We need to talk about Winston

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From nationalgeographic.com.au

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Apologies for the juvenile title of this (lengthy) blog entry, but I’m writing it in response to some juvenile goings-on.  A few days ago Ross Greer, Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Scottish Greens, tweeted his opinion that Winston Churchill was ‘a white supremacist mass murderer’.  This upset many people, including Piers Morgan, who described Greer as ‘a thick ginger turd’ whilst in the same breath (well, same tweet) inviting Greer to debate the issue with him on Good Morning Britain.  Greer replied by calling Morgan as a ‘honey-glazed gammon’ but agreed to the invitation.  There followed an unedifying confrontation on Good Morning Britain that climaxed with Morgan and Greer trying to talk and shout over each other.  Talking and shouting over people is pretty much Morgan’s modus operandum so I have slightly more sympathy for Greer in this.

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There should be considerably less heated and more nuanced debate about Churchill, about the opinions he held and decisions he made, and about the influence he’s had since his death.  This is especially so as Churchill seems to have become a totemic figure for the half of the British electorate who in June 2016 voted to leave the European Union.  Indeed, in this era of all-pervasive social media, when everybody seems to have a twitter and Facebook account, if not a website and a blog, I sometimes feel there’s been more written about the man since the Brexit vote that was ever written about him before it.

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So what to make of Churchill?  A hero?  A villain?  Or a fence-sitting ‘something in between’?  Well, here are the facts for both the prosecution and the defence.  Those for the prosecution, I have to warn you, are numerous and varied.  Those for the defence are brief – but weighty.

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In his correspondence as a young man attached to the Malakand Field Force, which fought Mohmand rebels in the Swat Valley in Northwest India in 1897, Churchill comes across as racist and bellicose.   He said of the Pashtun tribespeople: “in proportion that these valleys are purged from the pernicious vermin that infest them, so will the happiness of humanity be increased, and the progress of mankind accelerated.”  Admittedly, the tribespeople were brutal towards anyone who antagonised them, but the British more than matched them for cruelty.  In a letter in September 1897, Churchill wrote approvingly that: “After today we begin to burn villages.  Every one.  And all who resist will be killed without quarter.”  Later, in his autobiography, he noted how “every tribesman who was caught was speared or cut down at once.”

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A decade later, when he was British Home Secretary, one of Churchill’s more alarming enthusiasms was for eugenics.  He wrote about his fear that the “unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the Feeble-Minded and Insane classes… constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate” and advocated sterilization as a solution.  Writing in a departmental paper in 1910, he suggested the solution of labour camps alongside that of sterilization: “I propose that 100,000 degenerate Britons should be forcibly sterilised and others put in labour camps to halt the decline of the British race.”

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Incidentally, Churchill’s views on sexual equality were no more enlightened.  Of the women’s suffrage movement, he once commented: “Nothing would induce me to vote for giving women the franchise.  I am not going to be henpecked into a question of such importance.”

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Churchill saw World War I, when he was in charge of the British Admiralty, as an opportunity for glory: “I have it in me to be a successful soldier,” he boasted.  “I can visualise great movements and combinations.”  Unfortunately, the great movement he visualised – sending the fleet up the Dardanelles and grabbing Constantinople and the waterways that linked the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, thus enfeebling the Ottoman Empire, improving access between the Allies and Russia and drawing Greece, Romania and Bulgaria into the war on the Allies’ side – resulted in the bloody, nine-month stalemate of Gallipoli in 1915.  This ended with a death toll of 65,000 Turks, 26,000 Britons, 8,000 French, 7,800 Australians, 2,445 New Zealanders and 1,682 Indians.  Churchill stayed unrepentant about what he’d tried and failed to achieve at Gallipoli: “The Dardanelles might have saved millions of lives.  Don’t imagine I am running away from the Dardanelles.  I glory in it.”  However, the site www.historyextra.com gives the scheme a damning assessment: “…far from being a brilliant, potentially war-winning strategy, it was a piece of folly that was always likely to fail.”

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To give Churchill his due – after the Gallipoli fiasco, he joined the British Army, became a battalion commander and served with the Grenadier Guards and Royal Scots Fusiliers.  According to his Wikipedia entry, this service included 36 ventures into No Man’s Land.  If only every politician who makes a military blunder was forced to pay for it by becoming a soldier in a warzone.  There’d surely be fewer military blunders by politicians.  There’d be a hell of a lot less military adventurism by them too.

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1917, of course, saw the Russian Revolution.  No sooner had the 1918 Armistice been signed than the British establishment had something new to worry about: Bolshevism.  Churchill was dismayingly inclined to blame it on a Jewish conspiracy: “With the notable exception of Lenin, the majority of the leading figures are Jews.  Moreover, the principal inspiration and driving power comes from the Jewish leaders…  Although in all these countries there are many non-Jews every whit as bad as the worst of the Jewish revolutionaries, the part played by the latter in proportion to their numbers in the population is astonishing.” 

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From socialistpartyscotland.org.uk

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In February 1919, the fear that Britain was on the cusp of a workers’ revolution helped Churchill, as Secretary of State for Air and War, and his cabinet colleagues decide to send 10,000 troops into Glasgow to deal with striking workers.  Churchill already had form in this area, because as Home Secretary in 1910 he’d sent in troops to deal with striking miners in Tonypandy in South Wales.  Unsurprisingly, today, Churchill is not quite as widely revered among the Scots and Welsh as he is among his fellow English.  His disdain for the labour movement hadn’t abated by the time of the General Strike in 1926.  While Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was trying to reach agreement with the Trade Unions, he was strongly opposed by Churchill, who was desperate for a no-holds-barred fight with them.

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Elsewhere on these islands, Churchill is not remembered with much affection in Ireland.  In 1920, he oversaw the deployment in Ireland of the Black and Tans, the police force who soon became notorious for their unrestrained brutality and whose memory poisoned Anglo-Irish relations for decades afterwards.  Churchill ignored warnings about the great damage that the Black and Tans were doing.  Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson commented: “I warned him again that those Black and Tans who are committing very indiscriminate reprisals will play the devil in Ireland, but he won’t listen or agree.”  As for the Tans’ habit of killing suspected troublemakers without bothering to arrest them and put them on trial, Wilson said, “Winston saw very little harm in this but it horrifies me.” 

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(Churchill is better thought of among the pro-British Protestant community of Northern Ireland, but this was not always so.  It’s said that in 1912, when he visited Belfast, thousands of Protestant workers from the Harland and Wolff shipyard lined the streets wanting to pelt his car with rivets, on account of his support for Irish Home Rule.  And though Ulster Protestants often express pride about Northern Ireland’s part in the UK’s war effort from 1939 to 1945, while southern Ireland opted to remain neutral, it must rankle that Churchill offered Eamon De Valera a united Ireland if he agreed to bring his country into the war on Britain’s side.)

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Churchill also found time to leave his mark on Iraq: not in a good way.  As convener of a conference in Cairo in 1912 to draw up the boundaries of Britain’s Middle Eastern mandate, he unwisely lumped together three warring factions – Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds – within the borders of the new country.  And when Shiites and Sunnis rebelled against British colonial rule there in 1920, Churchill ordered military oppression and retribution on par with what he’d seen in the Swat Valley 23 years earlier – villages burned, civilians as well as combatants killed – as well as employing some deadly new technology.  He approved the use of chemical weapons against Iraqis, having opined earlier: “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas.  I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes…  It will cause great inconvenience and spread a lively terror.”  Also causing great inconvenience and lively terror was his use of ‘aerial policing’, i.e. getting the RAF to bomb Iraqi villages.  Unsurprisingly, these bombings – still within living memory – didn’t put the Iraqi population at ease when, in the early 2000s, they saw British troops arrive again in their country thanks to the actions of George Bush Jr and Tony Blair.

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Churchill also sent planes and chemical weapons to attack Bolsheviks in northern Russia in 1919.  Again, he was flippantly unrepentant about his use of the latter: “Why is it not fair for a British artilleryman to fire a shell that makes the said native sneeze?  It is really too silly.”

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The biggest stain on Churchill’s record is surely his role in the Bengal Famine of 1943 that claimed three million or more lives.  Let me quote the Indian writer and politician Dr Shashi Tharoor: “Not only did the British pursue its own policy of not helping the victims of this famine which was created by their policies.  Churchill persisted in exporting grain to Europe, not to feed actual ‘Sturdy Tommies’, to use his phrase, but to add to the buffer stocks that were being piled up in the event of a future invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia…  Ships laden with wheat were coming in from Australia, docking in Calcutta and were instructed by Churchill not to disembark their cargo but sail on to Europe.  And when conscience-stricken British officials wrote to the Prime Minister in London pointing out that his policies were causing needless loss of life all he could do was write peevishly in the margin of the report, ‘Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’”

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Another charge against Churchill during World War Two is the way he threw the Greek resistance movement – the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) and the National Liberation Front (EAM) – under the bus in 1944.  Previously, they’d fought alongside the British, against the Nazis.  However, afraid of the Communist Party’s influence within the resistance, and wanting to restore the monarchy and general pre-war status quo in Greece, he chose to abandon the partisans and place British support behind elements who’d collaborated with the Nazis – officers, for instance, in the Security Battalions and SS-affiliated Special Security Branch.  These were soon incorporated into the post-occupation army, security forces and judiciary.   The result was the gunning down of unarmed protestors in Athens on December 3rd, 1944, which marked the beginning of the five-week conflict in the city known as the Dekemvriana; which in turn helped lead to the three-year Greek Civil War, estimated to have cost some 158,000 lives.

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From greekcitytimes.com

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Churchill was voted out of office in 1945 but returned for a second term as Prime Minister from 1951 to 1955.  It was on this watch that he responded to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in a characteristically sledgehammer fashion.  By the uprising’s end, it was calculated that colonial forces had killed 10,000 Africans, roughly four times the number killed by the Mau Mau – indeed, if you were a white settler in Kenya, you stood a better chance of dying in a road accident than at the hands of the rebels.  The techniques employed by British troops for dealing with the Mau Mau included mass arrests, mass trials, mass hangings, torture, whippings, mutilations, the burning of villages, ‘free fire zones’ where any African person could be a target, forced labour and huge detention camps where disease and maltreatment were rife and conditions were scarcely any better than they’d been in German and Japanese camps a decade earlier.  It’s hardly surprising that when Barack Obama, whose Kenyan grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama had been among those arrested and tortured, became US president in 2008, Churchill’s bust did not last long in the Oval Office.

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That’s a damning charge-sheet.  What’s to be said in Churchill’s defence?  Well, it’s a trite observation, but though the man’s opinions and decisions were frequently rotten, they were nowhere near as rotten as those offered by the other side between 1939 and 1945.  No doubt Churchill’s idea of utopia was a British Empire where the sun never set.  There’d be a catastrophic famine here, and a bloodily put-down insurgency there, but he’d regard that as the regrettable but unavoidable price of the White Man having to shoulder his civilising burden (while, quietly on the side, Britain’s coffers continued to be filled with the trade and plunder of its colonies).  Among the Empire’s ‘subjects’, life for many would be humiliating and wretched, and for some pretty hellish.  But compare that with Hitler’s idea of utopia, which…  Which doesn’t bear thinking about, really.

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And he was in possession of good qualities – courage, determination, intellect, a rhetorical flair – that enabled him to galvanise the British population to make a stand against Nazism and prevent all of Western Europe from falling under Hitler’s influence.  (Of course, saying he won the war for Britain is different from saying he won the war full stop, which is what many of his modern-day fans in Britain seem to believe he did.)  As the saying goes, cometh the hour, cometh the man.  That the man happened to be an asshole in most other ways doesn’t denigrate his achievements during the hour itself.  I’d like to think that if I’d been an adult in Britain during World War II, and knew about Churchill what I know about him now, I wouldn’t have let the old git into my house.  But I’d still have been (secretly) relieved that he was running the country at the time.

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Following the Greer-Morgan rumpus, the Times columnist Alex Massie – who, though right-wing and fogeyish, is much more perceptive and decent that the ridiculous, self-important (and Trump brown-nosing) Piers Morgan – penned an article on the subject.  I can sort of agree with its title: CHURCHILL WAS A GREAT BRITON, NOT A GREAT MAN.  I don’t, however, agree with some of Massie’s sentiments.  He claims that Greer wrongly applied the value judgements of the 21st century to a historical figure whose views happened to be typical and acceptable among the British ruling class of his time.  But in fact, there were plenty of people alive when Churchill was alive who detested him too.  However, they tended to be Indians, Kenyans, Greeks, Irish, Iraqis, etc. – people whose opinions rarely get much coverage in British history books. 

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Come to think of it, Britons would have their eyes opened if they got their history from a wider and more international range of sources than they do now.   In these Brexiting times, unfortunately, with World War II the only bit of history that many British people seem to know about, and with British politicians fantasizing about creating a trading ‘Empire 2.0’ after withdrawal from the EU, I don’t think British awareness of history is going to get any wider.  It’s going to get even narrower. 

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And that won’t be good for Britain’s place in the world in the future.

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From historyextra.com

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Wordsworth’s ghosts

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I’ve read a lot of 19th century ghost stories recently.  This is no doubt because Christmas was a month ago and Christmas is the season par excellence for mixing yourself a hot toddy, turning the lights low, hunkering down with a book and reading good, old-fashioned ghost stories. 

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The stories in question have featured in collections published by Wordsworth Editions in its series Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural.  I’ve picked up a number of these at library clearance sales and in second-hand bookshops in Sri Lanka and Thailand over the past year.  The last time I checked, Wordsworth’s Mystery and the Supernatural series consisted of 80 different titles and they’re an admirable balance between works by authors who are well-known, like H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James, Edgar Wallace, Edith Wharton and Henry James, and works by authors who aren’t – or, in some cases, were famous once but have now disappeared off the reading public’s radar.  By acquainting modern readers with writers in the latter category, the series performs an invaluable service.  It was through reading one of its books a few years ago, for instance, that I discovered the excellent but now neglected writer May Sinclair, about whom I wrote here.

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Anyway, I’ve just finished reading Wordsworth collections by Amyas Northcote, Gertrude Atherton and J.H. Riddell.  How do their ghost stories measure up?

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(c) Wordsworth Editions

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Amyas Northcote is the most elusive figure of the three.  His Wikipedia entry merely states that he was the seventh son of the First Earl of Iddesleigh – Benjamin Disraeli’s Chancellor of the Exchequer; he was a businessman in Chicago at one time and a Justice of the Peace in Buckinghamshire at another; and he “wrote ghost stories in the line of those of M.R. James, which were compiled in his only book, In Ghostly Company.”  One likely reason why Company was Northcote’s only book was because it was published in 1921 and he died soon afterwards in 1923, before he had much chance to follow it with further fiction, ghostly or otherwise.

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I have to admit that while I found Northcote’s stories enjoyable, most of them feel a bit run-of-the-mill.  Often, as in the case of Mr Kershaw and Mr Wilcox, The Late Earl of D., The Steps and The Governess’s Story, they involve manifestations of the supernatural linked to murders, untimely deaths and disappearances.  The two most interesting stories are those that stray furthest from the formula.  The Downs deals with a secluded stretch of British countryside that, one night a year, becomes the scene of a haunting on a spectacular scale; while The Late Mrs Fowke strays unexpectedly into the realms of devil worship and reads like a prototype for the occult potboilers that Dennis Wheatley would start writing little more than a decade later.   

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(c) Wordsworth Editions

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Considerably greater in range and ambition are the stories of American author Gertrude Atherton collected in The Bell in the Fog and Other Stories, originally published in 1905.  These are tales that are by turns grisly (The Striding Place), phantasmagorical (The Dead and the Countess) and imbued with a psychological intensity reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe (Death and the Woman).  Some aren’t supernatural at all but are grim character studies.  A Monarch of a Small Survey is about a sad and frumpy lady’s companion who suffers the double misfortune of being cut out of her employer’s will and becoming futilely besotted with a younger man.  The Tragedy of a Snob similarly looks at the gulf between the haves and have nots, chronicling the efforts of a man of limited means to gain access to the world of high society.  And The Greatest Good of the Greatest Number is about a physician who convinces himself that by eliminating the life of one worthless person he can improve the lives of all the decent people who’ve been blighted by her – but finds the execution of the deed harder than he’d expected.  Simply but compellingly set up, The Greatest Good feels like a Roald Dahl story with a stern moral conscience.

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I have to say, though, that my respect for Atherton’s collection was diminished by the inclusion of A Prologue, which is presented as the first part of an unfinished play.  It’s a brooding, gothic piece set on a West Indian island about to be pulverised by a hurricane and is slightly reminiscent of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).  Unfortunately, it’s also racist. It depicts a household’s black slaves cowering and wailing pathetically on the floor while their white owners stomp around, cursing them for their superstitious uselessness and trying to secure the premises without their help.  Yes, I know A Prologue simply reflects the attitudes back then of white people towards slaves and slavery and it should be taken as being ‘of its time’; but it still left a bad taste in my mouth.    

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(c) Wordsworth Editions

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I’d been looking forward to J.H. Riddell’s Night Shivers, a volume that contains 14 short stories and is rounded off with a short novel, The Uninhabited House, which was first published in 1875.  This was because Riddell originated in Northern Ireland, like I did.  She was born in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, in 1832 and lived there until 1855, when she and her mother moved to London.  She remained in England until her death in 1906 and during the intervening years established herself as a prolific author.  Her Wikipedia entry lists some 40 novels and a half-dozen short story collections.

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I’d hoped that Ms Riddell’s ghostly fiction would have a strong Irish flavour and, occasionally, it does – to good effect.  The Last of Squire Ennismore sees a dissolute Irish landowner come to an infernal end for his misdeeds, through the agency of a mysterious stranger with ‘an ambling sort of gait, curious to look at’ who leaves cloven hoof-prints on the sand of the local beach.  Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning features that most Irish of supernatural creatures, the banshee, though in the incongruous (but effective) setting of a Victorian London hospital.  And Conn Kilrea features an Irish family haunted by another spectral, though non-banshee, harbinger of death.  However, most of the stories take place in England and, because I’ve read countless other English ghost stories over the years, their scenarios seem very familiar and they have the same generic feel as Amyas Northcote’s work.  Riddell enjoys presenting her ghosts and supernatural phenomena as puzzles that the living characters have to solve.  Invariably, they turn out to be traces and echoes of nefarious incidents – usually murders – that once upon a time occurred in the ‘real’ world.

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One thing I like about Riddell’s fiction is her depiction of uncommonly (for the era) feisty and unconventional female characters, even if they come across as somewhat grotesque: most notably, Miss Gostock, the hard-working, hard-bargain-driving and hard-drinking landlady in Nut Bush Farm; and the formidable Miss Blake, ‘the child of a Scottish-Ulster mother and a Connaught father’ who ‘had ingeniously contrived to combine in her person the vices of two distinct races, and exclude the virtues of both’, in The Uninhabited House.  Also, I like how she portrays the main character in Walnut-Tree House.  He’s an unpretentious type who comes into possession of a haunted property in London after spending years as a ‘digger’ in the Australian goldfields.  The snobby Londoners he has dealings with disdain him as ‘a rough sort of fellow’ who’s ‘boorish’ and has ‘never mixed with good society’.  But when he encounters the ghost in his house, that of a child, he doesn’t react as characters normally do in these stories and cringe or flee in terror.  Instead, he feels sorry for the poor child’s ghost and resolves to find a way to make it rest in peace.

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The things I do for James Bond

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(c) Eon Productions

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Last month in Colombo, I was looking forward to attending my workplace’s end-of-year party.  Then the invitation for it arrived in my work inbox and my enthusiasm suddenly waned.  The party, the invitation informed me, had a theme.  You had to come in a costume appropriate to the theme and the costume judged to be best would win a prize.  And the theme was: carnival.

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Carnival?

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Now do carnivals connect in any way with me?  No.  Carnivals are the products of Latin American cultures where the climate is always warm and the sun always shines; where the faces always smile and the temperament is always joyous; where the inhabitants know how to dress colourfully and exuberantly; and where one can happily and un-self-consciously dance the night away without imbibing even a smidgeon of wine. 

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I, on the other hand, come from a culture where the weather is always dreich and the sun is always wrapped in smirr and haar; where the faces frequently scowl to the point of resembling well-skelpt arses and the temperament is two parts Knox-ism to three parts Calvinism; where daring to wear a pair of patterned socks can earn you condemnation for being a reckless  attention-seeking exhibitionist; and where, after you’ve sunk about 12 pints of beer, you might countenance getting onto the dance-floor to shake your two left legs for a couple of minutes to something like Dogs of War by the Exploited.  Carnival, I thought in my best Rab C. Nesbitt voice.  Carnival my arse.

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But then, looking around my bedroom, I saw evidence that I did like one type of carnival.  I noticed, for example, the presence of these skull-shaped ceramic salt and pepper shakers on top of my bookshelf.

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Also, there was this ornate skull-shaped candle located on a corner of my desk.

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And there was this painted wooden skeleton hanging on a wall.

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And these two skeletal Mexican senoritas stood grinning on top of my wardrobe.

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All these skeleton-themed items come from the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, known in English as Day of the Dead, which sees folk gather together and celebrate in honour of family members and friends who have passed away.  The reason I have so much Dia de los Muertos memorabilia is because my partner’s family live in San Antonio in Texas, about 150 miles north of the Mexican border, and three years ago we went to visit them in mid-October.  Not only were the local shops then full of merchandising for the upcoming Halloween festivities on October 31st, but they contained an equal amount of stuff for the upcoming Dia de los Muertos festivities on November 2nd.  The latter made excellent souvenirs to bring back from Texas. 

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When I thought about it, it also occurred to me that – as anyone who reads this blog regularly will know – I’m a big James Bond fan.  And didn’t the most recent Bond movie, 2015’s Spectre, begin with a long, tense and stylish chase / action sequence using as a backdrop a Dia de los Muertos parade in Mexico City?  For part of this sequence, Bond, played by Daniel Craig, is attired in a natty-looking outfit of top hat, skull mask and skeleton-patterned white-on-black suit and is accompanied by a glamorous lady in a summer frock and Venetian mask.  Now why couldn’t my partner and I attend our end-of-year work party dressed like that glamorous duo?

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Therefore, Dia de los Muertos was the carnival that provided us with general inspiration, while Daniel Craig and friend became our models.

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I should mention that in reality Mexico City never hosted a Dia de los Muertos parade until after 2015.  The makers of Spectre simply used dramatic licence and invented the occasion.  However, after the film’s release, the Mexico Tourism Board got so many inquiries about the non-existent parade from potential visitors that they decided to initiate one in their capital city to keep everyone happy (and, no doubt, make a bit of cash too).  Proof that life does imitate art.

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Assembling my Daniel Craig / Dia de los Muertos costume proved to be a trickier task than I’d expected.  I knew I was going to have to do much searching in Colombo to locate a top hat, but it was as difficult to find a skull mask.  I traipsed around several fancy-dress and party shops and got the same answer: “Oh, we had lots of skull masks two months ago, at  Halloween, but we don’t have any now!”  Thankfully, we discovered a wonderfully variegated and cluttered little costume store called JoJo’s tucked away in the back streets off Duplication Road where I was able to both rent a top hat and buy a skull mask (and my partner got her Venetian mask too).  The skull mask was actually gunmetal grey and I think it was meant to be the face of a robot skeleton – like the scary, stomping exoskeletons in the Terminator movies – and back at home I had to spray-paint it white.

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But the biggest problem was creating the skeleton-patterned suit.  I bought rolls of double-sided adhesive tape in a stationer’s and I cut the ‘bones’ out of strips of laminated white paper.  When I started to place the bones on the black jacket, the tape did initially make them stick to the fabric – until the moment when I tried to put the jacket on.  At the slightest movement of the fabric, the bones promptly fell off again.  I had to resort to laboriously sewing the bones on with white thread.  (The jacket was an ultra-cheap number I’d originally bought in Primark for twenty pounds, so I wasn’t concerned about disfiguring it.)  This took a lot of time and I only got the jacket finished minutes before the party was scheduled to start.  I hadn’t time to sew the leg bones onto my black trousers, so, reluctantly, I relied on the double-sided adhesive tape to fasten those.

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Incidentally, I managed to incorporate one item from my Dia de los Muertos memorabilia into the costume.  I fashioned a walking stick out of a rod and some kitchen foil and planted the ceramic skull-shaped salt shaker on one end of it as its head.  

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Finally, we were ready and off we headed for the party.  I’d barely got across the venue’s threshold when I began to suffer what are known nowadays as ‘wardrobe malfunctions’.  The adhesive tape continued to be worse than useless and my leg-bones were soon, and repeatedly, dropping off.  In fact, you could track me back and forth through the venue by following the little trail of bones I’d left on the ground behind me.  Trying not to dislodge them, I ended up moving around as slowly and stiffly as possible, and anyone who saw me probably thought I was stricken with severe constipation.

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Still, my Sri Lankan colleagues seemed impressed and kept inviting me to pose for photos with them.  I suspect, though, that they didn’t know about Dia de los Muertos or Spectre and merely thought I’d dressed up as a skeleton with a top hat because I was extremely weird.

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At the end of the evening, when the party organisers were finishing proceedings with a thank-you speech, they announced that the prize for best costume was being awarded to… me.  (Thankfully, the speaker referred to James Bond and Spectre at this point, making it clear to the assembled crowd that there was a method to my skeletal madness.) 

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And the prize was… a Miniso citrus juicer.  It now occupies a proud corner of our kitchen and, because it came as the result of a 007-inspired costume, I think of it as ‘the James Bond juicer’.  Alas, it doesn’t have a secret button on it that you press to make it turn into a speedboat and then into a hovercraft.

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It’s all Scotland’s fault

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(c) BBC

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One of the least edifying sights of the past week has been that of moderate and pro-European Union Conservative MP Anna Soubry attempting to walk to the Houses of Parliament, her workplace, while a pack of far-right, anti-EU protestors wearing yellow high-visibility jackets – a gimmick that with no sense of irony they’ve borrowed from the gilets jaunes protestors in France, a country in the EU – follow her and bray into her face that she’s a ‘Nazi’.  Not only are these tactics bullying, intimidating and generally horrible but, I’ve learned recently, they’re also Scottish. 

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Yes, as many respected politicians, commentators and media outlets have reminded us over the years, only bad things come out of Scotland.  Historically, these bad things have included: Sawney Bean; the failed scheme to colonise Darien in central America; failed Jacobite uprisings; the Highland Clearances; Burke and Hare; Angus McMillan who left Skye for Australia and led the Gippsland massacres of Aborigines in the 1840s; unscrupulous 19th century opium-trading company Jardine Matheson & Co; and Thomas Dickson, whose 1905 novel The Clansman became the basis for the notoriously racist 1915 movie Birth of a Nation and helped revive the Ku Klux Klan.

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And let’s not forget such horrors as: bagpipe music; Andy Stewart records; the Bay City Rollers; the Krankies; teeth-rotting amber-coloured fizzy drinks; deep-fried Mars Bars; deep-fried pizzas; Andy Murray’s hipbone; catastrophic World Cup campaigns; and Mary Anne MacLeod of the Isle of Lewis, who married Fred Trump and gifted the world with little Donald.

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Yet more, terrible things to emerge from Scotland include ghastly and unpopular drinks like whisky and foodstuffs like salmon, which British supermarkets have lately been kind enough to slap Union Jacks on and rebrand as ‘British’ rather than ‘Scottish’ to spare us embarrassment.  Then there’s that hellish commodity North Sea oil, which during the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, we were assured, was totally worthless and would bankrupt an independent Scotland’s economy.  (Mind you, now that the referendum is past, the Daily Telegraph has been enthusing about how North Sea oil will be important part of the economy of post-Brexit Britain.)  And there’s the hideous Scottish renewable energy industry which, the Times informed us recently, is riddled with ‘perverse incentives’ – while, per head of population, it only produces 18 times as much as energy as its English equivalent.

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To this list of Caledonian-spawned infamy we now must add the strategy of making political points by mobbing, yelling at and intimidating opponents while they innocently try to walk to work.  I know this because a few days ago the broadcaster, journalist, author, businessperson, hillwalker and trustee of the Glasgow School of Art Muriel Gray tweeted her abhorrence at a “repugnant new style of personal abuse / pile-ons / harassment and hate-mongering (that) began as far back as the run-up to the referendum in 2014 and was consequently adopted as the norm.”

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Muriel Gray is absolutely right.  Prior to that repugnant, hate-mongering business of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, there was no unpleasantness involved in politics in the United Kingdom, anywhere, at all. 

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From libcom.org

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Admittedly, I spent the 1970s in Northern Ireland and I do have memories of Northern Irish politics then being full of abuse, hatred, bullying, etc.  But as the Scots hadn’t invented that stuff yet, those memories must be false.  I don’t know why I have a particular memory of my elderly grandmother on the day of an election (and shortly after my grandfather had died) phoning up my Dad in tears to tell him that some political activists had coerced her into crossing the box on her ballot paper for a candidate she hadn’t intended to vote for; but somehow, wrongly, I do.

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And all my memories of politics in the 1980s – of Labour Party Deputy Leader Dennis Healey being shouted down by members of Militant Tendency; of the long-lasting, often violent and acrimonious miners’ strike instigated by Maggie Thatcher’s Year Zero economic policies; of Peter Tatchell being slandered by the media and his Liberal Party opponents for being a homosexual when he stood as Labour Party candidate in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election; of the Federation of Conservative Students on my university campus shouting “F**k the Pope!” and “Hang Nelson Mandela!” and making life as unpleasant as possible for gay students – are surely fake memories too.  Because as Muriel Gray has implied, British politics were all sweetness and light before that awful Scottish independence referendum happened.

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What else do I mis-remember about British politics?  The Poll Tax riot in London that helped to do for Maggie Thatcher?  Can’t have happened.  John Major referring to his anti-EU tormentors in the Conservative Party as ‘bastards’?  I’m sure he never said that, really.  Scottish Labour party councillor Susan Dalgety using the 1998 Omagh bombing atrocity to liken the SNP to the IRA?  I’m sure she never said that, either.  The industrial-strength lies generated by Tony Blair and his gang as they led the country into the 2003 invasion of Iraq?  Just my imagination, surely.

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(c) STV / From amazon.com

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Or what about the hot-headed young lady who used to write columns for the Scotland on Sunday in the early 1990s and excoriate establishment right-wingers like Andrew Neil and Sir Nicholas Fairburn, plus obscenely-wealthy landowners who owned huge tracts of the Scottish countryside and kept them for themselves and their equally-rich pals to shoot grouse on, instead of letting hillwalkers roam across them?  She must have been a figment of my imagination too…  Still, it’s just as well Twitter didn’t exist back then.  Otherwise, people like this imaginary columnist would surely have been directing abuse, pile-ons and harassment at poor old Andrew, and Sir Nicholas, and Lord So-and-So of Glen-Whatever, via social media.  (Now I remember this columnist’s name – Muriel Gray.)

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But I’m wrong.  Because all politicians, political activists and political commentators were as good as gold, and as gentle as lambs, and as pure as the driven snow towards each other in those idyllic, far-off days before 2014.

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Seriously, though…  I don’t pretend that there wasn’t the odd bit of nastiness during the 2014 referendum campaign, though I feel the egg that was chucked at Jim Murphy got blown out of all proportion considering that eggs had been thrown previously at Harold Wilson, Michael Heseltine, John Major, Norman Tebbit, John Prescott, George Galloway and others with far less fanfare.  But it was a stroll in the park compared to what happened before – the murder of an MP – and after – the surge in racist incidents across Britain – the 2016 Brexit referendum.

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(c) STV

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Two last points.  If Ms Gray wants to blame someone or something for the uncivility that prevails in British politics at the moment, she’d do well to point a finger at Britain’s mainstream and mostly right-wing media, which has always been quick to coarsen political discourse and has become worse than ever in recent years.  Witness the screeds of anti-immigrant headlines and the general demonization of anybody who isn’t a right-wing, Brexit-supporting Tory in the Daily Mail, Daily Express and so on.  But of course, the mainstream media is a clique to which she belongs and many of her good buddies on Twitter are or have been writers for the same rabble-rousing newspapers.  So that isn’t going to happen.

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Secondly, it seems to me that those Unionists, like Ms Gray, who won the 2014 referendum and ensured that Scotland stuck with the United Kingdom are, not to put too fine a point on it, shitting themselves in 2019.  In the past four years they’ve seen the UK that they exhorted Scottish voters to remain in, because it was supposedly a beacon of enlightenment, tolerance, liberalism, economic health and social order, turn into a basket-case over Brexit.  And they know that if there is another referendum on Scottish independence – which I’m pretty sure there will be, sooner or later – the yes side is going to be in with a much better shout of winning it.  (The 45% of the vote they polled last time was far higher than anyone on the no side had initially expected.) 

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With the prospect of another referendum looming, it’s in their interests to exaggerate and distort the conduct of the previous one; to rewrite history and turn the event into a nightmare that no one in their right mind would want to go through again; and to generally make out that the vote on Scottish independence was the worst thing since…  Well, since the last worst thing that came out of Scotland. 

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Little England

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No, I’m not beginning 2019 with another online diatribe about Brexit Britain.  ‘Little England’ is the nickname – an unfortunate nickname considering the backward-looking parochialism and xenophobia that drove millions of real Little Englanders to vote in 2016 to prise the UK out of the European Union – that Sri Lankans often give to the town of Nuwara Eliya. 

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Located at an altitude of 1870 metres, it’s the highest and, climatically, coolest town in the country.  Nuwara Eliya was founded in 1846 and quickly became a retreat for members of the British colonial establishment eager to escape the heat and humidity of the lower-lying parts of the island.  And with them, they brought British architecture, British pastimes and sports, and British clubs and associations. 

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(I became aware of the coolness of the temperature while I was approaching Nuwara Eliya on a steadily-climbing road.  Looking out of the window of my vehicle, I suddenly saw a very strange and disconcerting sight indeed – Sri Lankan people wearing coats, scarves and woollen hats.)

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Last month, my work brought me to Nuwara Eliya for a couple of days and I had a chance to explore it.  I didn’t do any touristy things like venturing out into the surrounding hill country to, for example, experience the nearby Horton Plains or visit the several famous waterfalls or tour one of the local tea plantations.  This was because at some point in the future my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, and I would like to spend a proper holiday in the district and it made sense to leave the big tourist attractions until then.  Instead, I simply wandered about the town, took some photographs and mooched in a few pubs.  Here are my impressions.

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Firstly, you needn’t expect to find a picture-postcard English village that’s been magically transplanted into the highlands of Sri Lanka.  Nuwara Eliya’s centre contains the usual guddle of modern, garishly-coloured buildings – hastily erected and now looking slightly the worse for wear – that are a feature of most towns in this country.  And even in the less-recently developed parts away from the town centre, there are indications that the era when the British used to hang out here en masse are long gone.  Witness the picturesque Lake Gregory at Nuwara Eliya’s southern end.  Anchored by the lakeside is a long, narrow, double-decker boat that serves as a floating restaurant called the Hua Yuan, obviously aimed at foreign visitors of a different nationality.

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Come to think of it, the only Briton I encountered during my time in Nuwara Eliya was an old English fellow who’d travelled to the country for the recent England-Sri Lanka test series.  The moment the final cricket had been played, and unable to withstand the sweltering climate of lowland Sri Lanka any longer, he’d hopped into a taxi and had the driver make a beeline for here.

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That said, there are plenty of reminders of the presence and patronage of the old colonial regime.  A little way short of the town centre is the imperiously and imperially-titled Victoria Park – which has in an adjoining corner a square-sided, grey-stone pillar that acts as a war memorial.  Like most war memorials in Britain, this one’s World War I plaque is a lot longer than the World War II plaque.  The former commemorates 17 members of ‘the glorious dead’, while the latter sports just three names.

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Across the road from Victoria Park is a genteel golf course with a hotel at its end containing a mock-English pub called – what else? – the 19th Hole.  The Nuwara Eliya Golf Club isn’t the only organisation with a slightly-snooty-sounding name you see on signs here, for the town is also home to the likes of the Hill Club (‘established in 1876’) and the Royal Turf Club.

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And some of the British architecture lingers on.  Nuwara Eliya’s main post office is housed in a red-brick building with multiple layers and levels of roofing and its own little clock tower, which looks like it was moved to Sri Lanka brick by brick and slate by slate from Trumpton.  Meanwhile, the local branch of the Hatton National Bank is contained in a stately-looking structure with arched windows.  Scattered elsewhere are a number of other mansion-like buildings, often with Tudor-style patterning on their facades and their windows crammed with small, square panes.    

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In fact, the days when stereotypically British architecture would spring up in Nuwara Eliya may not yet be over.  For during my wanderings I saw this billboard advertising a new estate – “Make Nuwara Eliya your second home!” – consisting of detached dwelling-houses with mock-Tudor designs.  The scheme is called Little England Cottages, though there’s nothing remotely cottage-like in the scale of the residences involved.

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