Deathlog 2019: Part 2

 

© BBC

 

Continuing my tribute to folk who inspired me who passed away in 2019…

 

July 2019 was a harsh month as it witnessed the deaths of two of my favourite actors.  The English character actor Freddie Jones, a man who over six decades managed to be a member of David Lynch’s repertory company, a Hammer horror regular, a collaborator with Federico Fellini and Clint Eastwood, a star of bucolic TV soap operas and much more, died on July 9th.  Ten days later saw the passing of the great Dutch star Rutger Hauer, who always managed to have a discomforting, Nietzschean-superman glint in his eyes whether he was appearing in a stone cold classic like Blade Runner (1982) or The Hitcher (1986), or in some hoary old exploitation rubbish, or in his advertisements for Guinness stout.

 

Other notable actors who died in July included, on the 9th, the American performer Rip Torn, whom I’ll always remember as demented coach Patches O’Houlihan in 2004’s Dodgeball, training Vince Vaughan and his team in the titular sport by hurling monkey-wrenches at their crotches; on the 18th, the American actor David Hedison, whose CV included the original The Fly (1958), the TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-68) and the James Bond movies Live and Let Die (1974) and Licence to Kill (1989), in which he became the first-ever actor to play Bond’s CIA buddy Felix Leiter twice; and English actor Jeremy Kemp, who appeared in everything from the early seasons of the seminal BBC TV police series Z Cars (1962-78) to war movies like Operation Crossbow (1965), The Blue Max (1966) and A Bridge Too Far (1977) and to the exuberant Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker comedy Top Secret! (1984).

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

August 5th saw the passing of American novelist Toni Morrison, author of Beloved (1987) and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.  August 16th brought a triple whammy – the deaths of American actor Peter Fonda who, through his work with director Roger Corman and his appearance in Easy Rider (1969) became a 1960s countercultural icon, before he settled down to become a more conventional action-movie hero in the likes of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974) and Race with the Devil (1975); of British-Canadian animator Richard Williams, whose work included Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and the legendary but never-finished epic The Thief and the Cobbler (1993), as well as animated sequences for The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and the Pink Panther movies; and of English actress Anna Quayle, memorably rotten as Baroness Bomburst in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

 

American bass guitarist Larry Taylor, who played with the blues-rock band Canned Heat, died on August 19th; English TV scriptwriter and immensely influential (though unsung) children’s-books author Terrance Dicks died on the 29th; and American TV actress Valerie Harper, Mary Tyler Moore’s co-star in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) and star of its spin-off Rhoda (1974-78), died on the 30th.

 

English playwright Peter Nichols, whose most famous works were probably A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1967) and Privates on Parade (1977) – both of which got capable film versions, Joe Egg directed by Peter Medak in 1972 and Privates directed by Michael Blakemore in 1982 – died on September 7th.  The next day saw the death of English starlet Valerie Van Ost, whose presence enlivened several Carry On movies and who provided Christopher Lee’s aristocratic vampire with his first victim in 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula.  She was also considered as a replacement for Diana Rigg in the stylish TV show The Avengers (1961-69) before Linda Thorsen got the gig.  Rik Ocasek, singer, songwriter and guitarist with new-wave American rock band the Cars, died on September 15th while Larry Wallis, an early member of thunderous heavy metal band Mötorhead, died four days later.

 

© Goodrights / Lionsgate Films

 

Finally, checking out on September 21st was American actor Sid Haig, whose early career involved many collaborations with director Jack Hill in such cherish-able exploitation fare as Spider Baby (1968), Coffey (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) and also more mainstream items like John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), George Lucas’s THX 1138 (1971) and the Bond movie Diamonds are Forever (1971).  Tired of being typecast as a heavy, Haig was ready to give up acting in the 1990s and considered becoming a hypnotherapist.  Cinema’s loss and hypnotherapy’s gain were thwarted by Quentin Tarantino, who lured Haig back to the screen for a role in 1997’s Jackie Brown. Thereafter, Haig kept acting, most notably as the droll, clown-faced Captain Spaulding in the Rob Zombie-directed trilogy of House of 1000 Corpses (2003), The Devil’s Rejects (2005) and 3 From Hell (2019).

 

The first week of October saw two notable departures in the musical world – Kim Shattuck, singer, guitarist and songwriter with American punk band the Muffs, died on the 2nd; and English drummer Ginger Baker, who most famously thumped the skins for the late-1960s power trio Cream but also played with Blind Faith, Fela Kuti, Hawkwind and Public Image Ltd, died four days later.  For a fascinating and at times disturbing profile of Ginger Baker, I’d recommend the 2012 documentary Beware of Mr Baker, which among other things features filmmaker Jay Bulger getting assaulted and having his nose broken by his mega-truculent subject matter.  Between those two deaths, on October 4th, English actor Stephen Moore passed away.  Moore’s voice is surely better known than his face, for he supplied the lugubrious, self-pitying tones of Marvin the Paranoid Android in the 1981 TV adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

 

From pinterest.com

 

Northern Irish poet and novelist Ciaran Carson died on October 6th, while Russian cosmonaut Alexi Leonov, the first human being to carry out a spacewalk, departed this world for good on October 11th.  Leonov was an artist as well as a cosmonaut and he once cheekily pointed out to sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke that a painting he’d done in 1967, showing the sun, earth and moon, bore an uncanny resemblance to an iconic scene in the following year’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Clarke had co-written with Stanley Kubrick.  On the day that Leonov died, so too did American actor Robert Forster.  Like Sid Haig, Forster had been a prolific actor during in the 1970s and 1980s but his career had somewhat entered the doldrums until Quentin Tarantino gave him a role in Jackie Brown.  More recently, Forster appeared in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), meaning he’s yet another member of the Twin Peaks alumni whom we’ve had to say goodbye to in the past few years.  Finally, Scottish journalist Deborah Orr died on October 19th and American film producer Robert Evans, who enjoyed a roll in the late 1960s and early 1970s with such classics as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Godfather (1972) and Chinatown (1974), died on October 26th.

 

Aged a venerable 103, the formidable French resistance fighter Yvette Lundy passed away on November 3rd.  The next day saw the death of Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne who, whether you loved him or hated him – I seem to remember describing him on this blog as a ‘twinkly-eyed shit-stirrer’ – was surely the most influential figure in Irish TV history and, through that, a major influence on the Irish psyche generally since the 1960s.  The frontman with a favourite 1980s folk-rock band of mine, John Mann of the Canadian outfit Spirit of the West, died on November 20th.   Check out Spirit of the West’s Hounds That Wait Outside Your Door for a more damning account of the Maggie Thatcher era than any British folk band managed to offer at the time.  And the American illustrator Gahan Wilson, creator of countless delightfully ghoulish cartoons, died a day later.

 

The brainy Australian (but British-based) polymath Clive James – a broadcaster, critic, novelist, poet and memoirist – died on the 24th.  James’s death wasn’t announced until three days later, which coincided with the death of Jonathan Miller, a brainy English polymath – a medical doctor, humourist, writer, TV presenter and director of film, stage and opera.  The simultaneous news of James’s and Miller’s deaths prompted many British people to quip on social media that the country’s collective IQ level had just dropped by a few dozen points.  And guess what?  Three weeks later, Boris Johnson got re-elected as British prime minister.

 

© United Artists

 

This blog-entry has already mentioned Peter Fonda, Rutger Hauer and Sid Haig.  On November 20th died an American actor who’d performed memorably with all three of them.  Michael J. Pollard appeared with Fonda in the Roger Corman-directed Hell’s Angels epic The Wild Angels (1966), with Hauer in Tony Maylam’s barking-mad monster movie Split Second (1992) and with Haig in the bloody but funny prologue to Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses.   However, Pollard will be most remembered for playing C.W. Moss, the spaced-out gas-stand attendant who ends up joining the gang of the titular bank robbers in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde.  I prefer him, though, in a movie he made two years later, Hannibal Brooks.  In that, Pollard and Oliver Reed play a pair of escaped prisoners of war in Nazi Germany / Austria who intend to do very different things with their freedom – the psychotic Pollard wants to kill as many Germans as possible, while the peace-loving Reed just wants to lead an elephant he’s befriended in the bombed Munich Zoo to safety.  With Pollard looking baby-faced and innocent and Reed being, well, Reed, it’s a surprise their roles weren’t reversed.

 

The final month of 2019 was another bad one for the acting profession.  The American character actors René Auberjonois – who among many notable performances played Father Mulcahy in the original, Robert Altman-directed M*A*S*H* (1970) – and Daniel Aiello died on the 8th and 12th respectively.  The Danish-French actress Anna Karina, frequently considered a ‘muse’ for Jean-Luc Goddard, died on the 14th.  English actor Nicky Henson died on the 15th.  Though the self-deprecating Henson liked to joke that the only information on his tombstone would be that he once appeared in an episode of John Cleese’s sitcom Fawlty Towers (1975-1979), I liked him for his performances in two British folk-horror movies, the gruelling Witchfinder General (1968) and the lovably laughable Psychomania (1971).  Claudia Augur, who played Domino in the 1965 James Bond movie Thunderball and was one of at least three Bond girls to pass away in 2019, died on the 18th.  And Sue Lyon, who played the pubescent moppet Dolores Haze, subject of the pervy lusts of Humbert Humbert (James Mason) and Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), in the 1962 Stanley Kubrick-directed adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, died on the 26th.

 

© Fontana

 

In other fields, Barrie Keeffe, scriptwriter of Britain’s best-ever gangster movie The Long Good Friday (1980), departed on December 10th; Roy Loney, co-founder of Californian garage-rock band the Flamin’ Groovies – the Groovies’ Slow Death is a particularly epic song to shake a leg to – died on the 13th; and American-born Anglo-Scots artist and illustrator Tom Adams died on the 17th.  The covers that Adams created during the 1960s and 1970s for a string of Agatha Christie novels, published in paperback by Fontana, are now considered iconic.  And December 29th saw the demise of Neil Innes, the doyen of British comic singer-songwriters, the deviser with Eric Idle of spoof-Beatles band the Rutles, and the unofficial ‘seventh’ member of the Monty Python team.  “I’ve suffered for my music,” Innes once told an audience.  “Now it’s your turn.”

 

Finally, the beginning and end of December brought sad news for the literary scenes of two countries I’ve had long associations with, Sri Lanka and Scotland.  On December 2nd, Sri Lankan novelist, poet and journalist Carl Muller passed away.  Muller’s engrossing and bawdy novel The Jam Fruit Tree was joint winner of Sri Lanka’s first-ever Gratiaen Literary Prize (founded by Michael Ondaatje) in 1993 and he was the first of his countrymen and countrywomen to have books published overseas.  And December 29th saw the death of Glaswegian author – and artist, playwright, poet, polemicist and academic – Alasdair Gray.  He was an important influence on me and I’ll be writing more about him on this blog soon.

 

From pinterest.com

 

Deathlog 2019: Part 1

 

© BBC

 

As 2019 draws to a close, here’s a name-check of some literary, cinematic, musical, artistic and other inspirations of mine who passed away during the year.

 

Musicians who died in January 2019 included American blues singer and pianist Willie Murphy (of Willie and the Bees), who passed away on the 12th; and American punk rock bassist Lorna Doom who departed four days later.  Doom had played with the raucous band The Germs, whose very first gig in 1976 set the scene for their subsequent performances: “We made noise for five minutes,” recalled guitarist Pat Smear, “until they threw us off.”  Meanwhile, in the world of letters, January 24th saw the death of Scottish journalist Hugh McIlvanney, the only sports-writer ever named Journalist of the Year in the British Press Awards.

 

January’s death toll was particularly high in the acting world.  English actor Del Henney, who’d appeared in gritty British thrillers like Villain and Straw Dogs (both 1971), died on the 14th.  Sonorous Welsh actor Windsor Davies, who’ll be best remembered as the tyrannical and occasionally sarcastic (“Oh dear, how sad, never mind”) Sergeant Major Williams in the BBC’s wartime sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974-81), died on the 17th.  English actress Sylvia Kay, who played the enigmatic Janette Hynes in the greatest Australian movie ever, Wake in Fright (1971), died on the 18th.  And the much-loved American character actor Dick Miller, first a regular in the movies of Roger Corman and then in those of Corman’s numerous proteges like Joe Dante, Jonathan Kaplan and Alan Arkrush, died on the 30th.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists   

 

Another slew of performers passed away in February.  English actor Clive Swift, best-known for his BBC TV sitcom work but whose movie credits include Frenzy, Death Line (both 1972) and Excalibur (1981) died on the 1st, while American actress Julie Adams, object of the scaly affections of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) died two days later.  February 7th saw the departure of English acting icon Albert Finney.  Back in America, action-movie and TV star Jan-Michael Vincent, who appeared in 1972’s The Mechanic, 1977’s Damnation Alley, 1978’s Hooper and many more, died on the 10th.  And Katherine Helmond, the wonderfully out-of-it Jessica Tate in the US TV soap-opera spoof Soap (1977-81), and also a supporting player in the Terry Gilliam movies The Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1983), passed away on the 23rd.

 

Much-admired German actor Bruno Ganz, who appeared in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and who’d just completed Lars Von Triers’ amusingly icky and provocative The House That Jack Built (2018), died on February 15th.  A month later, on March 13th, another Nosferatu-related death occurred when artist David Palladini, the artist who’d designed the movie’s gorgeously Art Nouveau poster, passed away too.

 

Musical deaths in February included those of Monkee Peter Tork on the 21st; Mark Hollis, singer-songwriter and co-founder of the respected synth / art-pop bank Talk Talk, on the 25th; and Andy Anderson, drummer from 1983 to 1986 on five albums by the Cure, on the 26th.

 

March saw another slew of deaths in the musical world, with the Prodigy’s memorably hissing, sneering singer and dancer Keith Flint dying on the 4th; surf-guitar maestro Dick Dale on the 16th;  and on the 17th, Yuya Uchida, singer with the psychedelic 1970s Japanese outfit Flower Travellin’ Band and also an actor in in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983).  Finally, American-born, British-based singer-songwriter and composer Scott Walker, who achieved success both as a solo artist and as a member of the Walker Brothers, died on the 22nd.

 

© Laurel Entertainment Inc

 

Among the actors who died in March was American Joseph Pilato, on the 24th.  Pilato played the fascistic and repellent Captain Rhodes in George A. Romero’s 1986 horror film Day of the Dead and the scene where he finally gets his come-uppance is for me the most satisfying death in horror-movie history.  (“Choke on ’em!” he yells as some hungry zombies munch on his vitals.)  Canadian actor Shane Rimmer, long-term resident of the UK, voice-actor for Gerry Anderson’s puppet TV shows and for many years the British film industry’s go-to guy if a level-headed North American was needed in a supporting role, died on March 29th.  Rimmer’s credits included a few James Bond movies and, by a sad coincidence, English actress Tania Mallet, who played the ill-fated Tilly Masterton in Goldfinger (1964) died the following day, while Serbian actress Nadja Regin, who’d appeared in both Goldfinger and From Russia with Love (1963) died a week later on April 6th.

 

Away from the acting fraternity, the fascinating W.H. Pugmire died on March 26th.  The Seattle-based Pugmire was a self-styled ‘punk rock queen and street transvestite’ who bore a fleeting resemblance to Boy George, and a distinguished author of H.P. Lovecraft-style horror fiction, and someone who’d spent the early 1970s doing the thankless job of being a Mormon missionary in Northern Ireland.

 

And now a few words about filmmaker Larry Cohen, who died on March 23rd and who was responsible for directing such ramshackle but thematically fascinating exploitation movies as It’s Alive! (1974), God Told Me To (1976) and Q: The Winged Serpent (1982) and scripting equally diverting items like Uncle Sam (1996) and Phone Booth (2002).  Even if the execution of those films never matched the originality of the ideas behind them, there was much to admire in Cohen’s oeuvre, especially in his love of improvisation.  When, for example, he and his crew nipped up to the top of New York’s Chrysler building without permission during the making of Q, filmed a gun battle there and unwittingly started pandemonium on the streets around the building because people thought a terrorist attack was in progress, Cohen promptly ordered his cameraman to film the fleeing pedestrians below as he thought they might provide valuable bonus footage.

 

© Hat Trick Productions

 

Finally, Irish actor Pat Laffan died on March 14th.  Laffan was best remembered for playing lecherous milkman (“There are some very hairy babies on Craggy Island and I think you are the hairy baby-maker!”) and vengeful psychopath Pat Mustard on TV’s Father Ted (1995-98).  His death, alas, wasn’t the only Ted-related one in 2019 for Brendan Grace, who played the drums-and-bass-loving priest Father Fintan Stack in another episode of the show, died on July 11th.

 

April saw the deaths of American fantasy / sci-fi writers Vonda N. McIntyre on the 1st and Gene Wolfe on the 14th; and, on the 18th, of British author and playwright John Bowen, probably best-known for his script for the BBC’s spooky folk-horror TV play Robin Redbreast (1970).  French actor Jean-Pierre Marielle – whom I’ll always remember for his portrayal of Arrosio, the gloriously eccentric but hapless and doomed private eye in Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) – died on the 24th.  British director John Llewellyn Moxley, responsible for the atmospheric chiller City of the Dead (1960), died on the 29th, while Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton died a day earlier.

 

For me, however, the saddest departure in April was that of seven-foot, three-inch English actor Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca – Han Solo’s best pal and a ‘walking carpet’ according to Princess Leia – in five Star Wars movies.  I love the fact that Mayhew was working as a porter at Mayday Hospital in Croydon when he was cast as Chewie in the original Star Wars (1977) and, despite that film becoming the highest-grossing one of all time, he continued to work there as a porter during the periods between The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983).

 

From collectors.com

 

May 9th saw the death of English comedian Freddie Starr, whose finest moment for my money was when he appeared in Michael Apted’s 1977 crime thriller The Squeeze.  Musician Jake Black, aka the Very Reverend Wayne D. Love of the London blues / country / techno / electronica / indie band Alabama 3, died on May 21st, while the following day saw the death of English children’s author (most notably, 1968’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea) Judith Kerr.  American horror writer Dennis Etchison died on the 28th, and the final day of May saw the passing of psychedelic singer-songwriter and musician Roky Erickson, of the 13th Floor Elevators and Roky Erickson and the Aliens.

 

Meanwhile, May 11th witnessed the loss of yet another cast-member of Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017), possibly the finest TV show ever.  At least the late Peggy Lipton, who played Norma Jennings, owner of the Double R Diner, got to see her character have a happy ending in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) when Norma finally got together with love of her life Ed Hurley (Everett McGill).  Which is more than could be said for poor old Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), apparently left trapped forever in a nightmarish parallel-universe limbo.

 

Yet more actors shuffled off the mortal coil in June: American actress Sylvia Miles, wonderfully pathetic in 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, on the 12th; frequently villainous American character actor Billy Drago on the 24th; and British actor Bryan Marshall, who was most memorably cast in 1980’s gangster epic The Long Good Friday, on the 25th.   The French actress Edith Scob, who in her youth made a stir playing the recipient of countless failed face transplants in Georges Franju’s still disturbing horror masterpiece Les Yeux sans Visage (1960), and who also made a late-career appearance in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012), died on the 26th.  And I was particularly sad to hear of the death of British TV actor Paul Darrow on June 3rd.  For people of a certain age, Darrow was the biggest hard-ass in the universe, i.e. Avon, anti-hero of the BBC’s surprisingly downbeat sci-fi series Blake’s 7 (1978-81).

 

Italian movie director Franco Zeffirelli, best known for adapting Shakespeare to the screen in elegant films like Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Hamlet (1990), which generations of British kids then had to watch at school as part of their English syllabus, died on June 15th.  Spanish director Narciso Ibanez Serrador, responsible for 1976’s sinister Who Can Kill a Child? died on the 7th.  And finally, New Orleans’ Dr John, the legendary bluesy, funky, boogie-woogie-ing singer and pianist, passed away on the 6th.  I was lucky enough to see Dr John perform at the Fleadh festival in London’s Finsbury Park in 1998.  Truly, he was the only man in the world who could look cool wearing a pair of hush puppies.

 

From wikipedia.org / © Derek Bridges

 

To be continued.

 

Festive Jaffna

 

 

“Someone’s kidnapped the Baby Jesus!”

So exclaimed my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, on December 23rd when we checked into a hotel in Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s northernmost city, and took a peek into the Christmas Nativity scene that had a prominent position in the hotel lobby.  And yes, there was a space in the scene’s central area that is traditionally occupied by the Holy Infant.  My better half also observed that only two Wise Men were present.  Could the missing third Wise Man have kidnapped little Jesus?

 

 

We’d decided to spend our Christmas break in Jaffna because, firstly, it seemed like something different to do at this time of year, and secondly, we thought that the festive season might be a little less mad there.  The second of those reasons proved to be wishful thinking.  For one thing, Jaffna is the main city for Sri Lanka’s Tamil community, many of whom are Christians, and obviously people there were going to make a big thing of Christmas.  Besides, as I have discovered during my travels over the years, trying to escape Christmas is a futile exercise.  Everyone, everywhere, loves Christmas.  (Even when I lived in North Korea, my local store had a Christmas tree standing in its forecourt – for 365 days of the year.)

 

Perhaps Jaffna’s most striking – literally striking – way of marking Christmas this year was to deck out one of its landmarks, the Clock Tower, in multiple strings of coloured lights, so that at night it resembled a giant lightsabre.  I should say that the Clock Tower does not tilt like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, as it seems to do in the following picture.  Its apparent tilting was caused by the clumsy angle at which I held my camera, possibly due to my having imbibed a couple of beers by that point in the evening.

 

 

Close to the Clock Tower is the Jetwing Hotel, in whose rooftop bar we spent Christmas Eve.  It was there that we encountered Santa Claus.  He was, it has to be said, a pretty disturbing-looking Santa Claus, equipped with not only a fake woolly beard but also a mask that might have been worn by a serial killer in a 1980s slasher movie.  In fact, he looked like the sort of Santa who should be popping out of the chimney at you at Halloween, not at Christmas.

 

 

Earlier on Christmas Eve, on Jaffna’s Main Street, we’d witnessed a scene that seemed to encapsulate Christmas in Sri Lanka more than any other scene could – a bunch of Sri Lankan blokes loading Christmas trees onto the roof of a tuk-tuk.

 

 

On Christmas Day, as an alternative to the normal practices of present-giving, festive-TV-watching and binge-eating and drinking, we decided to hire a tuk-tuk and go on a tour of the islands just off the Jaffna peninsula, which are linked by causeways.  We discovered on the island of Kayts what we thought were the nicest Christmas tree and Nativity scene of the season – not because they were particularly lavish or spectacular, but because they fitted in snugly amid their surroundings, the attractive interior of St James Church at Kayts town.  Our elderly edition of the Rough Guide to Sri Lanka had warned us that the church’s “façade and exterior walls survive, but the roof is gone and there’s nothing inside but wooden scaffolding, giving the entire structure the look of an elaborate film prop.”  Happily, since that edition was published, the church has been restored and is now a functioning place of worship again.

 

 

We discovered that Christmas had even made it to Punkudutivu, the furthest out of the causeway-linked islands, as this illustrated sheet draped down the front of a house-front shows.  I could almost imagine that Punkudutivu got its name from the fact that travelling on its ultra-bumpy roads is a pretty punk-rock thing to do – so using a flying sleigh is probably the most comfortable way to visit the place.

 

 

Finally, on the morning of December 25th, we noticed that – hallelujah! – the Baby Jesus had suddenly materialised in the middle of our hotel’s Nativity scene.  At the same time we realised that, since he was born on Christmas Day, he obviously wasn’t going to be present in the stable on the 23rd or the 24th.  There was still no sign of that third Wise Man, though.  Maybe he’d started on the eggnog a few days early.

 

 

A merry Mountfield Christmas

 

© Aphelion Magazine

 

The last short story I had published appeared a few days before Halloween.  I’m pleased to report that a new story of mine has just appeared in print too and has done so in time for the next big event on the festive calendar, Christmas.

 

This is appropriate since the story, called The Lights and attributed to my pseudonym Jim Mountfield, takes place at Christmas.  However, as Jim Mountfield is the name that I put on my horror stories, it won’t surprise you to hear that this is a dark take on Christmas.  In fact, The Lights owes as much to A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Wicker Man (1973) and the gothic (and often macabre) fiction of Angela Carter as it does to, say, Bing Crosby crooning about treetops glistening and children listening to sleigh-bells in White Christmas (1954).

 

Incidentally, The Lights is set in a small town in the Scottish Borders, the region where I grew up, and involves a character becoming obsessed with an idealised, fantasy version of Christmas that increasingly takes root in his imagination – in contrast to the modest, mundane, small-town Christmas that’s the reality around him.  Ironically, the story appeared in print just as this news report, about Christmas getting a little more modest and mundane in the Scottish Borders, surfaced on the BBC news website.  The Borders’ council, apparently, has admitted that the Christmas trees it provides for the region’s high streets have ‘shrunk by a third compared to previous years’.

 

The Lights is featured in the December 2019 / January 2020 double issue of the webzine Aphelion and can be found here.  During the reformatting process from the original document to the website, I’ve noticed, the spaces around the dashes in the text have disappeared, making them look like hyphens (-) rather than proper dashes ( – ).  However, my partner has read the story and assured me that this didn’t make any difference to her comprehension and enjoyment of it.

 

As an extra bonus, another short story of mine that was published in Aphelion earlier this year, Closing Time at the Speckled Wolf – attributed the pen-name Rab Foster, which I use for my fantasy fiction – has been picked by the webzine’s editors as one of 2019’s best.  It appears again in the same issue as The Lights and can be accessed here.

 

A merry metal Christmas

 

 

After events last week, I definitely needed cheering up by the time the weekend arrived.  Happily, I was duly cheered up by the holding of Colombo Open Air 2019.  This was a heavy metal concert featuring mainly Sri Lankan bands held on December 14th at the premises of the quaintly named Otter Aquatic Club – actually a private club with swimming and other sports facilities – just off Bauddhaloka Mawatha in Colombo 7.

 

This was the first time I’d been to this venue and I much prefered it to Shalika Hall on Park Road in Colombo 5, which had hosted most of the previous live music concerts I’d attended in the city.  (The hall doesn’t have sidewalls, creating weird acoustics because much of the sound escapes out into the night, and causing discomfort because a lot of mosquitos get in.)  The Otter Aquatic Club provided a pleasant open courtyard with a covered stage for the bands and some other roofed-over spaces, including a makeshift bar, where the audience could shelter if it started to rain.  Fortunately, despite Sri Lanka being gripped at the moment by a protracted and seemingly interminable rainy season, the only rain that fell tonight did so during an interval between two of the sets.  Meanwhile, the Club evidently makes efforts to keep its premises mosquito-free because I didn’t see (or feel) one of the bity wee bastards all night.

 

The concert kicked off in the late afternoon with a competition whereby some less established / up-and-coming bands competed for the prize of a place in the line-up at the Indian heavy metal festival Bangalore Open Air.  Due to other commitments, however, I was only able to get there at seven o’clock, with the first in a series of established bands due to take the stage at 7.20.  It was here that I experienced the only bum-note of the night, because it transpired that the schedule advertised on Facebook differed from the schedule actually being followed, and the first of those established bands, Mass Damnation, had already performed their set and left the stage.  (At least I’ve seen Mass Damnation before, at Shalika Hall.)  What, things not following the official schedule?  That’s never happened before in Sri Lanka…

 

Oh well.  I still had three Sri Lankan bands to see, plus the concert’s headliners, Kryptos, a band from Bangalore, which seems to be the happening place for heavy metal in India these days.  (According to this Guardian article, Bangalore has Iron Maiden to thank for that.)  First on after my arrival were Paranoid Earthling, described by their Wikipedia entry as a ‘grunge, experimental, psychedelic, stoner rock, heavy metal’ band from Kandy.  One of their assets is their vocalist Mirshad Buckman, who always struck me as looking a little like the late, great Ronnie James Dio and sounding a little like the late, great Bon Scott; and who, with his between-song tirades about the state of things, is surely the grumpiest man in Sri Lankan heavy metal.  I was just glad that tonight when Buckman was railing against the media and the low standards of his country’s journalists that he didn’t glance behind him – otherwise, he’d have seen a screen at the back of the stage, which was advertising the concert’s sponsors, flashing the logo of Ceylon Today.

 

Next up were comparative old-timers – founded in 1995 – Whirlwind, who provide a denser and more mannered sound.  Due to ongoing scheduling issues, they hadn’t had time to do a proper soundcheck beforehand and were forced to give ongoing instructions to the audio engineer between songs.  I have to say I didn’t think this affected the quality of their music, which I found intense, immersive and even hypnotic at times.

 

 

After Whirlwind, by way of contrast, came death / black metal outfit Genocide Shrines.  Clad in ski-masks and gimp-masks, the Shrines present a thunderous assault of noise that, according to the Metal Archives website, is inspired by themes of ‘tantra / spiritual warfare’, ‘death’ and ‘arrack’.  So at that point, to get trantrically attuned to them, I bought a big glass of arrack at the bar.

 

The evening’s final hour was given over to Indian guests Kryptos.  It doesn’t surprise me that their Wikipedia entry says they are greatly influenced by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  (They’ve even supported Iron Maiden, which must have been a dream come true for them.)  This is because while they struck their opening chords, I immediately thought: “Judas Priest!”  And every song that started up thereafter sounded like it was about to turn into Breaking the Law.  I say that in an absolutely complimentary way, incidentally.

 

At the end of the night, with a smile restored to my face, and with my body filled again with good cheer appropriate to the season, I took my leave of Colombo Open Air 2019.  Thank you, Paranoid Earthling, Whirlwind, Genocide Shrines and all the other great guys (and ladies) of the Sri Lankan heavy metal scene.  And a Merry Christmas to you all.

 

 

Big bumbler is watching you

 

© Jersey Evening Post

 

Last week I was doing a job in southern Colombo, which entailed making a journey by taxi for 45 minutes either way in the city’s dense, slow-moving morning and evening traffic.  Having to spend an hour and a half in the back of a taxi each day meant I had time to do some reading.  I finished reading one book on Thursday and on Friday morning I started a new one, Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn (1936).  It began:

 

It was a cold grey day in late November.  The weather had changed overnight, when a hacking wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o’clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist.  It would be dark by four.”

 

If you changed ‘late November’ to ‘mid-December’, the above paragraph would serve as a good metaphor for the state of my soul that Friday morning.  It too was cold, grey, hacking, mizzling, pallid, wintry and dark.  For I had peeked at the BBC’s news website just before leaving my apartment and seen that the exit polls for the British general election, held the day before, were predicting a massive victory for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party,

 

However, as the final results came through and confirmed the predictions of the polls, I found myself thinking not of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn but of a novel published 13 years later: George Orwell’s 1984.

 

I recalled the lies, lies and more lies that’d poured, lyingly, from the lying mouth of lying liar Boris Johnson – lies about ‘getting Brexit done’ in a matter of weeks when the negotiations were likely to last for years, lies about his Brexit deal not necessitating a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom when it very obviously would, lies about providing 50,000 more nurses, 6000 more doctors and 20,000 more police officers without raising any taxes.  And yet a great swathe of the British voting public had swallowed his baloney.  I was reminded of the line in 1984 that went: “For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four?  Or that the force of gravity works?  Or that the past is unchangeable?  If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?

 

Then there’s the whole contradiction of having a creature like Johnson as prime minister – an office you’d think would require some minimum thresholds of wisdom, gravitas and decency.  There’s nothing in Johnson’s life story that suggests he crosses any of those thresholds.  Not his Droog-like behaviour with the notorious Bullingdon Club at Oxford University.  Not his promise to supply his old school chum (and future convict) Darius Guppy with the home address of journalist Stuart Collier so that Guppy could have Collier beaten up.  Not his journalistic career at the Times, which ended when he was discovered to have fabricated a quote.  Not the abuse he’s heaped on blacks, Muslims, homosexuals and unmarried mothers in the opinion pieces he’s written for the Spectator and Daily Telegraph – insulting single mothers is a bit rich of him, considering he may have left a few single mums behind in his own gallivanting, shag-happy wake.  Not his uselessness as Foreign Secretary, which resulted in the continued incarceration of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliff in Iran.  Not his chumminess with the far-right American master-strategist and horror-show Steve Bannon.

 

Yet despite the mass of evidence to the contrary, Johnson managed to convince a sufficient number of British people that he was prime ministerial material.  As 1984 muses:  “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting them.”  Or more bluntly: “Ignorance is strength.”

 

Needless to say, it did Johnson’s cause no harm that his main opponent in this election was the somnolent Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.  I didn’t have any beef with Corbyn’s social policies but he promoted them with as much passion and charisma as a plank of wood.  He also came hideously unstuck with the main issue of the election, Brexit.  His party’s Brexit policies were nebulous and obviously designed to let Labour fence-sit and avoid tough questions, so that they wouldn’t alienate potential voters on either side of the argument.  As it turned out, Brexiteers voted for the Tories and Remainers voted for the Liberal Democrats (who were then crucified by Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system), leaving Labour with the worst of both worlds.  Corbyn’s crapness at addressing serious charges of antisemitism made against members and sections of his party worsened the situation even more.

 

When the scale of their defeat dawned on them, Corbyn and his lieutenants were quick to blame the unremittingly hostile coverage they’d received in Britain’s mainstream media.  There’s no doubt that the majority of the newspapers – owned largely by billionaires like Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay Brothers and the 4th Viscount Rothermere, men whose ambition in life is to pay as little tax as possible or no tax at all – are excretable right-wing rags that were never going to give Corbyn a fair hearing.  Actually, if Corbyn was responsible for a tenth of the misdemeanours that Johnson’s responsible for, you would have heard the outraged screams of the Telegraph, Daily Mail and Daily Express from the moon.  But that’s still not an excuse.  After all, the Scottish National Party have next to zero support among the newspapers on sale in Scotland, yet that didn’t stop them getting excellent results on Friday.

 

It says something about Corbyn’s inadequacy that he failed to score against Johnson even though Johnson ran an election campaign so terrible it made that of his predecessor in 2017, Theresa May, look accomplished.  He chickened out of being interviewed by the BBC’s bear-like inquisitor-in-chief Andrew Neil, although all the other party leaders submitted themselves to grillings from Neil.  He actually hid in a giant refrigerator to avoid questions from Piers Morgan.  (Admittedly, if Piers Morgan tried to talk to me, I’d probably run away and hide in a fridge too, but then I’m not campaigning to become prime minister.)  He grabbed a mobile phone from a journalist and pocketed it so that the journalist couldn’t show him a photo of a four-year-old boy forced to sleep on a hospital floor.  And whenever he did muster the courage to do interviews, he just rambled incoherently and incontinently.  His performance was dire.

 

Predictably, a few days before the vote, with the polls suggesting that his lead over Labour might be shrinking, Johnson went into panic mode and started bleating about EU nationals living in Britain who treated it “as though it’s basically part of their own country” – unashamed anti-immigrant dog-whistling, intended to get the racist low-life among the population out voting for him on the day.  And it’s no surprise either that far-right midget Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, or ‘Tommy Robinson’ as he likes to call himself, announced after the election that he’d joined the Conservatives.

 

So that’s it.  A man who’s crafted an image of himself as a harmless, bumbling idiot but, underneath the slapstick, is as devoid of moral character and as nasty a piece of work as Donald Trump, now has the power to do whatever he wants with Britain for the next five years.  Brexit is definitely happening.  The framework of EU regulations that once ensured things like wage-levels, health and safety and the environment got some consideration will soon be swept away.  Boris Johnson and his right-wing cadre will proceed with their disaster-capitalism project, which is to turn Britain into a deregulated, lowest-common-denominator Airstrip One – and Sweatshop Two, and Tax Haven Three.

 

To return to 1984 and paraphrase George Orwell: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a clown-shoe stamping on a human face – forever.”

 

From wikipedia.org

 

Boldly going where no chap has gone before

 

© Voyager / Harper Collins Publishers

 

The Sentinel is a collection of nine short stories written between 1945 and 1980 by legendary science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, perhaps most famous for his collaboration with filmmaker Stanley Kubrick that resulted in the movie and book versions of 2001: A Space Odyssey (both 1968).  Indeed the collection’s title story, which was first published in 1951, contains some of the same elements and themes as 2001 and is seen as its forerunner.

 

As you might expect from a science fiction writer like Clarke, The Sentinel treats its readers to descriptions of weird and wonderful alien lifeforms.  In the first and oldest story, Rescue Party, there’s a creature called T’sinadree, who ‘normally employed twelve legs and could use twenty when he was in a hurry, though no one had ever seen him perform this feat.’  There are vast jellyfish-like organisms, ‘more than a mile long’ with ‘scores of dangling tentacles’, floating in the atmosphere of Jupiter in A Meeting with Medusa, while The Songs of Distant Earth offers an underwater species called the Shining Ones, ‘giant squidlike creatures who communicate in the total darkness of the abyss by beautiful displays of multicoloured luminescence.’

 

However, it’s on page 183 of the collection, halfway through a story called Jupiter V, that we meet the strangest and most unexpected lifeform of all.  A woman.

 

Admittedly, the preceding stories had contained occasional, faint but tantalising hints that, somewhere in Clarke’s universe, women might exist.  In Breaking Strain, at a time of crisis, a crewman on board a spaceship reflects briefly about his ‘wife… of whom he was moderately fond’, presumably back home on earth.  In The Sentinel, a geologist inside a vehicle trundling across the moon’s surface describes himself being in the vehicle’s galley ‘by the frying pan waiting, like any terrestrial housewife, for the sausages to brown.’

 

But in Jupiter V, a tale of two rival expeditions engaged in a battle of wits over one of the moons orbiting the solar system’s biggest planet, which has turned out to be a giant spherical spacecraft laden with alien artefacts, Clarke holds back no more.  He actually shows a real, in-the-flesh woman.  She’s called Marianne Mitchell and, while the male characters in the story are scientists, space pilots and, in one case, a photographer commissioned to take pictures of the solar system by Life magazine, she has a less glamorous job: she’s a secretary.  But at least the story’s narrator credits her with having brains.  “I could tell that Marianne was a very intelligent woman,” he remarks.  “It was quite remarkable the way she saw my point of view… in everything I showed her.”  I’d like to think that was Clarke poking ironic fun at his narrator’s unthinking male chauvinism here but, to be honest, I’m not sure.  Also, the narrator expresses frustration that he has to show the dishy Marianne around the airless alien spacecraft while both of them are space-suited up.  “A space-suit is the most perfect chaperone ever devised, confound it.”

 

After this shockingly upfront description of womankind in Jupiter V, the creatures disappear from view again in Clarke’s subsequent stories.  Refugee has a humorous reference to a spaceman’s ‘plump girlfriend’: “He had never quite lived down a blind date on Mars which had given him a completely unwarranted reputation for preferring statuesque blondes.”  In A Meeting with Medusa, a woman’s voice from Mission Control is heard on the hero’s radio for a little while.  It’s not until the final story, A Song of Distant Earth, that a woman plays a prominent role in the plot and isn’t the butt of jokes, but A Song is only six pages long and is actually a synopsis of a never-realised follow-up movie to 2001 that Clarke sketched out for Kubrick.  It feels like a postscript to the collection rather than a story in its own right.

 

So, my first reaction to The Sentinel was ‘Wow!’ – and not ‘Wow!’ in a good way.  It’s a startling reminder of how traditional science fiction, back in the days when Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein were known as ‘the Big Three’, was a blatant, unabashed boys’ club.  As the award-winning writer N.K. Jemisin noted in a recent article, “Fifty years ago in science fiction… Nobody gave a damn about race or gender or any of these other identities.  Everyone was a white guy, and if you wrote a woman, she was a white guy with tits.”  And while female writers have won the Hugo Award for the year’s best sci-fi novel six times in the last decade, there are still dark corners of the sci-fi universe today inhabited by embittered male writers and fans who remain in a huff about girls barging uninvited into their genre and insisting on playing with their toys and taking all the fun out of it for them.

 

However, having got over the fact that Clarke fails to acknowledge the existence of half the human race in these stories, I have to admit I found most of The Sentinel extremely enjoyable.  Breaking Strain, about a spaceship losing its supply of oxygen, starts off as a bog-standard nuts-and-bolts science fiction tale but, while the air leaks out of the ship and the two men on board grow increasingly desperate, we’re treated to some unexpected character development.  Similarly, The Wind from the Sun, while ostensibly about a yacht race from the earth to the moon, is a meditation about aging and achievement that’s as character-driven as the sails of the futuristic yachts in it are solar-driven.

 

A Meeting with Medusa tells the story of an explorer entering the upper atmosphere of Jupiter and encountering a weird airborne ecosystem composed of giant creatures.  By itself, A Meeting is phantasmagorically entertaining – it reminds me of the 1913 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story The Horror of the Heights, which takes place in ‘the jungles of the upper air’ – but Clarke also cannily builds in a twist-ending that gives the story a new perspective.

 

And the title story is rather wonderful.  Like 2001, it features a mysterious alien transmitter on the moon that informs its distant, unseen creators when humanity arrives and interferes with it.  In other words, it lets them know that a technologically advanced civilisation has now evolved on earth.  The Sentinel conveys in just 11 pages both a sense of cosmic wonder and a sense of niggling trepidation.  As its narrator muses at the end: “…they must be very, very old, and the old are often insanely jealous of the young…  If you will pardon so commonplace a simile, we have set off the fire alarm and have nothing to do but wait…  I do not think we will have to wait for long.”

 

By the way, having recently waded through a few stories by other writers from the supposed Golden Age of Science Fiction, such as John W. Campbell’s practically unreadable 1938 novella Who Goes There?, I should also compliment Clarke on his prose.  Unlike that of many of his contemporaries, it’s sinewy and unshowy, never gets overheated and never gets in the way of the story it’s telling.

 

Even the story that for me is the worst one in the collection is entertaining in a fashion.  Refugee features a character who, Clarke hints in his introduction to it, was inspired by Prince Charles – ouch!.  (“Captain Saunders, who came from Dallas and had no intention of being impressed by any prince, found himself unexpectedly moved by the wide, sad eyes.  They were eyes that had seen too many receptions and parades, that had had to watch countless totally uninteresting things, that had never been allowed to stray far from the carefully planned official routes.”)  It’s also set in a futuristic Britain that’s managed somehow to strike a balance between human technological and social progress on one hand and ritual and tradition on the other.  This shows a rather affecting naivete on Clarke’s part and is amusing when you compare his starry-eyed version of 21st century Britain with the sorry place it’s really become in 2019.  For example: “The London Underground was still, after a century and a half, the best transport system in the world…”

 

Well, Arthur, that’s one prediction you certainly didn’t get right.

 

From wikipedia.org

 

Dambulla Caves

 

 

As with several other famous tourist attractions in Sri Lanka, the advice we’d received regarding the Badulla Caves Temple had been “Go early.”  We duly got up at the crack of dawn and by seven o’clock had arrived at the ticket office below the site.  In fact, the office’s window was still shuttered, and an old fellow had to shuffle out of an adjoining building to attend to us.  Then we were directed upwards, for there were steps to climb.

 

 

Even if we hadn’t been able to enter the temple, which dates back to the first century BC and is recognised as the biggest and most impressive cave-temple complex on the island, I think it would have been worth going there just for the ascent up the steps.  Filtering between the branches and fronds of the trees growing on the lower slopes, the hazy, dreamy morning light gave the stone staircases and the sections of pathway between them an enchanted look.  Later, when we emerged above most of the trees, we had a gorgeous view.  The land below was carpeted in now-bright and sun-drenched treetops, which parted close by to reveal long clay-tiled rooftops, while a high beehive-shaped mountain rose up across the way.

 

 

During our ascent we encountered monkeys.  People who’d put comments about Dambulla Caves on Trip Advisor had warned about those monkeys, portraying them as brigands hellbent on ambushing and robbing visitors.  But we waded through a squad of them and were treated with indifference.  No doubt it helped that we weren’t carrying any food – which according to Trip Advisor is the thing they’re determined to steal.  At one point, three monkeys became visible sitting on the steps ahead, and I half-expected their three pairs of hands to clamp over their eyes, ears and mouth in a see-no-evil / hear-no-evil / speak-no-evil pose.

 

 

The highest steps are smooth, worn slots that long ago were carved out of the rock and are more awkward to climb.  These take you up onto a big flat surface with the temple-entrance on the left and a hut containing racks for visitors to leave their shoes on the right.  The entrance is a white building with doors and a tiled roof, while the steep line of the hillside – actually a huge, sheer bulge of rock – rises behind it.

 

 

Having passed through this building we went down a flight of wide steps into the temple grounds.  These consist of a long, narrow compound covered in rectangular stones no bigger than bricks.  The compound’s features include a broad tree wallowing within a stone dais, surrounded by incense sticks, candle-cups, little figurines and multi-coloured Buddhist flags and exuding long, low branches; and a horseshoe-shaped pond whose circumference-wall is made out of boulders and whose surface has floating canopies of water-lilies with purple water-flowers poking up between them.  However, the real attraction of the temple is along the compound’s right-hand side.

 

 

At the bottom of the wall of rock – whose height the temple’s Wikipedia entry puts at 150 metres – runs a veranda with diamond-shaped flagstones, white walls, arched glass-less windows and a long roof.  This veranda gives access to the caves, which burrow into the rock’s base.  Where each cave-entrance opens at the back of the veranda-structure, a corresponding stone staircase leads up to a doorway with an arched top and pillared sides at the front of it.  There are five caves in total, the biggest one more than 50 metres across and almost 25 metres deep.

 

 

Wikipedia states that the caves house some 160 statues, mostly ones of Buddha.  There are rows of them seated in a lotus position, with long earlobes, broad shoulders, hands cupped on their laps, gowns rippling around their legs and torsos and left shoulders – their right shoulders bare.  In one cave, a ring of eight of them surround a miniature stupa.  There are also many upright figures, right hands raised to give blessing; and occasionally a giant reclining Buddha, the wedge of daylight that makes it through the entrance and the dark shadows elsewhere meaning that only a small section of the figure is properly visible.  Other items in the caves include flowers garlanding the surfaces in front of the images, and cauldron-sized, cauldron-shaped pots, and blue-painted metal donation boxes set at strategic positions.

 

 

Despite the considerable dimensions of some of the caves, I always got a faintly claustrophobic vibe from them because of the lowness of their ceilings and the obvious, tremendous weight of the rock above.  These rock ceilings are painted and illustrated and, though the murals have faded with time, they remain impressively intricate.  (When I entered the first cave, my immediate impression was that the temple-monks had covered the cave-roof with some fancy but now-aged wallpaper.)

 

 

At the same time, however, the caves are wonderfully atmospheric – dim, shadowy and full of mysterious dark recesses and corners.  The fact that the statues often loom up half-seen in the gloom, their outlines, proportions and details hinted at by the meagre light creeping in through the doorways (and very occasional windows) just adds to their grandeur.  Conversely, when I turned on my camera’s flash and took pictures, the images that appeared in the artificially-lit photos looked slightly flat and not quite as exotic as I’d hoped.

 

 

As we emerged from the final cave, we saw a just-arrived package-tour crowd seeping in through the entrance, down the steps, onto the far end of the veranda and into the first cave.  And as we walked back past the first cave, we heard a multitude of voices babbling and saw a frenzy of camera-flashes popping inside it.  We’d had that cave to ourselves an hour earlier.  Its stillness and quiet had added immensely to its atmosphere.  So getting there early, before the main influx of tourists, had been a good decision.

 

 

There followed an interlude on the temple steps, during which my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, spent a few minutes befriending the temple cat, a which was a charming white creature with tawny face-patches and a tawny tail.  Then we descended from the temple by a route different from the one by which we’d come up.  This took us to a site at ground level where a giant golden-skinned Buddha statue sat on a building containing a museum.  A sign informed us that this was the largest statue in the world – 30 metres high – depicting Buddha in the ‘Dhammachakka’ posture.

 

 

A stone ridge extended off from the statue’s left side and along this stood a line of human-sized statues, swathed in red robes, presumably meant to be queuing to pay homage to Buddha.  Bald-headed and blank-faced, these adherents bore a slight but unfortunate resemblance to plastic shop-window dummies.  Meanwhile, the museum building that served as the statue’s pedestal had turrets at either end, had pink, red and blue lines of flower-shaped ornamentation along each of its three tiers, and generally looked like an over-iced wedding cake.

 

 

We didn’t hang around there for long.  This modern site – the statue had been built between 1997 and 2000 – felt a bit too Disney-fied after the majesty and ambience of the ancient temple complex in the giant rock above.