The horror, the horror

 

© RTE

 

My apologies for writing another post about the contest to be the next British Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader so soon after the last post I wrote about it.  There may be regular readers of this blog who are still trying to rinse their eyeballs with bleach after reading about the ultra-sexy Michael Gove and his fondness for slurping a certain type of powder up his nostrils.

 

But I feel I have to write something about it, since the bloody thing seems to have been going on forever.  It feels like the contest started back in the Jurassic period when no fewer than ten candidates existed – when stomping around the Tory political earth were such cold-blooded, slow-witted reptilian monsters as Ester McVey (gobshiteosaurus) and Dominic Raab (bawbagosaurus max).  Now it’s been narrowed down to two candidates, Alexander Boris de Piffle, sorry, de Pfeffel Johnson and the rhyming-slang-friendly Jeremy Hunt, which doesn’t say a lot for the quality of the earlier contenders.  Yet it won’t be until July 22nd that the result of the final vote by Conservative Party members is announced.  Which means we have to endure several more weeks of this torture, of hearing Johnson and Hunt slagging each other off, singing their own praises and beating their chests.  Maybe by the time the final vote takes place climate change will have rendered humanity extinct and there won’t be a Britain for Johnson or Hunt to take control of.

 

Anyway, for what they’re worth, here are my predictions.  Firstly, I think Johnson is going to win despite his campaign being overshadowed by controversy.  The main controversy was the incident earlier this month when concerned neighbours summoned police to investigate what sounded like a ‘domestic dispute’ in the flat he shares with his current partner Carrie Symonds.  Actually, I don’t think what happened that night should have a bearing on the final verdict on Johnson and Hunt because couples do have rows and do end up shouting at each other, no arrests were made after the police arrived and checked things out, and ‘the benefit of the doubt’ is a concept worth upholding in a fair society.

 

If Johnson is to be judged an absolutely hideous excuse for a human being – which I think he deserves to be – it should be for deeds that are a matter of record.  These include his antics while he was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club, Oxford University’s dining society for posh hooligans.  And agreeing to provide his old school chum (and future jailbird) Darius Guppy with the home address of News of the World journalist Stuart Collier, so that Guppy could have Collier beaten up.  And being sacked from the Times for fabricating a quotation.  And describing black African people as ‘piccaninnies’.  And describing gay men as ‘tank-topped bumboys’ and likening gay marriage to bestiality.  And publishing an editorial that insulted the city of Liverpool and publishing a poem choc-a-bloc with racist sentiments about Scottish people (“The Scots – what a verminous race! / Canny, pushy, chippy, they’re all over the place… / I would go further.  The nation / Deserves not merely isolation / But complete extermination”) whilst editing the Spectator.  And his dealings with American right-wing über-knobhead Steve Bannon.  And his lies during the run-up to the 2016 referendum on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.  And his utter ineptness as Foreign Secretary, one consequence of which was the continued incarceration of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran.

 

From paxonbothhouses.blogspot.com

 

However, all of the above, including the unseemly shouting match between Johnson and Symonds, are likely to matter not one whit with the 160,000 people who make up the Conservative Party membership and who’ll be casting their votes in July.  According to profiles of them, they have an average age of 57, are obsessed with Brexit and believe that bringing back hanging will cure all of Britain’s ills, presumably including low achievement levels in schools.  They’re generally untethered from reality and no doubt see all media coverage critical of Johnson as lefty fake news (which is ironic considering how right-wing most of Britain’s media is).

 

It’s like Donald Trump’s supporters in the USA who refuse to believe the mountain of evidence that their president is a corrupt, misogynist, racist sleazeball.  Trump could come round to their house, steal all their money, grab them by the genitalia and scream racist abuse into their faces and they’d still be going: “No, no, I refuse to believe this, this isn’t real, it’s fake news, FAKE NEWS do you hear?!”  So it is with the Tory Party faithful and their dismissal of negative coverage of their beloved Boris.  (Carrie Symonds’ neighbours probably didn’t help their cause by making a recording of the dispute and later sending it to the Guardian, which in Tory minds is a newspaper akin to Soviet-era Pravda.)

 

Therefore, it’s going to be Prime Minister Johnson come late July.  My second prediction is that a no-deal Brexit will happen sooner or later.  I know many political commentators have confidently predicted that despite their Brexiting bluster just now, both Johnston and Hunt, whoever becomes PM, will have a reality check once they’re in office and will try to appease the EU with another Theresa May-style deal.  But this will require time and I’m not convinced that the EU will give Britain another extension to the current Brexit deadline of October 31st.

 

Also, I suspect that Johnson, at least, would hold a general election soon after becoming Prime Minister if he thought he could win it.  And having won it, he’d then go hell-for-leather for a no-deal departure from Europe – even if the British economy was wrecked in the process, he’d have his majority and he’d be ensconced in power.  To stand any chance of winning such an election, he’d have to do a deal with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, who in the recent European Parliament elections stole the right-wing vote from the Tories.  But since both Johnson and Farage are in Steve Bannon’s address book, I reckon a deal is entirely feasible.

 

Third prediction: British people cringing at how their country’s reputation has gone down the pan internationally have seen nothing yet.  Wait until Prime Minister Johnson goes to Washington DC and starts acting as Trump’s comedy English butler.

 

© The National

 

And my fourth and final prediction, which comes from a Scottish perspective: it will be hilarious, if somewhat nauseating, to see how the slippier-than-a-greased-eel Ruth Davidson, branch manager of the Conservative Party in Scotland, changes her tune and becomes accommodating to all things Boris the moment Johnson arrives in Number 10 Downing Street.  Davidson once opposed Brexit, once accused the Leave campaign of lying and once took on Johnson in a public debate on the topic; but at different times since she has backed the UK staying in the Single Market, has opposed the UK staying in the Single Market, has backed a hard Brexit and has also backed an ‘open’ Brexit, whatever that is.  Her wriggliness is a sight to behold.

 

With Johnson, Davidson has criticised him for his ‘bumble-bluster, kitten-smirk, tangent-bombast routine’ and even banned him from appearing at the recent Scottish Tory Party conference in Aberdeen, presumably fearful that the spectacle of him on the podium would damage the party’s cause in Scotland.  But come the coronation of PM Boris, I’m sure that Davidson, ever mindful of the direction in which the wind is blowing, will be first in line to slap him on the back and congratulate him with her famous chuckle-some bonhomie.

 

Incidentally, when Johnson becomes PM, I expect him to dump the woeful David Mundell as Scottish Secretary of State and replace him with Ross Thomson, the dingbat right-wing MP for Aberdeen South.  Thomson’s sycophancy towards Johnson has been epic.  When I see pictures of them together, Thomson reminds me of the deranged, bug-eating minion Milo Renfield in the presence of his master, Count Dracula.

 

From twitter.com

 

Though I’ve gone on about what a horror Johnson will be as Prime Minister, I certainly don’t want to imply that Jeremy Hunt would be any better.  Hunt has claimed that even in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Britain would ‘flourish and prosper’, so in that respect he’s no better than his rival.  He also co-wrote, once upon a time, a book calling for Britain’s National Health Service ‘to be replaced by a new system of health provision in which people pay money into personal healthcare accounts, which they could then use to shop around for care from public and private providers.’  I’m sure those words would come back to haunt him if, as PM, he had to go to Washington DC to beg Trump for a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal.  As Trump has emphatically stated, in negotiations for any such deal, the NHS is ‘on the table’.

 

So to use rhyming slang – whoever finally wins this torturously protracted contest, we’re going to end up with a right Jeremy Hunt as Prime Minister.

 

© The Daily Record

 

A guy called Gerald

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

A few years ago, I wrote a piece on this blog about how the popularity, fame and acclaim won by many writers during their lifetimes seem to evaporate with, or soon after, their deaths.  Once they’re gone, they’re usually forgotten too.  I was inspired to write this after taking a wander in Dalry Cemetery in Edinburgh and discovering a tombstone for the novelist George Cupples, who died in 1891.  When I did some online research into Cupples, I found out that he’d written ‘dozens of nautical novels’ and his 1856 novel The Green Hand: A Sea Story (1856) was reckoned to be ‘one of the best sea stories ever written.’  But does anyone apart from a tiny handful of specialists know of Cupples and his work today?  I doubt it.

 

In the same entry I discussed the posthumous reputations of writers from the 1920s, 30s and 40s like Edgar Wallace, Hervey Allen, James Hilton and Dennis Wheatley – all massively popular in their day, but again, practically forgotten in the 21st century.  Indeed, names that were ubiquitous on the bestseller racks in bookshops and newsagents when I was a kid, like Harold Robbins, Morris West, Leon Uris and Alistair MacLean, seem to have disappeared into the mists too.  Everyone was reading their books in the 1970s but I can’t imagine many people reading them now.

 

To this list of forgotten writers we must add the British (later American) author Gerald Kersh, who was once prolific and popular – his Wikipedia entry credits him with 20 novels and 20 collections of short stories, plus ‘thousands of articles in different publications’, published between 1934 and his death in 1968 – but who seemed to drop off the radar the moment he died.  A few years ago I began to hear his name because a number of writers I admire, like Anthony Burgess, Angela Carter, Michael Moorcock, Ian Fleming and Harlan Ellison, thought highly of him.  But his work had apparently vanished without trace.  When I asked about him in bookshops, my inquiries would draw a blank.  Even in bookshops run by clearly knowledgeable people, like Whitie’s in my hometown of Peebles and Transreal Fiction in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh, nobody had heard of him.

 

However, several of his works have now been republished by Valancourt Books, who’ve won praise from the Times Literary Supplement for their efforts to “resurrect some neglected works of literature… and make them available to a new readership”, and I was able to order copies of his 1958 novel Fowlers End and his 1968 collection Nightshade and Damnations while I was in the UK a few months ago.  I couldn’t find, though, a reasonably priced copy of his 1938 crime thriller Night and the City, the book that’s probably come closest to ensuring a legacy for Kersh – it was filmed in 1950 with Richard Widmark and again in 1992 with Robert De Niro.

 

It doesn’t surprise me that Anthony Burgess rated Fowlers End one of the great comic novels of the 20th century because it’s the sort of sprawling, baggy, rumbustious and verbose book that Burgess himself liked to write.  Set during the Great Depression and in the fictional and un-salubrious London district of the title – “Fowler’s End is a special kind of tundra that supports nothing gracious in the way of flora and fauna.  Plant a cabbage here in this soured, embitter, dyspeptic, ulcerated soil, and up comes a kind of bleached shillelagh with spikes on its knob.  Plant a family, a respectable working-class family, and in two generations it will turn out wolves” – it’s prefaced by a five-page glossary of Cockney slang to help readers decipher the dialogue.  Some of the terms I was familiar with, but others, like ‘flob your gob’ (vomit) and ‘north-and-south’ (mouth), were new to me.  The prominence given to the London vernacular was probably another reason why the language-loving Burgess enjoyed the book so much.

 

© Valancourt Books

 

It begins with a down-on-his-luck young man called Daniel Laverock being hired as the new manager of the Pantheon Cinema in Fowlers End.  Its owner is the alleged businessman and obvious fraudster Sam Yudenow.  Laverock then gets a tour of the premises from Yudenow, which hardly bodes well for his new career.  The Pantheon’s staff include a mutinous orchestra and an alcoholic pianist called Miss Noel (employed because the cinema persists in showing silent movies and has to treat its patrons to live music); a pair of Greek anarchists who run the adjoining café; a local juvenile delinquent called Tommy whom Yudenow employs to throw decaying animal carcasses into the properties of rival businesses; and the cinema’s handyman Copper Baldwin, who makes no effort to conceal his hatred for Yudenow.

 

What follows doesn’t involve much of a storyline.  Yudenow does something that proves he’s not a larger-than-life, loveable rogue but an out-and-out shit, and such is Laverock’s disgust that he joins forces with Baldwin to give Yudenow his comeuppance.  But that comeuppance doesn’t really materialise and by the book’s end Yudenow remains unbowed.  Instead, the plot takes an unexpected swerve and climaxes with Laverock having to defend Yudenow’s fleapit against a gang of thugs led by a villain who was only briefly mentioned in the book’s opening pages.  I have to say, though, that the climactic confrontation is hilariously written.

 

Clearly, Kersh isn’t that interested in constructing a balanced, joined-up plot.  He’s far more interested in, firstly, conveying the glorious grottiness and squalor of Fowler’s End and, secondly, conveying the riotous grotesqueness of Sam Yudenow, who’s presented as a Cockney-Jewish cross between Sir John Falstaff and one of those expansive, exuberant eccentrics Charles Dickens was so fond of.  Yudenow’s initial advice to Laverock ranges from how to follow the Pantheon’s fire regulations, which keep the number of customers allowed in at a very precise 629 – “Six hundred twenty-nine audience is okay.  Six hundred thirty is suicide.  Six hundred twenty-eight I die o’ starvation an’ you’re out of a job” – to how to handle the miscreant local schoolkids who frequent the place – “…they get a great big potato and stick it all over miv old razor blades; a bit of string they tie it onto, and right in the face they let you ’ave it.  Discourage ‘em.  Threaten to tell their teacher.  Lay one finger on ’em and the N.S.P.C.C. is after us for cruelty to children…”

 

I suppose Kersh’s depiction of Yudenow lays him open to accusations of anti-Semitism, for peddling a negative stereotype of a grasping and dishonest Jewish businessman.  But Kersh was Jewish himself, his very first book published was an autobiographical one called Jews without Jehovah (1934), and he lost a number of French relatives in the concentration camps during World War II.  Incidentally, readers from the UK of my age and older may find it hard to read Kersh’s descriptions of Yudenow without imagining the features, voice and mannerisms of the late, great Cockney-Jewish character actor Alfie Bass.  If Fowlers End had been filmed a few decades ago, Bass would surely have been first pick for the role.

 

For my part, while I found Yudenow an amusing character, I would have preferred smaller doses of him than the hefty doses that Kersh serves up.  Happily, the book features a host of other entertaining characters.  As the book’s hero, Daniel Laverock might have been a little dull, but Kersh gives him a funny if unfortunate backstory – in his childhood he tried and catastrophically failed to fly off his family’s roof in a homemade airplane (fashioned from planks, perambulator wheels and a biscuit-tin lid), with the result that he ended up with a face “not unlike that ancient pugilist Buckhorse who, in his old age, having no face left to spoil, let anyone knock him down for a shilling.”  His facial disfigurements giving him a villainous look, he has recently been adopted by a young woman called June Whistler, from a well-to-do and sheltered background and with aspirations to be a novelist, who believes he will show her the shady underbelly of society and give her writing some much-needed authenticity.  “The depths!  I want to explore the depths…!” she exclaims.  “Would you like to crush me in your arms and bite me?”  To which the fearsome-looking but gentlemanly Laverock replies: “Madam, you are good enough to eat but you look so much better in one piece.”

 

Incidentally, Kersh spent time working as a cinema manager – as a young man he had a colourful, Jack London-esque CV that also included stints as a debt collector, fish-and-chip-shop cook, bodyguard and professional wrestler – so Fowlers End obviously draws on his personal experiences.  And the book is a hell of a lot funnier than a more celebrated English comic novel from the 1950s that I read not so long ago, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954).

 

© Valancourt Books

 

Nightshades and Damnations, which appeared in 1968 shortly before Kersh’s death, contains eleven of his short stories chosen and introduced by the American science fiction and fantasy writer Harlan Ellison.  Some of the items in this volume are brilliant – they show Kersh at his best as a storyteller, pushing his imagination to the limit and writing with both precision and style.  Among them are horror stories like Voices in the Dust of Annan and The Brighton Monster, which end with science-fictional twists – a tragic and chillingly contemporary (despite most of the story being set in the 18th century) twist in the case of The Brighton Monster.  Another horror story is Men Without Bones, wherein Kersh depicts the nightmarish creatures of the title with impressively icky gusto.

 

Bone for Debunkers is a tale of forgery that’s worthy of Roald Dahl, while The Ape and the Mystery and The King Who Collected Clocks are elegant historical fantasies incorporating Leonardo Da Vinci and clockwork automata respectively.  And The Queen of Pig Island is a surreal and ultimately tragic tale of what happens to the human exhibits of a carnival sideshow when they survive a shipwreck and try to establish their own society on a desert island.

 

Perhaps best of all is Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo, which is about immortality and its potential pitfalls.  It explores the unhappy and grisly consequences when the person who’s immortal doesn’t have the intelligence or imagination to make the most of his situation; and also has a body that doesn’t fully regenerate from all the physical damage it inevitably suffers during the centuries.  The same bleak approach to the subject was later used in Robert Zemeckis’s 1992 movie Death Becomes Her.

 

While many other writers have vanished from popular consciousness because their writing, frankly, wasn’t very good and wasn’t designed to stand the test of time, Kersh’s prose remains admirably sharp and his stories, though obviously of their time, don’t feel that dated.  He seems to have been forgotten for the sad and simple reason that his books fell out of print for a long period.  Let’s hope that the good work done by Valancourt Books helps bring Gerald Kersh’s artistry back into the limelight.

 

Temple town

 

 

The Thai city of Ayutthaya is an hour-and-a-half’s journey by train north of Bangkok.  Central Ayutthaya stands on an island, surrounded by a natural and manmade moat consisting of the Chao Phraya, Lopburi and Pasak Rivers and the Klong Muang Canal.  In 1991 it received World Heritage Site status from UNESCO in recognition of its many  ruins, of temples, monasteries and palaces, which are leftovers from its four centuries as capital city of the Kingdom of Siam.  This golden period of its history came to a destructive end in 1767 when Burmese forces seized and razed it.

 

Though most tourists are content to visit a handful of key sites in Ayutthaya, there are plenty of less well-known historical landmarks dotted across the city, both inside and outside the World Heritage Park and within and beyond the boundaries of the central city’s moat.  For example, standing across the road from our hotel just north of the Klong Muang Canal was the modest, unpublicised and unvisited but perfectly pleasant Wat Hasadavas.

 

 

During our recent holiday in Thailand my partner and I had a single day to spend temple-hopping in Ayutthaya, so we hired a tuk-tuk to shuttle us around half-a-dozen of the most auspicious attractions.  If you’re accustomed to the spacious tuk-tuks of Bangkok, be warned that the Ayutthaya tuk-tuk is a different species.  It resembles one that’s been crossbred with a pick-up truck, with the driver sitting in a cab at the front and the passengers sitting in a cramped compartment around the back.  Passengers of above-average-Thai height, like myself, will regularly knock their heads on the roof.

 

After a quick visit to the museum above the local tourist information centre, to get some background information about the places we were planning to visit, we headed across the Pasak River to Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon southeast of the central city.  As well as being the first temple we went to, it was also probably the busiest with tourists.  It has a handsome if slightly discoloured main chedi whose upper chamber is accessible by a flight of steep stone steps.  Around it stand many timeworn but intact Buddha statues and there’s also a giant reclining one, mostly swathed in a huge golden-covered sheet.

 

 

It was here, unfortunately, that we spied a couple of strong contenders for the title of ‘Biggest Knobhead Tourist during our Trip to Thailand’.  Firstly, a British woman carrying a baby thought nothing of placing the baby on a plinth and changing its nappy in front of a large statue of Buddha, so that for a few minutes one dirty baby-arse got waggled at the most sacred image in Buddhism.  Secondly, a seedy-looking guy with a North European accent, in the company of three backpacking British girls whom he was desperately trying to impress, scrambled up atop another plinth that was also near the large Buddha statue.  “Look at me, look at me!” he exclaimed.  “I am zee Spiderman!”

 

From there we headed back over the moat to the central city and to the Heritage Park proper, where our first stop was Wat Mahathat.  This site, dating back to 1374, contains lots of beehive-shaped prangs built of rust-orange and ash-grey bricks, some with subsiding foundations and a slightly lopsided tilt; and a few tapering chedi, and tiled paths and pavilions, and some grey-stone Buddhas.  The most photographed item at Wat Mahathat, though, is a stone Buddha face peering out through a gap in a dense mesh of tree-roots.  I remembered seeing this the previous time I was in Ayutthaya, back in 2005, and it was quite a tourist draw then.  But Thailand has since opened up to the Chinese tourist market and today the crowd looked ten times bigger.  There was even a security guard seated on a chair next to the roots and face, hurrying the sightseers on if they took too long with their selfies and held up the queue behind them.

 

 

Five minutes’ walk along the road from Wat Mahathat is Wat Ratchaburana, a structure that resembles a vertical torpedo – well, half of a vertical torpedo, one that’s planted in a mass of arched brick porches and stone staircases.  It looks particularly impressive when seen framed in the doorway of the site’s entrance.  I climbed a staircase to a point midway up its side, from where I had a good view of the surrounding premises – lines of nearly disappeared walls, stumps of demolished chedi and prangs, and patterns of lawns and pathways.  I was also unlucky enough to spot the ‘I am zee Spiderman’ guy from Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon wandering down below.  Even from a distance, he sounded obnoxious.

 

 

In central Ayutthaya too is Wat Phra Mongkhon Bophit, which contains one of the biggest bronze images of Buddha in Thailand.  According to a sign, it’s ‘9.55 metres at the widest point across the lap’ and ‘12.45 metres high without the base’.  I have to say, though, that I got as much enjoyment from walking along the passage around the main image and looking at the smaller-scale Buddha figures and Buddha heads on display there, with their offbeat colours and embellished surfaces.

 

 

Next door is Wat Phra Si Samphet, the entrance to which features a monument with the UNESCO plaque certifying Ayutthaya as a World Heritage Site.  This has rows of fantastically ornate chedi, resembling cakes that’ve been iced by a psychopathically decorative cakemaker.  There’s something very organic about the flowing lines and curves of the structures here, which make them seem almost part of the surrounding woodland.  Lounging at the top of a narrow, off-limits staircase climbing to an opening high in the side of one chedi was a black-and-white dog.  He looked like he was guarding it and I hoped that if ‘zee Spiderman’ guy flouted the rules again and ventured up the staircase to do more showing off, the dog would bite him on the bum.

 

 

Also close by is Wat Phra Ram, another vertical, torpedo-shaped structure in the style of Wat Ratchaburana.  Actually, this one seems even taller and more elongated and has the look of a rocket on its launchpad.  The raw colour of its brickwork – which was maybe the result of the light, which at this point in the late afternoon was starting to dim – gave this site an eerier, more primordial feel than the others we visited.

 

 

Our final port of call that day was the sizeable complex of Wat Chai Watthanaram, southwest of central Ayutthaya and by the shore of the Chao Phraya River.  Here we witnessed another witless intrusion by an idiot tourist.  Despite the very visible signs telling people not to do this, someone was operating a drone and having it buzz around the site’s highest pinnacles.  However, Wat Chai Watthanaram did treat us to the most gorgeous spectacle of the day.  Getting to its entrance involved walking along a path by the riverside, from where we had a stunning view of the complex silhouetted against an evening sky of faded pink and violet.  Meanwhile, the setting sun peered between its chedi, prangs and treetops and burnished them with orange light.

 

 

The wild Gover

 

From bdnews24.com

 

In a blog entry a few weeks ago, I jokingly stated that the contenders in the race to take over as British Prime Minister from Theresa May were so dismal that even Tony Montana, the ultra-violent, ultra-sweary, cocaine-dealing and cocaine-hoovering crime baron featured in Brian De Palma’s classic 1983 movie Scarface, would do a better job as PM.

 

There was something prophetic about those words, for now it transpires that one person with a credible chance of becoming PM has indeed a touch of Tony Montana and Scarface about him.  Not that he’s ultra-violent or ultra-sweary – though the sight of his shilpit features and the sound of his prissy voice on TV are enough to make me ultra-sweary and at least feel like being ultra-violent.  And not that, to the best of my knowledge, he’s ever dealt in cocaine.  But it’s emerged from an interview in the Daily Mail that Michael Gove, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and former Secretary of State for Education and for Justice, hoovered up amounts of the white stuff ‘on several occasions’ in his pre-political days, while he was working as a journalist.

 

Now I’m not saying that Gove’s appetite for cocaine was the same as that displayed by Tony Montana, whose head by the end of Scarface looked in danger of disappearing under the powder that was piled, mountainously, on his desk.  But such have been the howls of derision and delight about this revelation on social media that I suspect that from now on in Britain all the normal nicknames for cocaine will be abandoned.  Forget about calling it ‘coke’, ‘blow’, ‘toot’, ‘snow’, ‘ching’, ‘nose candy’, ‘the devil’s dandruff’, ‘the Big C’, ‘pearl’, ‘bump’ and the rest.  For years to come, in nightclubs, unsavoury figures will be sidling up to you and whispering, “Psst!  You fancy a few lines of Michael Gove?”

 

Actually, Gove isn’t the only prime ministerial hopeful whose partaking of certain substances has been revealed lately.  We’ve also heard that International Development Secretary Rory Stewart once smoked opium at a wedding in Iran; Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt once drank a cannabis lassi in India; and both Andrea Leadsom and Dominic Raab smoked cannabis while at university.  From the Mussolini-type rubbish Raab has spouted recently, you’d expect his drug-taking to have consisted of frying his brain with LSD.  The confessions were coming at such a rate that yesterday someone on Twitter speculated if Jacob Rees Mogg would admit to ‘abusing Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup in 1871’.

 

I’ve noticed one strange thing about Conservative politicians.  None of them ever seem to take drugs because they like taking them.  They’re not as ordinary folk, who indulge in illicit substances because they ‘enjoy the buzz’ or ‘the high’, or want ‘to get loaded’ and ‘have a good time’, or want to recreate the stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) inside their heads.  No, Tory politicians only take drugs out of some masochistic impulse that leaves them feeling terrible, shameful and morally besmirched afterwards.  “It was a mistake,” wailed Gove about the cocaine business.  “I look back and think I wish I hadn’t done that.”  Of his experience ‘chasing the dragon’, Stewart lamented: “It was something that was very wrong.  I made a stupid mistake.”

 

If Gove were an ordinary person, I wouldn’t give a toss whether he took cocaine or not since: (1) I’m of the opinion that human beings have the right to imbibe, ingest, inject or snort into their bodies whatever they want, provided this doesn’t negatively impact on their fellow human beings; and (2) I don’t see any point in having drugs outlawed and drug-users stigmatised when strict anti-drug legislation in the West has proved as useless as the USA’s prohibition laws did between 1920 and 1933, in that they’ve managed only to empower organised crime.  (The third chapter of the 2018 European Drugs Report is damning about how the anti-drug policies of Gove’s Conservative government have failed Britain.  It says ‘at least 7,929 overdose deaths, involving one or more illicit drug, occurred in the European Union in 2016.’  34% of these deaths occurred in the UK alone.)

 

What makes Gove a hypocrite of Godzilla-sized proportions is that, as the Observer has pointed out, while he was sandblasting his nasal passages with the Big C, he was also using a column in the Times to condemn middle-class professionals who wanted drugs laws to be relaxed.  Indeed, anybody who’s fallen foul of Britain’s laws about cocaine possession during the period that Gove and his band of merry pranksters have been in power must be feeling hard done-by, since Gove has made this admission with no apparent threat to his pocket or liberty – cocaine possession in the UK is, theoretically, punishable with up to seven years’ imprisonment – and with no apparent lessening in his belief that he’s the right man to take on the highest office in the land.  During Gove’s watch as Education Secretary, I very much doubt if anyone who had a criminal record involving cocaine would have been allowed through the doors of the teaching profession.

 

So far, the only possible negative consequence of Gove’s drugs admission I’ve heard mentioned is that it might put him in the awkward position of being British Prime Minister but being denied entry to the USA.  Actually, that would reduce the amount of time he’d have to spend in the company of the current denizen of the White House, so it doesn’t sound like much of a punishment.

 

Thus, the message seems to be that, yes, drug-taking is terribly bad, but it’s not so bad – or not bad at all – when it’s done by a Tory who’s held a string of senior governmental positions and who’s lectured us sanctimoniously in the past on a number of topics, including the badness of drug-taking.  Such logic is worthy of Tony Montana, who once explained in Scarface: “I always tell the truth.  Even when I lie.”

 

From youtube.com / © Channel 4

 

End of the Roky road

 

© Sumet Sound Studios

 

Roky Erickson, the Texan singer-songwriter, guitarist and harmonica player who passed away on May 31st at the age of 71, was a man who suffered for his art.  Diagnosed with acute schizophrenia in 1968, and a year later claiming he was insane to avoid jail after a drugs-bust, he was incarcerated in a series of psychiatric and state hospitals and put though electroconvulsive therapy and Thorazine treatment.

 

Later he displayed levels of paranoia, delusion and obsessiveness that a Philip K. Dick character (or indeed, Philip K. Dick himself) would be familiar with.  By 1982 he believed that he was an alien – one under psychic attack from the human beings around him.  Later in the decade he was charged with the theft of his neighbours’ mail – not only was the postally-crazed Erickson stealing the mail but he was plastering it all over his walls.  Only after 2001, when Erickson ended up in the legal custody of his brother Sumner Erickson, did his mental health and his situation generally begin to improve.

 

No doubt most if not all of Erickson’s demons sprang from the amount of acid that he and his comrades in the psychedelic rock band the 13th Floor Elevators consumed during the 1960s in their quest for a state of heightened perception that, in turn, would add more depth and profundity to their music.  It makes you wonder how much you should applaud the art, knowing that the circumstances that helped produce the art also wrecked the body and soul of the artist.  Erickson was unlucky enough to belong to a tradition of tormented musicians, writers, poets, composers and painters whose ranks include Thomas de Quincy, Malcolm Lowry, Toulouse Lautrec, Edgar Allan Poe and Edvard Munch (who once made the sad confession that “without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder.”)

 

Well, I have to applaud the art of the 13th Floor Elevators.  That’s although before I heard them I hadn’t much patience with the psychedelic-music genre to which they belonged.  Previously, I’d mainly been exposed to British psychedelic bands who seemed to sing about garden gnomes, bicycles, teapots, newspaper taxis (presumably black London cabs made out of copies of the Evening Standard) and marmalade skies – artefacts of a twee, stereotypical Little England, viewed as much through a prism of Lewis Carroll as through a haze of consciousness-altering drugs.  But the 13th Floor Elevators sounded literally far out.  Theirs was a frequently distorted noise that might’ve been made on another planet.  It consisted of Erickson’s yelping voice, Stacy Sutherland’s fuzzy guitar, John Ike Walton’s berserk drums and Tommy Hall’s electric jug.  The jug was an instrument that accompanied the songs with eerie wibbling sounds and sometimes made you wonder if there was a flock of turkeys gabbling in a corner of the Elevators’ recording studio.

 

Somehow, out of what initially seemed an unpromising clatter of disparate noises, there emerged great tunes: Reverberation, Roller Coaster, Slip Inside This House, You’re Going to Miss Me and Kingdom of Heaven.  Meanwhile, the Elevators’ takes on other people’s songs, like Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue and Them’s Gloria, predictably bent them into new and fantastical shapes.

 

You’re Going to Miss Me became an unexpected hit and the Elevators got to perform it on American Bandstand (1952-1989).  “Who is the head man of this band here, gentlemen?” inquired Dick Clark afterwards.  “Well,” came the perfect reply, “we’re all heads.”  And Kingdom of Heaven was used by T Bone Burnett on the musical soundtrack of the first and best season of True Detective (2014-2019).  It provided an unsettling but soaring accompaniment to the finale of the second episode, when Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey discover a sinister human figure with antlers painted on the wall of a burnt-out church.

 

The Elevators managed four albums between 1966 and 1969, though Erickson’s contribution was increasingly diminished by his mental problems.  Thereafter, I quite like the two albums that he and a new band recorded as Roky Erickson and the Aliens – aptly titled, since at the time Erickson did think he was an alien.

 

And unlike another famous casualty of the psychedelic era, Syd Barrett of the Pink Floyd – note how I called it ‘the’ Pink Floyd, to distinguish the earlier Barrett incarnation of the band from the bloated, Jeremy Clarkson-friendly soft-rock behemoth that it mutated into later – Erickson enjoyed something of a musical comeback in his later years, gigging in America, Europe and the Antipodes and even participating in a 13th Floor Elevators reunion in 2015.

 

Incidentally, the Elevators exerted a fascination over Scottish rock bands of a certain vintage.  Slip Inside This House was covered by both Primal Scream and the Shamen, while the Jesus and Mary Chain, possibly my favourite band ever, did a splendid if sleek and cleaned-up take on Reverberation.  (Yes, it says something about the original version that it makes the Jesus and Mary Chain version sound sleek and cleaned-up.)  And Erickson himself appeared on Devil Rides, a track on the 2008 Batcat EP by the rumbly Glasgow band Mogwai.

 

Mogwai member Stuart Braithwaite spoke for a lot of music fans the other day when, hearing of Erikson’s death, he tweeted: “The worst news.  Rest in peace Roky.”  Mind you, considering everything that he’d been through, maybe we should just celebrate the fact that Roky Erickson made it to the age of 71.

 

From boingboinb.net