Knuckling down, part 2

 

 

I began my second day in Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Mountains early.  I’d been told that the ‘sky camp’ – where I’d spent my first night in the mountains – was an excellent spot for observing the sunrise.  So I and three other guests staying there (an Englishman and two Australian women who were making a separate, two-day trek) emerged from our tents at about 5.30 AM, a quarter-hour before the sun was supposed to come up.  Already the night had given way to an eerie early-morning twilight.   The mountaintops directly across the valley were still black silhouettes.  However, further along and presumably due east, distant peaks were visible in a haze of grey.  Higher up, the greyness segued into a glimmering strip of pink and then into pale, barely blue sky.

 

We went a little way down the road from the camp to a place where a new hotel was under construction.  This had been recommended to us as the best vantage point and there was even a concrete platform in front of the hotel buildings that seemed to have been designed for this purpose.  Gradually, the eastern sky became brighter, revealing patterns of streaky clouds.  The grey haze underneath lightened to show more mountaintops, covered in a fur of trees, and even the glint of a distant lake.  Then a wan red bead rose into view out of the haze – the sun, not quite appearing from behind the horizon but suddenly materialising over it.  At the same moment, the area of sky above the sun suddenly resembled a pool of fiery lava.  Thus, the day had an inspirational start.

 

When I got up, my boots, shorts and other gear were still damp from the previous day’s wet weather, but they dried out in the early-morning sunshine and I was ready to leave the sky camp at 9.30 AM.  Asela, my trekking guide, and I soon encountered an abandoned tea plantation that’d been installed long ago by the British.  Some tea-plants remained, growing wild.  Later, we came across a ruined stone bungalow that’d been the home of the plantation’s superintendent.

 

At another point in the morning, our path took us to a pool below a slope, fed by a boulder-choked stream.  Here, we met the Englishman and Australian women – who’d left the sky camp a short time before us – and their guide.  They were under attack from leeches.  The pool-area was hoaching with the creatures and the Westerners were busy picking them off each other.  Already, one of the ladies’ woollen socks were polka-dotted with blood.

 

 

To digress a little…  A few years ago, I went walking in the Udawattakele Sanctuary above Kandy, where my ankles became the site of a major leech pile-on.  Their bites bled for hours afterwards.  Not wanting to undergo that again, before leaving Colombo for the Knuckles Mountains, I’d gone to a camping shop on Galle Road and invested in a pair of ‘anti-leech’ socks.  These were big tubes of canvas-like material that you put over your feet and roll up your legs to your knees, fastening them at various points with lengths of cord.  However, before the start of our trek the previous day, Asela had pointed out that the leeches would simply climb up my boots, then climb up the anti-leech socks, and then climb onto my exposed thighs and start feeding.

 

“Wouldn’t the leeches,” I asked hopefully, “be too tired to bite after they’d climbed all that way?”

 

“No,” he said.

 

Instead, Asela advised me to rub Dettol into my feet and legs before we set out each morning.  Leeches aren’t hot on the taste of Dettol, apparently.  And that seemed to do the trick because I wasn’t much bothered by the little bastards during our four days’ trekking.  Incidentally, I continued to wear the anti-leech socks – over my feet and socks, under my boots, and rolled down above my boots – as a way of keeping my feet dry.

 

This Knuckles Mountains expedition was the first time I really noticed leeches in their skinnier, non-blood-swollen form.  Everywhere on the ground, it seemed, they squiggled out from under fallen leaves, like animated slivers of evil; and then probed insatiably upwards, desperate to clamber onto your boots and onto your flesh.

 

 

Anyway, after trudging upwards for a time, we came to a pine forest – presumably also the handiwork of the British.  The forest looked aesthetically pleasing as we approached it but, once we entered, we saw how the forest floor was carpeted with dried brown pine-twigs and almost devoid of life.  The only vegetation was an occasional clump of broad-bladed grass.  By way of contrast, when there was an interruption by indigenous trees among the pines, there was also a great eruption of green foliage underneath them.

 

After leaving the pine forest, we crossed a ridge and came within sight of a valley on the other side.  This was possibly the most spectacular view I’ve seen in Sri Lanka.  Various mountains stood in towering rows, which receded and became blurred, misty and ephemeral.  Everything in the valley beneath them – roads, dwellings, fields – was insignificant and puny-looking.

 

Then we ended up on a path whose surface was a mixture of broken asphalt, stones, pebbles, occasional smooth rocks, sand, grit, puddles and, for one stretch, a shallow stream.  A forest of low indigenous trees grew around the path and a froth of grass, weeds, ferns and creepers crowded against its sides.  So far today the weather had been reasonable but there came a point, while we were making our way around a bend, when the air suddenly turned cold.  Thereafter, the weather alternated between mist, drizzle and relentless, miserable rain.

 

It was on this path that we discovered a centipede that was a good seven or eight inches long.  It had a black body, dozens of pairs of yellow legs and two longer red antennae at the end that served as its head.  It was the strangest specimen of wildlife that we saw today.  The wildlife also included a big green chameleon perched on top of a fencepost, a couple of woodpeckers, more freshwater crabs and several monkeys.

 

The path finally took us to a village inhabited by tea-plantation workers.  Our lunch – though we didn’t eat it until the mid-afternoon – was served up in the biggest and fanciest house in the village, a white, two-storey block with a balcony that was decorated with stone doves and bas-reliefs showing ancient chariots.  The house’s owner ran his own trekking company, apparently, but also supplied other companies’ customers and guides with refreshments and food when they  passed through.  I suppose the meal I received there was standard Sri Lankan fare but, with my appetite whetted by hours of trekking, it seemed absolutely delicious.

 

 

Because the electrical sockets in the sky camp hadn’t been compatible with our chargers, neither Asela nor I had powered up our phones the night before.  We were able to do this in the white house, although it meant hanging around for a while.  In the meantime, rain began to bucket down outside.  I was at the front doorway, gazing out at the downpour, when suddenly a tuk-tuk came barrelling into the front yard.  A diminutive Sri Lankan guy clambered out of the front of the tuk-tuk – not, it transpired, the driver, but another guide.  Then the driver got out too.  They lifted one of the side-flaps that’d been fastened down against the pounding rain and five Westerners struggled out of the back: a father, mother, teenaged daughter and little boy and girl.  So that tuk-tuk had arrived with seven people on board.

 

Everyone was bedraggled, but especially the two young kids.  They were whisked into the house, dried with towels and plied with hot tea.  The family were British-Israelis who’d been visiting a waterfall when it started to rain torrentially.  They’d been stranded there for a time, until their guide managed to phone and summon an emergency tuk-tuk.  They said they were staying tonight in a local campsite, which sounded similar to the one Asela had described to me as our next port-of-call.

 

The rain finally relented and the family and their guide set off on foot for their campsite.  Asela and I departed from the house a quarter-hour later.  We followed a path out of the village that took us alongside a river and then through another tea-plantation village – a smaller and decidedly poorer-looking village than the one we’d recently left.  By now the rain had resumed and was almost as severe as before.  As we tramped past a little shop in the middle of the second village, we glanced through its doorway and saw the British-Israeli family huddled inside, in front of the counter.  They looked utterly bedraggled again.

 

About ten minutes after the second village, we arrived at our campsite.  It was part of a conglomeration of recreational facilities in the middle of the mountains – we’d just walked past some fancy wooden chalets and an enclosure with holiday-huts and a garden.  Our place consisted of a central dining area, under a big V-shaped roof held up by eight wooden columns embedded in a concrete wall about three feet high – above that wall, there was nothing to block out the wind; a nearby cabin where the campsite staff and guides could prepare food; two family-sized tents contained in big, garden-shed-like huts overlooking a greenish pond that was stocked with carp; and, up a slope, a terrace of four concrete-walled, iron-roofed huts containing four tents that was similar to the arrangement in the sky camp.  There was no wi-fi or telephone signal and the only electricity was provided by a generator each evening until about 9.30.

 

Shortly after we arrived there, while I sat in the dining area with a much-needed cup of hot tea, the British-Israeli family came charging in out of the rain.  Their guide ran in with the little girl perched on his shoulders.  Their walk from the white house to here had gone badly.  The little boy and girl had fallen prey to leeches and when Asela and I had seen them in the village shop, their parents had been buying disinfectant and plasters to apply to their bites.  Thank God, I thought, for Dettol.

 

 

Later, one of the campsite staff lit a fire in a big brazier at the end of the dining area, just under the edge of the roof so that it wouldn’t be doused by the still-falling rain.  I placed my sodden boots and hung my sodden clothes near to it and by the next morning they’d dried out – just about.

 

That evening, I suffered the only real annoyance of my four days in the Knuckles Mountains – by annoyance, I mean an avoidable, human one, not an unpreventable fact-of-life like bad weather.  On the other side of the carp pond was the enclosure with the holiday huts that I mentioned earlier.  It was under different ownership from the campsite.  Early in the evening, a group of people, mostly men, started playing music loudly over a sound system – warbly, sometimes dance-y Sri Lankan popular songs, latterly accompanied by drunken live singing.  It was fully audible in the campsite and was going strong when I ate dinner.  It was still going strong at about 10.00, when I decided to call it a night.  And it was still thumping away an hour later when I was lying in my tent.

 

Finally, I checked the time, saw that it was 10.55 and resolved that, if the music continued after 11.00, I would go to that enclosure myself to tell them to shut the f*** up.  At 11.01, yes, it was still playing and so I got up, dressed and left the tent.  I was halfway across the campsite when I encountered a guide – not Asela, but one who’d accompanied a couple of other tourists staying there – and he tried to talk me out of breenging across and making a scene.  “They’re local people,” he explained, “but I am sure they will stop soon.”  I pointed out that I, and the campsite’s other guests, had paid good money to have a peaceful sojourn out in Sri Lanka’s remote countryside.  Spending the night next door to a disco-from-hell was the last thing we wanted.

 

In the middle of our discussion, the music cut out.  This was probably connected with the approach of a minibus on the road, presumably hired to ferry the revellers home.  (The following day was one of Sri Lanka’s monthly, alcohol-free Poya Days, and I wondered if the noise was being made by some arseholes having a blow-out prior to 24 hours of enforced sobriety.)  The music didn’t resume after that and so I returned to my tent – my complaint and a potential scene unmade.

 

The next day, Asela told me that he’d gone across to the enclosure that evening and asked the revellers to turn the music down for the sake of the folk on our campsite.  His request wasn’t well received.  He was abused for being an upstart ‘Kandy boy’ and one drunkard even challenged him to step outside for a fight.  I suddenly felt relieved that I hadn’t breenged across there.  Getting involved in a bare-knuckles brawl in the Knuckles Mountains?  That wouldn’t have impressed my employers.  Nor, indeed, the Sri Lankan police force.

 

 

To be continued…

Knuckling down, part 1

 

 

A while back, I found myself with a spare week on my hands and I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to do some hiking in Sri Lanka – or as they call it in this part of the world, ‘trekking’.  I decided to get out of Colombo for a few days and explore part of the island’s famous Hill Country on foot.  I’d always wanted to do this during the five years I’d lived in Sri Lanka but, somehow, had never got around to it.

 

Having trekked before in Thailand and Laos, I was surprised at how rarely it was offered as something for tourists to do in Sri Lanka.  Most activities advertised here involved making safari-like tours of the country’s wildlife reserves or were sea-based things like surfing, snorkelling and whale-watching.  But I found online half-a-dozen locally based holiday companies who offered trekking among their activities and fired off emails to them specifying what I wanted to do, where, for how long and for how much.  I have to say I got some propositions back that bore no resemblance to what I’d requested.  One company, obviously cutting and pasting information from an international brochure, offered me a four-day trip around central Sri Lanka’s tourist hotspots, staying in top-class hotels, with most of the travelling in between done by train or car and with barely a mention of hiking, all to the tune of 1,300 US dollars.

 

However, one company, Sri Lanka Trekking, suggested a four-day package in the Knuckles Mountains east of Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city, for 70 dollars a day.  This covered transport, accommodation, food and my own private trekking guide.  It was exactly what I’d been looking for and I accepted and headed for Kandy.

 

Unfortunately, my week’s break took place during Sri Lanka’s rainy season, and it was early on a damp and grey Kandy morning that I was picked up outside my hotel by my guide from Sri Lanka Trekking.   He was a young guy called Asela with a tall, lanky build and long hair tucked up in a topknot.  He wore a fair amount of bling and a pair of flip-flops, which didn’t look very hiker-ly, although during the next four days he seemed to have zero problems traversing the often-awkward terrain.

 

 

We spent the next couple of hours in a yellow tuk-tuk with a Bob-Marley-themed interior (and a driver who looked slightly Rastafarian as well) heading eastwards towards the mountains, making a few stops on the way to pick up provisions like packed lunches and bottles of water.  Eventually, Asela and I were dropped off at a grassy track and began walking.  Ahead of us was a 12-mile trek to the spot where we’d camp for the night.  Initially, the weather was wet and blowy, but after a half-hour, things calmed and the sun appeared.  I entertained hopes that the rest of the day would stay pleasant.  Futile hopes, as it turned out.

 

The trek’s first leg took us below the curved, rocky crest of a mountain where, Asela told me, a bushfire had broken out a month earlier.  The cliff-face was now a smoky-grey colour while underneath a belt of trees retained their green treetops but had trunks that resembled burnt matchsticks.  The ground beneath them was a scorched red-brown.  We learned later that the conflagration had been caused by a small fire getting out of hand.  It’d been lit by some people trying to smoke out a colony of bees so that they could take the bees’ honey.

 

 

Asela also told me that this area was currently roamed by three elephants who a while ago had accidentally ‘migrated’ from a nearby, official ‘elephant zone’.  Nobody quite knew where the elephants were and they were said to emerge from the surrounding forest only at night.  He showed me evidence of their presence – a wrecked jackfruit tree, whose fruit elephants are partial to, at the side of the track; and a big, flat, pale patch of old elephant poop on the ground.  In addition, the farmsteads bordering the track had strands of barbed wire slung along their perimeters.  Dangling at intervals from the wire were clusters of empty cans that, if the elephants brushed against them, would clang noisily and hopefully scare the giant trespassers away.  The cans included some that’d contained 8.8% proof Lion Strong Beer, possibly powerful enough to stun an elephant.

 

Near lunchtime, the weather changed again and grey, clammy rain descended.  We made our way down a slope with semi-circular terraces of rice paddies carved onto it.  The tracts of water, seams of mud between them and sprouting green rice-shoots made the hillside look like an old mirror that’d been smashed and then stuck together again – the water like the slivers of glass, the mud like the lines of glue and the rice-shoots like specks of mould on the glass.

 

 

The weather became increasingly cantankerous.  We struggled along muddy tracks and up and down treacherous steps, and even tightrope-walked for a while along one of the concrete ridges lining a deep manmade drain, until we finally found a place to eat lunch.  This was a tiny farmer’s hut that was no more than a wooden-slatted roof held up by a few posts.  The wind blew through it but nonetheless it felt cosy and welcoming after what we’d been exposed to outside.

 

 

Similarly, lunch was just a pack of fried rice and chicken but, after the past few hours’ exertions, it tasted delicious.

 

Afterwards, we emerged onto a stretch of winding concrete-surfaced road.  Asela got talking to a girl of 12 or 13 years who was walking a few yards ahead of us and discovered that she knew a short-cut that would save us having to follow a long, monotonous loop in the road ahead.  She led us up a rough, steep path to the side, which was basically a course of mud and wet, slippery, vaguely step-like rocks.  Armed with an umbrella, the girl pranced in front of us as agilely and daintily as a gazelle.  We reached the top of a hill where she lived with her parents in a square, bunker-like farmhouse and were passing the side of the house, about to descend the slope on the other side, when suddenly the rain and wind swelled and became a furious tempest.  The girl’s father kindly allowed us to shelter under the porch outside his front door for the tempest’s duration.

 

 

Indeed, the father joined us under the porch and spent the next 20 minutes blethering with Asela, while I stared out dumbfoundedly at the storm.  Nearby palm trees seemed almost to bend 90 degrees in the middle.  The ground in front rapidly became a lake – a green garden-lizard started off sheltering below a bush, then had to shin up the bush to avoid being washed away.  A few times the man eyed me bemusedly – by now I looked like I’d just been fished out of a river – no doubt marvelling that foreigners were willing to pay money to be subjected to this.

 

Finally, the storm abated and the girl offered to lead us the rest of the way along the short-cut, which involved traversing more mud and rocks.  Again, she pranced effortlessly ahead with her umbrella.  We reached the concreted road and after that it was simply a matter of going up, up, up – till we arrived at the place where we’d spend the night.  This was an establishment known as ‘the sky-camp’ and consisted of two terraces of concrete huts with green, V-shaped aluminium roofs, along with a communal dining area, a kitchen, a storeroom and a block with toilets and a shower-room.

 

 

Actually, each hut contained a tent – so that you stayed inside a tent that was inside a hut.  The huts were open at one end, positioned away from the direction that the wind usually came from, which was also where the tents’ entrance flaps were located.  (Asela explained that if the tents had stood alone, they’d soon have been blown away.)  The tents’ guy-lines were attached to the huts’ interiors and, with some fiddling and adjusting, could be converted into washing lines for hanging wet clothes.

 

 

Mindful that it was the rainy season, I’d made sure when I’d packed my rucksack that everything inside it was enclosed in plastic bags.  When I got into the tent I’d been allocated, and unpacked, I discovered that one bag had been ‘compromised’ by the wet.  Unfortunately, it was the bag holding my money.  I had about forty notes of 20, 50, 100, 500, 1000 and 5000 rupees in it that were now soaking and almost completely stuck to each other.  My solution was to carefully peel the notes apart; spread half of them across the bedding inside the tent; lie down on top of them, fully clothed; nap for half-an-hour; and let my body heat dry them out.  Then I did the same with the other half of the notes.  It worked, sort of.  My money looked almost as good as new.

 

It’d been a day of extremes – moments when I’d felt extremely wet and tired, but other moments when I’d felt extremely happy.  There were times when I wondered, “Why am I doing this to myself?”: whilst scrambling up steep, endless-seeming tracks that slithered with mud and oozed with rainwater; or straining my venerable joints as I struggled up or jolted down flights of steps that were basically haphazard arrangements of rocks.  And I hated it when the rain got inside my windcheater, and in particular got inside the windcheater’s sleeves – freezing water would pour down from my elbows to wrists whenever I let my arms hang at my sides.

 

But what was good?  Well, after spending so long in the city, it felt great to be out amid nature.  When I look at the notes I wrote in my journal that day, I’m pleasantly reminded of all the animals we sighted: ‘a big snail with a pointed, shiny, red-purple shell’; ‘a golden-headed fowl, off to the side of the path among some bushes’; ‘butterflies swooping majestically about a pool’; ‘a furtive freshwater crab extending its claws from under the edge of a rock’; ‘a green tree-snake’; ‘a water buffalo, tethered halfway up a slope of terraced paddies’; ‘a bright blue kingfisher taking off from a tree’; ‘a couple of strange, black-winged storks’; and ‘a male peacock dragging his glossy plumage across the bottom of a slope’.

 

 

Also, by the time I reached the sky-camp, the weather had cleared and I was allowed a glorious view of the countryside through which and up which I’d just trekked.  The camp was high on a mountainside and overlooked a mostly forested valley, whose far side rose and twisted up to brownish-green peaks.  I felt so elated that my first action was to stand in front of this view and do something that I very, very rarely do, which was take a selfie.

 

However, drenched in sweat and plastered with Knuckles Mountains dirt and muck, I looked ghastly in the selfie, so I’ll spare you the horror and not post it here in this blog-entry.  Enjoy this shot of a nice water buffalo instead.

 

 

To be continued…

 

The essence of Pleasence

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

Today is October 5th, 2019.  Donald Pleasence, one of my all-time favourite actors, was born on this day exactly 100 years ago

 

The distinctive Pleasence, with his domed and usually hairless head, his popping eyes and unsettling stare, and his alternatively smooth and sepulchral voice, was a peerless character actor.  Though he’s mainly remembered for his sinister roles, he could effortlessly inhabit a range of personas – characters who were pathetic, tragic, eccentric, obsequious and, occasionally, virtuous.

 

In celebration of the great man’s 100th birthday, here are 15 of the performances that for me most memorably capture the essence of Pleasence.

 

1984 (1954)

Controversial in its day, with questions raised about it in Parliament, the BBC’s mid-1950s version of George Orwell’s 1984 still has impact.  That’s largely due to its performances, most notably that of Peter Cushing playing Winston Smith.  But Pleasence is good too as Syme, the lexicographer enthusiastically working on Newspeak.  (“I’ve reached the adjectives at last!”)  Despite – or perhaps because of – his zeal for the Party, Syme ends up becoming an ‘unperson’.

 

The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)

John Gilling’s The Flesh and the Fiends is the cinema’s best take on the notorious Edinburgh duo of Burke and Hare, who in the early 19th century started selling cadavers to the dissection rooms of Edinburgh Medical School.  The problem was, Burke and Hare’s cadavers had had some assistance in dying.  Pleasence is loathsome as Hare, with atypically long, lank tresses, a battered stovepipe hat, a smirk and a maniacal gleam that shows he gets a perverse thrill out of murdering people.  As with the real-life Hare, following his arrest, he turns King’s evidence against his partner and gets released, though director Gilling adds an apocryphal scene where he’s blinded by torch-wielding vigilantes the moment he leaves the jail.

 

© Triad Productions

 

Hell is a City (1960)

For someone who made a lot of horror movies, Pleasence had surprisingly little to do with Britain’s Hammer Films, the studio most associated with the horror genre at the time.  Hell is a City is a Hammer movie, but ironically isn’t a horror one but a crime one – and by the standards of British cinema then, is surprisingly gritty.  Pleasence plays Gus Hawkins, a shady but sympathetic bookmaker whose wife gives him the run-around while she attends to the spiritual and physical needs of the film’s villain, a murderous criminal fleeing the law.  In the role of the duplicitous Mrs Hawkins is Billie Whitelaw, whom Pleasence killed in The Flesh and the Fiends, so I suppose there’s justice in that.

 

The Great Escape (1963)

Pleasence’s performance in The Great Escape culminates in one of the saddest scenes in cinema history.  He plays Colin Blythe, a genteel but unfortunate prisoner-of-war in the high-security Stalag Luft III who goes blind just before the inmates stage the mass break-out of the title.  However, Blythe has been befriended by an American pilot called Hendley, played by James Garner, who agrees to take him along when it’s his turn to escape from the camp.  All goes well and Hendley and Blythe manage to steal a German airplane and fly it towards Switzerland and freedom.  They get to within yards of the Swiss border when the plane suffers engine trouble and crashes.  Then, while the bloodied Hendley tries to gather his wits amid the plane wreckage, the sightless and disorientated Blythe stumbles off in the direction of an approaching German patrol.  One of the German soldiers raises his rifle…  I get a tear in my eye even thinking about what happens next.

 

Cul-de-sac (1966)

The Roman Polanski-directed Cul-de-sac has a surprisingly svelte Pleasance playing an artist shacked up with his gorgeous young wife (Francoise Dorleac, who was the sister of Catherine Deneuve and who died in a car accident in 1967) on an island off the English coast, which is actually Lindisfarne off Northumbria.  Their idyll ends one day when two criminals-on-the-run (Lionel Stander and Jack MacGowran) show up.  Things then become positively Beckettian as the villains wait, futilely, for their superiors to appear and rescue them.  Cul-de-sac is overlong, but is a haunting experience thanks to the gorgeous bleakness of its location and its black-and-white photography.  It also contains the bloodcurdling sight of Pleasence, whilst involved in some kinky horseplay with Dorleac, hurtling around in lipstick and a frock.

 

© Compton Films / Tekli British Productions

 

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

Your IQ must be lower than your shoe-size if you haven’t worked out within ten minutes that Pleasence is the foreign-agent saboteur among the crew in this colourful sci-fi epic about a submarine of medical experts being miniaturised and injected into the body of a dying scientist so that they can perform internal surgery on him.  Still it features a delightful scene near the end where Pleasence is devoured by a hungry white blood cell.  (Other great Donald death-scenes: getting mauled to death by a bear that’s obviously a stuntman wrapped up in a shaggy rug in 1960’s Circus of Horrors, and being ingested by a monster that’s half-human and half-Venus flytrap in 1974’s startlingly tacky The Mutations.)

 

You Only Live Twice (1967)

The James Bond film where we get to see Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld for the first time, You Only Live Twice has Pleasence playing him with all the accoutrements that popular culture associates with Blofeld – bald head, white jumpsuit, white cat, pool of piranhas for dropping incompetent minions into.  Mind you, the filmmakers immediately abandoned the template and cast two actors with very different appearances and personas, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray, as Blofeld in the next two Bond movies.  That, of course, didn’t stop Mike Myers from using the original Pleasence / Blofeld blueprint for his Dr Evil character in the later Austen Powers movies (1997-2002).

 

Wake in Fright (1971)

Nick Cave reckons Wake in Fright is the greatest Australian movie ever and I wholeheartedly agree.  It’s the tale of a young, bright and ambitious teacher (Gary Bond) who becomes increasingly desensitised and degenerate the longer he’s stranded in the macho outback town of Bundanyabba.  Pleasence plays Doc Tydon, an educated man who’s already plumbed the depths of ‘the Yabba’ and who becomes Virgil to Bond’s Dante, guiding him through the town’s various levels of hell.  The scene where a drunken Tydon sits on the porch of an outback pub and raves about “Socrates, affectability, progress” being “vanities spawned by fear”, before going berserk and smashing up the place, shows the mighty Donald at his most unhinged.

 

© American International Pictures

 

Deathline (1972)

Gary Sherman’s grisly and ahead-of-its-time horror movie Deathline has Pleasence playing Inspector Calhoun, a working-class copper investigating the disappearances of late-night travellers on the London Underground.  (Clue: it’s something to do with the last-surviving, cannibalistic descendent of a group of workers who were entombed by a cave-in while the Underground was being built in the 19th century.)  Calhoun isn’t really a nice character.  He’s sly, cynical, irascible and, as a boozy scene involving his only friend (Norman Rossington) shows, a nightmare to get out of the pub at closing time.  However, when he finally discovers the cannibal’s hideous subterranean lair, his exclamation – “What a way to live!” – suggests a feeling of empathy, even of kinship with the lonely creature.

 

The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water (1973)

1970s children’s television in Britain featured many short public-information films that used harrowing and graphic images to convince kids that it was not a good idea to play on railway tracks, inside electrical sub-stations, next to farm slurry pits, etc.  Pleasence lent his doomy tones to The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, which warns the little ‘uns to keep away from rivers, canals and ponds and is the most harrowing film of the lot.  He voices the titular spirit, a black, cowled figure who lurks in the misty background while a succession of stupid children – “the unwary, the show-off, the fool” – are lured to watery graves.  So memorably ghoulish is Pleasence’s narration that, 45 years on, I can still recite every word of it.  (“Sensible children!” he spits.  “I have no power over them!”)  And to make it even creepier, when he dematerialises at the end and leaves his cowl floating on some murky water, we hear his voice echoing out of the cowl: “I’ll be back… back… back!”

 

© Amicus Productions / Warner Bros.

 

From Beyond the Grave (1974)

The best of the horror anthology movies produced by Amicus Films, Hammer’s biggest rival during the 1960s and 1970s, this features Pleasence in one story as an old soldier called Underwood, reduced to selling matchsticks and shoelaces on the street.  Underwood is adopted by a mediocre, frustrated man called Lowe (Ian Bannon), who’s trying to win respect for himself by lying about imaginary heroics he performed during the war.  Despite having a wife and child, Lowe gradually becomes enamoured with Underwood’s weird daughter – and we realise that it’s Underwood, not Lowe, who’s doing the manipulating.  In a neat piece of stunt casting, the daughter is played by Pleasence’s real-life daughter, Angela.  Meanwhile, wonderfully, in the role of Lowe’s ten-year-old son is the future comic writer and Labour Party activist John O’Farrell.

 

Telefon (1977)

Pleasence plays a Soviet scientist who, during the darkest days of the Cold War, helped to ‘seed’ the USA with deep-cover Soviet agents.  These brainwashed agents don’t know they’re agents, but when they hear a ‘trigger’, which is a stanza by poet Robert Frost, they become zombie-like, grab some explosives and carry out kamikaze-style attacks on nearby military installations.  Pleasence goes rogue and travels to America, where he tries to start World War III singlehandedly by activating the brainwashed agents.  Thereafter, there are many explosions and much reciting of poetry by Pleasance: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep / But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep…”

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / United Artists

 

Halloween (1978)

In 1978, planning a horror movie called Halloween about a murderous psychopath on the loose on October 31st, director John Carpenter decided he wanted ‘an old British horror guy’ to play Dr Sam Loomis, head of the psychiatric hospital from which the psychopath escapes.  After offering the part of Loomis to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, without success, Carpenter approached Pleasence and the great man bagged his second most-famous role (after Blofeld).  I have mixed feelings about the massively influential Halloween.  It has a hackneyed script, but benefits from Carpenter’s masterly direction, an endearing turn by Jamie Lee Curtis as the resourceful ‘last girl’ and, obviously, Pleasence’s gravitas.  That said, I’m sure when Pleasence signed up for this, he didn’t expect to appear in four of the film’s five, increasingly ropy, direct sequels.

 

Blade on the Feather (1980)

A TV movie written by the brilliant Dennis Potter, Blade on the Feather has Pleasance playing a wealthy and stuck-up novelist who’s discombobulated when a young stranger, played by Tom Conti, arrives one day, ingratiates himself into his household and starts asking awkward questions – questions to do with some long-ago espionage skulduggery, which resulted in the death of Conti’s secret-agent father.  Stylishly directed by Richard Loncraine and excellently acted by Pleasence, Conti and Denholm Elliot, Blade on the Feather was no doubt Potter’s disgruntled response to events of the previous year – when Anthony Blunt had finally been unmasked as the ‘fourth man’ in the Guy Burgess / Donald Maclean / Kim Philby spy scandal that rocked Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.  Despite confessing to treason in 1964, Blunt’s crime was kept secret for the next 15 years and he was allowed to enjoy a respectable and privileged life at the heart of the British establishment, working as curator of the Queen’s art collection.

 

Escape from New York (1981)

Working again with director John Carpenter, Pleasence plays in Escape from New York a future US president who’s trapped in a hellish version of New York after his plane crashes there.  The city has become so anarchically crime-ridden that the authorities have simply sealed it off, left it to its own devices and turned it into a huge, unstaffed prison into which they dump all their felons.  An ultra-violent, dystopian United States with a president called Donald?  Thank heavens that prediction didn’t come true.

 

Anyway, a century on…  Happy birthday, Mr P.

 

© Central Office of Information

 

Nostalgic wallows 1: Bill McLaren

 

From bloodandmud.com

 

We’re now ten days into the Japan-hosted 2019 Rugby World Cup and my mental health feels more kicked around than the ball in the matches.  One of the two teams I support is already in danger of making an early exit from the tournament.  Meanwhile, the other team I support seems to have haplessly manoeuvred itself into a position where it’ll face New Zealand’s steamrollering All-Blacks in the second stage.

 

But aside from the anguish…  The tournament reminds me yet again of how much I miss being able to watch an international rugby match and at the same time listen to the knowledgeable and dulcet tones of Bill McLaren.

 

Although McLaren, who died in 2010 at the age of 86, worked as late as 2002, it was in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s that he was indisputably the voice of British rugby union.  This was an era when sport, if you weren’t at the live event itself, was viewable only on a handful of terrestrial TV channels.  It was common for one channel to have a monopoly on broadcasting one sport and, by extension, for one commentator to have a monopoly on talking about that sport.  Hence, in my youth, it was almost impossible to see horse racing without hearing of the posh but eerily robotic tones of Peter O’Sullivan, or boxing without hearing the excitable Harry Carpenter, or Formula One without hearing the gaffe-prone Murray Walker, or rugby league without hearing the indescribable-sounding Eddie Waring.  McLaren fulfilled this role in the world of rugby union and for me was the best sports commentator of the lot, though I’m undoubtedly biased.  Rugby has always been my favourite team sport.  Plus McLaren came from Hawick in the Scottish Borders, the rugby-daft region where I spent many of my formative years.

 

There were three reasons for McLaren’s greatness.  Firstly, he knew his stuff.  I remember watching a McLaren-commentated game on a pub TV in Aberdeen sometime in the 1980s.  I was in the company of my good friend, the late Finlay McLean, and at one point, Finlay turned around to me and marvelled, “He’s just steeped in the game, isn’t he?”

 

When a try was scored, McLaren didn’t just tell you the name of the player who’d crossed the line.  No, he’d also observe how the player was the great-great-nephew of the man who’d kicked the winning points in the legendary Hawick-Galashiels derby of 1937, or a direct descendent of the tight-head prop with the great Western Province team that’d dominated South Africa’s Currie Cup in the 1890s.  It wouldn’t have surprised you if he’d identified the player’s granny as the stylist responsible for grooming J.P.R. Williams’ sideburns in the 1970s.  He seemed to know everything about rugby.

 

McLaren’s knowledge was encyclopaedic, but this was backed by a conscientious and professional attitude to research.  I read somewhere that when preparing for a game, he’d cover a full sheet of foolscap with notes about each player.  This meant that in the commentator’s box he was constantly shuffling around some 30 sheets of paper.

 

Secondly, although he was a Scotsman and often commentated on games involving the Scottish rugby team, he was never biased.  On the contrary, he always applauded good rugby, no matter who was playing it and even if Scotland was on the receiving end of it.  McLaren’s neutrality was especially admirable when you compared him with the international football commentators on the BBC at the time (and indeed still now), who seemed incapable of narrating an England World Cup match without speculating every second minute about whether ‘we’ could win the World Cup just like ‘we’ won it back in 1966.

 

Thirdly, and most importantly for me, his commentaries were laden with poetry.  McLaren had an amusing, fanciful, frequently wonderful talent with language.  Admittedly, he could be a tad unflattering in the turn of phrase he used to describe the over-sized players on the field.  English prop Colin Smart – famous for getting stomach-pumped after drinking a bottle of aftershave as a post-match lark – consisted of ‘considerable acreage’; English captain and lock Bill Beaumont looked ‘like someone who enjoys his food’; Welsh forwards Scott and Craig Quinnell were ‘two well-nourished individuals’; Scottish flanker Finlay Calder had ‘hands like dinner plates’; and Calder’s gangly fellow-Scot Doddie Weir was ‘the lamppost of the line-out.’  As for the legendary and frankly massive New Zealand flanker Jonah Lomu, running into him was like ‘trying to tackle a snooker table’.

 

© BBC

 

He had a fondness to likening players to animals.  They might behave like ‘a demented ferret’ or ‘a bag of weasels’ or ‘a raging bull with a bad head’ or ‘a whirling tsetse fly’ or ‘a runaway giraffe’ or ‘a slippery salmon’.  The Scottish scrum-half Roy Laidlaw (whose nephew Greig plays in the same position in the current Scottish team) was as elusive as ‘a baggy up a Borders burn’ – a baggy being, to quote the Dictionary of the Scottish Language, ‘a species of large minnow.’  Unsurprisingly for a Borders man, Scotticisms were common in his delivery.  Rugby balls were likened to ‘three pounds of haggis’, the famously square-shouldered Scottish skipper Peter Brown was like ‘a coo kicking over a milk pail’ and an injured player sitting dejectedly at the side of the field whilst sucking on a mint was at least ‘enjoying his sweetie.’

 

When it came to describing the turbulent passions and physical violence often unleashed on the pitch, McLaren was amusingly euphemistic.  Cheating was frequently described as ‘jiggery-pokery’ and punch-ups were dismissed as ‘a bit of argy-bargy’.  I remember how when fists started flying in the middle of one scrum, he commented: “It’s getting a bit unceremonious in that front row.”  And when Scottish centre Jim Renwick – whom McLaren had coached as a schoolboy – missed a kick and was caught by the camera mouthing the F-word, McLaren diplomatically remarked that he was ‘muttering a few naughty Hawick words.’

 

Some of his sayings became catchphrases.  When a player prepared to kick a conversion and half the stadium made disparaging noises in the hope of distracting him and making him fluff it, McLaren would invariably remark: “There’s some ill-mannered whistling.”  And when a conversion-kick made it between the posts despite being taken from a torturous angle, he’d declare: “It’s high enough, it’s long enough and it’s straight enough!”

 

Aware that in the Borders towns local players who’d made it onto the national team were seen as heroes, he’d often serenade the scorer of a Scottish try with the lines, “And they’ll be dancing in the streets of…” or “And they’ll be drinking his health down in…” – Hawick, Galashiels, Kelso, Melrose, Selkirk, wherever – “…tonight!”  As an honorary Borderer, I’d say they were more likely to be drinking his health than dancing in the streets.

 

McLaren’s manner and delivery were immensely relaxed and comforting, but his early life had been no bed of roses.  As a young World War II serviceman, he had to endure the Battle of Monte Cassino, of which one eyewitness said, “The men were so tired that it was a living death.  They had come from such a depth of weariness that I wondered if they would quite be able to make the return to the lives and thoughts they had known.” McLaren himself described Monte Cassino as a ‘vision of hell on earth.’

 

After the war, he was diagnosed as having tuberculosis, which put a prompt end to any hopes he had of becoming a rugby internationalist.  TB was then considered incurable and he wasn’t expected to survive, but he and four fellow sufferers agreed to be guinea pigs for the trials of a new drug, streptomycin.  Thanks to this treatment he recovered, but three of the four other volunteers died.  It was while he was convalescing that he produced his first sports commentaries – describing table-tennis matches over the hospital radio.

 

McLaren was passionately attached to his hometown and famously said, “A day out of Hawick is a day wasted.”  A few years ago I visited Hawick for the first time since the 1980s and was upset to see how much it’d deteriorated.  Its high street was run-down and riddled with derelict properties – thanks to an economy weakened by the closure of local woolen mills, and also thanks no doubt to the opening of branches of Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s and Lidl, which’d sucked the retailing life out of the place.  My first dismayed thought was: “What would Bill McLaren have said about this?”

 

McLaren’s commentaries were emblematic of an earlier, more innocent age, when rugby was still an amateur sport and because of that it was incredibly accessible – especially if you lived in a rugby-centric place like the Borders, where the guys you saw performing heroic deeds for Scotland on TV on Saturday afternoons existed during weekdays as mortals like everyone else.  As a kid living there, I was delighted when the man from the electricity board who came to our house to check on a power outage was none other than Jim Renwick.  Meanwhile, Scottish fullback Peter Dods was a joiner down the road in Galashiels and my old man, a farmer, was on nodding terms with Scottish flanker John Jeffrey, who farmed in Kelso – Jeffrey’s teammates had nicknamed him ‘the Great White Shark’ but to Bill McLaren he was just ‘the big Kelso farmer’.  And let’s not forget local electrician Roy Laidlaw, whom legend has it had to rewire the public toilets in Jedburgh the Monday morning after the 1984 Scotland team he was part of won the Grand Slam in Paris.

 

Yes, Bill McLaren’s voice evokes a simpler time in rugby, before professionalism, sponsorship, corporatism, razzmatazz and a profit-driven need to win at all costs took over.  But homespun though his persona was, I don’t believe there’s been a sports commentator in the years since who’s come close to matching him.

 

© From rugbyrelics.com