Nostalgic wallows 2: the snooker




I learned many things from my maternal grandmother before she passed away in 1997 at the venerable age of 93.  One of them was the joy of watching the late 1970s / early 1980s phenomenon that was televised snooker.


For most of the 1970s my family, immediate and extended, lived in Northern Ireland.  In 1977, however, my parents bought a small farm in the south of Scotland and that became the new home for me and my immediate family, with the Irish Sea separating us from our uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents.  My grandmother, then in her seventies, soon got into the habit of coming over to Scotland to visit us and, because of the distance and effort involved in travelling, would make the most of it and stay for a couple of weeks at a time.


Since my grandmother was an avid viewer of TV programmes, this meant that while she resided in our house, we’d have to relinquish control of our television set to her.  Unfortunately, she seemed addicted to every soap opera going, from the humble British ones like Coronation Street, Crossroads and Emmerdale Farm to the opulent American ones like Dallas and Dynasty, all of which I considered to be the televisual equivalent of brain death.


However, one unexpected thing I noticed when she came to stay was that she was also a big fan of the sport of snooker, which had recently taken off in popularity and was attracting big TV audiences.   At some point, I started watching it with her, with the result that I became hooked on it too for a few years.


Here’s an example of how much my grandmother was into snooker.  One time she arrived with us while the Embassy World Championship was underway and was being broadcast live on BBC2.  Some matches took place early in the morning and so she’d rise early to watch them.  One morning my mother entered the living room, where my grandmother was immersed in a TV snooker game, and noticed she was wearing a cardigan that was inside out.  A label protruded very visibly from the knitted collar behind her neck.  My mother pointed this out, but she just sighed and nodded at the TV screen.  “I can’t take it off and change it round just now,” she said.  “If I did, I’d cause bad luck for Alex.”


The Alex she was worried about bringing bad luck upon by putting her inside-out cardigan on the right way was one Alexander Gordon Higgins, ‘Hurricane’ Higgins as he was known to snooker fans.  He was famed for his mercurial abilities.  On a good day he’d play brilliantly, on a shit day he’d play… well, shit.  He was also famed for his mercurial temperament, which I’ll talk about in a minute.  He was of working-class Protestant stock from Belfast in Northern Ireland, which was one of the reasons why my grandmother loved him.  I remember a couple of times watching TV with her when Higgins fluffed an important shot.  “Oh Alex!” she’d lament.  “Alex, Alex, Alex, Alex…”




Higgins had been playing from the age of seven, first in Belfast’s Jampot Club and YMCA; and by 1968, before he turned 20, he’d won the All-Ireland and Northern Ireland Amateur Snooker Championships.  Physically slight, Higgins had for a time in the 1960s intended to become a jockey rather than a professional snooker player.  I suspect this was part of the spell he cast over my grandmother and similar, maternal-minded ladies of a certain age later on, when he was still scrawny and undernourished-looking.  The ladies just wanted to feed him up and put some colour in his cheeks.


By 1972, Higgins had turned professional and he won that year’s Snooker World Championships, although this didn’t make much of a stir in the public consciousness because technology wasn’t ready for the sport yet.  As the game required its players to sink all the red balls on the table, and then pocket in order the yellow, green, brown, blue, pink and black ones, you needed to watch it on a colour television to know what was going on.  And in British homes, colour TV sets didn’t outnumber black-and-white ones until 1976.  (I remember an uncle acquiring a colour TV before 1976, but the colours refused to be contained by the outlines on the screen and would swim across them, which made it migraine-inducing to watch.)


However, once everyone could watch snooker in proper colour, the sport took off and its leading players, including Higgins, became stars.  What’s fascinating, and retrospectively a little sad, is that many of those guys weren’t really cut out to be stars.  They didn’t have the glitz of other big British sporting names of the 1970s, such as elegant playboy racing driver James Hunt or permed heartthrob footballer Kevin Keegan.  Often, they’d grown up learning to play snooker in the booze-sodden, cigarette-fogged environments of pubs and clubs and hadn’t received much in the way of a formal education.  (From the way Higgins behaved at the snooker table and away from it, you sometimes wondered if he’d had any opportunity to develop social skills at all.)  It must have been discombobulating for them to be suddenly dragged into the national limelight, suddenly become big media names and suddenly be chasing big sums of prize money.


Among this collection of misfits, oddballs and eccentrics there was, besides Higgins, Welshman Ray Reardon, already in his forties when snooker made him famous.  Not one to modify his appearance and style to match the expectations of stardom, Reardon sported an imposing widow’s peak; and that and the way he stalked hungrily around the table earned him the nickname of ‘Dracula’.  Then there was the ashen-faced Jimmy ‘Whirlwind’ White of Tooting, London, who wasn’t yet out of his teens by the end of the 1970s, who slightly resembled Johnny Depp in his Edward Scissorhands period and who came across as a younger, marginally less troubled version of Higgins.  From the age of eight or nine, he’d played truant from school so that he could practise in his local snooker hall.


© ITC Entertainment


Jimmy ‘Whirlwind’ White and Ray ‘Dracula’ Reardon, incidentally, inspired an odd little movie called Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1987) directed by the much-admired Alan Clarke.  The titular characters, obviously modelled on White and Reardon, were played by Phil Daniels and Alun Armstrong; and the film as a whole has received the accolade of being ‘undoubtedly the only vampire snooker musical in cinema history.’


Another unconventional figure was Higgins’ fellow Northern Irishman Dennis Taylor, who suffered from bad eyesight.  Ordinary glasses weren’t much use to Taylor at the snooker table because, when he bent over it to take a shot, his weak eyes would end up looking over the top of the glasses rather than through them.  So he had to wear a pair of specially designed glasses with heightened lenses that made him resemble a non-spangly incarnation of Elton John.


Meanwhile, some glamour was injected into the snooker world by the Latin-looking, vaguely Antonio Banderas-esque Silvino Francisco, who was actually South African; and by the white-clad Kirk Stevens, a handsome lad with the all-important 1970s perm, who hailed from Toronto.


Stevens was one of a triumvirate of Canadian players who found fame as snooker players back then, which meant it was the first, possibly the only, time that your average British person on the street could name three famous Canadians off the top of their heads.  Also from Canada was Cliff Thorburn, who was known as ‘the Grinder’ for his remorselessly methodical style of play and who resembled a better-groomed Donald Sutherland; and Thorburn’s fellow British Columbian ‘Big’ Bill Werbeniuk, whose weight was in the region of 20 stones.  The hefty Werbeniuk suffered from a tremor and to subdue this when playing he relied on beer: lots of beer.  According to his Wikipedia entry, he’d typically have knocked back six pints before the start of a match and he could get through 40 to 50 pints in a day.  One urban myth at the time was that Werbeniuk had all this beer medically prescribed to him by a doctor and got it for free.  More feasible was a story in the British press about him claiming the price of half-a-dozen pints each match-day as a tax-deductible expense.


Thus, snooker back then offered an array of peculiar characters whom you’d find in few other sports, constantly having their ups and downs, which I imagine was another reason why it appealed to my soap-opera-mad grandmother.




Some of the downs they suffered were severe.  In his autobiography, Jimmy White confessed to taking crack cocaine for a few mad months in the 1980s, while Kirk Stevens owned up to having a general cocaine problem during the same period.  Stevens’ admission came after the final of the 1985 British Open, in which he’d played Silvino Francisco.  The South African accused Stevens of being as ‘high as a kite’ during the match.  Not that Francisco could complain too much, for in 1997 he was arrested and jailed for three years for smuggling cannabis with a street value of £155,000.


In the late 1980s Cliff Thorburn was heavily fined and banned from a couple of tournaments for failing a cocaine test; and to complete the Canadian drugs hat-trick, Bill Werbeniuk quit the sport after getting into trouble for taking the drug Inderal, which snooker’s governing body listed as a forbidden substance.  To be fair to Werbeniuk, he was taking Inderal on the advice of his doctors, who thought it might help to curb his ruinous alcohol consumption.


Alex Higgins, meanwhile, was in a league of his own.  An unabashed pisshead, he somewhat inevitably ended up in the orbit of the hellraising movie star Oliver Reed.  However, if you’re to believe some of the stories, Reed found him hard to put up with – and vented his frustrations by, for instance, chasing Higgins around his mansion with an axe and feeding him a pretend hangover cure made out of perfume and washing-up liquid.  Neither was Higgins afraid of drugs.  According to fellow snooker-player John Virgo, he once asked clean-living popstar Sting at a concert if he had any ‘gear’.  “Yes,” said Sting, “we’ve got some baseball caps and T-shirts left.”  “No,” retorted a disgusted Higgins.  “Not that kind of gear.  I mean the kind of gear that goes up your nose!”


Higgins’ record became a long and unflattering list of misdemeanours.  He got into trouble for pissing into a potted plant during a tournament in 1982.  (Virgo: “As he later argued, they were fake plants in the pot, so he ‘wasn’t being cruel to the flowers’”).  He headbutted a tournament director in 1986 after refusing to provide a urine sample for a drugs test.  He ended up playing in the 1989 European Open on crutches and with an ankle in plaster after falling 25 feet from a ledge outside the windows of his girlfriend’s apartment – he’d been trying to climb into the apartment after having a row with her.  He punched a press officer in 1990.  And the same year, he threatened to have the mild-mannered Dennis Taylor shot, which was no laughing matter since Higgins and Taylor belonged to either side of Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide and Higgins came from Belfast’s Sandy Row area, notorious for its links with the Protestant paramilitary Ulster Defence Association.  The result was a slow, painful erosion of Higgin’s playing ability, his mental stability, his finances and his popularity.  By the late 1990s, I couldn’t argue when an Irish friend dismissed him out of hand as ‘an unmannerly wee pup.’


Even before those characters began to self-implode amid booze, drugs and violence, the future of snooker had materialised in the form of Englishman Steve Davis.  He would dominate the sport during the 1980s, when he won six world titles and was ranked world number one for seven years in a row.  Davis was scandal-free in his behaviour but also, unfortunately, relentlessly robotic in his playing style and deadly dull in his personality.  It was no surprise when the satirical TV puppet show Spitting Image featured a sketch where Davis tries to jive up his image by inventing a nickname for himself, to rival Alex Higgins’ ‘Hurricane’ and Jimmy White’s ‘Whirlwind’.  Eventually, he chooses: ‘Interesting’.


Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis, in effect, was the template for the snooker players who would follow.  A new generation of them were growing up, less conditioned by the boozy, slightly seedy world of pubs and clubs from which many of their predecessors had emerged.  They were better equipped to withstand the pressure of public and media attention and go sensibly about the business of winning tournaments and making money.  For these pragmatic types, snooker was more of a job than an obsessive passion.


Still, some of my fondest snooker memories come from seeing the machine-like Davis get beaten in a crucial game by a less organised, more human opponent.  There was, for example, the final of the UK Championship in 1983 when Davis went up against Higgins and soon had a seven-frames-to-nil advantage.  Miraculously, Higgins managed to pull himself together and he eventually beat Davis 16-15 to win the competition.




Even better was the 1985 World Championship where Davis played Taylor and again built up a seemingly unassailable early lead, of eight frames to nil.  But Taylor rallied and the lead seesawed between them, and eventually both players ended up on 17 frames each.  Late on in the deciding frame, victory was decided by whoever could pocket the black first – which Taylor managed to do.  My jubilation at Taylor’s win was marred by the fact that I and many others were watching the final that night in the Hillhead Bar at Aberdeen University’s Hillhead Halls of Residence.  The final frame went on beyond midnight and beyond the bar’s closing time.  Desperate to get us all out of the place, some absolute sadist in the bar-staff pulled the plug on the TV seconds before Taylor took that final, all-important shot at the black.


I’ve written humorously about them, but things ended badly for some of those snooker players.  Kirk Stevens returned to Canada where, broke, he had to eke a living as a construction worker, landscape gardener, lumberjack and car salesman before he finally got back onto the local snooker circuit.  Silvino Francisco, before the nadir of his cannabis arrest, was already in an ignominious situation, having to earn cash by working in a mate’s fish-and-chip shop.  And poor old Bill Werbeniuk was unemployed and on disability benefits prior to his death in 2003.


Higgins’ end was pitiful.  Diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, and subjected to radiotherapy treatment that destroyed his teeth and made it difficult for him to eat even the meagre amounts of food that he’d survived on previously, Higgins refused to curtail his heavy drinking and smoking.  In 2010, having become reliant on disability payments just as Werbeniuk had, Higgins was found dead in his Belfast flat.  His demise was attributed to a mixture of malnutrition, pneumonia and bronchitis.  Photographs of him taken towards the end of his life show a shrivelled, shrunken figure that looked more like Dobby the House Elf from the Harry Potter movies than a human being.  I’m relieved my Hurricane-loving grandmother didn’t live long enough to see him in such a state.


With nearly all its old characters retired or dead, I’ve paid little attention to the snooker world in the last quarter-century.  Indeed, looking at recent lists of champions, the only names I recognise are those of Ronnie O’Sullivan and John Higgins.  Still, for its modern players, it’s no doubt a saner and safer, though blander, sport.


One nice thing I’ve noticed is that Steve Davis, once the embodiment of everything I found mind-numbingly boring about snooker – and about life in general – actually seems quite cool nowadays.  Since hanging up his snooker cue, he’s reinvented himself as a radio, club and festival DJ specialising in trancey, dancy electronic music.  He collaborates with British-Iranian musician and composer Kavus Torabi and they’ve even formed an electronica band called the Utopia Strong, which released an album in 2019.


So it turns out that Davis got it right with his tactics.  He was a clean-living dullard in his youth but at least he preserved his faculties, health and finances.  And now, in his retirement, he’s managed to become Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis at last.




Cue the queue



I am one of the 20% of the human race that is currently in lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic.


The appearance of the easily transmitted and often deadly virus caused Sri Lanka, my present country of residence, to announce a curfew last Friday evening.  This was a sensible decision in my opinion, as there are now about a hundred confirmed Covid-19 cases (though as yet no deaths from it) in Sri Lanka and, if its spread is to be slowed, the authorities needed to take drastic action quickly.  Compare that with the shambles of a response to the crisis going on in the United Kingdom at the moment, mis-orchestrated by bumbler-in-chief Boris Johnson.


Consequently, the citizens of Colombo, where I live, were confined to their homes for the next four days.  The curfew was lifted at 6.00 AM this morning – Tuesday, March 24th – but re-imposed in the early afternoon.  This was to allow folk a chance to nip out to the shops and top up on supplies for their kitchens.


Okay, the prospect of everyone in Colombo ‘nipping out to the shops’ during the same half-dozen hours was a potentially worrying one, because the supermarkets suddenly being crammed with people trying to buy groceries could lead to a bunch of new Covid-19 infections.  To lessen this danger, it was announced beforehand that the numbers of people on supermarket premises at any one time would be restricted and everyone else would have to queue outside and wait their turn.


So I got up reasonably early and headed out at about 7.00 AM – first to the nearest ATM and then to the nearest supermarket, which was Food City on Marine Drive.  There was already much traffic on the road, and the line of vehicles waiting for petrol at the local filling station had already backed up along the next block.  But very few people seemed to be out on foot.  I nearly had the seaward pavement of Marine Drive to myself.


Then I arrived at Food City, on the corner of another block, and discovered good news and bad news.  The good news was that Food City was already open – normally it doesn’t start business until about 8.30.  The bad news was that already a queue had formed outside, which was being slowly threaded into the premises by a group of shop-workers and police officers.  I approached from the south and the queue was arranged to the north of Food City’s entrance so, at first, I didn’t see how long it was.  I walked alongside that queue for the whole of the next block, counting the people as I went.


At the next corner, where Marine Drive formed a junction with Retreat Road, the queue turned 90 degrees and continued up the latter road.  I kept walking and counting people.  I finally reached the end of the queue two-thirds of the way along Retreat Road, having counted 173.  (Everyone was trying to ‘socially distance’ themselves from one another by keeping a metre of space between them, so it was a pretty long queue for 173 people.)


Figuring that I wasn’t going to find anywhere better than this – from what I’ve seen of it, the Marine Drive branch is one of Food City’s less known and less frequented outlets – I took my place as 174th person in the queue and started waiting.  My decision was confirmed when, sometime later, a flustered-looking English lady of about 60 years old walked past talking into a phone.  “I’ve just looked at the Food City on Marine Drive,” she said, “and the queue there’s as bad as everywhere else!”



The queue inched along.  At about 8.15, I’d advanced to the Marine Drive / Retreat Road corner and the sign with the red, round Food City logo was finally, if only just, in view.  Then, however, there was no further movement for about half-an-hour, which may have been because the Food City staff needed time to restock their shelves and nobody else was allowed in.


But movement finally resumed.  By about 9.15 I was standing underneath that sign…



…and maybe 20 minutes after that, it was finally my turn to enter.



Inside, the produce section had been entirely stripped, apart from a couple of trays of red onions and a few items of fruit.  But most of the things on my shopping list were available: water, eggs, milk powder, cream, pasta, noodles, margarine, chocolate.


Despite the frustrations of the wait, everybody outside Food City showed patience and understanding.  I suppose because of the 30-year civil war and the 2004 tsunami, and the Easter Sunday bombings last year, Sri Lankans are used to having to abide by, and understand the importance of, emergency security measures.  A big thank you is due, though, to the shop-staff and the assigned police officers, who kept the operation running smoothly.


To keep myself from going mad with boredom, I’d brought a book along and so I spent those hours in the queue reading.  In fact, a long, grindingly slow queue was probably the best context in which to read this book, for it was Anne Rice’s 1976 gothic opus Interview with the Vampire.  Yes, when you’re queuing for food in the middle of a pandemic crisis, even Ms Rice’s florid and overwrought prose seems the lesser of two evils.



Songs and soundtracks


© Paramount Pictures / Touchstone Pictures


Looking at the Internet just now, it seems that everybody and their granny are writing feverishly – and ‘feverishly’ is an appropriate adverb – about the coronavirus, or to give it its more accurate and more Cronenberg-esque title, Covid-19.  Now that I’m facing a period of self-isolation / social distancing (not because I have the dreaded virus but because I live in Colombo and the Sri Lankan authorities have just declared a three-day public holiday, one where everybody is urged to stay indoors and which I suspect will last for longer than three days), I’ve decided to write a few things on this blog not about the coronavirus, but about all the stuff I’m really interested in.  So here, just for a change, is something about films… and music.


A pet hate of mine is a film whose soundtrack consists of some lazily selected popular songs.  I’m thinking of films where the filmmakers have just looked at the charts and grabbed a few songs to stick on the soundtrack to make their product seem hip; or, when the film is pitched at a more mature demographic, they’ve pilfered the charts of yesteryear for a few old songs that’ll give their audience a nostalgic glow while they watch the screen.  In both cases, this means they can also bung the songs onto a tie-in soundtrack album that will hopefully generate a few extra bucks after the film’s release.  However, no thought or effort has been taken to choose songs that actually enhance what’s happening onscreen, that create a musical / cinematic frisson whereby the song augments the film’s plot and visual imagery and vice versa.


I can think of some particularly painful instances.  For example, there’s Paul Feig’s generally pretty good comedy Bridesmaids (2011) which, after nearly two hours of raunchy, sometimes acerbic comedy about the ordeals that women have to put themselves through in order to achieve the ideal of a ‘perfect’ wedding, suddenly turns into a cringeworthy schmaltz-fest when the 1990 Wilson Phillips song Hold On starts caterwauling during the climactic wedding.  (To add insult to injury, the filmmakers actually wheel on Wilson Phillips to sing the song ‘live’ at the wedding reception, as if the bride, who’s already suffered a near-breakdown about the wedding’s expensiveness, could afford to hire Wilson Phillips for the evening.)  And this applies even to songs I really like.  I mean, I love the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, but I found it irritatingly distracting when it turned up in the rebooted Star Trek movies (2009-16).


Happily, things sometimes work the other way.  I still remember the rush I got when, at the end of The Matrix (1999), Keanu Reeves, now fully cognisant of his powers, steps out of a telephone box and shoots Superman-like up into the sky whilst Rage Against The Machine’s Wake Up thunders in the background.  Or the bit early on in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) where Harvey Keitel’s pensive, sharp-suited Charlie watches the trilby-hatted, devil-may-care Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) swagger towards him across a bar, arms draped over the shoulders of two ‘broads’, to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash. You know immediately that Johnny Boy is bad news and, indeed, the scene serves as a mission statement for all the bad-news characters that De Niro would play later in his career.


Anyway, here are a few items that always spring to mind when I think of popular songs and film soundtracks – films that don’t just have one song smartly placed to enrich one scene, but that are choc-a-block with songs making a number of scenes extra-memorable.


I suppose I have to start with a film whose soundtrack may qualify for the title of my all-time favourite.  I’m talking about Oliver Stone’s 1994 bloodbath about lovers / serial killers on the run, Natural Born Killers.  For this, Stone hired Trent Reznor, the mastermind behind the mighty industrial / electronica / metal band Nine Inch Nails, to assemble a collage of music to complement the film’s often demented collage of visual styles.  You might have expected Reznor’s choices to form a continuous assault of brutal electronic noise, but what you actually get in Natural Born Killers is an eclectic delight.


© Warner Bros / Regency Enterprises


It’s brilliant from the start, when we see Woody Harrelson’s Mickey and Juliet Lewis’s Mallory sitting in an oppressive out-in-the-sticks diner populated by leering, gun-toting rednecks while on the jukebox Leonard Cohen forebodingly croons Waiting for the Miracle.  Then Cohen’s Miracle abruptly gives way to L7’s Shitlist and Mickey and Mallory slaughter the rednecks in a nightmarish burst of violence.


Other moments of wonder include the Cowboy Junkies’ version of Sweet Jane playing while Mickey and Mallory declare their love for one another (“The whole world’s coming to an end, Mal…” “I see angels, Mickey.  They’re coming down for us from heaven…”); Duane Eddy’s twangy The Trembler accompanying the approach of a tornado, which handily allows Mickey to escape from a prison hard-labour gang; Jane’s Addiction’s Sex is Violent segueing into Diamanda Galas singing I Put a Spell on You during a disturbing scene where Mallory seduces and murders a hapless gas-stand attendant (“Holy shit!  You’re Mallory Knox!”); and another thrilling deployment of Rage Against the Machine, this time their song Bombtrack, when Mickey grabs a shotgun and blasts his way free during a live TV interview he’s doing whilst incarcerated in Tommy Lee Jones’s high security jail.  And you get Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Patsy Cline, Peter Gabriel and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Dr Dre, the Specials and, inevitably, Nine Inch Nails as well.


The accompanying soundtrack album doesn’t quite marshal together all the songs from the film – Rage Against the Machine and the Specials are conspicuous by their absence – but most of them are present, spliced together with memorable excerpts from the film’s dialogue.  It was definitely one of the best record releases of 1994.


I’ve already mentioned Martin Scorsese, with whose films a decent soundtrack is usually guaranteed.  I sometimes find them a little too retro, though – the characters depicted may start off in the 1960s, but they age during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, yet it’s often still 1960s music playing in the background.  For example, Ray Liotta’s character in Goodfellas (1990) has become a cocaine fiend by the early 1980s, though it’s the Rolling Stones’ 1969 epic Gimme Shelter we hear accompanying his binges.


This isn’t an issue with my favourite Scorsese soundtrack, which belongs to one of his less acclaimed films, 1999’s  Bringing Out the Dead.  This is the tale of a burnt-out paramedic played by Nicholas Cage patrolling the nocturnal streets of a particularly infernal version of New York.  He’s accompanied on different nights by different colleagues, played by Ving Rhames, John Goodman and an unhinged Tom Sizemore.


Bringing Out the Dead features a variety of songs that perfectly reflect its changing moods: Van Morrison’s wistful T.B. Sheets, REM’s jaunty What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? and the Clash’s hectic Janie Jones.  That last song accompanies a scene were the pill-popping Cage and Sizemore are fried out of their brains at the wheel of their ambulance – if you were lying ill on a sidewalk, you seriously wouldn’t want the pair of them showing up to administer first aid on you.  Elsewhere, the soundtrack includes the Who, Johnny Thunders and Martha and the Vandellas.  Even the one song that I normally consider a pudding, UB40’s version of Neil Diamond’s Red, Red Wine, sounds spooky when it plays over a sequence where Cage ventures into the bloodstained aftermath of a gangland shooting.


© Pandora Cinema / Newmarket Films / Flower Films


From its opening sequence I knew I was going to love Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001).  It begins with an eerie quietude as Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) lies prone in the middle of a mountainside road and thunder crackles faintly but menacingly in the distance.  Then Donnie smiles, hops onto his bike and rides down to his wholesome 1980s American suburb accompanied by Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon.  As well as being an exhilarating mixture of visuals and music, this sequence provides some tongue-in-cheek foreshadowing.  Things will soon turn weird and Donnie will soon be troubled by visions of a big, literal bunny-man called Frank.


The rest of the soundtrack is a mixture of bona-fide classics like Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart and The Church’s Under the Milky Way and cheese like Duran Duran’s Notorious.  But even Notorious becomes memorable when it’s used as the theme tune for Sparkle Motion, the ghastly school dance troupe of which Donnie’s little sister is a member.  And at the finale of course, when Gary Jules and Michael Andrews perform a melancholy, stripped-down version of it, the film does wonders for Tears for Fears’ Mad World.  This was previously a song I’d never given the time of day.


However, beware of the director’s cut of Donnie Darko, because in it Richard Kelly replaces Killing Moon as the opening song with INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart.  The bastard.


Inevitably, I’ve got to mention Lost in Translation (2003), Sophia Coppola’s intergenerational romance and fish-out-of-water cultural comedy, wherein a jaded, middle-aged Bill Murray and a radiant, young Scarlett Johansson are stuck at the same time in a luxurious Tokyo hotel.   Put together by Coppola’s frequent collaborator Brian Reitzell, the soundtrack features four songs by Kevin Shields and another, Sometimes, by Shields’s acclaimed experimental / shoegazer band My Bloody Valentine.  Neatly bookended by Death in Vegas’s Girls at the beginning and the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey at the end, these evoke the surreal, discombobulating vibe that Tokyo often gives foreigners seeing it for the first time.  At least, that was the vibe it gave me when I first arrived there in 1989.


© American Zoetrope / Focus Features


Meanwhile, the karaoke box sequence in the middle of the film is lovely.  A Japanese lad tackles the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen, Johansson warbles Brass in Pocket by the Pretenders, and Murray gives an impassioned rendition of Nick Lowe’s (What’s so Funny about) Peace, Love and Understanding and then a lovably wobbly one of Roxy Music’s More Than This.  The scene shows there are no cultural boundaries when it comes to enjoying decent music.


Lastly, I couldn’t finish without mentioning Edgar Wright, a movie director whose soundtracks are always furnished with the right songs.  His 2017 film Baby Driver won special praise for this, but I’d nominate an earlier Wright effort as my favourite – 2013’s comedy / sci-fi / horror film The World’s End.  This has a group of male friends in their early middle-age returning to their hometown in a new attempt to complete an epic pub crawl that they originally attempted but failed to complete when they were teenagers in 1990.  First, they’re dismayed to find that their old town has become a homogenised, identikit conglomeration of chain stores, fast-food franchises and bland Wetherspoon’s-type pubs that make it indistinguishable from every other town in Britain.  Then they’re horrified to find that it’s also been taken over by aliens who’ve replaced nearly everyone with blue-blooded robot replicants.


Predictably, Wright enjoys populating The World’s End’s soundtrack with stuff that his central characters would have listened to as youths in the late 1980s and early 1990s, namely indie, goth, the ‘Madchester’ rock-dance sound and the first Britpop offerings.  Thus, as the pub crawl / battle against aliens continues, you get to hear Saint Etienne, the Sundays, the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays, Teenage Fanclub, Suede, Blur and Pulp.  You even hear the Inspiral Carpets and the Soup Dragons, so let it not be said that Wright leaves any stones unturned.


One song seems wildly out of synch with the characters’ timeframe, which is the Doors’ Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar) from 1967.  But it’s appropriate for the film’s boozy premise and it does accompany an amusing sequence just after the heroes have realised that something severely strange is going on.  And the climax of The World’s End provides a rare thing indeed – not one but two songs, Primal Scream’s Loaded and the Sisters of Mercy’s This Corrosion, which aren’t just there for show but actually contribute something to the plot itself.


© Working Title Films / StudioCanal


The tragic, magic man


© Coronet Books


Last year, while I was back visiting my family in Scotland, I happened to be hoking around in some boxes of books that belonged to me but that’d ended up gathering dust in a corner of my father’s attic.  Inside one of those boxes I discovered a very old paperback called The Magic Man, a collection of mostly fantasy, horror and science-fiction stories by the late American writer Charles Beaumont originally published in 1965.  Dimly, I recalled buying this for 25p (though the cover-price was a pre-decimalization 3/6) in a second-hand bookshop in the Lincolnshire town of Louth.  I worked in Louth for five months in 1983 as a volunteer classroom assistant and houseparent at a residential school for boys with severe behavioral issues – ‘maladjusted’ boys, as they were called back in those unsympathetic, non-PC days.


I knew Beaumont’s name in 1983 because I’d seen it attached to several movies that’d had a big impact on me while I was growing up, such as The Seven Faces of Dr Lao and Masque of the Red Death (both 1964).  But after buying the book, I never got around to opening it and it was stashed away unread among the hundreds, eventually thousands of other books I owned.


Anyway, 37 years later – writing this sentence makes me feel absolutely ancient – I’ve finally read the stories in The Magic Man.  The collection kicks off with an introduction by Beaumont’s friend and mentor Ray Bradbury, which while gracious in tone suggests that Bradbury was a hard taskmaster to have as your writing tutor.  He recalls telling the young Beaumont to write and submit one story every week: “He worked, I remember, part time at United Parcel Service, back in the early fifties, so as to spend the rest of his hours finishing that special story that must be sent off in the mail every Saturday.”  Intriguingly, Bradbury also mentions that Beaumont tried, “for years, to convince movie producers to make films out of the Ian Fleming books.”  Obviously, and sadly for Beaumont’s bank balance, someone else managed to convince Cubby Broccoli and Harry R. Saltzman to make films out of them first.


With Bradbury as his guru, it’s no surprise that several stories in The Magic Man bear the imprint of Bradbury’s own fanciful, wistful and nostalgic writing.  The title story, about a stage magician who travels a circuit of small American prairie towns doing magic shows and who doesn’t appreciate the importance that his ‘magic’ holds for the prairie townspeople while they go about their otherwise humdrum lives, has echoes of Bradbury’s 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.  It also evokes Charles G. Finney’s novel The Circus of Dr Lao, which coincidentally Beaumont adapted for producer George Pal as the movie The Seven Faces of Dr Lao.  Also with a flavour of Bradbury-esque small-town America is The Hunger, although Beaumont’s tale of a lonely, frustrated spinster who feels a strange affinity for an escaped, murderous lunatic pushes the envelope further than the genteel Bradbury would have done.


Bradbury’s introduction notes too that Beaumont had a penchant for driving and “burning up the dirt on the nearest racetrack” and a couple of the stories reflect his love for automobiles.  A Classic Affair, about a worried woman asking a friend to follow her husband, whom she believes is in an adulterous relationship, takes a nice twist when the man discovers just what – as opposed to who – the husband is having an affair with, although a second twist that follows on from that twist isn’t perhaps so surprising.  Meanwhile, the final story, A Death in the Country, convincingly details the desperate life of an aging and failing dirt-track car racer and is one of the collection’s few non-genre stories.


If the story Perchance to Dream, the story of a man with a heart condition who’s troubled by a recurrent dream where he’s lured onto a literally heart-stopping rollercoaster, sounds familiar, it’s because Beaumont adapted it into an episode of the classic TV show The Twilight Zone (1959-64).  This was one of 22 episodes of that series that he scripted or co-scripted.  (Beaumont clearly had conflicted feelings about writing for cinema and television.  According to the cult New Wave sci-fi / fantasy author Harlan Ellison, Beaumont once told him that: “Attaining success in Hollywood is like climbing a gigantic mountain of cow flop, in order to pick one perfect rose from the summit.  And you find when you’ve made that hideous climb… you’ve lost the sense of smell.”)


Another story that ended up as the basis for a TV episode is The New People, which became an instalment in the British anthology series Journey to the Unknown (1968-69), made by horror specialists Hammer Films in conjunction with 20th Century Fox.  Beaumont’s story features a group of successful professionals and their families living in a well-to-do American neighbourhood who, beneath their respectable surfaces and like the characters in Richard Yates’s novel Revolution Road (1961), are bored out of their wits with their situations.   But while Yates’s characters try to solve the problem of their ennui by contemplating a move to Paris, Beaumont’s characters decide to enliven things by participating in some dark activities indeed.  In the Journey to the Unknown episode, this sinister community is moved to the affluent Home Counties of England and, with an excellent cast including Robert Reed, Adrienne Corri, Melissa Stribling, Milo O’Shea and a splendidly saturnine Patrick Allen, it’s fairly effective.  But the episode leaves out an important plot element about the main characters’ sex lives (or lack of them) that gives the original story a satisfying and, with hindsight, logical twist ending.


The Magic Man has a couple of weaker entries, which tend to be science fictional.  The Last Caper suffers because it attempts to graft a Raymond Chandler / Philip Marlowe-type private-detective story onto a space-age setting, with characters speaking a futuristic version of Chandler’s famously hardboiled 1940s patois.  (“Don’t push it, rocket-jockey…”).  This sounds awfully dated now.  Similarly, The Monster Show has its characters speaking like futuristic beatniks and doesn’t fare any better.  (“It’s pictures that count.  Flap?”  “Nothing can go wrong.  Nothing-o.”)  It makes me wonder how dated the achingly hip and cutting-edge ‘cyberpunk’ sci-fi novels of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s will seem in a few decades’ time, if they don’t seem dated already.


That said, The Crooked Man, set in a future where homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuals are a persecuted minority, is a fine example of a science-fiction story that highlights a contemporary injustice by pitching its readers into a world where the tables have been turned.  It was pretty bold of Playboy magazine to publish the story when it did, back in 1955.


A little too varied in quality, and with some stories that show their influences a little too much – for example, the 1955 story The Murderers pinches the premise of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and the 1929 play by John Hamilton on which it was based – The Magic Man isn’t wholly satisfying.  But it still contains lots of entertaining and impressive work and makes one wonder what spectacular things Beaumont might have gone on to write if he hadn’t died at the wastefully young age of 38.  Yes, Charles Beaumont was born, grew up, established himself as a writer and died in almost the same period of time that elapsed between my buying The Magic Man and my reading it.


The manner of his passing was grim.  He succumbed to a mystery illness, which his agent Forest J. Ackerman theorized was a combination of Alzheimer’s and Pick’s disease, whereby he suffered from headaches, reduced concentration, slurred speech, erratic behavior, weight loss and premature aging.  At the time of his death, one of Beaumont’s sons recalled, he “looked 95 and was, in fact, 95 by every calendar except the one on your watch.”


So, while the main character of the title story in this collection styles himself as the Magic Man, I can’t help but think of the collection’s author as the Tragic Man.




In the office with Jim Mountfield


© Schlock! Webzine


Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym under which I write horror stories, has had a busy couple of months.  Between December 2019 and February 2020, short fiction by him / me has appeared in Aphelion, Schlock! Webzine and The Horror Zine.  I’m pleased to report that a further Mountfield short story, The Away Day, has been included in the new, March 2020 edition of Schlock! Webzine.


Many horror stories originate with unhappy experiences suffered in real life by their authors and this is true of The Away Day, which takes place in a modern-day corporate office.  I’ve spent periods working – at times, it felt like being incarcerated – in such environments and much of the story represents me venting my frustration at all the torments that come with them.  These torments include uncooperative desk-booking systems, unappealing team-building activities, patronising line managers, hapless interns, ghastly meaningless jargon and corporate-speak (“Thinking outside the box,” “Taking it to the next level,” etc.), air-conditioning units that don’t work, ID tags that are supposed to open doors but don’t work, photocopier rooms where there’s barely enough space to swing a cat, and so on and so forth.


Despite its bland and humdrum setting, the story has woven into it a theme that harks back to a certain much-loved British horror movie of yesteryear.  And there’s also a subtle reference to the second-best novel by Bram Stoker.  I wonder if anyone can identify it.


For the rest of this month, you should be able to access The Away Day here, while the main page of Schlock! Webzine’s March edition can be accessed here.


Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 14



The previous post on this blog had a Korean theme.  So too will this one.


For the past half-dozen years, I’ve lived in the neighbourhood of Wellawatta’s busy Savoy Cinema.  At times, though, I’ve wondered why it doesn’t call itself the Marvel Cinema, seeing as for months on end its screens seem to show nothing but movies featuring superheroes who originated in the pages of Marvel comics: Ironman, Thor, Captain America, Spiderman, Dr Strange, Black Panther, etc.


Actually, as Marvel was bought up by Disney a decade ago, and for most of the rest of the time, the Savoy has been dominated by Disney films, most recently Dumbo, Frozen II and The Lion King (all 2019) and by Star Wars movies – a franchise that, yes, now belongs to Disney too – the cinema might more accurately call itself the Disney Cinema.


To be fair, the Savoy occasionally airs Bollywood movies and homegrown ones like the recent Sinhala disaster-drama movie Tsunami (2020) as well.  But as you pass it and see what’s advertised on its hoardings, you can be forgiven for thinking that it’s devoted almost exclusively to family-friendly Hollywood fare from the House of Mouse, which has now annexed the House of Stan Lee and the House of George Lucas.


Not that I want to knock the cinema too much for that.  It’s left me with some memorable images over the years.  The release of 2019’s long-awaited superhero movie Avengers: Endgame coincided with the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka, which meant that cinemas here – like every other venue where people gathered in large numbers – were closed for several weeks.  Thus, while cinema audiences elsewhere in the world could enjoy the climactic movie in the Avengers series, it was a sight unseen for Sri Lankans.  I thought it was a heartening sign that things were returning to normal when, one morning a few weeks after the atrocity, I left my apartment and saw a massive queue of Sri Lankan kids extending from the cinema entrance and halfway back along the street.  Yes, the Savoy had finally reopened its doors and every nerd in Colombo had rushed there to catch the very first showing of Avengers: Endgame.  (Everyone who went by was shaking the hand of the proud nerd who’d managed to bag first place in the queue.)


And the day before 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker opened at the Savoy, I was initially alarmed when I saw two middle-aged Sri Lankan men having a fight on the pavement outside with what looked like a pair of swords.  Then I realised they were actually wielding plastic lightsabres and were apparently trying to re-enact one of the famous duels from the Star Wars films.  Bless.


Anyway, the Savoy has just done something refreshing.  I was walking past it the other day when I discovered that it’d put on a fancy promotional display in its entrance for a new film it was showing – not the latest thing to roll off the Disney / Hollywood conveyor belt, but the 2019 South Korean movie Parasite, director Bong Joon-ho’s acclaimed and deliciously morbid black comedy / social satire about a hard-pressed South Korea family, the Kims, who gradually infiltrate the household of a wealthy family, the Paks.  Pretending not to know one another, let alone be related to one another, the Kims secure lucrative jobs one by one as the Paks’ servants and children’s tutors, whilst ruthlessly usurping anybody who’s employed in those jobs already.  The plot takes a simultaneously funny, tragic and bloody twist when one of the people whom the Kims push aside in order to win the Paks’ confidence turns out to be harbouring a bizarre secret.


I like how the Savoy’s Parasite promotion has life-sized cut-outs of the lovable but sneaky Kims positioned on one side of the entrance and cut-outs of the well-meaning but unintentionally patronising Paks positioned on the other.



No doubt Parasite broke the Disney / Marvel / Hollywood stranglehold over the Savoy because of the praise and recognition it’s received.  Not only did it win the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival but, of course, it snapped up a slew of awards at the recent Academy Awards, including those for Best Picture and Best Director.  So although it’s fashionable to slag off the Oscars these days, they obviously retain some clout in South Asia.


I expect Parasite to draw enthusiastic audiences in Colombo because Korean culture seems to be pretty trendy in Sri Lanka nowadays.  A while back, I was talking to a young Sri Lankan guy who told me that South Korea has replaced the Gulf as the destination where people his age want to go to make money – he himself was taking Korean language lessons every weekend to improve his chances of finding work there.  And the other week, my own work took me to a school in the rural town of Eheliyagoda where I was intrigued to see, after school hours, an extra-curricular Korean language lesson being delivered to a motley group of Sri Lankan schoolkids between the ages of about 12 and 17.


Plus there are now plenty of restaurants offering Korean cuisine, in Colombo at least.  In my previous post, I mentioned the traditional-style Han Gook Gwan on Havelock Road.  I should also give a plug for the excellent (and super-friendly) Café the Seoul on the Kollupitiya stretch of Galle Road.