Northern irony

 

From Graham YES Linehan / http://twitter.com/Glinner

 

At last – the Republic of Ireland has shed its last vestiges of patriarchal backwardness.  Today it qualifies as a properly modern society whose female citizens are allowed their say over what goes on in their bodies.  By a two-thirds majority, the southern Irish electorate has voted to repeal the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution that outlawed abortion.  The government will now hopefully start legislating to permit abortion in the Irish health service during the first dozen weeks of pregnancy – with the period extended to 24 weeks in extreme circumstances.

 

With that, the Irish Republic has severed the final link with those old, dishonourable days when the Catholic Church, with the acquiescence of politicians from Eamon de Valera downwards, ruled the roost; when grey, sanctimonious and often twisted old men drew up and enforced the rules about what was and wasn’t socially acceptable.  Back then, obviously, there was not much expectation of Irish women to be anything other than dutiful wives and mothers.

 

Meanwhile, the church’s abhorrence of abortion led to scandals and tragedies like those of Savita Halappanavar and ‘Miss D’; and, generally, to a hypocritical situation where pious society turned a blind eye to thousands of pregnant women being forced to cross the Irish Sea and get abortions in Britain.

 

This and other recent events mean that soon the only chunk of the British and Irish islands still subject to oppressive anti-abortion laws will be Northern Ireland – which, despite being part of the United Kingdom, never came under Britain’s 1967 abortion act.  Funnily enough, politicians representing the province’s Protestant majority haven’t shown any interest in adopting the act even though, in every other respect, they never stop shouting about how ‘British’ they are.

 

Coming from the place myself, I have to say that I don’t see much prospect of the situation in Northern Ireland changing soon.  That’s not only because of the high quota of dribbling religious-extremist basket-cases living there (like this one and this one).  It’s also to do with Theresa May’s pathetic dependence on 10 hard-line Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party MPs for the survival of her minority government.  They might be obnoxious, but she won’t do anything to upset them.

 

The irony now is that uncompromising Catholics in the Irish Republic who’re aghast at this weekend’s referendum result and at the vote to legalise same-sex marriage three years ago would probably feel much more comfortable living in Northern Ireland. (Same-sex marriage is still a no-no up north, by the way.)  Yet the laws governing social mores there have been fashioned by an uncompromising Protestantism that, in the past, largely defined itself by how anti-Catholic it was.  Traditionally, they loathed one another, but nowadays extremist northern Protestants and extremist southern Catholics are practically on the same wavelength.  Who’d have thought it?

 

Last man no longer standing

 

© Sam Falk / New York Times

 

For the last few years I’d thought of the American novelist Philip Roth, who died on May 22nd at the age of 85, as the ‘last man standing’.  This was because he seemed to me the very last of a certain breed: those high-profile, often brash and larger-than-life, and sometimes narcissistic, men of letters who made the American literary world an eventful and entertaining place in the mid-to-late 20th century.

 

I’m thinking of the likes of Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, John Updike, Gore Vidal and Kurt Vonnegut.  While it’s wrong to generalise, and each one had his own unique context and character, they seemed overall much more dramatically writerly than their British counterparts at the time.  Elephantine egos abounded, many of them loved the spotlight, and there were few qualms about rolling up sleeves and wading into a good literary feud, fight or slagging match with a rival.  For instance, Gore Vidal got punched in the face – or struck by a glass, or headbutted, depending on which story you believe – by Norman Mailer after he’d written a piece comparing Mailer to Charles Manson.  I couldn’t imagine John Fowles doing that to Malcolm Bradbury.

 

Certain members of America’s premier league of post-war writers were also notable boozers.  I seem to remember Martin Amis likening them once to a bunch of drunks you’d find in the back of a police van late on a Saturday night on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street.  (Aye, right, Martin.  Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night.  You’d know all about that.)

 

They generated lots of good copy and anecdotes but thinking about them now they were problematic in many ways.  American literature back then was very much a boys’ club – the attention they got seemed far more than that accorded to America’s post-war women writers.  As a teenager, when I was really getting into books for the first time, I knew of the reclusive Harper Lee; and of Shirley Jackson, though she seemed neglected because she’d written too much ‘genre’ fiction and not enough proper ‘adult’ stuff; but that was about it.  I didn’t hear of people like Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor until much later.

 

There was also a reek of smug, well-to-do WASP / Jewish male privilege hanging around them and, accordingly, their characters seemed frequently to be successful middle-aged blokes working in America’s boardrooms or on its campuses, fraternising with the rich, the powerful and the intellectual and, of course, having their pick of beautiful young ladies.  I know Updike’s fiction wasn’t all like this, but whenever I think of the characters in his short stories now I seem only to recall fifty-something college professors married to twenty-or-thirty-something women who, of course, had started out as their students.

 

Then again, some of them – like Heller, Mailer and Vonnegut – had fought in World War II and belonged to a generation of men who, after that, felt they’d earned their sense of entitlement.  (Mind you, no war-spawned sense of entitlement excuses Mailer from drunkenly sticking a knife into his then-wife in 1960.)

 

I must confess that the only thing I’ve read by Philip Roth is 1969’s Portnoy’s Complaint.  I consumed this as a teenager and greatly enjoyed it – something possibly connected with the fact that the book was about wanking.  For several years I’ve had his 2004 novel The Plot against America, which is set in a parallel universe where Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and sets the USA on a course into fascism, sitting on a shelf somewhere but I’ve never got around to reading it.  I should, as it sounds intriguing.

 

In Roth’s final interview, with the New York Times back in January this year, he was asked if he saw any resemblance between the events depicted in the book and those that have rocked America’s political establishment in the last couple of years.   The octogenarian Roth gave a splendidly robust response.  “Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to Fascism, but he was also – because of the extraordinary feat of his solo trans-Atlantic flight at the age of 25 – an authentic American hero…  Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.”

 

© Vintage

 

Worming my way into Aphelion

 

© Aphelion

 

A quick post to say that the latest issue (May 2018) of the science fiction and fantasy webzine Aphelion features a short story of mine called Bookworm, which I wrote under the pen-name Jim Mountfield.  The issue can be accessed here for the next few weeks.

 

Like several things I’ve written, Bookworm is the result of two different ideas I had that, originally, I assumed would lead to two different stories.  They’d been bouncing around inside my head for a long time and I’d never figured out a way of constructing a coherent narrative around either of them.  Then it occurred to me one day that I could combine those two ideas into one story – wildly dissimilar though they were.

 

In Bookworm’s case, one of the ideas was inspired by an art bookshop in Edinburgh that I occasionally worked in thirty years ago.  To be honest, a mate of mine officially worked there, but he wasn’t available on certain afternoons and asked me to fill in for him.  I was on the dole at the time and for the afternoons I worked there I was paid cash-in-hand.  The bookshop has long since disappeared and its premises are now occupied by a pizzeria, so I think I can say that without getting anyone into trouble.  The shop looked unusual in that it stood just before the junction where George IV Bridge, descending from the Royal Mile, and Candlemaker Row, climbing from the Grassmarket, slanted together.  Because it was at the end of a terrace and stuck between two converging streets, it had a strange, tapering, almost triangular shape.  Also, most of its frontage on the George IV Bridge side was glass.

 

So I’d always wanted to use that bookshop as the setting for a story – with its odd shape (‘like a slice of pie’, as Bookworm puts it); its glass frontage that meant I spent a lot of time just gazing out onto George IV Bridge, people-watching; and its shelves of big, expensive and beautifully-illustrated artbooks.

 

I must admit that the other idea that powers Bookworm is not an original one.  It was something I encountered as a teenager, when I read a 1947 short story called Cellmate by the science fiction and horror writer Theodore Sturgeon.  I thought the premise for that story was so wonderfully bizarre that I’d always wanted to write a variation on it.  I’ve seen the idea turn up in several places since then – for example, in the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi blockbuster Total Recall – so I don’t feel too guilty about nicking it.

 

Theodore Sturgeon was, incidentally, a very interesting character.  I suspect he’s best remembered today not so much for his work (which included scripting a couple of episodes of the original Star Trek TV series in the late 1960s) but for coining the adage known as Sturgeon’s Law, which goes along the lines of: okay, 90% of science fiction is crap but then, 90% of everything is crap.  In his day, though, he was a prolific and popular writer of short stories – he penned about 200 of them and during the 1950s he was said to be the most anthologised short-fiction writer in the English language alive.  And it’s claimed that he was the inspiration for Kilgore Trout, the fictitious sci-fi writer who recurs in the novels of Kurt Vonnegut and becomes their bemused, oddball conscience.  (Sturgeon…  Trout…  Get it?)

 

© Marc Zicree

 

And there you have it.  Long-gone Edinburgh art bookshop + bizarre short story by Theodore Sturgeon = Bookworm.

 

Cinematic heroes 12: Freddie Jones

 

© Associated British Picture Company / Warner Pathé

 

A few nights ago, I discovered the 1970 psychological-horror thriller The Man Who Haunted Himself on YouTube and I persuaded my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, who hadn’t seen it before, to watch it with me.

 

The Man Who Haunted Himself offers a rare opportunity to see the late Sir Roger Moore in a non-smooth, non-bemused, non-eyebrow-hoisting role.  In fact, he plays a staid businessman who gradually becomes convinced he has an evil doppelganger, one plotting against him and trying to remove and replace him in his family, job and social circle.  Not surprisingly, poor Roger’s sanity crumbles as a result.

 

Unfortunately for my partner’s enjoyment of the film, the great British character actor Freddie Jones suddenly appears twenty minutes before the end, playing a psychiatrist to whom the unravelling Roger turns in desperation.  That meant that as the film neared its climax, and she was trying to concentrate on what was happening, I kept distracting and annoying her with exclamations of “Oh look, there’s Freddie again!” and “Just look at Freddie’s expression!” and “Ha-ha, Freddie’s putting on a Scottish accent!”  As you can gather, I’m always delighted when Freddie Jones pops up in a film or TV show.

 

Freddie Jones was born in 1927 in Stoke-on-Trent, an English town famous for its potteries.  Actually, Jones worked in this industry for a decade before becoming, in his thirties, a professional actor – he was originally a lab assistant at a ceramics factory, a job that according to his IMDb entry “came close to making him clinically insane”.  His cinematic breakthrough arrived in 1967 with roles in three well-regarded movies: Peter Brook’s Marat / Sade, Joseph Losey’s Accident and John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd.  By then, however, he was already established as a familiar face on 1960s British TV, appearing in major shows like Z Cars (1963), The Avengers (1967), The Baron (1967), The Saint (1968) and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969).

 

© MGM

 

In the early 1970s, Jones became one of the most deliciously eccentric presences in British cinema – by turns quirky, twitchy, sweaty, sinister, off-the-wall, over-the-top, downright bizarre and occasionally (perhaps a legacy of that ceramics-factory job) demented.  For instance, he gives a short but memorable performance in Douglas Hickox’s underrated crime thriller Sitting Target (1972) as McNeil, a creepy convict who allies himself with fellow inmates Oliver Reed and Ian McShane for an escape attempt.  Indeed, the tense sequence where Freddie, Ollie and Lovejoy bust out of prison is one of the movie’s highlights.  He’s also good in another underrated film, Richard Lester’s disaster movie Juggernaut (1974), as the shifty Sidney Buckland.  Buckland’s a bomb expert who falls under suspicion when a shipping company receives an anonymous call to say that six explosive devices have been placed on one of its cruise liners and will be detonated unless a ransom is paid.  Is Freddie really the big villain?  (Is the Pope a Catholic?  Do bears shit in woods?)

 

Jones’s persona made him a natural for horror movies and he worked a couple of times with Hammer Films, then the world’s most famous horror-movie studio.  In 1969’s Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, he plays the creature pieced together by the title character.  Hammer’s Frankenstein movies tend to focus on Baron Frankenstein himself – usually essayed by the impeccable Peter Cushing, and not the hapless character depicted in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel but an obsessed, ruthless scientist who’ll go to any length to realise his ambitions – and they aren’t terribly interested in the monsters produced by the Baron’s experiments.  That’s said, Jones’s creature in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is the most melancholic and sympathetic one of the series.  He’s not even very monstrous – he’s just a bloke with a ragged scar around his head, to show where the Baron transplanted his brain from another body.  This causes him much misery when he goes to visit his beloved wife and she doesn’t recognise him, because he looks nothing like the original person his soul had inhabited.

 

Even by his normal standards, Cushing’s Frankenstein is an utter shit in this film – stooping to murder, rape and blackmail to get his way – and there’s a satisfying climax where Jones’s despairing creature sets a trap for him inside a burning mansion.

 

© Hammer Studios / Warner Bros – Seven Arts

 

Less acclaimed, but still enjoyable, is The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973).  Set in present-day London, this has Jones at his most pathetic and unhinged.  He plays Dr Keeley, a scientist forced by a mysterious millionaire businessman – who proves to be, yes, Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) – to develop an apocalyptic strain of plague bacterium.  Confronted by Peter Cushing, playing a modern descendant of Dracula’s old nemesis Van Helsing, Jones gibbers: “Evil rules, you know.  It really does.  Evil and violence are the only two measures that hold any power.  Look at the world.  Chaos.  It is a preordained pattern.  Violence, greed, intolerance, sloth, jealousy…  The supreme being is the devil, Lorimer…   Nothing is too vile.  Nothing is too dreadful, too awful.  You need to know the terror, the horror, Lorimer.  You need to feel the threat of disgust, the beauty of obscenity.”

 

Actually, in the early-to-mid 1970s, Jones made three Dracula movies, though only one of these was produced by Hammer and was any good.  He appeared in the spoof Vampira (1974) with David Niven playing Dracula as an aging playboy; which, though painfully unfunny, looks like Citizen Kane compared to the same year’s Son of Dracula, another spoof but this time with added rock music courtesy of Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon, John Bonham and Peter Frampton.  In Son of Dracula, Jones plays Baron Frankenstein to Nilsson’s Dracula Jr and Ringo Starr’s Merlin the Magician – don’t even ask – and Jones’s sonorous performance only highlights the fact that Nilsson and Starr have the acting ability of a pair of talking elevators.  Oh well.  Some of the musical numbers are okay.

 

© Brooksfilms / Paramount Pictures

 

1980 saw Jones appear in the touching David Lynch-directed, Mel Brooks-produced The Elephant Man.  He plays the sadistic freakshow owner Bytes, from whose clutches the saintly Dr Treves (Anthony Hopkins) rescues John Merrick (John Hurt), the tragic Elephant Man of the title.  Jones doesn’t take this lying down and he and Hopkins become almost biblical in their good-versus-evil struggle over the possession of the poor, deformed Merrick.  Later, Jones manages to re-abduct Merrick and reincorporates him into his freakshow, but the show’s other exhibits, led by a kindly dwarf (played by the late Kenny Jones of Star Wars fame), help him to escape again.

 

David Lynch was evidently impressed by Jones for he cast him in two more films, his 1984 sci-fi epic Dune and his 1990 Palme d’Or-winning Wild at Heart.  The 1980s, in fact, saw Jones at the height of his international fame and he featured in several big (or biggish) budgeted movies: Peter Yates’s clodhopping sci-fi fantasy Krull (1983); Mark L. Lester’s 1984 version of Stephen King’s Firestarter, in which Jones plays the scientist responsible for the drug-experiments that give little Drew Barrymore the power to set things alight with her mind; Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1985); Terry Jones’s Erik the Viking; and Clint Eastwood’s Cold War thriller Firefox (1982).  Alas, although Clint-meets-Freddie sounds like a marriage made in heaven, Firefox was hellishly bad.  In 1983, he even got a leading role – admittedly speaking Italian – in Federico Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On, playing a journalist on a voyage to scatter the ashes of a legendary opera singer.

 

If I tried to recount Jones’s entire TV career, meanwhile, I’d been here all night.  Let’s just say he graced many TV shows I have fond memories of: Jason King (1971), The Goodies (1972), Thriller (1975), Space 1999 (1976), The Ghosts of Motley Hall (1976-78), Just William (1977), Van der Valk (1977), Target (1977) and so on.  He was still busy at the dawn of the new millennium, appearing in things like The League of Gentlemen (2000) and Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s reboot of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (2001) – supposedly, Jones and fellow character actor Dudley Sutton are the only people to have appeared in both the original and the remake of that last show.  For me, though, his finest TV moment was as Dai, the crazed and doomed poacher in the 1977 kids’ series Children of the Stones, now regarded as one of the scariest programmes British TV ever made for children – though with a story involving a megalithic stone circle, a druidic cult of brainwashed villagers, ‘time rifts’ and an attempt to harness the power of a black hole, Children was as trippy as it was scary.

 

© HTV West

 

In the late noughties, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen Jones in anything for a while – the last thing I’d spotted him in had been the 2005 Johnny Depp vehicle The Libertine – and I assumed that, now in his eighties, he’d given up acting.  Fair enough, I thought, he’d certainly earned his retirement.  Besides, the family tradition was being continued by his eldest son Toby Jones, who was now playing memorable character roles in films like Finding Neverland (2004), The Mist (2007), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), Berberian Sound Studio (2012), The Girl (2012) and Tale of Tales (2015).

 

Then one evening, while I was back in Scotland and staying at my sister’s house, I happened to notice an elderly and whiskery but very familiar face on the TV screen.  “Wow!” I exclaimed.  “Is that Freddie Jones?”

 

“No,” replied my sister, “that’s Sandy Thomas.  From Emmerdale!”  And I discovered that Jones had been playing widower and ex-sailor Sandy Thomas in the popular, rustic-set ITV soap opera since 2005.  Indeed, it was only in February this year that the now-90-year-old Jones decided to finally call it a day and bow out of Emmerdale.

 

While I’m thankful for the modern career of the very talented Toby Jones, I can’t help but hope we haven’t seen the last of his venerable dad onscreen, either.

 

© ITV Studios

 

Forensic Bangkok

 

 

Wow.  I’d heard that the Songkran Niyomsane Forensic Medicine Museum at Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital was gruesome, but I didn’t expect it to be this gruesome.  The moment I entered it, I saw that the wall on my right sported a gallery of grisly photographs, showing the victims of various types of killings and fatal accidents.  The captions for the photographs explained the manner of death in brief and blunt English: ‘multiple propeller cuts’, ‘car accident’, ‘train accident’, ‘blast force injuries’, ‘throat cut by broken beer bottle’, ‘crush injuries by machine’, ‘blast force injuries (hand grenade)’, ‘gunshot wounds’ and the indelicately phrased ‘chop wound by axe’.  One photograph showing a corpse deeply imprinted with the tread-pattern from a car’s wheels bore the helpful caption, ‘tyre marks’.  No shit, Sherlock.

 

Mind you, after passing that initial gallery of horrors, many exhibits further inside the museum didn’t seem so grotesque.  There were cases containing severed limbs, fractured skulls, shrivelled and blackened smokers’ lungs, organs ruptured by accidents, stab-wounds and gunshots, and hands and feet mangled and crushed in accidents; but those things you’ll see in medical museums elsewhere in the world too.

 

Obviously, much of the forensic work done at Siriraj Hospital relates to crime, but not all of it.  Part of the museum is dedicated to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which devastated several southern Asian countries, including Thailand.  Within a seven-day period after the tsunami, a team of forensic experts from Siriraj processed 1011 ‘cases’ – i.e. dead bodies that, to be identified, had to have their distinguishing features recorded and catalogued.  A year later, the statistics for Thailand’s tsunami victims were as follows: a total of 3777 people had died, 2779 of the bodies had been identified and released to relatives, and a remaining 998 bodies remained unidentified and were classified as ‘pending for antemortem information’.

 

Located beyond the tsunami section are the museum’s most infamous exhibits (according to the travel-guide and blog entries I’ve read about it).  Not only is there a case containing the clothes taken from the body of a female murder-victim – skirt, top, underwear – but there are also four mummified and ghoulish-looking corpses standing on display.  I assume all four are the remains of executed criminals.  A panel beside one of them explains that, alive, he’d been a ‘rape-murderer with (a) death sentence’.

 

Actually, the Forensic Medicine Museum is one of a trio of museums huddling together on the first floor of a modern hospital building, behind a reception counter where you buy a single ticket for entry to all three.  On one side of it is the Ellis Pathological Museum, whose contents include an iron lung manufactured by the ‘J.H. Emerson Company’ of ‘Cambridge, Massachusetts’, which looks like a Jules Verne-esque steampunk contraption; a round, futuristic-looking room dedicated to the human heart; and a display of ‘congenital abnormalities’, such as conjoined twins and babies suffering from mermaid syndrome (where the legs are fused together) and gastroschism (where the digestive tract ends up outside the body).

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

On the other side is the Parasitology Museum.  This, as its name suggests, is dedicated to the icky, at times horrifying creatures that make a home for themselves inside human and animal bodies: liver, blood and intestinal flukes, beef and pork tapeworms, hookworms, pinworms, roundworms and filariasis, the cause of elephantiasis.  One grotesque exhibit showing the potential damage wreaked by the last of these, filariasis, is a scrotum removed from an elephantiasis victim, swollen to a diameter of 75 centimetres.  But even that is less stomach-churning than a photograph of a specimen of asceris lumbricoides – roundworm – being extracted from somebody’s anus.

 

 

Siriraj Hospital is home to a few other museums, but we had time to visit only one of those – the Congdon’s Anatomical Museum on the third floor of an older building, up a broad wooden staircase that looks like it belongs in Castle Dracula.  Established by Professor E.D. Congdon, the ‘father of modern teaching of anatomy in Thailand’, this consists of two large rooms.  The first one is mainly concerned with bones and its most striking feature is a row of nine adult skeletons along a rear wall, standing upright inside glass cabinets like guards in sentry boxes.  Seven of the cabinets have framed photographs of people perched on top, presumably portraits of the skeletons’ donors.  One skeleton even has flowers arranged around its bony feet, giving the floor of its cabinet the look of a shrine.

 

The exhibits in the other room include the following, yummy things: two partly-dissected adult cadavers; four partly-skinned and dissected human heads, showing nerves, facial muscles, facial vessels and the inside of the brain; hearts and their surrounding vessels, so tangled that they that resemble giant ginseng roots; a human torso cut up Damian Hirst-style into a series of slices; and four cases that each contain an entire internal human system, i.e. the skeleton, the muscles and ‘superficial veins’, the arterial and circulatory system, and the nervous system with the brain at the top and a web of nerves sprawling out below.  That last display is devoid of human form and almost resembles a Christmas tree.

 

It must be said that many of the exhibits here, like the building itself, look like they’ve seen better times.  They have a grey, fusty, putty-like texture.  It wouldn’t have surprised me if, had I been able to reach into their cases and touch them, my fingers had encountered a thin, wispy layer of fur growing on them.

 

The most unnerving thing about this museum, though, is the number of foetus, baby and infant cadavers on show.  Clearly, at the time when this institution was founded, infant mortality was high and life generally was cheap in Thailand.  Embryos floating in jars of fluid are often attached umbilically to removed segments of wombs, suggesting they were taken from women who’d died during pregnancy.  And there are a lot of conjoined twins displayed here, along with much information about the various possible forms that conjoining can take – apparently twins can be born as Siamese ones in 13 different ways.  (And I assume the reason why there’s such a preoccupation with conjoined twins in this museum is because Thailand lent its former name, Siam, to the condition, thanks to the fame during the 19th century of the joined-at-the-sternum Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker.)

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

What’s lingered most in my memory about the Anatomical Museum is how some of the cases containing children’s bodies have small toys – dolls, model cars and motorbikes, toy plastic phones and toy animals like ponies, frogs and penguins – arranged on top of them.  I suppose this is a Thai Buddhist custom, done to appease the spirits of the deceased children by providing them with something to play with.  It gives this gloomy old museum a welcome touch of humanity, though a little sadness and even spookiness too.

 

 

Master and servant

 

© Penguin Books

 

I haven’t read a great deal of Robert Louis Stevenson’s oeuvre – just Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886) and a few collections covering his short stories about Scotland, the supernatural (like 1886’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) and the South Sea islands.  When a few weeks ago I bought a copy of The Master of Ballantrae (1889) and started reading it, I assumed I was in for another rousing family-friendly adventure yarn in the spirit of Treasure Island and Kidnapped.

 

On paper, Master has all the elements of an adventure like those experienced by Jim Hawkins and David Balfour.  It begins with the Jacobite uprising of 1745.  The two sons of the Laird of the Durrisdeer Estate in southwest Scotland toss a coin to decide which one of them rides out and joins the uprising and which one remains at home and officially stays loyal to the crown – that way, whichever side wins, the estate should be safe.  Fate decrees that the elder son, James, joins the rebellion.  In due time, the rebellion is put down, James is believed killed, and the younger brother, the mild-mannered Henry, ends up inheriting the estate and finally marrying his deceased sibling’s fiancé.  To everyone’s surprise (apart from the readers’), James then comes back from the dead.  Not only has he survived the uprising and its bloody aftermath, but he’s been embittered and corrupted by his experiences and his soul is now thoroughly rotten.  And so begins a long and wide-ranging struggle between James and Henry for the estate and its wealth.

 

As Stevenson describes that struggle, we get episodes involving smugglers, pirates, slave-traders and hostile North American Indians.  There’s a supposed duel to the death, an arduous trek through the American wilderness, an unexpected interlude in India and a stormy voyage across the Atlantic.  The book’s climax returns to the wintry forests of North America, where the brothers engage in a desperate race to locate some buried pirates’ treasure.  Thus, all the boxes seem ticked on the Robert Louis Stevenson rip-roaring adventure checklist.

 

It’s a surprise to report, then, just how dark and grim Master is.  For example, the pirate section – James and an associate called Francis Burke fall in with a crew of brigands and cut-throats when the ship in which they’re fleeing post-rebellion Scotland is attacked and taken over – is no cosy rewrite of Treasure Island.  These pirates are debauched savages who murder the crews of the ships they board.  At one disturbing moment, Burke recalls: “Twice we found women on board; and though I have seen towns sacked, and of late days in France some very horrid public tumults, there was something in the smallness of the numbers engaged, and the bleak, dangerous sea-surroundings, that made these acts of piracy far the most revolting.  I confess ingeniously I could never proceed unless I was three parts drunk…”

 

Meanwhile, the final pages almost have the intensity of a horror story.  As they journey through the wilds of Canada, searching for the spot where years earlier James buried a cache of pirates’ booty, a party of exhausted men find themselves being stalked by an unseen foe.  Each night, someone skulks into their camp and murders and scalps them one by one as they lie asleep: “…when they rested at last, it was to sleep profoundly; and when they woke, it was to find that the enemy was still at their heels, and death and mutilation had once more lessened and deformed their company.”  It might not be in the league of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), but it certainly suggests the primordial brutality of a modern western movie like Bone Tomahawk or The Revenant (both 2015).

 

Psychologically, Master isn’t a comfortable read either.  We expect Henry to be the good guy, and that’s at least how he starts off.  Not, it should be said, that he gets much credit for his decency – the local people around the estate view him as a coward and traitor for not joining the uprising; and his wife and elderly father ignore him and spend their time mourning James and lionising his memory.  When James reappears and takes his place in the household again, hiding his multitudinous vices from everyone but his brother, Henry’s character failings become increasingly apparent.  He proves incapable of action, the outrage he feels cancelled out by a sense of defeatism.  No wonder he laments, “I am a man of great patience – far too much – far too much.  I begin to despise myself.  And yet, sure, never was a man involved in such a toil!”

 

Later, fate brings both brothers to New York and it seems that Henry has at last turned the tables on James.  He lives in “a decent mansion” and is “a popular man with his intimates” while James, shunned and impoverished, sets up a lowly tailor’s business “in a poor quarter of the town” in “a lonely, small house of boards, overhung with some acacias… with a sort of hutch opening, like a dog’s kennel.”  Yet Henry is possessed by hatred now.  Every day, he makes a point of going to James’s hovel dressed in his finery, standing in front of it and staring gloatingly at his sibling while he sits sewing outside.  Challenged about this obsessive and petty behaviour, he retorts, “You never had such mountains of bitterness upon your heart,” and he expresses a determination to ‘break’ his brother’s ‘spirit’.  Later still, when Henry hears a clearly scurrilous rumour from Britain that he might be disinherited in favour of James, he’s become so paranoid that he chooses to believe it and casts himself into a course of action that proves disastrous for both brothers.

 

As Henry’s character disintegrates, we find ourselves almost welcoming each moment when James arrives onstage.  He’s callous, manipulative, scheming, limitlessly greedy and superhumanly selfish, but he’s consistent and, in his evil way, very entertaining.  In fact, he must rank alongside Alec D’Urberville, Bill Sykes and Count Dracula as one of the great anti-heroes of 19th century British literature.  And it’s not difficult to see him as Henry’s wicked, corrupting alter-ego, nudging his younger brother a little further off the path of virtue and into the realms of sinfulness and madness every time he appears.  Stevenson, of course, had explored this theme three years earlier with The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, though the blueprint for both Master and Jekyll and Hyde lies further back in time, with a work by Stevenson’s fellow Scot, James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824).

 

© Rex Features / The Daily Telegraph

 

All this would make Master a morose novel if it wasn’t for the strong injection of humour it gets from its narrator.  The story is related by Ephraim Mackellar, Henry’s steward and servant, and the idiosyncrasies of Mackellar’s personality flavour the storytelling.  The fussy, prudish, squeamish and conservative Mackellar is an amusingly and peculiarly Scottish creation.  If he was alive today, he’d no doubt be tutting over the stories he reads every week in the Sunday Post.  He’d be serving dutifully as an elder in his local Church of Scotland even though hardly any of his neighbours bother to turn up at the services any more.  And he’d be out canvasing for Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Tories in the hope that they’ll restore discipline in the schools by re-introducing the belt and generally bring back the Good Old Days when everyone knew their place and doffed their caps to their betters.

 

Mackellar’s hapless honesty makes Master very funny in places.  He doesn’t shirk from describing the indignities inflicted upon him – for example, when some smugglers “caused me to dance for their diversion.  The method employed was that of cruelly chipping at my toes with their naked cutlasses, shouting at the same time ‘Square Toes’; and although they did me no bodily mischief, I was none the less deplorably affected, and was indeed for several days confined to my bed; a scandal on the state of Scotland on which no comment is required.”  On the other hand, he’s affecting in the loyalty he shows to Henry and, indeed, he becomes Henry’s conscience when he starts to go to the bad.  Stevenson even hints that Mackellar’s love for his boss might be more than a love engendered by respect and duty: “…I have never had much toleration for the female sex, possibly not much understanding; and being far from a bold man, I have ever shunned their company.”

 

The book’s most amusing section comes when Henry tries to ensnare James in a legal trap, leaving him stranded at the Durrisdeer Estate but with no access to its funds, while he and his family depart for America in the hope of building a new life for themselves.  Mackellar is left behind as James’s custodian and the two men, absolutely opposed in temperament, begin an Odd Couple-like existence in the empty ancestral home.  They end up with a grudging respect, even a perverse affection, for each other.  When Mackellar manages to verbally cut James down to size, the latter cackles, “Who would have guessed… that this old wife had any wit under his petticoats?”  Yet the infernal side of James’s nature is never far away, something illustrated a few pages later when he manages to goad the pious Mackellar into doing something extremely un-Christian, i.e. making an (unsuccessful) attempt on his life.

 

The Master of Ballantrae wasn’t what I’d expected, but I found its mixture of bleakness, humour, tragedy and the macabre admirably haunting.  So confidently does it juggle its disparate elements that you wonder what other literary goodies Robert Louis Stevenson might have produced had he lived beyond the age of 44.

 

Let’s get (more expensively) pished!

 

© TriStar Pictures

 

Anyone who knew me in my youth, or indeed in my middle youth, or even in my later youth, will testify that I was commonly fond of a pint of beer.  Or two.  Or three.  And those were often washed down with a wee whisky chaser.  Or two.  Or three.

 

It was even observed of me once or twice that I was “the worse for drink.”  To this I would retort, “No, I’m very much the better for it.”

 

Anyway, if you’re an acquaintance who knew me back in my hellraising days, brace yourself.  I’m about to make a statement that will shock you.  I actually agree with the new alcohol minimum-pricing law introduced yesterday in Scotland. 

 

The new Scottish legislation means the cost of alcoholic beverages will now be determined by their strength, i.e. every unit of alcohol they contain will automatically add at least 50 pence onto their price-tag.  Thus, a two-litre bottle of super-strong cider (containing more than your medically recommended alcohol intake for an entire week), which was previously available for as little as £2.50, will now cost at least £7.50.

 

The intention is to reduce the physical, social and financial carnage wreaked in Scotland by alcohol abuse.  Statistics include 1,265 alcohol-related deaths in 2016; 36,325 alcohol-related hospital stays in 2016-17; 42% of offenders in violent crimes being under the influence of alcohol in 2016-2017; and alcohol’s cost to the public purse in terms of health and social care, policing, lost working hours, etc, being an estimated £3.6 billion in 2007.

 

Personally, I doubt if upping prices and doing away with bargain-basement booze is likely to stop your average, hardened, russet-faced, Godzilla-breathed, middle-aged jakey seeking his or her daily alcohol fix.  But I suspect it will cause a gradual improvement, in that more young people – a section of the population that’s increasingly strapped for cash these days – will be dissuaded from acquiring holocaustic drinking habits.  Mind you, that seems to be the trend now among young folk in the UK anyway.

 

From playbuzz.com

 

My own reason for supporting minimum pricing isn’t to do with public health.  I just think it might reduce, ever so slightly, the competition that Scotland’s hard-pressed pubs have faced from the supermarkets, whose shelves until yesterday were usually a blizzard of cheap-drink offers.  Now that the gulf between pub prices (which are too high to be affected by the new legislation) and supermarket prices is fractionally less wide, a few people might be encouraged to visit their neighbourhood public houses more often – which might in turn save one or two pubs from going to the wall.

 

In recent years, the UK has experienced a virtual bar-mageddon.  According to figures from CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, an average of 18 British pubs go out of business every week.  The ridiculously low price of alcohol in the supermarkets is one of the causes of this, though there are other factors too, including the smoking ban, stricter alcohol limits for drivers and changing social habits generally.   And let’s not forget the sorry situation in London, where many beautiful old pubs have lately been destroyed by the rapaciousness of wankerish property developers.

 

Meanwhile, pubs that have survived in downtown areas of British cities have often been disfigured by proprietors desperate to lure in the Friday and Saturday night crowds: office workers, students, start-of-the-evening clubbers, hen and stag parties.  This means tearing out alcoves and seating areas (making more room for standing-up punters) and blighting the premises with deafening music, giant TV screens, zinging games machines and karaoke, none of which are conducive to meaningful human conversation and communication.  The result is pubs that aren’t so much social venues as standing-room-only drinking stations.

 

Personally, the main reason why I enjoy alcohol is because I enjoy being in pubs – proper pubs.  I’d much rather take a drink in a lively social environment than take it on my lonesome at home, even if that seems to be the default setting for many drinkers nowadays.  And a good pub has so many things going for it.  Firstly, now that most other venues for community interaction have disappeared from modern Britain, such as the corner shop, the little neighbourhood post office and the old-style gents’ barber, the pub is about the only place left where you can meet your neighbours and catch up on the local news and gossip.

 

There’s also the heritage factor.  In terms of interior décor and, sometimes, external architecture, British pubs can be treasure troves.  I’m thinking of such gorgeous bars as the Café Royal in Edinburgh, the Gatehouse in Norwich and the Crown Posada in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

 

And I love the idea that you can walk into a pub and never know who you’ll end up talking to: folk from all walks of life, strangers with interesting, occasionally fascinating stories to tell.  All human life is potentially there, human life that you have no chance of encountering if you’re sitting on the sofa at home quaffing a £3.19 bottle of Rich and Ripe red wine from Asda (now bumped up to £4.88 in Scotland).

 

For that reason, when I reminisce about the different places I’ve lived, half the time I find myself thinking about pubs associated with those places: the Machar Bar in Aberdeen, the Hebrides Bar in Edinburgh, the Honjin Murakame in the Japanese town of Takikawa, the misleadingly-named Tadessa’s Grocery in the Ethiopian town of Debre Birhan, and so on.  No doubt in years to come, when I think back to the time I spent in Colombo, many of my memories will centre on the dear old Vespa Sports Club on Sea Avenue.  It seems to me that a town without a good pub is a town without a soul.

 

Although many towns have lost a depressingly high number of pubs in the last few years, my hometown of Peebles in the Scottish Borders has got off relatively lightly.  The last time I was back, eight months ago, I counted a total of 18 pubs, hotel bars, club bars and wine bars still on the go there, which for a town of 8,376 people (2011 census) works out at one pub per 465 inhabitants.  Not that this seems to have negatively impacted on the health of the population.  On the contrary, the average Peeblean has a life expectancy slightly higher than that of the average Borderer and a couple of years higher than that of the average Scot.  Maybe it’s all the hurrying from pub to pub, from the Neidpath to the Trust to the Crown to the Central – it helps to burn off the calories.

 

© Desilu Productions / Paramount Television