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 in 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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