stuff and played it with blistering aplomb.  Showing particular panache was their spandex-wrapped vocalist Mirshad Buckman, who has the enviable double-advantage of looking a bit like the late, great Ronnie James Dio and sounding a bit like the equally late, great Bon Scott.  They performed a big beast of a song called Open up the Gates whose guitar sound managed to be both twiddly and thumping.  They gave their closing number Rock n’ Roll is my Anarchy a splendid, punky, foot-tapping tunefulness.   And during a song called Feel My Ritual they admirably kept focused even as a front-of-stage lighting rig toppled over into the audience – mind you, said rig was really only two light-bulbs at the end of a pole.  Best of all, though, was their song Deaf Blind Dumb, which borrowed its stompy bits from Marilyn Manson’s The Beautiful People but which was still a blast played live.

 

 

Very fine people

 

© The Independent

 

Thank you, Grand Wizard Trump, for that enlightening and perceptive press conference you gave on Tuesday in which you set the record straight about the previous weekend’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia.

 

In my wide-eyed, libtard, snowflaky naivete, I’d thought the violence in Charlottesville had been the result of some bad guys: Nazi white-supremacists marching around with swastika-emblazoned flags, swastikas being the symbol of people who sent six million of their fellow human beings to the gas chambers during World War II.  That sounds pretty bad, right?  At Charlottesville, they were challenged by some good guys: counter-protesters who took exception to the Nazis and their genocidal ideology.  That sounds like a good thing to do, right?  The bad guys reacted badly to being challenged by the good guys, to the point where one of them drove a car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 others.  Not only did that seem like a very bad action, but some folk argued that it qualified as terrorism.  However, some other folk disagreed, since the perpetrator wasn’t a Muslim and he only did non-terroristy things like idolize Adolf Hitler.

 

However, now that Führer Trump has explained in fluent and convincing detail what really happened at Charlottesville, I stand corrected.  You see, he knows “a lot about Charlottesville” because, as he pointed out, he has a winery there.  (“I own actually one of the largest wineries in the United States that’s in Charlottesville.”)  So we can take his pronouncements as truth.  I now realize that the Nazis weren’t such a bad lot because there were many “very fine people” among their ranks.  Furthermore, they could “innocently protest” and “very legally protest” because “they had a permit”.  There were a few bad eggs among those Nazis, of course.  But let’s not forget “there’s blame on both sides” because those pesky meddling anti-Nazi demonstrators (“you can call them the left” or “alt-left”) had a contingent “that was also very violent” and “came charging, with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs” and “were very, very violent” and “it was a horrible thing to watch.”  They were “troublemakers and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the clubs.”  Plus they “came charging in without a permit.”

 

Oddly enough, Reichsmarschall Trump’s wise words have not been well received by American politicians of both Democrat and Republican persuasions who’ve spent the past two days tweeting their dismay at him.  But David Duke, boss of the KKK – that’s the Ku Klux Klan, whom I hear are a wee bit racist, but I’m sure many of their members are actually very fine people – did tweet admiringly: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty and courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville and condemn the leftist terrorists.”

 

Now that the scales have finally been removed from my eyes about the Nazis, thanks to Il Duce Trump, and now that I understand how they included many fine people and only did Nazi-type things when they had a permit to do so, I can revisit all the Nazi-related pieces of popular culture that I grew up with and view them in a new light.  For example:

 

© Ealing Studios

 

Let George Do It!  (1940)

German Führer Adolf Hitler has a permit to very innocently and legally give a speech at a Nuremburg Rally attended by thousands of Nazis, who include some very fine people.  Suddenly, however, the notorious alt-left music-hall troublemaker and all-round bad hombre George Formby shins down a rope from a passing balloon and gives a blood-curdling Marxist cry of “I’ll knock your block off!”  Then he charges in with a cheeky grin and with a Wigan accent and with a ukulele in his hand and punches the poor Führer on the chin.  After President Trump apportions blame to both sides, Adolf Hitler tweets: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty and courage to tell the truth about #GeorgeFormby and condemn the leftist Lancashire terrorist.”

 

© Penguin Books

 

Moonraker (1955)

Fanatical Social Justice Warrior / feminazi / ecofascist James Bond of the alt-left terrorist outfit MI6 is directed by his boss M (short for ‘Mao’, presumably) to be very, very violent towards Hugo Drax, who’s a Trumpian multimillionaire, the former head of a German Nazi commando unit and a very fine person.  Nasty Bond comes charging in with his licence to kill and with his shaken-not-stirred-vodka-and-martini and with his twangy Monty Norman theme tune and messes up Drax’s plan, which he has a permit for, signed by himself, to fire a nuclear missile at Londonistan and sort out its Muslim mayor with fire and fury.   It’s a horrible thing to watch.

 

© Associated British Pathé

 

Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

Alt-left troublemakers Johnny ‘Guevara’ Mills, Harry ‘Ho Chi Minh’ Andrews and Sylvia ‘Osamu’ Sims commandeer an ambulance and in a cold-blooded act of terrorism drive it straight into the middle of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, which contains some very fine people.  Luckily, because this is the eastern Sahara, they miss their targets, who are innocently and legally attacking Tobruk, by several miles.  Then the thirsty terrorists head for Alexandria to have a beer and link up with ISIS.  “Worth waiting for!” declares Mills at the end, no doubt referring to the overthrow of capitalism.

 

© United Artists

 

The Great Escape (1963)

It’s 1943 in peaceful, neighbourly Nazi Germany.  A rabble of leftist terrorists, whose codenames include such sinister monikers as Big X, The Forger, The Scrounger, The Tunnel King and Eric Ashley-Pitt, bust out of a high-security detention camp set up by the Nazis, who include some very fine people, and terrorise the surrounding countryside.  One alt-left troublemaker called The Cooler King commandeers a motorbike and in a cold-blooded act of terrorism drives it straight into the middle of an innocent Swiss-border fence.  Finally, the Gestapo round up 50 escapees and machine-gun them all to death, which is okay because they have a permit.  “There’s blame on both sides,” comments President Trump.

 

© BBC

 

Dad’s Army (1973)

A sinister alt-left collective known as the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard come charging in with some M1917 Enfield rifles and with a butcher’s van and with a variety of comic catchphrases and take hostage the crew of a Nazi-Germany U-Boat, who include some very fine people and who have a permit, signed by Adolf Hitler, to innocently and legally torpedo and sink large amounts of British shipping.  The sadistic and arthritic leftist troublemakers goad their victims by singing the blood-curdling Marxist anthem, “Whistle while you work / Hitler is a twerp / He’s half-barmy / So’s his army…”  It’s a horrible thing to hear.

 

*****

 

But seriously – seriously – I can only surmise that the reason why Trump was so keen to give those Nazis / white supremacists / KKK / alt-right goons a friendly nod and wink, as if to say, “Don’t worry, guys, I’m on your side, really,” is because so many of them showed up at Charlottesville armed to the teeth and wearing militia uniforms.  He must be hoping that if the House Committee and the Judiciary ever get around to impeaching him, his swastika-bearing admirers will swarm out onto the streets, start shooting people and mount a coup d’etat to save him.

 

Meanwhile, I’m bemused by how so many British right-wingers have been jumping to Trump’s defence and / or shouting “It’s none of our business what happens in America!” on social media.  These are people with avatars that show Union Jacks and with profiles that express their love for UKIP and Brexit.  You know, the sort of folk who normally never shut up about how plucky little Britain fought off the Nazis during World War II.

 

Oh well.  Here’s a clip of George Formby’s finest 50 seconds.  Go on, George.  Lamp the bastard.

 

Koneswaram Temple at Trincomalee

 

 

Dedicated to the great Hindu deity Shiva, Koneswaram Temple is perched above cliffs at the end of a peninsula at Trincomalee, a popular tourist town on Sri Lanka’s north-eastern coast.  The modern-day temple also marks the site of a notorious incident of plunder, vandalism and murder by 17th-century European imperialists.

 

In 1622, on April 14th – Tamil New Year’s Day – Portuguese soldiers sneaked into the temple grounds while most of its priests were busy with a religious procession outside.  They looted it, slaughtered any priests and temple staff they could find and finally, somehow, managed to topple most of the temple over the cliff-edge and into the sea.  What survived of the original complex was destroyed two years later, with the Portuguese using its stones for the construction of Fort Frederick, a military fort further along the peninsula that now serves as a garrison for a regiment of the Sri Lankan Army.  According to Koneswaram Temple’s Wikipedia entry, its treatment at the hands of the Portuguese is regarded as ‘the biggest loot’ of a temple in Asia.

 

Later, under British rule, Hindu pilgrims were allowed to visit and worship at the place of the old temple, but it wasn’t until the 1950s, after the British had departed and Sri Lanka become independent, that moves were made to restore it.  In fact, not all the old temple’s artefacts had been stolen by the Portuguese.  Some had been spirited away by priests, buried to ensure their safety and forgotten about – and in 1950 the local council accidently dug up statues of Hindu gods and goddesses like Shiva, Parvati and Ganesh whilst excavating a well a half-kilometre away.  Also, in 1956, a trove of items from the fallen temple, including columns with flower carvings and stone elephant-heads, was discovered by scuba divers exploring the seabed off the peninsula.   One of these divers was the filmmaker and photographer Mike Wilson.  Another was the celebrated science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, no less, who would eventually become a long-term resident of Sri Lanka.

 

In the same waters, in 1962, Wilson located and recovered a yet-more important relic from the temple – a Swayambhu Lingam, a round stone obelisk that according to legend hadn’t been fashioned by human hands but had formed naturally on the sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet and later had been transported to Sri Lanka by the fabled demon / god Emperor Ravana.  Wilson claimed that the Lingam provided inspiration for the obelisks in Clarke’s most famous work, the screenplay and tie-in novel he wrote in collaboration with Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  However, Clarke – who’d penned an account of their 1956 discoveries in a non-fiction book called The Reefs of Taprobane (1957) – denied this.

 

In 1963, nearly three-and-a-half centuries after the destruction of the original, a restored Koneswaram Temple was unveiled – not on the same physical scale as its medieval predecessor, but hopefully, thanks to its commanding view of the Indian Ocean and to it having some of the same artefacts on display inside, imbued with a similar spiritual atmosphere.

 

 

As you walk up the incline towards the temple, you’re greeted by a huge blue statue of Shiva hunkered comfortably by the entrance, gesturing with four arms and four door-sized hands.  In the temple-building beyond that, you aren’t allowed to take photographs – a shame since much of its décor is very photographable.  I particularly liked a statue of the afore-mentioned Emperor Kavana, depicting him as a nine-headed deity with multiple arms fanning out behind him – so many arms that he resembles a mutant octopus.  Two of those arms play a sitar-like stringed instrument with a tenth head planted at one end and an additional hand planted at the other.  I did find a picture of the statue on the temple’s Wikipedia entry, so I will sneakily borrow and reproduce that.

 

© Gane Kumaraswamy / From Wikipedia.org

 

The temple is also worth visiting for its geographical position.  Especially picturesque is a nearby knob of grey-brown rock jutting over the ocean waves, a path and flights of steps looped around it.  The path’s seaward edge is lined with blue railings and gold-patterned pillars with dainty lanterns on top.  Along its inner edge, the rock-face contains cavities with more, gaudily-coloured Hindu deities.  Trees grow on the rock above and below the path and steps, their branches reaching down and reaching up, dappling the walkway with sunlight and shade.

 

 

A word of warning, though.  You have to remove your shoes before entering the temple area and bringing a pair of socks to pad around in is essential.  That’s because after the sun rises, the temple’s paving stones warm up and are soon too hot for bare feet to tread on.  The morning that my partner and I visited there, my partner forgot to bring socks with her.  So, as a solution, I went in alone for about 20 minutes and left her standing outside in the shade of a tree.  Then I came out, lent her my socks and took her place under the tree while she went in and explored.

 

My vigil under that tree wasn’t boring.  Other visitors would arrive, sans socks, and I amused myself watching them hop barefoot from baking paving stone to baking paving stone like manic versions of Michael Jackson at the end of the Billie Jean video.

 

 

No news is good news

 

From Twitter / @Fergoodness

 

Well, that was embarrassing.  On August 9th, the Scottish edition of the Times printed a column by journalist Kenny Farquharson headed THROW THE BOOK AT POLITICIANS WHO DON’T READ.  Its first six paragraphs took aim at former Scottish First Minister and former leader of the Scottish National Party Alex Salmond because, supposedly, he wasn’t a reader.  Farquharson based his assertion that Salmond didn’t read books on two things: an acquaintance who’d visited Salmond’s home in Aberdeenshire and hadn’t seen any books lying around and a quote Salmond allegedly gave to a student newspaper about not having read a book for “eight years straight”.

 

Later the same day, after a photo of the library at Salmond’s house (which Farquharson’s first source evidently hadn’t seen) had circulated on twitter and Salmond himself had tweeted that in the student-newspaper interview he’d been misquoted – he’d said ‘write’, not ‘read’ – the column vanished from the Times’s online edition and Farquharson issued an apologetic tweet: “Student paper that interviewed Alex Salmond has now withdrawn the quote, so we’ve removed my column from online.  Apologies to @AlexSalmond.”

 

At least, Farquharson apologised.  Fellow Scottish newspaper hack David Torrance, who’d also peddled the Salmond-doesn’t-read story, reacted to Salmond’s intervention by tweeting: “It’s like being harangued by a mad old man in a pub.  ‘I used to be First Minister you know…’”  Thus, if the mainstream Scottish media smears you and you object, you’re the equivalent of a pished auld haverer in a bar.  That’s journalistic integrity in Scotland 2017.

 

I knew Farquharson slightly from my college days in Aberdeen, when he was a stalwart member of the campus Creative Writing Society (along with now-celebrated novelist Ali Smith), so I’m surprised a literary-minded man like him failed to question and check his sources.  Among other things, Salmond has interviewed both Iain Banks and Ian McEwan at the Edinburgh Book Festival, feats that’d require massive amounts of chutzpah (even by Salmond’s standards) to pull off if you were a non-book-reading philistine.  I suspect Farquharson rushed to conclusions because, like most of the Scottish press, he just doesn’t like Salmond and is happy to believe the worst about him.

 

© The Guardian

© Pauline Keightly Photography / From musicfootnotes.com

 

Now I admit that Alex Salmond, a man not known for his modesty, can be hard to like.  Even sympathetic profiles of him usually contain, at some point, the phrase ‘love him or loathe him’.  But the mainstream Scottish media’s antipathy towards Salmond is symptomatic of wider antipathy.  It also just doesn’t like Salmond’s party, the SNP, and how they’ve run Scotland since they won their first Scottish parliamentary election in 2007.

 

You get the impression that Scotland’s national print media – Scottish editions of the London-based dailies like the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Sun plus supposedly ‘home-grown’ titles like the Scotsman, Herald and Daily Record, though the Herald and Record’s owners, Newsquest and Trinity Mirror, are based in England – never forgave the SNP for disrupting the old status quo in Scotland.  That old status quo had seemingly stretched back through the mists of antiquity to the Stone Age.  Simply put, Labour dominated Scotland (first at council level and then, after its creation in 1999, the Scottish Parliament); while the Conservatives and, occasionally, Labour oversaw Scotland and the rest of Britain from Westminster.

 

As the sainted messengers who conveyed information from that establishment to the great unwashed and who offered interpretation and comment on how the establishment was doing things, Scotland’s journalists had their own comfortable and privileged niche in Scottish society.

 

The relationship between Scotland’s old politicians and journalists was a symbiotic one.  Iain Macwhirter, columnist with the Sunday Herald, one of only two newspapers in Scotland that gives the SNP much support, has recalled how the Sunday Herald’s decision to back the party in 2014 was made in spite of “fears… that stories might dry up if the Sunday Herald was black-balled by Labour – an indication that, though Labour had been out of power for seven years, the tribe still held on to many key positions in public life.”  He also noted that “Scottish journalism is almost as tribal as Scottish politics, and Labour has traditionally called the shots in the Scottish media through its extensive patronage networks.”

 

Many Scottish journalists seem unaware of those wise words by American novelist and filmmaker Stephen Chbosky: “Things change and friends leave.  Life doesn’t stop for anybody.”  They’ve reacted to the SNP’s decade in power with continual aggrieved negativity.  Nothing the SNP government, originally headed by Alex Salmond, now headed by Nicola Sturgeon, does can ever be good.  It can only be bad.  Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, their headlines have regurgitated the message that Scotland is going to the dogs and it’s all the SNP’s fault.

 

What must be awkward for Scotland’s newspapers is the evidence that pops up now and again and suggests that things might not be going so badly after all.  For example, figures in June showing Scotland’s economy grew during the first part of 2017 – at a rate of only 0.8%, admittedly, but four times the equivalent rate for the UK as a whole.  Or Scottish unemployment dropping to its lowest level since the start of the 2008 financial crash.  Or passenger-satisfaction levels with ScotRail reaching 90%, its highest-ever rating (and way better than the 72% satisfaction-level for Southern Rail in England).  Or the Scottish National Health Service exceeding its targets for treating accident and emergency patients.  (Or indeed, evidence that the Scottish NHS is the best-performing one of the four health services in the UK.)

 

The condition of Scottish education remains a concern, with the 2016 Pisa rankings showing Scottish pupils performing considerably less well than English ones (though better than Welsh ones).  However, one thing that commentators have constantly lamented about, the small number of Scottish school-leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds getting into university, seems to have improved.  Recent figures show an increase of 13% in university entrants from poor backgrounds.

 

So hey, it’s not all bad news, is it?  Scotland’s newspapers will surely let a little sunshine filter out of their normally dour front pages and give credit where it’s due, right?

 

Dream on.  The Herald’s front page on August 7th gave a rubbishing of ScotRail: HALF OF TRAINS ARRIVING AT BUSIEST STATIONS ARE LATE.  After it was pointed out that the figures for this story were inaccurate, it vanished from the Herald’s website and an apology appeared the next day admitting, “The most recent figures show that 93.7% of ScotRail trains met the industry standard public performance measure (PPM).”  However, this wasn’t before similar stories had appeared in the Glasgow Evening News, Daily Record, Scottish Daily Mail and Dundee Courier.  Meanwhile, I only have to type ‘Scottish NHS’ into Google and click on ‘news’ underneath to get a long list of headlines suggesting that Scotland’s health system is ‘doomed, all doomed’ (© Private Fraser, Dad’s Army): SCOTTISH NHS AT RISK OF STAFFING SHORTAGES THANKS TO POOR PLANNING (the Daily Telegraph); HOSPITALS AND NHS FACILITIES MAY NEED TO BE ‘AXED’ (the Scotsman); NHS STAFFING SHORTAGES ARE COMPROMISING PATIENT CARE (the Scotsman again); SCOTTISH NURSES SLAM NHS STAFFING CRISIS FOR AFFECTING CARE OF PATIENTS (the Daily Record); etc.

 

Even the jump in students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university has been sourly received.  In January 2017, the Times’s Daniel Sanderson wrote an article decrying the fact that in Scotland FEWER THAN 10% OF STUDENTS COME FROM POOREST BACKGROUNDS.  Well, those new statistics about university entrants should cheer him up, right?  Nope.  This week, the same journalist wrote in the same newspaper an article decrying the fact that in Scotland MORE MIDDLE-CLASS STUDENTS ARE MISSING OUT ON UNIVERSITY PLACES.

 

For the record – as opposed to the Daily Record – I don’t think it matters much politically if 90-95% of Scotland’s mainstream press hate the party in power and monster them at every turn.  I’d rather live in a society like that than in a Putin-esque one where the government controls everything the newspapers say about them.  The fact that, despite the overwhelming hostility, the SNP have won two more Scottish elections since 2007 suggests that not many people believe what the newspapers tell them to believe these days.  (See also how Jeremy Corbyn secured 40% of the vote in the last British election despite the massive abuse he received in the British press.)

 

What does depress me is how this adversity must affect the many people working in the Scottish public sector and / or in services widely used by the Scottish public: hospital workers, teachers, train-staff, etc.  Clearly, they’ve made huge efforts to achieve good results in an era of austerity and financial uncertainty.  (That might sound like a platitude but it isn’t – for months now a close family member of mine has been looked after by the Scottish NHS and received excellent care.)  But when you go the extra mile for your patients, pupils or customers, and still get nothing but negative headlines screaming at you about your profession and your sector from the newspaper stands, it must be demoralising.

 

The Scottish press’s negativity-at-all-costs policy is not a case of, as some people have argued, ‘doing Scotland down’, because the SNP government is not all of Scotland – no more than Teresa May’s lunatic Brexit-obsessed Conservative government is all of England.  But, often, it seems discourteous to an awful lot of ordinary people who are just trying to do their jobs well.

 

From scotbuzz.co.uk 

 

Lucifer over Larne, Lurgan and Lisbellaw

 

© Cork University Press

 

When I was eight years old, I lived in a tiny village near the border between Counties Tyrone and Fermanagh in Northern Ireland.  Thinking back, I suspect that when my neighbours saw me they’d whisper, “Look – there’s the most gullible child in the village.”

 

No doubt they thought I was gullible because I readily believed any old guff people told me, especially in relation to things that, scientifically speaking, didn’t exist – i.e. manifestations of the supernatural.

 

I was a sucker for ghost stories.  For instance, an uncle once told me about the Cooneen Ghost – a tale involving a local family who supposedly were tormented by poltergeist-type knockings on the doors and windows of their house.  Horribly, when they tried to escape the entity by emigrating to North America, it travelled with them.  The phantom knockings continued in their cabin on board the ship and then at their house in the New World.  After hearing that, I lived in dread of similar knockings starting on the doors and windows of our house.  God help us, I thought, we’d never be rid of the thing.

 

From strangedaze.doomby.com

 

I also believed that fairies were real because a girl in my primary-school class had assured me that one day her mother had been in the family’s stick-house (Northern Irish for ‘wood-shed’) when she’d heard crying sounds coming from a block of wood.  Presumably these were made by a fairy whose home was in the tree that’d been chopped down for the timber.

 

I even believed in banshees because an older boy spun me a yarn about how, one night long ago, his father had heard a hideous screeching noise out in the darkness; and soon afterwards, someone well-known to his father had died unexpectedly.

 

So you can imagine my alarm one day when a couple of my primary-school classmates started talking about devil worshippers being active not only in Northern Ireland, but in the town of Enniskillen a few miles along the road from us.  They talked about a family in Enniskillen who were rumoured to draw all the curtains in their house as soon as it got dark and then spend the night performing black-magic rituals.  They described the carcasses of freshly-sacrificed goats that’d been discovered beside the river in Enniskillen with their hearts removed.  Most alarmingly, they related how a child, about our age, had been abducted by devil worshippers and later been found dead and cut into pieces.  I swallowed every word of this.  I took it as gospel truth.

 

Talking of the gospel, I’ll say in my defence that I belonged to a fairly religious community of Northern Irish Protestants.  We were a paradox – on one hand, priding ourselves on being rational and not superstitious, unlike those silly Roman Catholics who believed in saints and visions and rosary beads; but on the other hand believing everything that was said to have happened in the Bible because it was the Word of God.  And since the Bible said the devil existed – he did exist.  Our local clergyman confirmed this.  I remember him telling us sternly during a Sunday sermon that if you believed in the existence of God, you had to believe in the existence of the devil too.

 

So if the devil was real, surely it followed that evil people who worshipped him by slaughtering humans and animals were also real?

 

© Hammer Films

 

In the decades since, I’ve often wondered how my primary-school classmates got hold of those grisly stories about devil worship in early-1970s Northern Ireland.  Well, I’ve finally found the answer.  I recently read Black Magic and Bogeymen, a 2014 book by Richard Jenkins, Professor of Sociology at the University of Sheffield and a one-time undergraduate at Queen’s University in Belfast.  This investigates a “wave of rumours about black magic, Satanism, animal sacrifice and child abduction” that “swept across the north of Ireland in late 1973 and early 1974.”

 

According to Jenkins, “(b)etween 5th August and mid-December 1973, sixty-five items about witchcraft and black magic appeared in the mainstream press north and south of the Irish border: news reports, features, editorials, letters to the editor, church reports, and what appeared to be religious announcements…  Most of the reporting concerned the east of the province: Belfast and counties Antrim, Armagh and Down…  The reports peaked between mid-October and the third week in November, clustering around Hallowe’en.”

 

At their height, these reports seemed to reflect genuine panic in parts of Northern Ireland – adults concerned that their children might be kidnapped and sacrificed, and children generally scared witless.  (I was one of them.)  Predictably, as Jenkins observes, children were also among the worst culprits for spreading the rumours.  They “seem to have actively elaborated or invented stories about bad people doing bad things” and were “likely to have contributed to the meagre ‘tangible evidence’ of supposed witchcraft and black magic practices.”

 

Jenkins explores the many factors likely to have fostered these stories of devil worship, black magic and ‘witchcraft’.  (My apologies to any Wiccans or other practitioners of white or pagan magic reading this, but to 1970s Northern Ireland’s Protestants and Catholics, witchcraft was devil worship and vice-versa, end of.)  He describes the heightened interest in the occult in Western culture at the time, signified by such things as the sensational black-magic novels of Dennis Wheatley and high-profile movies like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973).  He devotes a chapter too to “the supernatural lore that was part of the enchanted world-views that could be encountered in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s” and no doubt made some people believe the rumours more readily – supernatural lore that includes not just the ghosts, fairies and banshees that so worried my eight-year-old self, but also traditions of faith and folk healing and a great enthusiasm for celebrating Hallowe’en.

 

Obviously, something that casts a huge shadow over Jenkins’ subject matter is the Northern Irish Troubles.  In their fourth year when the rumours began, the Troubles had already claimed an appalling toll – 467 people killed in 1972 alone.  Jenkins discusses how “social conflicts may be symbolised and re-worked in supernatural imagery and stories, not least in threats such as witchcraft and fears of spiritual jeopardy”.  The Troubles figured in the rumours in more tangible ways too, for example, through tales of teenagers getting embroiled in the occult after “trying to contact the souls of those killed in the Troubles, using Ouija boards or other methods.”

 

Jenkins attributes considerable blame for the scare to the province’s local newspapers, which generally reported the stories with ‘very modest facts’ that were ‘inflated and misrepresented’, ‘framed with unconnected material’ and ‘ornamented by apparently authoritative, if somewhat imprecise, anonymous information.’  Admittedly, those newspapers were under massive pressure.  A few years earlier their main stories had been about ‘livestock sales’ and ‘the Women’s Institute’ but now they were regularly covering ‘intimidation, murder and mayhem.’  Thus, standards weren’t high among their beleaguered journalists.

 

© Carrickfergus Advertiser

 

Fascinatingly, another possible culprit identified is the British Army, which depending on your political viewpoint was then in the province as protectors or oppressors, peacekeepers or occupiers.  Jenkins provides evidence suggesting the army was happy to stir the pot of black-magic rumours.   It conducted ‘black propaganda’ operations promoting the belief that, yes, diabolical things were going on and religious and / or superstitious Northern Irish parents should keep their offspring off the streets at night.  On those streets, they were actually unlikely to tangle with devil worshippers; but they could tangle with paramilitaries or the security forces.

 

Jenkins prints an interview conducted in 1993 with the legendary Intelligence officer and ‘psychological warfare’ expert Colin Wallace, who claims he and his men went around Northern Irish properties mocking them up with magic circles, esoteric symbols, blood, bones, candles and inverted crosses to make it look like unspeakable rituals had taken place in them.

 

Tragically, one element in the stories was real – the child who, my classmates had told me, had been ‘cut to pieces’.  Jenkins devotes a chapter to the murder of ten-year-old Brian McDermott.  Brian was reported missing from his home in east Belfast at the start of September 1973 and his remains, ‘burned, mutilated and partially dismembered’, were discovered in the River Lagan a week later.  Although the police dismissed the idea that the murder was the result of some occult ritual, Jenkins notes how “a ‘black magic’ interpretation of the murder of Brian McDermott became an established tale of the Northern Irish Troubles.”  Officially the crime remains unsolved, though in 1989 the journalist Martin Dillon claimed that British Army Intelligence suspected the murderer as being John McKeague (himself killed in 1982), one of the conflict’s most notorious and feared loyalist terrorists.

 

Richard Jenkins conducts his investigations with academic thoroughness, analysing certain stories and rumours from different perspectives as he goes through the various actors in the drama – the Troubles, religion, superstitious belief, the media, the army, etc.  His approach is exhaustive and may seem exhausting to the casual reader.  However, I found Black Magic and Bogeymen fascinating – well, I was there at the time – and it’s surely the last word on the subject.

 

Returning to my own experience, I recall being asked in December 1973 if I wanted to go to the Christmas pantomime being held at Enniskillen High School and telling my parents flatly that no, I didn’t, because Enniskillen was full of witches and devil worshippers.  My Dad went ballistic at me for believing such a ‘pack o’ nonsense’ and then demanded to know who’d told me those stories.  I gave him the names of my guilty classmates.  “More fool you,” he raged, “for listenin’ to them slabberin’ eejits!”  And that was that.  I stopped worrying and agreed to go to the pantomime.  That brief, angry burst of rationality from my Dad cured me of my fears.

 

Surprisingly, decades later, I remember my Dad – who originally hailed from Country Cavan in the Irish Republic – having a whiskey with an old Irish friend.  The pair of them started talking about their childhood in the Irish countryside and how, once the sun went down, their family members would tell ghost stories.

 

“I’m not kiddin’!” marvelled my Dad.  “After dark, ye’d be too terrified to step outside the house!”

 

“I think,” said his friend, “that was why they told us them stories.”

 

Which proves I wasn’t the first member of the family to be troubled by tales of ghosts, fairies, banshees, black magic and bogeymen.

 

© Hammer Films