A kiss from Jim Mountfield

 

© The Horror Zine / Jeani Rector

 

My short story Ae Fond Kiss is among those included in a summer 2018 paperback showcasing the latest fiction and poetry to be featured on the well-known and award-winning web-zine The Horror Zine.  And since it’s a horror story, I have attached my usual horror nom de plume Jim Mountfield to it.

 

The title comes from a wistful romantic song by Robert Burns and, as you’d expect, it’s set in Scotland – next to the Irish Sea on Scotland’s southwestern coast, probably not far from Burns’ birthplace in Alloway.  However, the biggest inspiration for the story was provided by the Musée Mécanique on Pier 45 in Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, which serves as both a functioning amusement arcade and a museum for more than 200 “coin-operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines in their original working condition.”  A few years ago when I was in San Francisco I spent a delightful hour or two wandering around the place and examining all its vintage and rather magical contraptions.

 

Indeed, several of the Musée’s exhibits are referenced in Ae Fond Kiss, including a turning miniature Ferris Wheel (made by inmates of San Quentin Prison, apparently), a group of marionettes that perform as a barber shop quartet and a device called a motoscope that resembles a what-the-butler-saw machine and shows clips of 1920s movies like On the Beam with Harold Lloyd and Quick on the Trigger with Tom Mix.  I should say, though, that the machine at the heart of the amusement arcade described in my story is a figment of my imagination and has absolutely nothing to do with anything in the Musée Mécanique.

 

The paperback version of The Horror Zine’s summer 2018 anthology can be ordered here, and there’s a kindle edition available here.

 

Oh, and the story has creepy clowns in it too.  What’s not to like?

 

© BBC

 

The hunt is on

 

© 20th Century Fox / Silver Pictures

 

I don’t know which work of short fiction has impacted most on the cinema.  However, I’d bet that Richard Connell’s 8400-word opus The Most Dangerous Game (1924), also known as The Hounds of Zaroff, ranks at least in the top ten short stories that have influenced filmmakers.

 

The Most Dangerous Game is about a big game hunter called Rainsford who falls off a yacht in the Caribbean.  He gets washed ashore on an island belonging to General Zaroff, a Russian exile and another hunting enthusiast.  Zaroff, it transpires, has grown bored of hunting animals and graduated to hunting bigger game, i.e. human beings.  So he dedicates himself to tracking down and killing the poor sailors who frequently get shipwrecked in the treacherous waters around his island.  Zaroff is delighted by Rainsford’s arrival because now he has a quarry he can really pit his wits against.

 

Armed only with a knife, Rainsford is soon being pursued across the island’s forests, swamps and clifftops by the crazed Zaroff, who’s equipped with proper firepower and supported by a hulking henchman and a pack of hungry hounds.  A typical hunter, Zaroff makes sure the odds are stacked in his favour.

 

The Most Dangerous Game has been filmed officially several times, most recently in 2017 under the title of Never Leave Alive.  Several loose adaptations of it have appeared too.  But its premise of humans hunting other humans lurks in the DNA of dozens, if not hundreds, of films in the action-adventure, thriller, science fiction and horror genres – including the Hunger Games movies, the Saw ones, the original Rambo one (1982) and that infamous Japanese bloodbath Battle Royale (2000).

 

I recently discovered Connell’s story on the Internet and read it for the first time.  Some of it is surprising if, like me, you’ve already seen many of the films it’s inspired.  For one thing, Connell spends about 6000 of his 8400 words setting up the situation, before the hunt begins.   Admittedly, he squeezes a lot of action into the final quarter.  Rainsford flees through the forests and swamps to the cliffs, tries and fails to kill Zaroff with three hastily-improvised traps – a Malay man-catcher, a Burmese tiger-pit and a Ugandan knife-trap – fakes his own death and returns to Zaroff’s headquarters for a final showdown.

 

Also surprising is Rainsford’s lack of self-awareness.  The irony of his situation is implicit in the story, obviously, but he never recognises that irony himself.  The Most Dangerous Game begins with him sailing for South America with the intention of shooting jaguars and you get the impression that, once he leaves the island, he’ll continue to South America and shoot jaguars.  His experience of being hunted like an animal hasn’t increased his empathy for hunted animals.

 

Still, there’s much to enjoy.  Particularly amusing is the scene where Zaroff describes his modus operandi to a slowly-comprehending Rainsford:

 

“I wanted the ideal animal to hunt,” explained the general.  “So I said, ‘What are the attributes of an ideal quarry?’  And the answer was, of course, ‘It must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason.”

“But no animal can reason,” objected Rainsford.

“My dear fellow,” said the general, “there is one.”

 

So much for the original story, then.  What about the countless humans-hunting-humans movies that have come in its wake?  The following are my favourites.

 

© RKO Radio Pictures

 

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

This is a direct adaptation of the story by Ernest D. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, who made it while they were also making King Kong (1933).  They filmed it at night on Kong’s jungle sets, including the famous one depicting a gorge spanned by a fallen tree-trunk.  Connell’s plot is followed closely, though it’s pumped up and made more cinematic – a bigger proportion of the film is devoted to the hunt, Zaroff (Leslie Banks) has more henchmen helping him out and, in another overlap with Kong, Fay Wray is added as a love interest for Rainsford (Joel McCrea).  Also added is a grotesque trophy room where the heads of Zaroff’s victims are displayed – the glimpses we get of those heads wouldn’t have been allowed a few years later, after Hollywood’s censorious Hays Code was imposed in 1934.  Leslie Banks, sporting real facial scars that he acquired whilst fighting in World War I, is entertaining as Zaroff; though by attempting to do a Russian accent by rolling his ‘r’s a lot, he ends up sounding more like a demented Scotsman.

 

The Naked Prey (1965)

Shifting The Most Dangerous Game’s premise to 19th century South Africa, The Naked Prey has a group of white hunters offending and then falling foul of a local tribe.  The last survivor, played by Cornel Wilde (who also directed and produced), is stripped of his clothes and hunted across the veldt by the vengeful tribesmen.  I saw this harsh movie as a kid and was traumatised as much by the horrors inflicted by the hunters – an early scene shows native bearers plodding in and out of the gutted carcasses of slain elephants – as by the horrors inflicted on them by the locals.

 

© United Artists

 

The Hunting Party (1971)

Here, The Most Dangerous Game is reworked in the guise of a Western.  A gang of outlaws led by a thuggish Oliver Reed – while most British actors stick out like sore thumbs when they appear in Westerns, Reed really looks the part – kidnap a woman (Candice Bergman), not knowing that her husband (Gene Hackman) is a wealthy cattle-baron who’s even more psychotic than they are.  He’s currently on a hunting trip with some buddies, using newly-developed long-range rifles with telescopic sights.  When he learns what’s happened, Hackman and his fellow hunters set off in pursuit, picking off the outlaws one by one at their leisure, from a safe distance.  Critics loathed The Hunting Party on account of its level of bloodletting, which was obviously inspired by Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969).  But I find it fascinating just for its single-minded nihilism.  Hackman’s prey get little chance to fight back; and even while his friends abandon him, sickened by his cruelty, Hackman keeps going, determined to kill ’em all.

 

Punishment Park (1971)

The underrated radical filmmaker Peter Watkins was responsible for Punishment Park, a fictional docu-drama  that transposes The Most Dangerous Game to a near-future dystopian USA – one where both the Vietnam War and opposition to it have escalated and Richard Nixon is drafting increasing numbers into the police and National Guard to maintain order at home.  The titular punishment park is a set-up whereby police and Guardsmen hunt down political dissidents (i.e. anti-war protestors, hippies and civil rights activists) while they try to cross an area of desert.  The former get valuable experience and training while the latter, if they can cross the park without being apprehended, supposedly win back their freedom.   Everything is viewed through the neutral eyes of a European film crew who are making a documentary about the process – though as the one-sided nature of things becomes clear to them, they find it harder to maintain that neutrality.  It’s a disorientating and disturbing piece that feels no less relevant today, given the way things are going in Trump-era America.

 

© Chartwell Francoise / Project X Distribution

 

The Beast Must Die (1974)

Strictly speaking, British horror movie The Beast Must Die isn’t about humans hunting humans.  It’s about humans hunting werewolves, though you could argue that werewolves are human for at least part of the time.  Calvin Lockhart – the first black actor to land the leading role in a British horror film – plays a millionaire hunter determined to bag a lycanthrope.  He rigs up his country estate with CCTV cameras and motion sensors, procures a helicopter and invites five unsavoury people to visit for a few days convinced that one of them – he’s not sure which one – is a werewolf.  Even watching this movie as a teenager I knew Lockhart’s logic was barmy.  What if he’s got it wrong and none of them is a werewolf?  He’ll be really disappointed.  Or what if they’re all werewolves?  They’ll surely rip him to pieces.  But nonetheless, The Beast Must Die is good, daft fun.  The sneaky werewolf gradually gets the better of Lockhart and his hi-tech equipment, whilst also bumping off his staff and guests Ten Little Indians-style.  (These include Peter Cushing, Charles Gray, Anton Diffring and a youthful Michael Gambon).

 

Southern Comfort (1981)

Perhaps the most accomplished film on this list, Southern Comfort was made by Walter Hill when he was at the height of his powers.  It tells the tale of a National Guard unit on weekend manoeuvres in the Bayou who unwisely antagonise an unseen group of Cajun hunters.  With its premise of supposedly well-trained, well-equipped American soldiers floundering in unfamiliar terrain, the film is often viewed as an allegory about the Vietnam War; but as the Cajuns prey on their victims using traps, quicksand and savage hunting dogs, the film’s roots in The Most Dangerous Game are plain to see too.

 

© 20th Century Fox / Cinema Group Ventures

 

Predator (1987)

A sci-fi / action highlight of the late 1980s when Arnold Schwarzenegger was King of the Box Office, Predator has clear parallels with The Most Dangerous Game.  Ah-nuld and a team of testosterone-stuffed commandoes (Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, etc.) enter the jungle to hunt down some insurgents, only to find themselves being hunted, for sport, by a grotesque-looking alien.  Yes, this is really an alien-hunts-humans movie, but the alien has all the characteristics of a human big game hunter.  It collects trophies (skulls) and, possessing deadly heat-rays, super-powerful sensors and an invisibility device that Harry Potter would be proud of, it hunts secure in the knowledge that it has technological advantages that its prey doesn’t have.

 

Surviving the Game (1994)

A homeless man (Ice-T) thinks his luck is on the up when he’s hired by a group of wealthy men to be their assistant during a hunting holiday in the remote Pacific Northwest.  But – surprise! – it soon turns out that he isn’t assisting them, he’s being shot at by them.  Surviving the Game is silly and predictable but I like it for its spectacular mountain landscapes and its excellent cast.  In addition to the always-endearing Ice-T, it has F. Murray Abraham playing a Wall Street stockbroker who believes that hunting people sharpens his business instincts, Gary Busey playing a deranged psychiatrist who finds hunting people therapeutic, and Rutger Hauer playing the evil scuzz-ball who’s masterminded the operation.  With a trophy room of human heads and a sequence involving a gorge spanned by a fallen tree, the film also makes visual references to the 1932 movie version of The Most Dangerous Game.

 

© Carnaby Film Productions / Kaleidoscope Film Distribution

 

A Lonely Place to Die (2011)

This is a neat little British thriller about a group of mountaineers in the Scottish Highlands who discover a young Eastern European girl, obviously a kidnap victim, locked in an underground vault.  Unfortunately, the kidnappers (chillingly played by Sean Harris and Stephen McCole) are in the area too, with high-powered rifles, and decide to retake the girl and eliminate her would-be rescuers.  As well as featuring some beautiful scenery in Glencoe and Glen Etive and some vertiginous rock-climbing set-pieces, the film has a grimly funny scene where the villains encounter two proper hunters, out shooting deer, who fatally mistake them for animal rights activists.

 

Revenge (2017)

Coralie Fargeat’s stylish exploitation movie gives The Most Dangerous Game a feminist twist.  Millionaire drug-dealer Richard (Kevin Janssens) takes his glamorous mistress Jen (Matilda Lutz) to his luxury hideaway in the desert, where he also intends to meet up with two sleazy buddies for some hunting.  Things don’t go as planned – Jen is sexually assaulted, she threatens to tell everything to Richard’s wife, and Richard tries and fails to kill her.  When Jen flees, wounded, into the desert the three men saddle up with their hunting gear and set off in pursuit.  Jen, who early on looked like she’d go to pieces at the sight of a broken fingernail or a laddered stocking, suddenly develops some outdoor survival skills and begins turning the tables on them.  It’s preposterous stuff but, like all such films, you find yourself cheering when the hunted starts to bite back against the bastard hunters.

 

© Rezo Films / MES Productions / Monkey Pack Films

 

Down in the dumps

 

 

If you went too near the edge of the chalk-pit the ground would give way.  Barney had been told this often enough.  Everybody had told him.  His grandmother, every time she came to stay with him.  His sister, every time she wasn’t telling him something else.  Barney had a feeling, somewhere in his middle, that it was probably true about the ground giving way.  But still, there was a difference between being told and seeing it happen…

 

These were the words greeting me on the first page of Stig of the Dump by Clive King, which I consider to be the first proper book I ever read.  I would’ve been seven years old at the time and though before then I’d read school reading books, picture books and collections of fairy tales, Stig struck me as being the real deal as far as books were concerned.  It was 158 pages long, its pages were packed with text and the pictures were sparse – just some simple but strangely evocative black-and-white line drawings by Edward Ardizzone – and it told a proper, continuous story, albeit an episodic one with each chapter chronicling a different adventure experienced by its protagonists.

 

I came across it in my primary school’s library and it was recommended to me by an older boy who assured me that it was ‘great’ and ‘brilliant’.  Because this older boy was the sort who’d more customarily be administering arm-twistings, Chinese burns and dead legs to me, as opposed to informing me of his literary opinions, I decided it was prudent to be seen to follow his advice.  So I borrowed the book and started reading it.

 

With 158 whole pages ahead of me, my seven-year-old self imagined that reading it was going to be an epic chore.  But I persevered and a week or two later I felt massively proud of myself when I reached the final page.  What surprised me, though, was that the experience hadn’t felt like a test of endurance.  I’d actually enjoyed reading the book.  I’d loved it, in fact.  So Stig of the Dump taught me the important lesson that reading could be a lot of fun.

 

As you will no doubt guess from those opening sentences, Barney ignores his family’s warnings and ventures to the very edge of the chalk pit, which gives way and drops him into the abyss below.  This proves to be the titular dump – “Anything people didn’t want they threw into the bottom of the pit” – and it contains “strange bits of wreckage among the moss and elder bushes and nettles.”  It also contains Stig, a cave-boy with “a lot of shaggy black hair and two bright black eyes”, who apparently has come through a time-warp from the Stone Age.

 

Stig has made the modern-day dump his home and fashioned a den for himself consisting of “stones and bones, fossils and bottles, skins and tins, stacks of sticks and hanks of string… motor-car tyres and hats from old scarecrows, nuts and bolts and bobbles from brass bedsteads… a coal scuttle full of dead electric light bulbs and a basin with rusty screws and nails in it…” and “a pile of bracken and newspapers that looked as if it were used for a bed.”  Barney reacts to Stig’s home by saying, “I wish I lived here.”  Which was exactly what I was thinking too.

 

A friendship forms between the 20th-century boy and the prehistoric one and the following chapters detail their escapades together.  These include having to deal with a leopard that’s escaped from a circus and turned up at a children’s fancy-dress party and getting involved in a foxhunt where they turn the tables on the horsebound toffs.  (“Stig doesn’t hunt foxes because they taste nasty,” Barney tells his disbelieving sister, “so we let the fox go…  And then Stig bit the dog and started hunting the horses.  It was jolly funny.”)  They also encounter some kids from a local problem family called the Snargets, who turn out to be not “as black as they were painted” and become their mates, despite Stig’s habit of eating their cigarettes.  And there’s a phantasmagorical final chapter involving a stone circle that provides some insight into where Stig has come from.

 

The book has been on my mind recently for two reasons.  Firstly, a few weeks ago, I discovered and bought a copy of it at a clearance sale organised by a library here in Colombo – the copy’s pictured above.

 

Secondly, I’ve just read that its author Clive King passed away on July 10th at the age of 94.  To be honest, I hadn’t known that he was still alive.  In fact, I’d thought he’d been dead for a long time already because I’d assumed the book had been published many years before it was really published, which was in 1963.  Maybe it’s the asceticism of Edward Ardizzone’s illustrations, which suggest the hard, economic times of the 1930s or Britain’s austerity years immediately after World War II rather than the 1960s.

 

But whatever its publication date, the late Clive King’s Stig of the Dump has both a charming simplicity and an irresistible universality – what boy from any place, era or background wouldn’t love to have a pal like Stig? – that make it as timeless as its shaggy dishevelled, dump-living hero.

 

How to talk Scots to Trump

 

© Stewart Bremner

 

Well, following last night’s 2-1 defeat at the hands (or feet) of the Croats, England are now out of the World Cup.  And today, what can the heartbroken people of England look forward to as a way of cheering them up?

 

A visit from US President Donald Trump, that’s what.

 

At least the English need to grit their teeth for barely more than a day.  Tomorrow evening, provided everything goes according to plan – i.e. Trump can refrain from grabbing the Queen by the pussy when he meets her at Windsor Castle – the most ignorant, obnoxious and morally bankrupt American Commander in Chief since James Buchanan will fly north of the border to Scotland and it’ll be the turn of the Scots to have to share their sovereign territory with the slobbering orange tyrant.  There, he’ll devote yet another wodge of his presidential time to playing golf, on one of his Scottish golf courses.  I suspect this is more likely to be Turnberry, as the breeze coming in from the offshore wind-turbines that Alex Salmond cheekily planted close to his course at Balmedie runs a serious risk of playing havoc with his combover.

 

Anti-Trump protests have been organised across the UK, with Scottish ones planned for Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeenshire.  I look forward to seeing the placards that the multitudes of Scottish demonstrators will be carrying because (a) they will surely be highly derisive about President Chump and (b) they will no doubt draw heavily on the Scottish vernacular to be derisive.

 

To my mind, there is no language more suited to insulting people than the Scots one.  Ice-T once rapped: “Words thrillin’, so real they’re chillin’, the hit author / Getting’ louder than a gunshot…”  But Ice, if the words in question were abusive Scots ones, they’d not only be louder than a gunshot, they’d be louder than an atomic bomb-blast.

 

For example, I expect there will be signs and placards at the Scottish protests referring to Trump as an arsepiece, an arsepipe, a balloon, a bampot, a bawheid, a chugmerchant, a cockwomble, a diddy, a dobber, a dunderheid, a fanny, a fannybaws, a fud, a jobby, a lavvyheid, a numpty, a nyaff, a plaster, a poultice, a puddock, a roaster, a rocket, a shitgibbon, a spoon, a tadger, a toalie, a tool, a tube, a walloper, a wankstain, a weapon and, of course, my favourite abusive Scots noun, a bawbag, which strictly speaking translates as ‘scrotum’.

 

Bawbag has already been successfully deployed in the struggle against alt-right nincompoop demagogues, because a few years ago a group of protestors laid siege to then UKIP leader and now shameless-brownnosing-Trump-cheerleader Nigel Farage while he was visiting Edinburgh.  Chanting “Nigel, ye’re a bawbag!”, they forced Farage to take refuge in the Canon’s Gait bar on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, which in turn prompted a priceless tweet by comedian Frankie Boyle: “Nigel Farage tried to escape Scottish protesters by hiding in a pub. Which is like trying to hide from a lion by putting on a zebra costume.”

 

I hope that this weekend someone has an extra-big sign that not only calls Trump a bawbag, but prefaces it with some choice Scots adjectives too, i.e. declaring Trump a barkit, boakin, bowfin, clarty, doaty, foostie, glaikit, hackit, howlin, mawkit, mingin, reekin, sleekit bawbag.”

 

There are also some inventive and graphic Scots phrases for insulting people.  If anyone needs inspiration for what to write on their anti-Trump placard, here are my top ten:

 

Awaw an bile yer heid.”

Awaw an shite.”  (Or even better, “Awaw an take yer face fir a shite.”)

Hope yer next shite’s a hedgehog.”

Ye look like a dug lickin pish aff a nettle.”

Yer bum’s oot the windae.”

Yer da’s yer ma.”

Yer da sells Avon.”

Yer heid’s foo o mince.”

Yer ma’s got baws an yer da loves it.”

Ye’ve an arse like a bag o washin.”

Ye’ve a face like a meltit wellie.”

 

However, that’s not to say that English English – as opposed to Scots English – is incapable of mustering the vitriol necessary to deal with the horror-show that is Trump.  In fact, back in December 2015, when Trump still seemed like a buffoonish comedy candidate who had no chance of ever winning the presidency, I seem to remember someone tweeting a memorable insult that quoted lines from Henry IV, Part 1 by England’s greatest bard, William Shakespeare: “Trump’s a clay-brained guts, knotty-pated fool, whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch, right?”

 

That 2015 tweeter was Scottish Conservative Party leader Ruth Davidson, whose boss Theresa May will be welcoming Trump to the UK today and will no doubt be kowtowing to him in the hope that, amid all the off-message humiliations and embarrassments he heaps upon her, he’ll grant her some sort of dubious post-Brexit US-UK trade deal; and whose Conservative colleague and Secretary of State for Scotland, the hapless David Mundell, has the job of greeting him / acting as his doormat in Scotland tomorrow.  So I expect to see the always principled, unyielding and truthful Ruth Davidson wielding a placard calling Trump a clay-brained guts, knotty-pated fool, etc., at one of Scotland’s anti-Trump protests this weekend.

 

© Stewart Bremner

 

The illustrations accompanying this post are by the graphic artist Stewart Bremner.  Free downloadable, printable versions of his anti-Trump designs are available here.  And to purchase other examples of his craft, please go here

 

Enger-lund

 

From fifa.com

 

It’s World Cup time and England have been playing unexpectedly well.  They’re in the final four with a semi-final game scheduled for seven o’clock BST tonight against Croatia.

 

Less unexpected is the debate that flares up north of the border whenever England qualify for a World Cup, irrespective of whether Scotland have also qualified or, as has been the case these last 20 years, they haven’t qualified.  The question of this debate is: Should Scottish people support England during their World Cup games?

 

As usual, opinion pieces have clogged the pages of newspapers and current affairs magazines, penned by Scottish journalists adding their tuppence-worth to the subject.  Since the first kick of the ball in the first World Cup game of 2018, we’ve had Lesley Riddoch in the National, Chris Deerin in the New Statesman, Kevin McKenna in the Herald, Stephen Daisley in the Spectator and many more.

 

Daisley, for instance, stated his belief that Scots are obliged to support England in the competition: “If Scotland were heading into a World Cup semi-final – come now, it’s not nice to laugh – you can just picture the response south of the border.  England fans would throw their support behind the plucky 11…  Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn would discover long-lost great grannies who once had a fish supper in Portobello.  The Sun would give away novelty kilts bearing the legend ‘It’s coming hame’; the Mirror would reprint the lyrics of Flower of Scotland for its readers to sing along.”  Funnily enough, I was in the UK two years ago when Wales reached the semi-finals of the European Championship and I don’t recall Therezza, Jezza, the Sun and the Mirror being so enthusiastic about the Welsh.

 

© Bob Thomas / Getty Images

 

Back in the days of my youth, there was certainly a strong Scottish penchant for not supporting England at football and, indeed, for supporting any team playing against England.  When England took on Argentina in the 1986 World Cup, everyone I knew in Scotland hooted with laughter when Maradona showed the poor old English the door aided by his dodgy ‘hand of God’ goal.  This was despite the fact that, as part of the UK, Scotland had been at war with Argentina only four years earlier, as of course had England.

 

During the 1990 World Cup, the atmosphere was electric in my regular pub in Aberdeen when England played Cameroon.  This was helped no end by the entry of a group of Cameroonian students, come to watch the game on TV.  While the game was going Cameroon’s way, the students enlivened the pub by performing some traditional Cameroonian dancing, which the locals – rather atypically for Aberdonians, a people not given to over-exuberance – heartily joined in with.  And when England stole the game 3-2 in extra time, the dancing stopped and both Scottish and Cameroonian faces were long and downcast.  Later, when England went out in the semi-finals courtesy of Germany, someone in Glasgow celebrated by painting a local statue of St George in the German team colours.

 

Footballing-wise, it was easy to be ‘anyone-but-England’ in Scotland at the time.  Sometimes it felt like a political protest.  The UK was governed in an autocratic and centralised fashion by a Conservative government led by that most English-seeming of figures, Margaret Thatcher.  A majority of Scots were anti-Thatcherite, but their objections seemed to matter not a jot with those in power in London whose economic policies were dismantling Scotland’s traditional heavy industries and wrecking its traditional working-class communities.

 

Also, much of England’s travelling support seemed to consist of hooligans and / or racists.  In a recent, excellent piece about English football and English identity in the New Statesman, Jason Cowley recalls how a memorable 2-0 England win over Brazil in 1984 was, in the eyes of certain fans, a 1-0 England victory.  To them, one of the goals didn’t count because it’d been scored by a black player, John Barnes.  So who’d want to back a team supported by that unlovable bunch?

 

From www.soccer-ireland.com

 

Conversely, now that Scotland has its own devolved parliament and has at least a measure of responsibility for its own affairs, and now that the new generation of English fans have a better reputation than their predecessors, the anyone-but-England mentality seems much less pronounced in Scotland.  But I don’t see why, as Daisley thinks, Scots should be compelled to support England.  Sure, they can support them if they want to.  But it shouldn’t be shocking if they don’t want to, for a couple of reasons.

 

Firstly, plenty of Scottish football fans still see England as their great rival on the footballing stage – not, admittedly, that they’ve had an opportunity to compete against England in any major tournaments during the 21st century because the Scotland side has been too gash to qualify for them.  And it’s a basic law of sporting physics that rivals, especially near-neighbours, do not support each other.  Rather, they’ll happily support their rivals’ opponents.  When Newcastle United took on Manchester United in the 1999 FA Cup Final, I’d bet that very few Sunderland fans, ten miles down the way, were backing them.  And I doubt if many, or indeed any, Celtic supporters were cheering on their old Glasgow rivals Rangers when the latter were up against FC Zenit St Petersburg in the 2008 UEFA Cup final.

 

This rule extends to national football teams.  I’ve had Dutch people tell me that they don’t want Germany to win, and Ethiopians have said the same about Egypt.  And to other sports – I remember a long-ago rugby world cup where an Australian friend told me how disgruntled he was at hearing certain New Zealanders, whom he knew and considered good mates, cheering on any team that played Australia.  I also remember a Canadian friend asking me one time in a puzzled tone about the anyone-but-England mentality among Scottish football fans.  “So when the USA play Finland at ice hockey,” I asked her, “who do you Canadians support?”  “Finland of course!” she said immediately.

 

Secondly – and this isn’t the fault of the England players or supporters – the amount of hype that accompanies England’s entry into every footballing competition, generated by English-based pundits, TV stations and newspapers, puts you off them.  It’s immense and overwhelming and rapidly becomes maddening if you live in parts of the United Kingdom that aren’t England but are still saturated by England’s media.  These days, in fact, most of the xenophobia isn’t to be found among the fans, bad boys though they were in the past, but among the tabloids.  Witness the amount of gloating that went on when Germany were knocked out in an uncharacteristically early stage of this World Cup: SCHADENFREUDE declared the front-page headline in the Sun, which then provided a short definition (“Pleasure derived from another person’s dissatisfaction”) presumably because it considered its readers too dense to know what the word meant.

 

© Daily Express / From the BBC

 

No doubt the frenzied jingoistic coverage of this year’s World Cup has been ramped up in England’s right-wing, Brexit-crazed newspapers in the hope that it’ll help to bury news of the ultra-shambles, mega-shambles, hyper-shambles and total absolute omni-shambles that Theresa May’s government is currently making of the Brexit negotiations.  They probably hope too that if England win the World Cup, it’ll take people’s minds off the 1930s / Great Depression-style economic misery that’ll inevitably follow a hard Brexit.

 

Personally, I don’t see any reason why I should support England as it just isn’t my national football team – for me, that title is shared jointly by Scotland and Northern Ireland.  And for the reasons mentioned above, I’ve borne the anyone-but-England attitude in the past.  But I bear no ill-feeling against this current England side and I’m happy to see them do well.

 

Partly it’s because the current England squad seem like a decent bunch of blokes, certainly in comparison with some of the bloated egos and elephantine senses of entitlement that’ve populated past squads.  (The nadir was surely the England World Cup squad of 2006, who rolled up in Germany with their Sex and the City-style wives and girlfriends.  This led to the gruesome spectacle of Victoria Beckham, Cheryl Cole, Coleen Rooney and co. descending regularly on the boutiques of Baden-Baden, with the paparazzi in tow, and blowing more money in a single shopping trip than most England fans earned in a year.)

 

I also like English manager Gareth Southgate, who has executed his World Cup duties with intelligence, humility and compassion.  I even had a lump in my throat when, after England got past Colombia in their quarter-final win game, Southgate saw a Colombian player who’d missed an all-important penalty crying and went over and gave him a hug.

 

And he knows how to wear a waistcoat.  These things are important.

 

© CNN

 

So I can support this version of England – that is, if I embargo all English newspapers beforehand and have the TV volume turned down so that my brain isn’t turned to mush by any drivelling, hubristic English-TV-studio commentary.  But I’m still not sure I want them to win the World Cup.  I shudder to imagine the English media’s reaction.  They’d be braying and crowing about it for years.  Come to think of it, they still haven’t shut up about winning the bloody thing in 1966.

 

Then again, if that happens and the “We won! We won!” hysteria gets so unbearable, Scotland could be independent by Christmas.

 

The writer on the edge of forever

 

© Los Angeles Times

 

Harlan Ellison, who was often categorised as a science-fiction writer although he once memorably warned anyone who called him a science-writer that he would come to their house and ‘nail’ their ‘pet’s head to a coffee table’, passed away in his sleep on June 27th at the age of 84.

 

In his lifetime the Cleveland-born Ellison authored some 1800 stories, scripts, reviews, articles and opinion pieces, but it’s as a short story writer that he was best known.  In fact, when he was in his prime, from the 1960s to 1980s, he was responsible for some of the boldest and most exhilarating short stories I’ve ever read.  As a writer, he seemed to push both his imagination and his writing energies to the very limit.  Describing his stories is difficult, but the nearest comparison I can think of is the fiction of Ray Bradbury.  However, Ellison’s work also had counter-cultural and radical political tones that encompassed both the idealism of the 1960s’ civil rights movement and Summer of Love and the cynicism and despair that came with the Vietnam War and Watergate in the 1970s.

 

Frequently his short stories contained a palpable anger too.  Yes, Ellison had a lot of anger in him.  More on that in a minute.

 

Incidentally, by focusing on his short stories, I don’t wish to denigrate his occasional novels.  Indeed, I’d rate 1961’s Spider Kiss alongside Iain Banks’ Espedair Street (1987) and John Niven’s Kill Your Friends (2008) as one of my favourite rock-and-roll novels ever.

 

© Pan Books

 

Ellison wasn’t a big name in the UK, but in the 1970s – perfectly timed for my development as a teenager – Britain’s Pan Books brought out editions of several of his short story collections, like The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World (1969), Approaching Oblivion (1974) and Deathbird Stories (1975).  All had gorgeously psychedelic covers by (I think) the artist Bob Layzell.  It’s fair to say that my 14 or 15-year-old mind was blown by these volumes.

 

I also loved how Ellison prefaced each story with a short essay describing how it had come into being.  These pieces gave insight not only into his combative personality but also into the rich life-experiences he’d had (or claimed to have had).  Before establishing himself as a writer he’d been, among other things, a truck driver transporting nitro-glycerine, a hired gun and a tuna fisherman.  This inspired me when I was a budding writer to try my hand at different jobs and build up my experiences too, though predictably the stuff I ended up doing – stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s, working in a shoe warehouse, serving as a deputy warden at Aberdeen Youth Hostel – was rather less glamorous than the items on Ellison’s CV.

 

Some of his work also appeared on television although TV was a medium he generally had a low opinion of – in a 2013 interview he accused it and other modern forms of entertainment and communication of having “reduced society to such a trivial, crippled form that it is beyond my notice.”  For instance, he scripted the 1967 Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever, which has Captain Kirk, Mr Spock and Dr McCoy catapulted back in time to 1930s America and confronted with an agonising time-travel-related moral dilemma.  Do they intervene in an accident and prevent the death of a woman called Edith Keeler who (despite being played by Joan Collins) is a noble political activist dedicated to peace, pacifism and public service and with whom, predictably, William Shatner’s horn-dog Captain Kirk has fallen in love; or do they let her die, which means her political movement won’t gain power in the USA, delay her country’s entry into World War II and allow the Nazis to become masters of humanity, which will happen otherwise?

 

© Desilu Productions

 

Thanks to its inventive and thought-provoking spin on time travel, The City… is the best episode of the original series of Star Trek.  In fact, as I don’t like any of the later TV incarnations of Star Trek, I’d say it’s the best Star Trek episode full stop.  Ellison, however, was unimpressed with how the show’s producer Gene Rodenberry and his writing staff rewrote his script and watered down some of its themes and was never slow to sound off about it afterwards.  It may be significant that his later short story How’s the Night Life on Cissalda? (1977) features William Shatner attempting to make love to a revolting-looking alien creature.  Shatner’s toupee falls off in the process.

 

More time-travelling figures in the Ellison-penned episodes Demon with a Glass Hand and Soldier that he wrote for the TV anthology show The Outer Limits (1963-65).  Years later, he was incensed at what he saw as plagiarism of elements of his Soldier script by James Cameron while Cameron was making the first Terminator movie in 1984.  Ellison threatened to sue and got a payment of 65-70,000 dollars from Cameron’s financiers and an acknowledgement on The Terminator’s credits.  By 2014 Ellison had mellowed to the point where he could see the funny side of it.  He played himself in an episode of The Simpsons in which he gets into an argument with Milhouse Van Houten.  When Millhouse comments, “I wish someone would have come from the future and warned me not to talk to you,” Ellison grabs him by the throat and screams, “That’s my idea!”

 

In fact, Ellison was highly litigious.  After discovering his writing, I found an interview with him in an American magazine called Future Life where he talked about suing Paramount Television.  He accused Paramount of stealing the premise of a story about a robot policeman that he’d co-authored with the writer Ben Bova and turning it into a TV show called Future Cop (1976-78) without their permission.  “We’re going to nail their asses to the barn door!” he declared in the interview.  Later, when I was playing rugby for my school and while we were trying to psyche ourselves up against our opponents, I inadvertently let slip with Ellison’s phrase: “We’re going to nail their asses to the barn door!” I exclaimed.  That earned me some strange looks from my teammates.  Nailing asses to barn doors was not common lexical usage on south-of-Scotland rugby pitches.

 

I can honestly say that for a period when I was a teenager Harlan Ellison, with his mind-bending fiction, his braggadocio, his adventurous backstory and his take-no-shit-from-anyone attitude, was the person I wanted to be.  Of course, that changed as I grew older, became less impressionable and more mature, and learned more about Ellison and revised my opinions.  I began to appreciate that Ellison’s persona involved a fair bit of self-mythologizing, egotism and unwarranted cantankerousness and bloody-mindedness.  When Stephen King commented that he knew one writer who regarded Ellison as the reincarnation of Jonathan Swift and another writer who regarded him as a ‘son-of-a-bitch’, I found myself in sympathy with both viewpoints.  And by the time I read a profile of him in a non-fiction book about science-fiction writers called Dream Makers (1980), written by Charles Platt, I was disappointed but somehow not surprised to encounter a character rather too driven by vanity and rather too desperate to impress.  Ellison and Platt later fell out badly – violently, it’s said – though not as far as I know about the unflattering profile in Dream Makers.

 

Also falling out with Ellison was the English writer Christopher Priest, who took issue with Ellison’s editorship of the Dangerous Visions series of science fiction anthologies in the early 1970s.  There was meant to be a third volume in the series but for reasons known only to Ellison it never appeared, leaving a lot of submitted stories in limbo and depriving a lot of authors of potential earnings.  This seems hypocritical of Ellison considering how famously touchy he was about payment for his own work – he’s said to have once mailed a dead gopher to a wayward publisher as a protest.  And although Ellison was a vocal supporter of the USA’s Equal Rights Amendment, much of that good work was undone in 2006 when, in a moment of dirty-old-man madness, he fondled a female writer’s breast onstage at an awards ceremony.  From the footage I’ve seen of it, I suspect Ellison thought he was just indulging in some ‘innocent’ schoolboy malarkey.  Understandably, though, the writer at the receiving end was highly pissed off at him.

 

© Pan Books

 

But while I came to have mixed feelings about the character of the artist, my enthusiasm never waned for the art itself.  And Ellison’s literary legacy includes at least ten short stories that I’d number among my all-time favourites by any writer.  I’ve listed them below:

 

A Boy and His Dog: a post-apocalyptic satire that’s a spot-on blend of anarchy and irreverence, featuring as its main character a telepathic and sarcastic canine.  It was filmed in 1975 by L.Q. Jones and though the movie version isn’t perfect, it still holds up better than a lot of other, more portentous sci-fi films made in the same decade.

Along the Scenic Route: a biting analysis of the relationship between Americans and their cars.  Detailing how a couple out for a leisurely drive end up competing in a lethal demolition derby, it prefigures movies like the Mad Max ones.

Bleeding Stones: quite simply a story that made my jaw drop with its combination of brutality, blasphemy and surrealism.

Count the Clock That Tells the Time: describing how a lethargic never-do-well gets trapped in a weird, ghostly netherworld, this is a cautionary tale about the dangers of wasting your time and frittering your life away.

Delusion for a Dragon Slayer: an unremarkable little man suddenly finds his soul transplanted into the body of a Conan the Barbarian-type swordsman in a blood-and-thunder fantasy land.  What follows is a merciless dissection of the inadequacies of the nerdy males who read sword-and-sorcery stories.

Hindsight: 480 Seconds: a haunting story about a poet who volunteers to stay on an about-to-be-destroyed earth after the rest of humanity has been evacuated, so that he can provide a commentary on his planet’s dying minutes.

I’m Looking for Kadak: Kurt Vonnegut meets Woody Allen in this comedy about the frustrations of a group of aliens on a far-flung planet who’ve converted to Judaism.

One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty: another time-travel tale, this one about a man going back in time and befriending his younger self when he’s a bullied, insecure child.

Pretty Maggie Money Eyes: a sad and unexpectedly tender story of a woman’s spirit inhabiting a Las Vegas slot machine.

Shatterday: the unsettling tale of a man who accidentally phones his own apartment one evening and finds himself talking to himself.  In fact, this other self is a sinister doppelganger who’s appeared from nowhere and is planning to usurp him from his existence.

 

And that’s my Harlan Ellison Top Ten.  Thank you for the entertainment and inspiration, Mr E., and Rest In (non-cantankerous) Peace.

 

© Pan Books

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 12

 

 

This post is about collocations, for which the Cambridge Dictionary gives the following definition: “a word or phrase that is often used with another word or phrase, in a way that sounds correct to people who have spoken the language all their lives, but might not be expected from the meaning.”  Collocations can involve verbs and nouns, as in ‘do your homework’; or adjectives and nouns, as in ‘heated argument’, or verbs and adverbs, as in ‘rain heavily’.

 

If, like me, you’ve spent part of your working life teaching the English language to non-native speakers of it, you’ll appreciate the difficulty students often have getting their heads around collocations in English.  I seem to have spent hours explaining to people that you don’t ‘write your homework’ but ‘do’ it; that calling an angry exchange a ‘hot argument’ just doesn’t sound right; and that you can’t describe extreme precipitation as ‘raining painfully’.  Note that with all these mistakes, I fully understood the meaning the speaker was trying to convey.  (The last mistake cropped up when I was working in a school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where, yes, it seemed to rain painfully every day.)

 

The problem is, we simply don’t put those particular words together to express those particular things.  It may well be that the reasons for certain collocations being right and other collocations being wrong are psychological, on the part of the listener, as much as they are linguistic, on the part of the language itself.  Also, it didn’t surprise me when I heard a language researcher claim one time that collocations are the biggest causes of mistakes in speaking and writing by high-level learners of English.

 

In literature, of course, the way in which a writer uses collocations can contribute greatly to his or her style.  Shunting together words that don’t normally collocate can add an inventive flourish to the prose.  However, if the results can be embarrassing if a writer overdoes it and the attempted collocation falls flat.  I still haven’t forgotten a sentence in an Anthony Burgess novel where a character ‘tramples’ a page with his ‘signature’ – ouch!  And I’ve read a review of Martin Amis’ 2012 novel Lionel Asbo – State of England, in which Amis is taken to task for the clumsiness of his writing – much of which is down to him trying to collocate words that have no business being collocated: for example, ‘Dawn sizzled…’, ‘unfallen eyes’ and ‘a heavy silence began to fuse and climb…’

 

Anyway, this is a prelude to saying that I recently noticed a mural painted on a wall outside a school on Colombo’s Duplication Road that makes heavy use of English collocations.  It pairs off various English verbs and adverbs so that the school-pupils receive a list of instructions about how to behave properly.  Some of the collocated verbs and adverbs work for me and some don’t.  I wonder if this is because the creator of the mural had mistaken ideas about what words collocate appropriately in English or if he or she simply stuck them together without knowing at all.  Or is it because these collocations have become acceptable in Sri Lankan English while it’s evolved apart from ‘standard’ English (whatever that is) over the years?  Or are they the result of literal translations from the local languages, Sinhala and Tamil?

 

By the way, I’m not trying to take a pop at Sri Lankan English here for being incorrect.  The dialect of English where I come from originally, Northern Ireland, has often been dismissed as being ungrammatical or uneducated or just plain incomprehensible, but I would absolutely defend people’s right to speak English that way.  And it contains some collocations of its own that would probably earn an arrest-warrant from the Standard-English Grammar Police: “It’s fierce hot,” “She’s a big age,” “The weather’s powerful today,” and so on.

 

 

So let’s see.  Which of the mural’s collocations work?  ‘Dress smartly’?  Obviously.  ‘Save regularly’?  Yes.  ‘Eat sensibly’?  I suppose so.  ‘Act fearlessly’?  Well, that’s a bit dramatic and it would be exhausting to act fearlessly all the time, but I guess it’s acceptable.  ‘Sleep sufficiently’?  Hmmm…  ‘Plan orderly’?  No, sorry.

 

Some of these collocations sound downright odd, yet I can think of certain people to whom they would make perfect sense.  ‘Spend intelligently’ – did you hear that, Mr. Johnny Depp, the man who last year was reputed to be blowing two million dollars a month on wine, staff, security, a private jet and 14 residences?  ‘Think truthfully’, meanwhile, would be excellent advice for Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Liam Fox, David Davis and the other members of Britain’s Brexiting Conservative government, who are currently possessed by self-delusion on an epic scale about Britain’s prospects after it leaves the European Union.

 

And ‘walk humbly’?  Well, I’m not quite sure how you would physically do that.  But I would advise this man to at least give it a try.

 

© Disney Enterprises Inc

© Stefan Rousseau / From the Times

From CBN News

 

Koko the gorilla versus Koko the clown

 

© Elaine Thompson / Associated Press

© CNN

 

A piece of sad news last week was that of the death of Koko the gorilla, the female primate who lived at the Gorilla Foundation in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains and, during her 46-year life, was said to have learned over a thousand items in sign language and to understand about 2000 words of spoken English.

 

Among the other things that made Koko remarkable was her empathy for her fellow creatures.  According to her Wikipedia entry, she cared for a total of five cats – All Ball, Lipstick, Smoky, Miss Black and Miss Grey – from the age of 13.  She also became buddies with the likes of Robin Williams, venerable actress Betty White, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and children’s TV personality Fred Rogers and in 2014 was clearly upset to hear about Williams’ death.  Koko, in other words, was proof that animals are capable not only of thought and communication but also of compassion.

 

Compassion, though, is not a word that immediately springs to mind when you consider one of last week’s other news stories – the scandal of how in the last month-and-a-half the Trump administration has overseen the separation of some 2000 migrant children from their parents (often fleeing turmoil in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras) on the southern US border, with the kids being kept in cages in detention centres with no indication of when or if they’ll see their parents again.  Yes, as Trump and his supporters have been blabbing frantically, the legislation that allows this to happen had been in place under previous presidents, dating back to the Bush Jr years.  But it’s been Trump’s rhetoric and his creation of a ‘hostile environment’ (to use a phrase that’s lately become notorious on the other side of the Atlantic) towards immigrants, outsiders and foreigners that’s enabled it to escalate into a modern-day atrocity.

 

Koko the gorilla displayed heart-warming levels of empathy for members of other species.  Trump and his courtiers, fixers, and minions, on the other hand, have shown about as much empathy for members of their own species as a falling slab of rock shows for the person whose head it’s hurtling towards.  We already knew that Trump has the emotional intelligence of a blocked drain – back in 2016, when he wasn’t mocking people for being disabled or having his thoughts about how to charm women (“Grab ’em by the pussy!”) aired on tape, he was busy dehumanising Mexican immigrants by describing them as criminals, drug-dealers and rapists.  But this time, for sheer callousness, he’s had stiff competition.  His wife Melania jetted off to spread some love among the kids penned up at a detention facility in Texas, but the gesture was spoiled a wee bit by her insistence on wearing a Zara jacket that said on the back, ‘I REALLY DON’T CARE.  DO U?’

 

Meanwhile, Trump admirer and extreme right-wing horror-show Ann Coulter dismissed the kids in the news reports from the detention centres as ‘child actors’ who are “given scripts to read by liberals”; while another Trump-eteer, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, ghoulishly likened the centres to ‘summer camps’.  And Trump’s resident Britannic cheerleader / court jester / arse-licker Nigel Farage moaned about all “the screams coming from the liberal media’, which seemingly bothered him far more than the screams coming from the kids.

 

Trump and co. really give me the impression these days that humanity is de-evolving.  Our species is losing the qualities of love, kindness, kinship, understanding and so on that originally made us, well, human.  Maybe it’s time for homo sapiens to give up the pretence that they’re the most advanced species on the planet, get out of the way and allow some other type of creature – like Koko’s gorillas – a chance to take up the mantle of dominant life-form on earth for a while.  Yes, maybe we should just let the primates take over.  Then the world would become like the Planet of the Apes movies, where the simians enjoy all the perks of civilisation, like clothes, cutlery and indoor plumbing, while the humans exist in a state of bestial savagery out in the fields.

 

It wouldn’t last forever, of course.  After being the Alpha Life-Form for a time, I have no doubt that the apes would let their supremacy go to their heads too and they’d become as emotionally barren as human beings seem to be today.  Actually, if you’ve seen the second of the original series of Planet of the Apes movies, 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes, you’ll know that it’s set 2000 years into the future and chronicles the end of the apes’ civilisation.  By then, the earth is heading for nuclear annihilation, the apes’ society is full of loutish gorillas swaggering around waving guns, and it’s ruled by an orangutan with crazy hair.

 

Come to think of it, considering what’s happening just now, that far-future scenario may well be a case of history repeating itself.

 

© 20th Century Fox / APJAC Productions

From gandara.rferl.org

 

Remember the Ally-mo

 

© BBC

 

One unsettling feature of growing older is that when an anniversary arrives and you think back to the original event, you feel shocked when you realise how much time separates now and then.  The other day, the 2018 World Cup competition began in Russia and it’s just occurred to me that the 1978 World Cup in Argentina took place 40 whole years and ten whole world cups ago.  It’s almost traumatic to realise how much time has elapsed.

 

However, if you’re old enough to remember the 1978 Argentinian World Cup and you were in Scotland at the time, you’ll testify that the event itself was traumatic.

 

For those of you who’re unacquainted with the topic – what happened in 1978 was that of the four national football teams in the UK, Scotland was the only one to qualify for Argentina.  And the country had a team that, on paper, looked like it might achieve something.  It boasted players from some of the mightiest football clubs in Britain: for example, from Manchester United (Martin Buchan, Gordon McQueen, Lou Macari, Joe Jordan), Liverpool (Graham Souness, the legendary Kenny Dalglish), Glasgow Rangers (Derek Johnstone, Tom Forsyth, Sandy Jardine), Nottingham Forest (Kenny Burns, John Robertson, Archie Gemmill) and, er, Partick Thistle (Alan Rough).  And in charge of these remarkable players was a manager called Ally MacLeod, who was remarkable in his own way.  Though not necessarily in the right way.

 

Emboldened by wins in 1977 over the European champions Czechoslovakia and over the Auld Enemy, England – the game concluded with the Scotland fans swarming onto the pitch at Wembley and digging up clods of the turf and breaking the goalposts into wee pieces to bring back to Scotland as souvenirs, much to the horror of the English commentators – Ally began to talk up his team’s chances in Argentina.  When early in 1978 Scotland failed to win the Home International championship involving England, Wales and Northern Ireland, he shrugged it off with the tantalising comment that the championship’s title “could be dwarfed by the World Cup.”  Such statements, and Ally’s general air of swagger and optimism – “My name is Ally MacLeod,” he announced when he became Scotland manager, “and I am a born winner!” – acted like catnip to both football fans and the hacks working on the sports pages of Scotland’s newspapers.

 

From the Independent / © Getty Images

 

As the World Cup approached, a heady sense of expectation began to infect the Scottish population.  Folk started to believe that the Argentinian World Cup would be a jamboree of Scottish footballing genius, culminating in Ally and the gang lifting the trophy.  No wonder a carpet company cannily signed Ally to do a commercial where he sat on one of their rugs whilst dressed as a gaucho – 1970s Britain’s idea of what everybody in Argentina looked like.  This led to a priceless incident where, just before he departed for Argentina, Ally was accosted by an exuberant fan who declared, “Ally, see the day after your commercial?  My ma bought one o they carpets!”

 

Ally was indeed a great salesman.  He could truly market the brand.  Unfortunately, that was not quite the same as delivering the goods.

 

Even my favourite rock band, the Australian (but mostly Scottish-born) AC/DC, got in on act and wore Scotland football strips during a 1978 gig at Glasgow Apollo Theatre.  Also getting in on the act was the Scottish comedian Andy Cameron, who recorded a song called Ally’s Tartan Army that soon rode high in the charts.  It contained such catchy, if posthumously cringeworthy, lines as: “And we’re fairly shake them up / When we win the World Cup / Cos Scotland is the greatest football team!

 

From pinterest.co.uk

 

Being in Scotland in the spring of 1978 and watching this happen was disconcerting for me.  The year before, my family had moved from Northern Ireland and taken up residency in a farm near the Scottish town of Peebles.  Since then, I’d assumed that the Scots were a stoical, down-to-earth lot, not given to flights of fancy.  But then, all-of-a-sudden, they’d succumbed to this madness about Ally MacLeod, winning the World Cup and having the greatest football team in the universe – what was going on?  I found it particularly noticeable the day before Scotland played Northern Ireland in the Home Internationals.  When I walked into a meeting of the local Scouts that evening, all the other (Scottish) scouts had an insane glint in their eyes and were gleefully predicting how Scotland was going to slaughter, dismember and stomp on the grave of poor, lowly Northern Ireland the next day.  (As it turned out, all Scotland could manage with Northern Ireland was a 1-1 draw, much to my satisfaction.)

 

Still, over time, the madness seemed to seep into even my non-ethnically Scottish soul.  Hey, I thought, it would be cool to live in the country that’d won the World Cup, wouldn’t it?

 

After a delirious send-off at Hampden Stadium where 30,000 Scotland fans whooped and roared as if their team had just come back from Argentina clutching the World Cup trophy, Ally’s Tartan Army flew out and got ready for their first game of the competition’s first round, which was against Peru.  The evening that the game was on TV, I missed the beginning of it for my dad had sent me out to move some cows from one field to another.  I was in the middle of moving those cows when I heard a huge rumbling roar – like how I’d imagine the approach of a tsunami to be.  It took me a few seconds to realise I was hearing cheering coming from the town, a half-mile away beyond the last of my parents’ fields.  It was the sound of 5000-odd people in Peebles celebrating Joe Jordan knocking in a first goal for Scotland in the game’s 14th minute.  Gosh, I thought, it’s startedScotland really are going to win the World Cup!

 

So I completed my task, hurried back to the house and hunkered down in front of the television next to my younger brother, who’d really caught the Scotland World Cup bug and was sitting excitedly with a tartan scarf wrapped around him.  Scarcely had I arrived there when, just before half-time, Peru equalised.  Then in the second half Peru scored two more, so that by the game’s end Scotland had been beaten 3-1.  In a pathetic attempt to hide my disappointment, I pretended that, being Northern Irish, I hadn’t really been supporting Scotland and I thought their defeat was funny.  So I turned around and started laughing at my brother.  I stopped, though, when I realised he was in floods of tears.  However, my mother had already seen me laughing at him and she gave me a deserved bollocking for making him even more upset.

 

Next up for Scotland was Iran – an unstable country in the early throes of a revolution.  Scotland was surely going to win this one, right?  Wrong.  The team played so badly that they scraped a 1-1 draw and that was only because an Iranian player called Eskandarian scored an own-goal.  This game was famous for its images of a totally-deflated Ally Macleod sitting hunched over in the Scotland dugout, his hands clamped over the top of his skull in an attempt to shut out the world – “Ally trying to dismantle his head,” as one wag described it later.

 

From sportingheroes.net / © George Herringshaw

 

To heighten the misery, the Scottish striker Willie Johnston was sent home after failing a drugs test.  Other football players have suffered drugs scandals, most notably the cocaine-snorting Diego Maradona.  But the hapless Johnston wasn’t even caught taking a glamorous drug – he tested positive for Reacitivan, a medication prescribed to him because he had hay fever.  Poor old Willie might as well have been busted for taking Benylin Chesty Cough Mixture.

 

By now the Scotland situation was looking grim.  Also grim was the atmosphere at Peebles High School.  One guy in my class told me there was a record shop in Glasgow that was now selling copies of Ally’s Tartan Army by Andy Cameron for a penny each – so that disgruntled punters could make a public display of smashing them into vinyl slivers on the pavement outside.  Meanwhile, a girl told me she couldn’t bear to drink Scotland’s national fizzy drink Irn Bru any more – because its name sounded it too much like ‘Iran Peru’.  Lessons with our English teacher, Iain Jenkins, strayed off the topic of Shakespeare and became lengthy post-mortem discussions about what was going horribly wrong in Argentina.

 

In fact, I remember us doing some creative writing one day and then Iain Jenkins reading out a poem that a mischievous pupil from south of the border had just penned about Scotland’s faltering World Cup campaign.  It contained the memorable line, “Poor Ally will have to emigrate to the moon” and the even more memorable couplet, “Willie Johnston is over the hill / That’s why he’s on the pill.”

 

To get through to the World Cup’s next round, Scotland now had to beat the Netherlands – and beat them by three goals.  There seemed zero chance of that happening.  From the dire way the Scots were playing, it looked much more likely that the Dutch would murder them.  Yet it was against the Dutch – who’d eventually make it to the competition’s final – that Scotland managed a victory.  Indeed, they were 3-1 up at one point in the game and if they’d knocked in another goal they could have lived to fight another day.   Alas, it wasn’t to be.  The Dutch eventually pulled one back, making the final score 3-2.  Scotland had won, but not by enough to stop them going home early.

 

Still, the game produced a brilliant Scottish goal by the diminutive Nottingham Forest player Archie Gemmill.  It was the best goal of that World Cup and possibly the greatest World Cup goal ever.  Incidentally, it’s also the goal whose footage is intercut with the hectic sex sequence in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1995) – no wonder a dazed Ewan MacGregor murmurs at the end of it, “I haven’t felt that good since Archie Gemmill scored against Holland in 1978!”  (Though I’m pretty sure that back in 1978 the Scottish football commentator Archie Macpherson didn’t really exclaim, as he does in Trainspotting, “A penetrating goal for Scotland!”)

 

From whoateallthepies.tv

 

So Scotland was out of the World Cup but with, technically, a wee bit of pride salvaged.  Sadly, such was the hype that’d accompanied them to Argentina that their campaign didn’t feel like anything other than an absolute disaster.  The day after the Holland game, I remember a schoolmate, the local postman’s son, coming into class.  He pulled out a tartan scarf, waved it around for five seconds and said flatly and unenthusiastically, “See that?  We beat Holland.  Magic.”  Then he put the scarf back in his bag and zipped it up again.  And nobody at school seemed to talk about Scotland, Argentina and the World Cup ever again.

 

Mind you, later that summer, I returned to Northern Ireland for a holiday.  People there seemed to view me as 100% Scottish now and they didn’t stop tearing the piss out of me about how crap Scotland had played in Argentina.

 

But let’s be fair to Ally Macleod (who died in 2004).  In popular Scottish mythology he’s often depicted as a vainglorious balloon, bragging that his team would win the World Cup, and then win the next World Cup, and probably the Ryder Cup, the Stanley Cup, the America’s Cup, the Ashes and the Tour de France as well.  But I’ve scoured the Internet and been unable to find most of the hyperbolic quotes that I’ve heard attributed to him.  It’s fairer to say that he made a few tactless comments and exuded a lot of optimism, which the overheated imaginations of fans and journalists turned into mass hysteria.  In the dispirited environment of post-World Cup Scotland, though, nobody wanted to admit their own culpability and poor Ally became the scapegoat.

 

Anyway, if you can ignore the hubris and focus only on the football, Ally’s 1978 squad didn’t do that badly.  Yes, they had two duff games but they only lost one of those, and then they achieved a win against the eventual finalists.  If the cards had fallen differently elsewhere in their first-round group, they might have got through to the competition’s next stage; and, having had their wake-up call, performed better.  Other teams in other World Cups have done so with the same first-round record of one win, one draw and one defeat – including England.

 

Much has been blamed on that ill-fated World Cup campaign.  People have found significance in how it came shortly before the 1979 referendum on creating a devolved Scottish parliament, which died a death because of apathy.  The Scottish public voted for the parliament, but not in sufficiently high numbers.  It’s tempting to join those two dots – but I’m inclined to blame this collapse in Scottish political willpower at the end of the decade on factors a lot more complex than Ally Macleod bullshitting us a bit about football in 1978.

 

One thing that can be attributed to 1978 is the evolution of the Scotland football team’s travelling support, the Tartan Army.  Thanks to the bitter lessons learnt then, modern Scotland fans have dumped any belligerent, nationalistic sense of expectation and have gone about the (often thankless) task of supporting Scotland with humour, irony, self-deprecation and a determination to have a good time no matter how bad the results.  As a result, they’re now one of the most popular sets of fans in the world.

 

Actually, when Scotland played England a couple of years ago at Wembley, I saw a picture of some Scottish fans posing in Trafalgar Square with a life-sized cut-out of Ally Macleod they’d brought along.   That made me smile.  With his erratic management skills and over-exuberant PR skills, the daft bugger put us through the wringer in 1978, but it’s nice to know his spirit still gets invited to the party.

 

From the Guardian / © Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

 

Gone to parts unknown

 

© CNN

 

As it did to many people, the news three days ago that the New York chef, author, journalist and TV personality Anthony Bourdain had taken his own life came as a shock to me.  Bourdain seemed, in his TV shows No Reservations (2005-2012) and Parts Unknown (2013-2018), to exhibit an endless curiosity for the world and to relish exploring its varied cultures.  Ostensibly he roamed the continents to sample their food, but you got the impression that the culinary focus was really a means for Bourdain to meet as many different, interesting people and experience as many different, interesting places as possible.  So with this apparent zest for life he was the last person you’d expect to depart in this fashion.  Which, I guess, shows that you can never judge what’s going on in someone’s soul just by observing their surface.

 

Bourdain was for my money the best TV chef since the great Keith Floyd, though he went about his business in a more diplomatic and less kamikaze manner than Floyd did.  What made Bourdain special was that there was no snobbery in him.  During his travels, he enjoyed lowbrow as well as highbrow cuisine and treated the stuff that ordinary, local people liked eating with genuine respect and enthusiasm.

 

This was demonstrated, for instance, when he turned up in Scotland.  Whilst sneering at the Scottish diet is a way to get easy laughs in the wider world, Bourdain was happy to tuck into and savour Caledonian grub.  That was whether he was scoffing chips, cheese and curry sauce and washing it down with Irn Bru in Glasgow’s University Café (“I’m pretty sure God is against this”) or checking out the produce of the Mermaid Fish Bar on Edinburgh’s Leith Walk in the company of local crime writer Ian Rankin.  He had a soft spot for haggis too and once described it epically as “battered and floating adrift in a sea of mysterious life-giving oil, the accumulated flavours of many magical things as it bobs like Noah’s Ark, bringing life in all its infinitive variety…”

 

Bourdain had a way with words and since his passing I’ve seen quite a few of his memorable quotes posted on the Internet – such as his musings about travel: “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

 

But for me his finest words came in reaction to a visit to Cambodia and concerned a certain American ex-Secretary of State and National Security Advisor named Henry Kissinger: “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.  You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking.  Witness what Henry did in Cambodia – the fruits of his genius for statesmanship – and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at the Hague next to Milosevic.  While Henry continues to nibble nori rolls and remaki at A-list parties, Cambodia, the neutral nation he secretly and illegally bombed, invaded, undermined, and then threw to the dogs, is still trying to raise itself up on its one remaining leg.”

 

A heartfelt obituary for Bourdain penned by the food writer Tim Hayward can be read here in the Guardian.