Deathlog 2018: Part 2

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(c) Smallfilms

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Continuing my tribute to the many people who entertained and inspired me and who passed away in 2018…

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For connoisseurs of a gentle, eccentric and particularly British form of whimsy, July 2018 got off to a sad start when on the first day of the month Peter Firmin died.  A puppeteer, illustrator and engraver, Firmin ran the production company Smallfilms with Oliver Postgate. From the 1950s to 1970s Smallfilms gifted British children’s television with such beguiling programmes as The Saga of Noggin the Nog (1959-65), Ivor the Engine (1959 and 1975-77) and Bagpuss (1974).  Best of all in my opinion was The Clangers (1969-72), the tale of pink-knitted extra-terrestrial rodents who, despite inhabiting a barren asteroid covered with dustbin lids, have established utopia through apparently living on a diet of soup and being nice to each other.

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Also departing in July were…  On the 8th, 1950s and 60s American movie heartthrob Tab Hunter. I liked Hunter best as Todd Tomorrow in John Waters’ scabrous 1981 black comedy Polyester, which was filmed in ‘Odorama’ and enabled you to smell such odours as farts, glue, skunks and old shoes when they occurred in the film…  On the 10th, children’s author Clive King, responsible for the brilliant Stig of the Dump (1963)…  Also on the 10th, fencer and movie fight-choreographer William Hobbs, whose energetic sword-fights were highlights of such films as The Three and Four Musketeers (1973 and 74), Captain KronosVampire Hunter (1974), The Duellists (1977), Flash Gordon (1979), Excalibur (1981) and Ladyhawke (1985)…  And on the 27th, Bernard Hepton, another hardworking character actor who never seemed to be off British TV screens in the 1960s and 1970s.

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August 5th saw the death of Barry Chuckle, one half of slapstick comedy duo the Chuckle Brothers, a staple of British children’s TV entertainment since the 1980s.  In 2007, ‘the Chuckle Brothers’ also became a nickname for the unlikely ruling partnership at Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly, i.e. First Minister Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein.  August 11th and 12th saw the demise of two writers working in very different fields: firstly, the Trinidadian-British literary heavyweight V.S. Naipaul, knighted in 1990 and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001; and secondly the Scottish fantasy and science-fiction author Michael Scott Rohan, who claimed the medieval Scottish scholar, mathematician, astrologer and (in legend) sorcerer Michael Scott as an ancestor.

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(c) British Lion Films

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Jill Janus, singer with American heavy-metal band Huntress, took her own life on August 14th, while American soul legend and civil rights activist Aretha Franklin died two days later.  August 25th saw the passing of British dancer, mime artist, choreographer and actor Lindsay Kemp.  Among many other things, Kemp played the sneaky Alder MacGregor, landlord of the Green Man pub and father of Britt Ekland, in the masterly 1973 folk-horror movie The Wicker Man.  Tony Award-winning and much-filmed American playwright Neil Simon died on August 26th.

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September 2018 was a particularly death-filled month.  The Grim Reaper went into full-scale harvesting mode.  Among the victims were…  Conway Savage (September 2nd), the piano and organ-playing member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds from 1990 onwards…  Carry On movie actress Liz Fraser (September 3rd)…  Frequently moustached and Stetson-wearing Hollywood beefcake Burt Reynolds (September 6th), known for provoking spectacular car chases and winding up redneck law officers in movies like Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and The Cannonball Run (1981), but also a star of John Boorman’s brilliant Deliverance (1972)…  Algerian musical genius Rachid Taha (September 12th)…  Burmese-born British actress Zienia Merton (September 14th), best remembered for playing Sandra Benes in Gerry Anderson’s science-fiction TV series Space: 1999 (1973-76)…  And actor Dudley Sutton (September 15th), popular as Ian McShane’s sidekick Tinker in the light-hearted antiques-themed TV drama Lovejoy (1986-94), although he showed his acting chops in movies as hard-hitting as Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971).

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The carnage continued during the month’s second half…  Multi-instrumentalist Maartin Allcock (September 16th), who played with such folk-rock combos as Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull but also, fascinatingly, with 1980s Goth-rock behemoths the Mission…  British comedy writer, TV presenter and all-round wit Dennis Norden (September 19th)…  Chas Hodges (September 22nd), one half of much-loved, rumbustious Cockney pub-singalong specialists Chas ‘n’ Dave, whose fans included The Libertines’ Pete Docherty…  Actor Al Matthews (September 22nd), whose finest cinematic hour came playing Apone, the rock-solid platoon sergeant in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) – it was literally an hour, for when the aliens get Apone halfway through the film, it scarily signifies that they’ve gained the upper hand…  Star Wars movies producer Gary Kurtz (September 23rd)…  And Marty Balin (September 27th), singer, songwriter and musician with the mighty Jefferson Airplane and its less mighty 1970s incarnation Jefferson Starship.  At least Balin bailed out before Jefferson Starship morphed again, into those 1980s purveyors of musical ghastliness, Starship.

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(c) BBC
(c) Anglo-Amalgamated / Peter Rogers Productions

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Finally, September 2018 saw the deaths of two sublime British actresses.  On September 3rd, Jacqueline Pearce passed away.  As well as being a fetching starlet for Hammer Films in 1966’s Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, she played the devastating Supreme Commander Servalan in the BBC’s science-fiction series Blake’s 7 (1978-81) – Servalan ruled the universe with a combination of sociopathy, ruthlessness, murderousness, high heels, flowing white evening gowns, sequins, pearls, fancy hats and general glam-ness.  Eight days later, the seductively husky-voiced actress Fenella Fielding died.  I feel guilty not going into her long, varied and distinguished stage and screen career in detail and merely focusing on the fact that she appeared in a Carry On movie – but as the gloriously vampish Valeria Watt in 1966’s Carry On Screaming, let’s just say she made a big impression on my adolescent self.

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The first day of October marked the deaths of legendary French crooner Charles Aznavour; the legendary (in British comic-book circles) Spanish artist Carlos Ezquerra; and British children’s TV personality Geoffrey Hayes, who gained unlikely cult status as presenter of the camp, puppet-ridden and oddly sinister show Rainbow (1972-97).  Ray Galton, who with the late Alan Simpson scripted such gems as Steptoe and Son (1962-74) and much of Tony Hancock’s TV and radio output, died on September 5th.  And three American actors with horror-genre connections passed away in October: Scott Wilson, who was lately popular as the kindly Herschel in the TV zombie series The Walking Dead (2011-14) but was also a veteran of such movies as In the Heat of the Night (1967), In Cold Blood (1967), The Grissom Gang (1971) and the William Peter Blatty-directed The Ninth Configuration (1980) and The Exorcist III (1980), died on October 6th; Celeste Yarnell, who played the kooky, dune-buggy-driving title character in Stephanie Rothman’s dreamy The Velvet Vampire (1971), died on October 7th; and James Karen, who played the affably hapless Frank in Return of the Living Dead (1985), died on October 23rd.

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(c) AMC Networks

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November saw the departures of two major movie directors, Bernardo Bertolucci of Last Tango in Paris (1971), The Last Emperor (1987) and The Sheltering Sky (1990) fame on the 26th and the fabulous Nicolas Roeg on the 23rd.  Also bowing out this month were another pair of seasoned British TV character actors: John Bluthal, whose work ranged from the low-brow sitcom Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width (1967-71) to several projects with anarchic comedy genius Spike Milligan, died on November 15th; while George A. Cooper, for many years British television’s go-to man if a grumpy and abrasive Yorkshireman was needed, died one day later. 

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Meanwhile, Hong Kong movie mogul Raymond Chow, who founded Golden Harvest productions and helped turn Bruce Lee into an international star, died on November 2nd; American actress Sondra Locke, partner to and collaborator with Clint Eastwood for a time, died on November 3rd; actor Douglas Rain, who provided the simultaneously emotionless and demented voice of the computer HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), died on November 11th; and Marvel Comics supremo Stan Lee died on November 12th.

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(c) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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On November 16th, we bade adieu to author and screenwriter William Goldman, whose career highlights included Oscar-winning scripts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and All the President’s Men (1976), as well as scripts for Marathon Man (1976), Magic (1978) and the amusing, charming and influential The Princess Bride (1987), based on his novels published in 1975, 1976 and 1973 respectively.  Goldman also penned Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983), an insider’s guide to Hollywood that butchered more than a few sacred cows and whose pronouncements – most notably, “Nobody knows anything” – still hold true today.

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December got off to a melancholy start with the death on the 6th of Pete Shelley, frontman and guitarist with the Buzzcocks and surely a role model for the young Steven Patrick Morrissey.  Scottish poet Tom Leonard died on December 21st  and the following day saw the death of politician Paddy Ashdown, who led the Liberal Democrats for 11 years until 1999 – back in the days when they had some integrity and credibility, things that were destroyed by Nick Clegg in 2010 when he entered the party into a coalition that facilitated a Conservative government, David Cameron and, indirectly, Brexit. 

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Also passing this month were two film directors who deserve to be better known in the English-speaking world: Spaniard Jorge Grau, who died on the 27th and who made the atmospheric, grisly and laudably environmentally-themed zombie movie, 1974’s The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (which, despite its title, was set in the Lake District); and Hong Kong director, producer and scriptwriter Ringo Lam, whose hefty filmography includes City on Fire (1987), a clear influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1993).  The venerable English actress and comic performer June Whitfield, whose career stretched some six decades from working with Noel Coward, Tony Hancock and Arthur Askey to starring in the satirical fashion / PR sitcom Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2012) and David Tennant-era Doctor Who (2009-10), died on December 28th.

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And finally, December 20th saw the demise of the excellent character actor Donald Moffat. As the beleaguered Commander Garry in John Carpenter’s classic science-fiction / horror movie The Thing (1982), he spoke the film’s best lines: “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot.  And if you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of the winter TIED TO THIS F**KING COUCH!”  Moffat also played two US presidents in his career, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1983’s The Right Stuff and the fictional President Bennet in 1994’s Clear and Present Danger.  I have to say he wasn’t the President Donald I wanted to say goodbye to in 2018.

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(c) Universal Pictures

Frankenstein – the 200-year-old Prometheus

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(c) Barnes & Noble

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One thing I intended to do this year was read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – to give it its full title, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.  This was because 2018 marked the 200th anniversary of the novel’s first publication in 1818.  But I almost forgot.  It was only a week ago that I remembered my pledge, hurried out and bought a copy of the book in the ‘classics’ section of a local bookstore and read it in three days.

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Actually, I’ve read Frankenstein before.  During a feverish period when I was 10 or 11 years old and was totally horror-daft and monster-daft, I read Frankenstein, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).  I have to confess that Dracula was the only one I enjoyed.  The other two works went over my head.  With Frankenstein, most of Shelley’s prose was like a fog to my 10 or 11-year-old thought processes and I only remembered a few key incidents from the plot.  So when I tackled Frankenstein again last week, reading the book was like a first-time experience.

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Here, then, are my 2018 impressions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

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It really isn’t like the films.  Well, everyone knew that already.  But the literary version of the monster Victor Frankenstein creates in his laboratory is a million miles removed from most of the versions portrayed on the screen – most famously, Boris Karloff’s lumbering, grunting, inarticulate creature in the first three Frankenstein pictures made by Universal Studios in 1931, 1936 and 1939.  For one thing, Shelley’s creature is relentlessly verbose.  He hardly shuts up when he’s centre-stage.  He rattles on for 50-odd pages at one point. 

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(c) Universal Studios

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He’s also not the hapless, easily-manipulated innocent that Karloff’s monster was.  Whereas the Karloffian creature only killed people in self-defence, or through manipulation by unscrupulous humans (like Bela Lugosi’s Igor in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein), or through tragic misunderstandings (like in the 1931 Frankenstein, when he throws a little girl into a river believing she’ll like float like a flower), Shelley’s creature is focused and calculating.  He’s a bastard, frankly.  He murders Frankenstein’s family and friends one by one, even though they aren’t responsible for his suffering.  His victims include a child – Frankenstein’s six-year-old brother.

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(c) Hammer Films

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Also, it’s interesting how emotional, at times histrionic, Frankenstein is in the book.  Given to alternating fits of passion and despair, feverish action and morose lethargy, he almost resembles the popular images of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, the two romantic poets with whom Mary Shelley was famously shacked up on the shores of Lake Geneva when she wrote the novel.  Again, the literary character is at odds with the best-known portrayal of him in the cinema, i.e. Peter Cushing in the Frankenstein movies made by Hammer Films in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  Cushing’s Frankenstein is a driven man of science, fixated on his goal and prepared to be ruthless and callous in order to achieve it – occasionally tipping over into villainy in the process.  It has to be said that if someone was going to rewrite the laws of science by bringing dead matter back to life, it’d more likely be a Frankenstein in the unflinching Cushing mould than the volatile and tormented Frankenstein described by Shelley. Talking of which…

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We never find out how Frankenstein manages to bring dead matter back to life.  Frankenstein movies have used many techniques for reanimating the collection of stitched-together corpse-parts that becomes the creature – a bolt of lightning in the 1931 Universal one, solar power in the Jack Smight-directed, Christopher Isherwood-scripted Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) and, hilariously, a shoal of electric eels in Kenneth Branagh’s operatic (i.e. madly over-the-top) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994).  But in the book, Frankenstein simply declares: “I see by your eagerness and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be; listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject.”  And that’s it.

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It’s quite a travelogue.  Events take place in Geneva in Switzerland, Ingolstadt in Bavaria and Chamonix near Mount Blanc in the French Alps.  There’s a lengthy digression involving skulduggery in Paris and a flight across France to Leghorn (Livorno) in Italy, and a boat-trip from Strasbourg to Rotterdam.  Frankenstein goes to England and visits London, Windsor, Oxford, Matlock and the Lake District.  He traverses Scotland, from Edinburgh through Perth to the Orkney Islands and makes an unplanned boat trip to Ireland.  And acting as book-ends to all this are a beginning and ending in the polar wastes north of Archangelsk in Russia, where the story is told in flashback.  So basically, Frankenstein has more locations than four or five James Bond novels put together. 

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Some of it is absurd.  It’s customary to marvel at the fact that Mary Shelley was only 18 when she wrote Frankenstein.  That’s all very well and good, but there are moments where you get the impression that, full of teenaged impulsiveness and impatience, she wants to get from one plot development to the next and isn’t worried about the means of doing so.  This results in some mad lapses in logic and believability.  She wants the creature to become expressive and articulate as soon as possible after being brought to life, so she has him spy on a room where, every day, a foreign woman is receiving rudimentary language lessons; so gradually, the creature becomes literate like the woman does.  But it’s pushing credibility, to say the least, that straight after this the creature finds, reads and understands a copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost

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Credibility takes a pummelling too when Frankenstein agrees to the creature’s demand that he make him a female companion.  He retreats to a distant, tiny Orcadian island to assemble and bring to life a new body, presumably built out of scavenged body-parts like its predecessor.  How Frankenstein gathers these body-parts without being noticed on an island with just five inhabitants is anyone’s guess.  Later, after reneging on his promise and destroying the female body, Frankenstein ends up adrift on a boat that somehow takes him from the Orkneys to the Irish coast in the space of one night.  He arrives in time to be framed for the murder of his friend Henry Clerval, whose body the creature has dumped on the shore nearby.  Since Clerval had been last heard of in Perth, it’s a mystery how the creature found out about Frankenstein’s betrayal in the Orkneys, assassinated Clerval in Perth and then followed Frankenstein from the Orkneys to Ireland with the corpse. 

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Frankenstein is finally cleared and released from incarceration in Ireland when his father, Baron Frankenstein, shows up to collect him.  Previously, it was stated that the old Baron was too infirm to be able to travel from Geneva to Ingolstadt, so how does he withstand the land and sea journey all the way from Geneva to Ireland and back?    

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(c) Oxford World Classics

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But some of it is brilliant too.  The long-awaited scene where, up on the icy, rocky wastes near the summit of Mount Blanc, Frankenstein comes face-to-face with his now articulate and vengeful creation – “’Begone, vile insect!  Or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust!  And, oh!  That I could, with the extinction of your miserable existence, restore those victims whom you have so diabolically murdered!’  ‘I expected this reception,” said the daemon.  “All men hate the wretched…’” – is wonderfully atmospheric.  So too is the appropriately Godforsaken Arctic setting where the book begins and ends. 

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And you can’t better Chapter 5 when Frankenstein applies the vital spark to his creation and the story really gets going: “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils…  It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”  And of course, it gets worse: “Good God!  His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries underneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

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Finally, it’s unfair to compare it with Dracula.  It’s fashionable these days to hold up Frankenstein as a literary milestone – it certainly wasn’t the world’s first horror story, but there’s a good case to be made that it was the first work of science fiction – whilst dismissing Dracula as an unambitious potboiler.  However, the books are like chalk and cheese, even if their title characters are inseparably linked in popular culture now. Designed to entertain, Dracula is a classic thriller as memorable as Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) or H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1887).  Frankenstein is less about thrills and more about man’s relation to the universe and, as such, belongs in a higher-brow bracket of literature. I feel, though, that because it rollercoasters between the sublime and the ridiculous, it’s less successful than Dracula in what it sets out to do. 

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But… when Frankenstein hits the peaks, it’s a work of art.

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From Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

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Another Christmas in Colombo

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my travels, it’s that everyone loves Christmas: not only people in Christian countries, but also people in Buddhist, Muslim and downright atheistic ones too.

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In Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Santa Claus was lurking outside the store-entrances in the run-up to December 25th, even though as a mainly Orthodox-Christian country they weren’t supposed to be celebrating the birth of Christ until two weeks later.  In Japan, the Christmas trees, decorations, presents, carols and so on provided a pretty backdrop to the end-of-year bonenkai parties.  In Tunisia, I saw Tunisians gamely sporting Santa hats while they did business in the alleyways of Tunis’s Medina.  Even in North Korea, at a time when the only religion you were officially allowed to practice was one where you worshipped the abilities and achievements of Kim Jong Il, my local supermarket insisted on having a rather scruffy-looking Christmas tree out in its foyer – not just over the festive season, but for the full twelve months of the year.

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So it’s no surprise that Sri Lankans are big Christmas-philes too, even if their country is predominantly Buddhist.  As late as yesterday, Christmas Eve, a market selling Nativity scenes and Christmas trees was doing a busy trade on the Dehiwala stretch of Galle Road.  Meanwhile, Bauddhaloka Mawatha, the prestigious and leafy boulevard lined with fancy shopping arcades and imposing ministry and embassy buildings, is currently home to a gorgeous nocturnal display of Christmas lights.  And my local branch of Keells, the Sri Lankan supermarket company, had a sign up yesterday announcing that its booze section would be closed on Christmas Day.  That’s really entering the spirit of Christmas.

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Here, though, is a selection of my favourite images from this current Christmas in Colombo.  Firstly, I liked the above giant toy soldiers standing guard at the entrance to Hafele’s on Duplication Road.  A change from the usual tacky Santas and glitzy Christmas trees, they give the shop’s façade a nicely wintry, Germanic flavour – even if the temperature was in the 30s and the air was swelteringly humid when I took the photo.

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For Christmas trees, hats off to my local picture-house, the Savoy Cinema, for erecting this cinematically-themed tree outside its doors.  Its trunk is a big curling strip of celluloid and, instead of baubles, the tree is decorated with film-reels.  It would have been nice to report that the Savoy had gone even further into the spirit of the season and was showing a selection of classic Christmas movies like Gremlins (1984), Die Hard (1988), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Bad Santa (2003) today.  But no, it’s showing Aquaman (2018) and Mary bloody Poppins Returns (2018).

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Running the Savoy a close second in the ‘inventive Christmas tree’ stakes is this one at the Mount Lavinia Hotel, which has been made entirely out of empty wine bottles.  It’s an appropriately sobering reminder that the worst aspect of Christmas is not the pressure to buy expensive presents or the arguments with relatives, but the hangover on Boxing Day.

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There are a lot of Nativity scenes dotted around Colombo this Christmas – and almost all of them seem to be equipped with an unfeasibly large Baby Jesus.  I mean, just look at him.  He’s enormous!  He really looks like he popped out wholly grown, complete with a full head of hair. Indeed, in the second picture below, he looks as big as the ox – and looks like he could probably eat an ox too.

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And finally, although it’s less fancy and extensive than some of the items pictured above, here is my favourite piece of Christmas in Colombo this year – the tree on the veranda of my number-one ‘man-pub’, the Vespa Sports Club on Sea Avenue.  In the rapidly developing lanes between Galle Road and Marine Drive, with old-style houses vanishing at a rate of knots and new, concrete apartment blocks popping up like mushrooms, the Vespa really does feel like a hold-out.  It’s one of the last surviving remnants of a bygone era.  Let’s hope it remains intact during 2019 too.

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In the meantime, have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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Murakami underground

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(c) Vintage

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Events this year have possibly written the last page in one of the most traumatic and bewildering chapters in modern Japanese history.  The 6th and 26th of July saw the executions of 13 members of Aum Shinrikyo, described in its Wikipedia entry as both a  ‘Buddhist new religious movement’ and a ‘doomsday cult’.  Those executed included Aum’s founder and leader, Shoko Asahara.  They also included Masato Yokoyama, Yasuo Hayashi, Kenichi Hirose and Toru Toyoda, who on March 20th, 1995, released quantities of the exceptionally-toxic nerve agent sarin on Tokyo Underground’s Hibiya and Marunouchi Lines.  A fifth perpetrator, Ikuo Hayashi, released sarin on the Chiyoda Line, but he escaped execution and is under a life sentence because “he helped investigators when he confessed to his role in the gassing and because he showed deep remorse in court.”   

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The five cult-members’ modus operandi was crude – they dumped plastic bags of sarin on the floors of the underground trains and punctured them with the points of the umbrellas they were carrying, before bailing out at the next stops – but the consequences were devastating.  13 people died and at least a thousand other commuters and subway staff were injured.  This came at a time when Japan seemed particularly vulnerable, with the Kobe earthquake already having wreaked havoc in January that year and, more generally, the country undergoing stagnation after the ‘bubble economy’ had burst in the early 1990s.  (I can testify to the attack’s impact on Japan’s self-esteem and sense of order because I was living in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo at the time.  In fact, I’d been riding around those same Tokyo subway lines a week earlier, as I’d come south to attend a Rolling Stones concert at Tokyo Dome.  However, I’d made sure I was back in Sapporo for March 17th because an Irish mate there had invited me to a St Patrick’s Day party.)


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Originally published in 1997 and translated into English in 2000, Underground is an attempt to make sense of what happened in Tokyo that day by Japanese author Haruki Murakami – who in 1995 was seen as something of a wunderkind of modern Japanese literature, but these days is probably treated as a venerable man of letters.  To do this, Murakami interviewed more than thirty victims of the sarin attack – though as one of them gruffly asserts, “I’m not a sarin victim, I’m a survivor” – who were affected directly on the trains and in the stations or affected indirectly through the deaths of or injuries to loved ones. 

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No matter how weird his plots become, Murakami (in the English translations of his work at least) has always been a writer of unshowy and discrete prose.  Here, he reduces his authorial presence even further.  He provides a short biographical sketch of each person at the beginning of the interviews and during the interviews interjects with only very occasional questions.  As a result, the voices of the people who were on the receiving end of Aum Shinrikyo’s actions come through loud and clear.

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Incidentally, Murakami explains in his preface that his reason for conducting and publishing these interviews was because he believed the ordinary people who’d been put through the sarin ordeal had received insufficient attention: “The Japanese media had bombarded us with so many in-depth profiles of the Aum cult perpetrators – the ‘attackers’ – forming such a slick, seductive narrative that the average citizen – the ‘victim’ – was almost an afterthought.”

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From bookriot.com

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Murakami offers no comments, clarifications or interpretations of the stories told here, so that the book sometimes has a Rashomon-type quality in that we get differing, even conflicting accounts of the same incidents.  Occasionally, there’s a stirring and heartening story of someone stepping up to the plate and being heroic – an Average Joe worker in computer software maintenance who goes back to a platform to help a stricken platform attendant (in the process getting a worse dose of sarin poisoning that he would have otherwise), for example, or a PR worker and a young subway staff-member who bully a Tokyo TV camera crew into letting their van be used as an emergency ambulance to get some gravely-ill people to hospital.  (A common grievance heard in these interviews was the slowness of real ambulances in getting to the sites of the attacks.)

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Unsurprisingly, many interviewees express their rage at Aum Shinrikyo.  But there’s plenty of criticism too for the authorities, who were plainly unprepared for an incident of this nature – terrorist attacks were something supposed to happen in other countries, not in stable, peaceful Japan.  Also criticised is the Japanese media, who were often on the scene sticking cameras and microphones into people’s faces before they’d received medical treatment and who went into an unedifying feeding frenzy with their Aum Shinrikyo coverage during the weeks and months afterwards.

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Following Underground’s original publication, Murakami decided it was worth investigating the ‘attackers’ after all and he interviewed eight members and ex-members of Aum Shinrikyo for the Bungei Shunju magazine.  In the edition of Underground that I have, these magazine interviews have been inserted as a 90-page epilogue entitled The Place that was Promised.  The interviewees are varied in their opinions.  They range from those who have had the scales removed from their eyes – one runs a support group for people who have quit Aum, another eventually ‘ran away’ from the cult for fear of his life and a third confesses to having spied on them on behalf of the police – to at least one who still entertains the possibility that Asahara and his cohorts were the innocent victims of a set-up: “I’m not saying there’s no way he did it, but at this stage it’s too early to decide.  I won’t be convinced until all the facts are on the table.” 

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The accounts here have two depressingly common features, though I suspect that they won’t surprise experts who have studied the psychology and behaviour of cult members around the world.  First, if what they tell Murakami is true, they were jaw-droppingly myopic and self-deluding about what was going on around them.  One talks about how Aum members were punished for transgressions by being chained and hung upside-down and left hanging in great pain, but they’d interpret this as a necessary beneficial step in their spiritual development (“They’d suffer, be taken to the edge of death, and then be kindly told, ‘You did well.’  And they’d think, ‘I was able to overcome the trials given to me.  Thank you, O Guru!’”).  Another claimed to have been un-suspicious of the masses of elaborate chemical-plant equipment being installed in the Aum compounds, with their attendant, noxious stench.  (“It didn’t look like weapons.”)

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The other feature that’s depressing is the malaise that most identify in themselves before they got drawn into the world of Asahara’s dark cult: “…something was missing…”  “There always seemed to be a wall separating me from the rest of the world…”  “My lifestyle seemed increasingly pointless…”  “…I felt a deep alienation between my outer and my inner Self.”  This emptiness – which was no doubt exacerbated by the materialistic excesses of Japan’s bubble-economy years – is the common thread in nearly all the interviewees’ accounts of how they ended up in a religious organisation willing to cause the mass-slaughter of its fellow citizens as they innocently headed off to work one morning. 

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At the end of this compelling, exhaustive and emotionally exhausting book, Murakami voices his fear that if this emptiness in modern Japanese society isn’t addressed, horrors of a magnitude perpetrated by the Aum could happen again:  “…we need to realise that most of the people who join cults are not abnormal; they’re not disadvantaged; they’re not eccentrics…  They can’t find a way to express themselves, and bounce back and forth between feelings of pride and inadequacy.  That might very well be me.  It might be you.”

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Nothing’s gonna save us now

    

                                       © Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

    

As the sorry events of Brexit have unfolded over the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve heard a voice in my head.  It’s the voice of Private Hudson, a character in the masterly James Cameron-directed action / sci-fi / horror film Aliens (1986) who was played by the late, great Bill Paxton.  Before the aliens show up, Hudson is a swaggering, show-offy git.  After they show up, he becomes a quivering, whiny git.  In the process, thanks to Paxton’s entertaining performance, he provides the film with most of its memorable lines.  And these lines make an appropriate narration to each stage of the Brexit process as things go from bad to worse to catastrophic.

     

So in the run-up to the referendum when Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Liam Fox, Nigel Farage and co were spouting nonsense about how a ‘leave’ vote would free the United Kingdom from the shackles of European Union bureaucracy and officialdom and send it on a new course as a swashbuckling, buccaneering, entrepreneurial, low-regulation economy sailing the seas of international trade and commerce like a cross between Singapore and Captain Blackbeard, I heard the early-on-in-Aliens Hudson bragging: “I’m ready, man.  Check it out.  I am the ultimate badass!  State of the art badass!  You do not want to f**k with me…!  We got tactical smart missiles, phase plasma pulse rifles and we got sonic electronic ballbreakers!  We got nukes, knives, sharp sticks!

     

However, once the aliens, sorry, the EU negotiators turned up, the tone rapidly changed.  Each time I’ve seen the waxen-faced Theresa May trudge back from another unsuccessful round of talks in Brussels, I’ve heard the later-in-Aliens Hudson lament: “Maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events but we just got our asses kicked, pal!

 

And now, with May’s hapless cabinet in panic mode and attempting to start preparations for an increasingly likely no-deal Brexit – potentially just 100 days away – I’m hearing Hudson’s even-more desperate voice: “That’s great!  That’s just f**king great, man!  What the f**k are we supposed to do?  We’re in some real pretty shit now, man!  Game over, man!  Game f**king over!  What the f**k are we gonna do?  What are we gonna do?

    

No doubt if (more probably when) we arrive at a no-deal Brexit on the cut-off date of March 29th next year, the voice I’ll be hearing will be Hudson in full-scale meltdown: “They’re coming outta the walls!  They’re coming outta the goddamn walls!  We are F**KED!

    

Seriously, things are looking bad.  With a meaningful vote on Theresa May’s Brexit plan, which most Westminster politicians seem to hate whether they’re in favour of Brexit or not, pushed back to January, meaning there’ll be bugger-all time to come with an alternative before the end of March, the spectre of a no-deal Brexit looms horribly large.  The cabinet has been reported as making two billion pounds available for emergency no-deal preparations, including such things as the worrying-sounding provision of clean drinking water.  (The chemicals and gases needed for water purification are currently imported from the EU.)  Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has just admitted to putting 3500 British soldiers on standby, presumably in case, among other reasons, food shortages lead to civil disorder.  In the midst of all this, business organisations like the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses have professed to be ‘watching in horror’.

   

If it wasn’t so terrifying, it’d be hilarious to compare the musings on a no-deal Brexit made by Tory politicians in the past, when it seemed just a remote possibility, and now.   Only months ago, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt described a no-deal Brexit as ‘a mistake we would regret for generations.’  Interviewed in the most recent Sunday Telegraph, Hunt has suddenly become unconvincingly chipper: “I’ve always thought that even in a no-deal situation, this is a great country, we’ll find a way to flourish and prosper.”

      

                                                                                        © Daily Mirror

      

Still, while I’ve marvelled at the astronomical incompetence of Tory politicians over this, I’ve also had to marvel at the epic uselessness of Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party and the supposed official opposition in parliament.

     

As I’ve said in the past, there have been aspects of Corbyn I’ve quite admired – but when it comes to Brexit, I’ve been suspicious of his motives ever since he imposed a three-line whip in the House of Commons to make his MPs vote in favour of the activation of Article 50, which triggered the whole Brexit process.  Since then, Labour’s approach has veered between the incoherent, with Corbyn and his Brexit secretary Keir Starmer contradicting each other, and themselves, constantly; and the maddening, with Corbyn missing countless open-goals at Prime Minister’s Questions over May’s dire Brexit record; and the galling, as it’s gradually dawned on me that Corbyn actually wants Brexit to happen.

    

It shouldn’t surprise me, I suppose.  For all his endorsements of a ‘remain’ vote before the 2016 Brexit referendum, Corbyn has never really liked the EU that much.  He’s been anti-Europe at various times in the past, opposing Britain’s membership of the then-EEC in the 1975 European Communities Referendum, opposing the Maastricht Treaty in the 1990s and opposing the Lisbon Treaty in the 2000s.  I doubt if his attitude differs much from that of his old left-wing guru the late Tony Benn, who once claimed that “Britain’s continuing membership of the (European) Community would mean the end of Britain as a completely self-governing nation.”

   

At the moment, I’ve read so many conflicting accounts of Labour’s response at Westminster to the postponement of the meaningful vote that my head has begun to hurt.  It appears that Corbyn has tabled a motion of no-confidence in Theresa May, as opposed to no-confidence in May’s government.  The second of these no-confidence motions would have been binding – a vote would have to be taken – and, if passed, would have resulted in a general election.  However, the no-confidence motion in May that Corbyn is proposing isn’t binding and May doesn’t have to allocate it parliamentary time.  And even if it’s passed, it won’t cause the fall of the Conservative government.

    

I’d have thought that with all the dire predictions about what will happen in the event of a no-deal Brexit at the end of March – twenty-mile lorry tailbacks at Dover, airplanes grounded, supermarkets running out of food, hospitals running out of medicine, the pound going through the floor, the economy going belly-up – Labour would be throwing everything at Theresa May’s government just now, up to and including the kitchen sink.  Sure, people have pointed out that if there was a no-confidence vote in the government, the Conservatives (and their friends in the DUP) would probably close ranks and win the vote with slightly-superior numbers.  But it’d only take a few Tory MPs with a sense of public duty to vote the other way for the motion to win.  And sure, Labour has been scraping behind the Tories in opinion polls recently and aren’t guaranteed to win an election just now.  But if they committed themselves to holding a second referendum on Brexit (which is what most Labour activists and supporters want), wouldn’t they stand to pick up many extra votes from frustrated and frightened Remainers? 

     

Surely initiating a no-confidence vote – with the distant chance that a party pledged to holding a second referendum that might end the madness wins power – is better than doing nothing?

     

But no, Corbyn is just faffing around and pretending to be doing something while secretly waiting for the clock to count down.  Then he’ll get the Brexit that, as a traditional leftie, he quietly wants; and, he reckons, the Conservative Party will be so discredited in the ensuing economic chaos that the British population, impoverished and hungry, will suddenly embrace his brand of socialism.  Then, like disaster capitalists in reverse, Jeremy and his gang get to build a socialist utopia out of the ruins.  How they find the funds to do that, with the post-Brexit economy tanking, is anyone’s guess. 

     

                                   © 20thCentury Fox

        

Seeing Corbyn’s non-oppositional, sit-on-his-hands approach to the Conservative government and its Brexit policies, I find myself thinking of another movie, Philip Kaufman’s Rising Sun (1993), in which Sean Connery recites an old proverb to Wesley Snipes: “If you sit by the river long enough… you will see the body of your enemy floating by.”

     

Trouble is, the whole riverbank on which Corbyn and the country generally are sitting is in serious danger of detaching itself and crashing cataclysmically into the river before the bodies of any Tory governments go floating by. 

     

Deathlog 2018: Part 1

   

     © CKK Corporation / Turtle Releasing Org.

    

As 2018 nears its end, I thought I’d mention those many writers, musicians, performers, artists and personalities who passed away during the first half of the year – folk who’ve inspired, entertained and generally made life a bit more interesting for me.  Links are provided for the people whose deaths were commemorated by entries on this blog. 

    

January 2018 saw a quadruple-whammy of music-related deaths.  On January 10th, we lost Fast Eddie Clarke, last surviving member of the formidable original line-up of Motörhead; on January 15th, Dolores O’Riordan, singer, songwriter and musician with the massively popular (for a time) Irish band the Cranberries; on January 20th, Jim Rodford, bass player with the Zombies, Argent and, for two decades from the 1970s to the 1990s, the Kinks; and on January 24th, the relentlessly experimental, prolific and grumpy Mark E. Smith of the ever shape-shifting post-punk band the Fall.

    

Meanwhile, mid-January witnessed the loss of two actors I remember fondly.  On January 15th, we said goodbye to Peter Wyngarde, suave, stylish and impressively moustached star of TV shows Department S (1969-70) and Jason King (1971-72); though connoisseurs of horror movies would argue his finest hours came with his small but terrifying role in the classic The Innocents (1961) and his lead role in the underrated Night of the Eagle (1962), while connoisseurs of trivia cherish the fact that as a teenager he was interned in the same Japanese prisoner of war camp as author J.G. Ballard.  The next day saw the departure of seemingly indefatigable American actor Bradford Dillman, whose CV included such lovably ropy cinema and TV movies as Fear No Evil (1969), The Mephisto Waltz (1971), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Moon of the Wolf (1972), Chosen Survivors (1974), Bug (1975), The Swarm (1978), Sudden Impact (1983) and Lords of the Deep (1988).  Though his best role in my opinion was in the original, Joe Dante-directed, John Sayles-scripted Piranha (1978).

   

                                                                             © ITC Entertainment

         

In the literary world, legendary science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin died on January 22nd.  Soon after came the deaths of two well-regarded horror writers.  Jack Ketchum, author of 1981’s Off Season and 1989’s The Girl Next Door and co-writer of 2010’s The Woman and its 2011 film adaptation, died on January 24th; while David Case, whose 1971 short story Fengriffin was filmed in 1973 as And Now the Screaming Starts with a top-notch cast of Peter Cushing, Stephanie Beachum, Ian Ogilvy, Patrick Magee and Herbert Lom, died on February 3rd

    

Passing away on February 4th was the actor John Mahoney, much loved as Kelsey Grammar’s blue-collar dad Martin Crane in the sitcom Frasier (1993-2004).  Five days later saw the death of John Gavin, the American actor who was the hero (as opposed to Anthony Perkins’ anti-hero) of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and a credible Julius Caesar in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus that same year.  Among other things, Gavin came close to playing James Bond in 1970’s Diamonds are Forever, before a hefty wage-offer lured Sean Connery back to the role.  By an unhappy coincidence, Lewis Gilbert, director of old-school Bond epics You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1978), died the same month, on February 23rd.  And Peter Miles, the prolific British character actor who between the 1960s and 1980s turned up in such TV shows as Z-Cars, Survivors, The Sweeney, Poldark, Blake’s 7 and Bergerac, died on February 26th.  Perhaps best-known for playing Nyder, the conniving, Nazi-esque sidekick to the Daleks’ creator Davros in the classic 1975 Doctor Who adventure Genesis of the Daleks, Miles was the first of several veteran British TV actors to expire in 2018.

   

                                                                                                         © BBC

   

Indeed, a slew of British TV fixtures died the following month.   These were the relentless Liverpudlian comedian Ken Dodd, who was still performing marathon four-hour shows (“You think you can get away but you can’t.  I’ll follow you home and shout jokes through your letterbox!”) almost until his death on March 11th at the age of 90; Jim Bowen, beloved host of 1980s darts-themed quiz-show Bullseye, who died on March 14th; and Bill Maynard, star of 1970s sitcom Oh No, It’s Selwyn Froggitt! (1976-78) and several Carry On movies, who died on March 30th.

       

Meanwhile, a fixture of American TV, David Ogden Stiers, died on March 3rd.  I’ll always remember Stiers from the classic anti-war sitcom M*A*S*H, the last six seasons of which (1978-83) featured him in the role of the amusingly pompous and truculent but essentially good-hearted Charles Emerson Winchester III.  The same day another American actor, Frank Doubleday, passed away – Doubleday was responsible for the most shockingly senseless murder in movie history, playing a gang-member who guns down a little girl at an ice cream van in John Carpenter’s cheap but masterly Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). 

    

Bowing out on March 14th was Stephen Hawking, proof that having Motor Neuron Disease needn’t prevent you from having the finest mind on the planet – or having the ability to poke fun at yourself by making guest appearances in TV shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Simpsons.  Philip Kerr, Edinburgh-born author of the ‘Berlin Noir’ Bernie Gunther crime novels, died on March 23rd.  And on March 20th, at the age of just 38, Kak Channthy, singer with the splendidly offbeat, catchy and trippy band Cambodian Space Project, was killed in a traffic accident in Phnom Penh.

    

                                       From the Khmer Times Daily News Digest

    

April saw the deaths of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1986) director Milos Foreman on April 13th; soldier and actor R. Lee Emery – who started off on Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) as a technical advisor but proved so hardcore that Kubrick soon cast him in the role of the fearsome Gunnery Sergeant Hartman – on April 15th; actress Pamela Gidley from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) on April 16th; John Stride, one of those afore-mentioned prolific British TV character actors, on April 20th; and diminutive actor Verne Troyer, who’ll be forever remembered as Mini-Me in the Austin Powers movies, on April 20th.  Personally, I liked Troyer best for his performance in Terry Gilliam’s 2009 film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

         

On April 29th, versatile screenwriter Trevor Preston died.  Preston’s CV ranged from the gritty TV crime shows Out (1978) and Fox (1980) to the popular kids’ fantasy series Ace of Wands (1970-72) to the fascinatingly oddball snooker / musical / horror film Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1987).

      

May got off with a melancholy start with two much-loved performers apparently taking their own lives: Scott Hutchinson, singer-songwriter and guitarist with Scottish Borders indie band Frightened Rabbit, who disappeared at the Firth of Forth on May 9th and whose body was discovered there the following day; and Canadian actress and activist Margot Kidder, Lois Lane to Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent in the Superman movies of 1978, 80, 83 and 87, who died of an overdose on May 13th.  Heavyweight American writers Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth passed away on May 14th and May 22nd respectively.  And departing on May 21st was the towering (six foot, six inches) American actor Clint Walker, star of the TV western show Cheyenne from 1955 to 1963 and one of the twelve military convicts in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967).  Two decades later, Walker would supply one of the voices for the title characters of Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers (1998) alongside other members of the Dozen like George Kennedy, Ernest Borgnine and Jim Brown.

     

Japanese actress Yuriko Hoshi, whose 90 films included some fun kaiju ones featuring Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah, died on May 17th, while British actor Glynn Edwards, who turned up in such British movie classics as Zulu (1964) and Get Carter (1971) but will be best remembered for playing Dave, the congenial barman at Arthur Daley’s watering hole the Winchester Club in the TV show Minder (1979-94), died on May 23rd.  May 20th saw the death of yet another Stanley Kubrick collaborator, graphic designer and film-poster artist Bill Gold.  Among the hundreds of posters Gold produced, it’s a toss-up between his one for Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and his one for The Exorcist (1973) about which is the most iconic.

   

                                                     © Warner Bros.
                                                        © Warner Bros.

    

June 8th saw the deaths of globetrotting TV chef Anthony Bourdain, and actress Eunice Gayson, the very first cinematic Bond girl (Sylvia Trench in 1962’s Dr No and 1963’s From Russia With Love), and blues-rock guitarist Danny Kirwan, who played with Fleetwood Mac until 1972 (i.e. back in the days when they were good).  June was also when two notable drummers passed away: Nick Knox, who played for 14 years with psychobilly legends the Cramps, on June 15th and Vinnie Paul of the heavy metal band Pantera on June 22nd.  Actress Maria Rohm, wife of the prolific British film producer Harry Alan Towers and frequent star of movies made by the equally prolific Spanish director Jess Franco, died on June 18th.  One day later, so did the kindly, smart and communicative primate Koko the Gorilla.

      

Science fiction and fantasy author, notorious curmudgeon, all-round personality and a hero of mine (especially during my teens) Harlan Ellison died on June 27th.  Two days later saw the passing of the legendary comic artist and writer Steve Dikto, who co-created Marvel Comics superheroes Spiderman and Dr Strange with Stan Lee.  Later on, of course, Lee would be a casualty of 2018 too.

     

And those were only the deaths during the first half of 2018.  I’ll post an entry about 2018’s second half later this month – and, alas, there are many more still to come.

    

Lanka metal

   

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Back in 2014 when I moved to Sri Lanka, I accepted there’d be certain things I’d gain from the move and certain things I’d lose from it. Among the gains would be the following: sunshine, warmth, delicious spicy food, lots of interesting Buddhist and Hindu temples to explore, access to some gorgeous beaches, access to the equally gorgeous Hill Country of the island’s interior, and a chance to see an occasional elephant.  Among the losses…  Well, I assumed one thing absent from my new life in Sri Lanka would be the opportunity to hear my favourite musical genre played live.  No, I definitely didn’t expect to attend any heavy metal gigs there

   

Indeed, I imagined the only live music I’d come across would be some traditional Sri Lankan music – absolutely nothing wrong with that, I should add – and plenty of lame middle-of-the-road cover bands playing insipid versions of Eagles, Bryan Adams and Lionel Ritchie songs to crowds of sweaty Western tourists and moneyed local would-be hipsters in the big hotels at the country’s holiday resorts – absolutely everything wrong with that.

     

But one of the pleasantest surprises of my past four years in Sri Lanka has been my discovery that there’s actually a thriving heavy metal scene in the country.  Lanka metal is really a thing.  So here’s a quick round-up of my favourite local headbangers.   

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A good place to start is Stigmata, on the go since 1998 (when the founding members were still schoolboys) and responsible for an impressive sound that, to me at least, combines the best of Iron Maiden and Sepultura.  Recently, they’ve played a few small-scale gigs at the Floor by O bar next to the Colombo Cricket Club and I decided to attend one of these.  (My previous experience of the band had been when  they performed a set at the 2017 Lanka Comic Con.)  I arrived early, when the band had barely begun to assemble their equipment, and before long none other than Stigmata’s vocalist and co-founder Suresh De Silva had wandered over to have a chat. 

   

After we’d had a blether about the new Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, we got onto discussing great heavy metal gigs I’d attended in the past.  The fact that I’d seen Megadeth supported by Korn in Chicago all the way back in 1995 must have made me seem ancient to De Silva.  But then when I went on to reminisce about seeing Nazareth play a gig in Aberdeen in 1983, he probably wondered if I’d wandered in from Jurassic Park

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Later, Stigmata gave a thunderous live performance.  Unfortunately, by then, I was parked at one end of the Floor by O bar-counter and they were playing in a corner at the other end of it, and the photos I took of them – blurry and with lots of bar paraphernalia getting in the way – hardly did them justice.

 

   

I’m also a fan of Paranoid Earthling, whose Wikipedia entry describes them as a ‘grunge, experimental, psychedelic, stoner rock, heavy metal’ band from Kandy.  They’re of a slightly-younger vintage than Stigmata, having been formed in 2001.  Among their assets is 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.  Their best songs include Open up the Gates with its twiddly, thumping guitar sound; the punky, foot-tapping Rock n’ Roll is my Anarchy; and Deaf Blind Dumb, which borrows its stompy bits from Marilyn Manson’s The Beautiful People but is still a blast played live.

    

For a heavier sound – death and black metal – check out the Genocide Shrines, whose ‘lyrical themes’ according to the Metal Archives website include ‘tantra / spiritual warfare’, ‘death’ and, er, ‘arrack’.  Well,after you’ve spent all day waging tantra and spiritual warfare to the death, I suppose you need to relax with a glass of arrack.  Aside from their juggernaut sound, their most memorable feature is their fondness for wearing scary masks onstage, Slipknot-style.  Though I have to say I was a bit disappointed when I saw them live one time and at their set’s end they ‘rewarded’ their fans by taking their masks off and revealing themselves to be ordinary-looking blokes.  That spoiled their mystique somewhat.

   

   

Other Lanka metal bands I’ve seen include old-timers – established in 1995 –Whirlwind.  I have a copy of their 2003 album Pain in my possession and I have to say its opening song Break Away sounds unexpectedly and weirdly like Counting Crows’ Mr Jones. I’ve also see Neurocracy, Mass Damnation and Abyss, plus a couple of young up-and-coming bands who’ve equally impressed and amused me with their boundless Sri Lankan politeness and their boundless gratitude to the audience for turning up to see them.  In between their songs they kept saying, “Thank you, thank you very much, thank you for coming, thank you so very much…” and then a half-minute later they were emitting blood-curdling throaty black / death metal gurgles and screaming “F**K!  F**K! F**K!”

    

Much of the Lanka metal I’ve seen live has been at the Shalika Hall on Park Road in Colombo 5, which I have to say isn’t my favourite venue. For one thing, it doesn’t really have sidewalls.  Both sides of the auditorium open onto small outside compounds with dilapidated toilets – well, the male toilets are dilapidated – at their ends.  This means the acoustics aren’t great because a lot of the sound seeps out into the night.  Conversely, and especially if you turn up at the wrong part of the evening, a great many mosquitoes get in. There are also surreal moments when big bats flap in from one side, cross above the heads of the audience and flap out of the other side – sights that’d be more appropriate at a goth concert than a heavy metal one.   

   

   

Scotched earth policy

 

From culture24.org.uk

 

Last month, it was announced that the debt-troubled newspaper firm Johnston Press had been taken over by JPI Media, a company especially set up for the takeover by the firm’s lenders.  Soon after, it emerged that the value of one particular outpost of Johnston Press’s empire, the Edinburgh-based triumvirate of the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and Evening News, had dropped in value from 160 million pounds in 2005 to just four million today.

 

I’ve intended since then to write something about this sorry state of affairs – and especially about plight of the Scotsman, which at one time could justifiably claim to be Scotland’s national newspaper.  But apathy has prevented me from writing about it until today.  That’s unsurprising.  As far as my feelings about the Scotsman are concerned these days, ‘apathy’ is the operative word.

 

It’s hard to believe in 2018, but for a period of my life I read the Scotsman a lot.  When my family arrived in Scotland in 1977, it was one of the daily newspapers they had delivered to their door.  They – soon it was ‘we’ because by the time I was 12 or 13 I’d got into the habit of reading it too – liked it because everything you needed to know was there: news about Scotland, about Britain and about the wider world, plus some intelligent comment and opinion.  And for my Dad, who was a farmer, it had a good agricultural section.  It’s interesting  that in those days we never felt any urge to sample the London-based newspapers, even though they were freely available on the shelves of the local newsagent.  I suspect this was the same in many households across Scotland.

 

By the time I’d become a college student, my political beliefs had shifted to the left – and to the belief that Scotland should be ruled not by London but by the people who lived in it and should be an independent country.  Now I understood that the Scotsman was never going to be the reading matter of choice for revolutionary socialists intent on sticking it to the Man, or as it was in those Thatcherite times, the Woman.  But in its sombre, quietly-on-the-side-of-social-justice way, the old newspaper still had my respect.

 

Incidentally, for a period in the early 1990s, I really liked its sister paper, the Scotland on Sunday.  I remember living for half-a-year in Harlow in Essex, working at a private school where the senior teacher also came from Scotland.  Every Sunday morning, we left our respective houses and embarked on a desperate race to get to a particular newsagent’s shop first – the only newsagent in Harlow who stocked the Scotland on Sunday and who seemed to only ever stock one copy of it.  I enjoyed its columns, which included ones written by the agreeably curmudgeonly Kenneth Roy and the spiky, outspoken Muriel Gray, who was one of my heroines at the time since she was a knowledgeable TV music presenter, a horror-story writer, a dedicated hillwalker and a commentator with fire in her belly.

 

(Kenneth Roy, alas, passed away just a couple of weeks ago.  Meanwhile, nowadays, there’s someone called Muriel Gray who tut-tuts about how ghastly Scotland would be if it ever voted for independence and occasionally on twitter plugs opinion pieces written by her right-wing pals for the likes of the Daily Mail and the Spectator.  But I refuse to accept that this Miss Jean Brodie-esque creature is the same Muriel Gray whom I used to worship.  I believe that the real Muriel Gray has been kidnapped by aliens and replaced by an evil pod-person double.)

 

Anyway, in the late 1990s, after a lengthy stint in Japan, I found myself living in Edinburgh and I assumed I’d get into the habit of reading the Scotsman again.  I bought a couple of issues and gave up.  It’d suddenly acquired an unpleasantly right-wing editorial tone.  It was scathing about the idea that Scotland should get any degree of home-rule from London – even though the Scottish population had just voted for that, in 1997, in a referendum about the creation of a devolved Scottish parliament.  Hold on, I thought.  Hadn’t the Scotsman, the old Scotsman, been firmly in favour of Scottish devolution?

 

When I asked old friends from my college days – folk like me, interested in politics and current affairs and belonging to a demographic who’d certainly buy newspapers if they thought they were worth buying – they’d shrug and say dismissively, “The Scotsman?  Never read it now.”

 

© BBC

 

It transpired that something tragic had happened.  In the mid-1990s Scotsman Publications had been acquired by media, retail and property tycoons the Barclay Brothers, and they’d installed as their editor-in-chief Andrew Neil, formerly Rupert Murdoch’s lieutenant in the UK (and in 2018 a heavyweight political journalist with the BBC).  Back in the day in the newspaper world, Neil was the man with the reverse-Midas touch: everything he touched turned to shit.  He edited the once-respectable Sunday Times in the 1980s and transformed it into the snide, smug right-wing rag it still is today.  Other publications he was involved with like the European and the Business suffered declining sales and eventually folded.

 

Although Neil didn’t have anything to do with the Scotsman after it passed from the Barclay Brothers to Johnston Press in 2005, the newspaper remained on the right – where Neil had dragged it – and basically never recovered from the dose of journalistic syphilis it’d contracted from him during his tenure.   By 2017, the year of its 200th anniversary, its paid-for circulation was down to about 17,000 copies daily.

 

It’s not as if there hasn’t been much news for the Scotsman to cover in Scotland during the last two decades.   1998 saw the creation of the first Scottish parliament in nearly three centuries, 2007 saw the hitherto unthinkable spectacle of the Scottish Labour Party being booted out of power by the Scottish National Party, 2010 saw the financial collapse of Scotland’s biggest football club Glasgow Rangers, and 2014 saw that wee matter of the referendum on Scottish independence.  Plus we’ve had the tragic death of a Scottish First Minister, Donald Dewar; the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, convicted of the Lockerbie bombing; the enthronement of President Donald Trump, someone with embarrassingly strong links to Scotland; and the removal of Scotland from the European Union thanks to the Brexit vote, even though most Scottish voters wanted to stay in it.  With so much going on, how come the Scotsman failed to capitalise?  How has the reverse happened – its current dismal readership figures suggesting that it is, to use a memorable simile by Billy Connolly, “as popular as a fart in a spacesuit”?

 

Obviously, the coming of the internet and online news services where stories are continually broken and updated impacted negatively on the Scotsman, but it hasn’t helped itself with the scorched earth policy it’s seemingly waged against its readership and potential readership.  As I said earlier, Andrew Neil’s reign put many people off it.  Then in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, its partisan unionist / ‘vote no’ stance surely pissed off any pro-independence readers who’d stuck with it.  Indeed, two independence-supporting people I know, of my age or slightly older, told me they’d cancelled their Scotsman subscriptions because they were scunnered by its referendum coverage.

 

Of course, many newspaper readers voted ‘no’ to independence – and their side won in 2014.  But politically nearly all the Scottish newspapers are unionist and most are right-wing, so by appealing to those people (and not the 45% who’d voted ‘yes’) the Scotsman was competing for readers in an already crowded field.

 

My Dad soldiered on reading it, mainly for the farming coverage, though he’d frequently grumble that the Scotsman generally ‘wasn’t as good as it used to be’.  Eventually, ill-health meant that he stopped buying it too.  Thus, while its right-wing British-unionist stance pissed off a sizeable section of my generation – probably the last generation in the habit of regularly buying physical newspapers – an older generation more likely to approve of its conservative politics was sickening and dying off.

 

© Daily Record

 

I have to say that only the threat of torture by thumbscrews, the rack and waterboarding would make me fork out money for a copy of it nowadays.  Not when its columnists include such specimens as Brian Wilson, a former minister under Tony Blair, a staunch supporter of the Iraq War and a man with a visceral hatred of the concept of Scottish independence and of anyone who might ever countenance voting for it; Brian Monteith, who led the campaign in 1997 against the establishment of the Scottish parliament and then demonstrated he was a person of true principle by, er, becoming a Conservative Party Member of the Scottish Parliament and pocketing an MSP’s salary there for the next seven years; and dyspeptic political journalist Euan McColm, who detests the SNP so much that steam must pour out of his ears every time Nicola Sturgeon appears on the telly.

 

Recent articles in the Scotsman and its sister newspapers have done nothing to change my mind.  A few weeks ago Brian Monteith, writing in the Scotsman’s sister paper the Evening News, penned an attack piece on Nicola Sturgeon so jaw-droppingly full of sexist jokes about her being obsessed with having her ‘nails done’, deciding ‘what blusher works best’ and making sure she ‘never runs out of killer stilettos’ that I wondered if I was reading something written by the ghost of Bernard Manning.  Meanwhile, Euan McColm wrote an article in the Scotsman dissing the Scottish Politician of the Year award, which in November 2018 went to an SNP politician, Jeane Freeman: “Are you entirely mediocre at your job,” he sneered, “barely capable of carrying out the duties for which you are employed and devoid of imagination?”  McColm had been oddly silent about the award’s shortcomings during the previous two years when it went to Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives and darling of Scotland’s mainstream media.

 

I should say I only know of the above articles because I’ve read extracts of them that were posted on the Internet.  I’d no sooner click on the Scotsman website these days than I’d wade into a dung-filled midden.  Technically, the site is all over the place and is maddening to navigate.  And the comments threads below the online articles are infested with frothing British-nationalist bampots who’d probably like to see people with my political views arrested and locked up for treason.

 

So having roused myself from my apathy, I’ve offered my thoughts on the poor old Scotsman.  Once it was a staple of my daily life in Scotland, now it’s something I avoid like the plague.  And those circulation figures indicate that most other people are avoiding it too.  A few years from now, I suspect its financial situation and that of its parent company will be even more dire and it’ll end up like the Independent – which ceased its print edition in 2016 and exists now in a phantom online version, with a migraine-inducingly bad website and its news team apparently made up of journalism interns who trawl the Internet and social media looking for stories.

 

Well, as the 2018 Scotsman website is already bloody awful, it’s halfway to the Independent’s living-dead status now.