Joke nation

 

© The Public Library Ltd / From the Daily Record

 

Tomorrow is April 1st, better known in the United Kingdom as April Fool’s Day.  Traditionally it’s a day when British people play jokes on one another – interior decorators send hapless apprentices off to the shops with instructions to buy ‘a tin of black and white paint’ or ‘straight hooks’, the BBC broadcasts a news report about a drought threatening this year’s spaghetti harvest in Italy, and so on.

 

This is because British people love jokes.  But that’s not to say Britain itself is a joke nation.  No, quite the reverse.  With just one year remaining until the UK Brexits from the European Union and takes on the world on its own again, it stands poised to show what a totally serious, formidable, non-ridiculous, non-joke place it is.

 

I know this because Jacob Rees Mogg, that undertaker-like darling of the Brexiting Conservative Party right, wrote an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph on March 18th stating that Tory Prime Minister Theresa May would soon “lay out the facts to the EU: Britain isn’t a joke nation and Brexit will mean Brexit.”  Right on, Jacob.  I mean, look at what’s happened in the UK this past month of March 2018.  How could anyone conclude that Britain is anything other than a deadly serious nation?

 

Jacob himself proved this on March 21st when he was part of a protest at the UK government’s agreement to stay in the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy for an additional 21 months after Brexit officially happens next year.  The protest took the form of him and former UKIP leader Nigel Farage heading out onto the Thames in a trawler and bunging some dead haddock into the water as a symbol of their displeasure.  Well, Jacob would have headed out in the trawler and dumped the haddock, but it transpired that said trawler didn’t have a permit from the London transport authority to moor anywhere and was unable to pick him up from the quay.  So after a quick press conference by the river, Jacob had to leg it back to the Houses of Parliament while the trawler, dead haddock and Nigel Farage were left chugging about the Thames looking for a place to dock.

 

That was unfortunate.  But obviously, nothing resembling a joke.

 

Revelations this month about Jacob Rees Mogg’s Conservative colleague and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson weren’t remotely joke-like either.  Boris had condemned Vladimir Putin and the Russian authorities after the poisoning of Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury on March 4th.  Then it became public knowledge that Lubin Chernukhin, a Russian banker and the wife of Putin’s former deputy finance minister, had once paid the Tory party £160,000 for the honour of playing a game of tennis with Boris, supposed Scourge of the Russkies.

 

Yes, if a lesser politician had been embroiled in an episode like this, it would have looked like a giant, stupid joke.  But since a man of Boris’s stature and dignity was involved, it didn’t.

 

© Sky Sports / From the Daily Mirror

 

March 11th saw Conservative Party participation in another sporting event.  A bruising footballing encounter between bitter rivals Glasgow Celtic and the famously pro-British, famously Union Jack-waving, famously loyal-to-the-throne Glasgow Rangers took place at Rangers’ home ground of Ibrox Stadium.  Acting as one of the linesmen that day was Douglas Ross, the Tory MP for Moray, who’s a football official as well as a politician.  Dougie helped get Celtic’s Jozo Simunovic sent off after he allegedly elbowed Rangers’ Alfredo Morelos.  He was heard screaming “Red card!  Red card!” from the line, even though as a match official he could have communicated in quieter tones with the referee using their mics and earpieces.  Afterwards, many wags remarked on how despite playing at home, and having their opponents reduced to ten men, and having a Tory MP manning the line, Rangers still managed to lose.

 

Note how I said ‘remarked on’ there.  Not ‘joked about’.  Because Britain isn’t a joke nation.

 

What other non-joke things are there to report this month?  Well, there’s the dodgy affair of the British political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, who’ve played controversial roles in the Leave EU referendum campaign and Trump election campaign.  Cambridge Analytica were helped in their work by a data breach involving the personal details of about 50 million people, ‘inappropriately’ taken from Facebook.  Then, on March 19th, Channel 4 aired a secretly-filmed clip of the firm’s CEO Alexander Nix bragging to a potential client that during elections his company could compromise certain politicians by setting them up with prostitutes and filming the results with hidden cameras.

 

Nix saying this whilst being filmed with a hidden camera himself was ironic.  But not funny.  Because Cambridge Analytica is a British company and Britain, as we know, isn’t a joke nation.

 

Obviously, anti-Semitism is no joking matter.  So what should we make of the row about it that engulfed Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in March?  Corbyn, we learned, had once defended a political mural on a London wall that’d been accused of demonising Jews.  Now Corbyn claims that he hadn’t looked at the mural closely enough at the time to realise it was Jew-bashing.  What’s that, Jeremy – a picture of disgusting rich capitalists playing Monopoly on top of the bodies of the bowed naked proletariat, capitalists with prominent noses, spectacles and bushy Fagin-like beards?  Why, sure.  Anyone could have missed suggestions of anti-Semitism in that.

 

© Mike Kemp via Getty Images / From the Guardian 

 

So no jokes please about Jeremy and his apparent myopia here.  He’s leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition in the not-a-joke nation of Britain.

 

Meanwhile, Britain’s newspapers have done nothing joke-like this month either.  Certainly not the Daily Mail, which reacted with apoplectic rage to the news that Britain’s post-Brexit, just-liberated-from-the-European-Union, patriotically-blue passports would be produced by a FrenchDutch company.  “Why,” it demanded of Britain’s ruling class on its front page, “DO you hate our country, its history, culture and the people’s sense of identity?”  And on March 29th, with precisely one year to go until Brexit, the Mail’s right-wing Siamese twin the Daily Express published on its front page a big picture of the White Cliffs of Dover.  Not to imply that one year from now the UK would be careering over a cliff, but to illustrate a stirring quote by Boris Johnson: “Our national journey out of the EU is almost over and a glorious view awaits.”  The photographer who’d originally taken that picture of the cliffs later pointed out on Twitter that the cliffs weren’t as white as they’d appeared in the Express.  Evidently the newspaper had photoshopped extra whiteness over their mossy green cliff-faces: “If anything sums up #Brexit – it’s the Daily Express making my pic of Britain look whiter than it is.”

 

That almost sounds like a joke, you know.  But it can’t be.  Because this is 2018 Britain: most definitely not a joke nation.

 

© From twitter.com

 

Carry on abroad

 

© Penguin Books

 

I have a tiny sliver of a connection with Daphne du Maurier, the popular 20th century English writer responsible for novels like Jamaica Inn (1936) and Rebecca (1938) and short stories like The Birds (1952) and Don’t Look Now (1971).  When I was at college in the 1980s, I knew her great-nephew very slightly.  I was better acquainted with her great-nephew’s flatmate, though, and a few times I visited their apartment.  Its walls were slathered with pictures of George Michael and Andrew Ridgely from Wham, cut out of popular teen magazines of the time like Smash Hits and No 1.  I assume the young du Maurier and his flatmate had stuck up these pictures in an attempt to appear ironic.  Unfortunately, it meant that thereafter when I saw his great-aunt’s name on the cover of a book, I couldn’t help but hear, by way of association, the irritatingly bouncy strains of such 1980s pop-dance numbers as Club Tropicana or Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.

 

Until recently the only thing by Daphne du Maurier I’d read was The Birds, a story that because of its remote Cornish setting feels even more claustrophobic and desperate than the North America-set film version directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963.  However, over the festive season, my partner gave me a copy of du Maurier’s 1971 collection Don’t Look Now and Other Stories as a present.  I’ve just finished reading it.

 

A novella about a grieving English couple who’re taking a break in Venice when they’re approached by two strange women – one of whom claims to be a medium – and told that their dead daughter’s spirit is trying to warn them against danger, Don’t Look Now has been filmed too.  Nicholas Roeg directed a movie version in 1973 and it’s now regarded as a classic, both as a horror film and as an example of Roeg’s work in the 1970s and 1980s, which combined fragmented and elliptical narratives, haunting and recurrent images and scenes of both violent and sexual intensity to unforgettable effect.  Having seen the film several times over the years, I was keen to read the piece of fiction that’d inspired it.

 

My first impression when I started reading Don’t Look Now was that film and story felt like they belonged to different eras.  The couple, John and Laura, seem more modern, liberated and chic in the film, though that may be because they were played by 1970s icons Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.  On the page, John and Laura have an old-fashioned English starchiness and they try to get over their loss with stiff upper lips and a strained Keep Calm and Carry On cheerfulness.  The literary John and Laura are also in Venice as tourists, so they seem less confident and more vulnerable.  Their cinematic equivalents are there for work reasons – John is helping to restore a Venetian church – and thus know their way around better.

 

Then there’s the presentation of the story.  Du Maurier’s novella is a briefer and more economical account of the events I was familiar with from the film.  As it stands, it could easily have been made into a 45-minute TV play.  (The film clocks in at 110 minutes.)  It begins in Venice with John and Laura encountering the medium.  The death of their daughter, by meningitis, is mentioned retrospectively.  And the suggestion that the dead girl’s spirit is urging them to leave the city before something terrible happens feels like a simple device to kick-start the main story – wherein John doesn’t leave Venice, through a series of mishaps, misunderstandings and further supernatural shenanigans; and then, when he tries to intervene in what he believes is the mistreatment of a child, something terrible does happen.

 

© Casey Productions / Eldorado Films / British Lion Films

 

The movie opens with a harrowing sequence showing the death of John and Laura’s daughter – not by meningitis but by drowning in a pond in the English countryside.  Roeg and his scriptwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant create a sense of a cosmic, all-encompassing evil at work.  Even as the girl dies, everything that’s still to happen in Venice seems to be prefigured.  We see John studying pictures of the Venetian church where he’ll be working and discovering a mysterious figure wearing a red coat in one of the slides.  When he spills water onto the figure, its redness spreads across the slide like a bloodstain.  John’s daughter is also wearing a red coat when she drowns and, later, so too is the child-figure John sees scarpering alongside the night-time Venetian waterways.

 

Indeed, in the film, John seems to make a connection between the two characters thanks to the coat – is the red-clad figure by the canals the ghost of his daughter?  But this association doesn’t appear in the original novella.

 

Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now is efficiently gripping.  But I think Nicholas Roeg’s brooding cinematic version, spinning a web of portents, visions and uncanny coincidences in which John’s doom seems pre-ordained from the start, is better – a work of art.  That’s despite the fact that, by changing the girl’s death from meningitis to drowning, the film can be accused of illogicality.  As the website British Horror Films observes pithily: “Couple aim to forget daughter’s drowning by moving to Venice – a city full of water.”

 

Actually, with Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, I preferred a couple of those ‘other stories’ to the title one.  And interestingly, nearly all of them share a similar theme, in that they deal with English people going abroad and coming unstuck as they pass out of their cultural comfort zones.

 

Not After Midnight is about an amateur artist taking a holiday in Crete in order to do some landscape painting.  In a manner reminiscent of the hero of John Fowles’ novel The Magus (1966), he encounters a strange man and becomes embroiled in some equally-strange activities touching upon ancient Greek myths.  However, while Fowles’ novel is an airy and exuberant affair where a Prospero-like figure orchestrates spectacular and elaborate ‘masques’, Not After Midnight is altogether grungier and more low-fi.  The man putting the events in motion is a drunken, debauched brute and, accordingly, the myths invoked concern “Silenos, earth-born satyr, half-horse, half-man, who, unable to distinguish truth from falsehood, reared Dionysus, god of intoxication, as a girl in a Cretan cave, then became his drunken tutor and companion.”  Du Maurier doesn’t say explicitly what bacchanalian depravities her hero finally succumbs to; but as he’s a teacher at a posh English boys’ school, we can guess.

 

From famousauthors.org

 

In A Border Line Case, a young woman who works as a theatre actress tries to honour the dying wish of her father.  She goes in search of her father’s long-lost best friend, to tell him that her father had wanted to “shake the old boy by the hand once more and wish him luck.”  She finds the missing friend in the Republic of Ireland, living as a recluse on an island, mysteriously lording it over a cohort of local men and engaged in activities that are probably illegal and possibly bizarre.  Unlike the hapless protagonists in the other stories, the heroine here is a resourceful type.  She uses her skills as an actress to improvise, hide her identity and talk her way out of tight spots.  However, when at one point she suspects she’s stumbled across a group of closeted homosexuals (“They were all homos…  It was the end.  She couldn’t bear it…”), you feel surprised that a London theatre actress should be so wary and intolerant of gay men.  Still, A Border Line Case is well-paced and balanced nicely between an adventure story and a mystery one.  It builds impressively to a nasty, if slightly predictable ending.

 

The book’s most humorous story is The Way of the Cross, about a group of disparate English tourists making their way to and then around Jerusalem.  The characters and plot seem slightly contrived at times – it’s unlikely that a progressive left-wing lady who’s worried about the plight of the Palestinians should be married to a materialistic right-wing businessman, and a climax where two characters are stricken by unconnected illnesses and a third one suffers a serious accident stretches credibility – but nonetheless it’s an enjoyably satirical account of English folk abroad.

 

The final story, The Breakthrough, is the exception to the rule.  Its engineer hero doesn’t leave England for another country, although he is posted to the desolate flatlands and beaches of East Anglia.  There, an ambitious experiment is underway in a scientific / military laboratory, ostensibly involving computers, but really about capturing a psychic energy that surrounds people when they’re alive and escapes when they die.  The Breakthrough’s blending of the scientific and the supernatural calls to mind the famously frightening TV play The Stone Tape (1973), written by Nigel Kneale.  Bravely, du Maurier opts for a non-sensational ending that prioritises character over action or horror.  Admittedly, some readers might find the ending a bit of a let-down.

 

Overall, I greatly enjoyed reading Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, because of the author’s precise and no-nonsense prose, her ability to pack a lot of incident into her narratives without letting them get too convoluted, and her determination at all times to tell a rattling good yarn.

 

Indeed, on the strength of this, I’m now starting to think of Daphne du Maurier as being in the mould of Stephen King – and not so much in connection with George Michael and Andrew Ridgely.  Yes, better the author of The Running Man than the authors of I’m your Man.

 

© Casey Productions / Eldorado Films / British Lion Films

 

The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming…

 

© The Mirisch Corporation / United Artists

 

For what they’re worth, here are my thoughts on the attempted murder of Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury on March 4th – a crime which involved the use of the deadly nerve agent Novichok, which the British government blamed on its counterpart in Moscow, and which has dominated the British news for the last fortnight.

 

Was it carried out on the orders of Vladimir Putin?

I’m inclined to think ‘probably’, but I’m still waiting on the absolute proof that clinches it.  Novichok was developed by the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s and I suppose it’s conceivable that a quantity of it was procured by some private individual with an axe to grind against Skripal, who in Russia in 2006 was convicted of betraying undercover Russian agents to MI6.

 

And I suppose George Galloway has a point – there’s half-a-dozen words I never expected to write, seeing as I usually consider Galloway to be a festering furuncle of fedora-wearing foolishness – when he argued that, had he wanted to, Putin could easily have had both victims killed earlier; and it was illogical to attempt their murder on British soil now and run the risk of damaging Russia’s reputation just before it hosted the World Cup.

 

© The Belfast Telegraph

 

Galloway’s rebuttal makes sense…  But I can still imagine Putin giving orders to take Skripal out in Britain.  After all, he has past form in this sort of thing.  And there are additional reasons that are unflattering for the current UK government.  Putin probably regards modern-day Britain with such disdain that he figures it doesn’t matter if the British point an accusing finger at him.  Estranged from Europe post-Brexit vote, and with a gibbering half-wit (and Putin admirer) in the White House, Britain 2018 is an international Johnny No Mates.  Who cares what it says or thinks?  Also, vast quantities of Russian money are swilling around London these days in things like real estate and shell companies.  Such money talks, especially in an economy as fragile as Brexit Britain’s.  The beleaguered Theresa May might symbolically expel a few Russian diplomats, but she isn’t going to do anything really drastic, like freeze the London assets of Russian oligarchs.

 

A portion of that Russian money has even ended up funding May’s own Conservative party – declared donations of £826,100 since July 2016 and some £3,000,000 since 2010.  Laughably, Lubin Chernukhin, Russian banker and wife of Putin’s former deputy finance minister, once paid £160,000 at a Tory funding auction for the privilege of playing a game of tennis with Boris Johnson.  I’ll repeat that.  Somebody paid £160,000 to play tennis with Boris Johnson.  I’d find it more intellectually and aesthetically stimulating to stand a piss-stained old mattress on its end and spend half-a-hour lobbing tennis balls at that.

 

© Anita Aguilar / From tennis.com

 

Is Jeremy Corbin a Putin apologist?

No.  Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has described the attempted murder of the Skripals as ‘appalling’, ‘barbaric’ and ‘horrific’ and demanded that the Russian authorities be ‘held to account on the basis of the evidence’.  He’s called out Putin’s Russia for ‘authoritarianism’, ‘abuse of human rights’ and ‘political and economic corruption’ too.  But Corbyn also, reasonably enough, asked for patience until conclusive proof incriminating the Putin regime had been amassed: “To rush way ahead of the evidence being gathered by the police, in a fevered parliamentary atmosphere, serves neither justice nor our national security.”

 

Obviously, Corbyn’s comments were never going to be fairly reported by Britain’s mostly right-wing mainstream media, who’ve been searching for a way to put the boot into him ever since his party performed better than expected in last year’s general election.  CORBYN IS UNWORTHY TO BE PRIME MINISTER thundered the headline above a March 16th editorial in the increasingly unhinged Daily Telegraph, for instance.  The Telegraph, though, is apparently happy to countenance as prime minister Ms. Chernukhin’s flaxen-haired tennis partner.

 

That said, I think Corbyn’s suggestion the other day that the Russians be sent a sample of the nerve agent “so that they can say categorically one way or the other” if it’s theirs was a bit glaikit.

 

Is there a BBC conspiracy to smear Jeremy Corbyn?

For a time, the Skripal affair was almost overshadowed by the row over ‘Hatgate’.  This erupted when the BBC news programme Newsnight took it upon itself to discuss Corbyn’s cautious approach against a studio backdrop that had projected onto it a mocked-up picture of the Labour Party leader standing before the Kremlin and wearing some suspiciously Russian-like headgear.  Enraged left-wingers like columnist Owen Jones accused the BBC of trying to make Corbyn look like a ‘Kremlin stooge’, though the BBC has strenuously denied that this was the case.  So: is this proof that the Beeb is the tool of the right-wing establishment, out to discredit and silence the left?

 

© BBC

 

Well, I think the Newsnight backdrop picture was stupid and irresponsible, but it hardly means the BBC is a cesspit of Breitbart-esque right-wing evil.  What I think has happened in the last few years is that the BBC’s news coverage has become rudderless and susceptible to drifting with certain tides – i.e. the narratives emanating from Britain’s right-wing press.  The newspaper reviews shown on the BBC in the mornings, for instance, lead to the airing of a lot of right-wing gunk because such gunk is on the front pages of the right-wing tabloids.  With the press setting the tone, no wonder its hostility towards Corbyn gets absorbed into the BBC news gestalt.  So the Sun and the Daily Mail call him a Putin-worshipping lickspittle and the BBC unwittingly echoes the accusation.

 

Which is all a bit crap, considering how the BBC is a public service paid for by citizens whose beliefs cover a political spectrum, left-wing as well as centre and right-wing.  The left end of that spectrum should be getting better value for its money.

 

How soon will this blow over?

It’ll blow over surprisingly fast, I suspect.  With all that Russian dough in London, I’d be surprised if Theresa May’s government doesn’t try as soon as possible to draw a line and get back to business as usual with Big Bad Vlad and his oligarchs.  Plus, with the British economy likely to be in a perilous state post-Brexit, I’m sure there’ll be pressure on them to let bygones be bygones and start signing some trade deals with Russia.  (After all, look at Britain’s recent eagerness to do business with a regime as oppressive, warmongering, terrorism-exporting and generally hideous as Saudi Arabia.)

 

And while we’re on the topic…

 

Is Putin running our elections now?

Well, I’m sure Putin is delighted to see Trump pooping all over the White House like one of the Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels, and Brexit consigning Britain’s reputation, influence and dignity to the bin; and when he can, he’s happy to stick an oar in to help both processes along.  But I think it’s a mistake to blame everything on him.  And it’s also a mistake, by the way, to make too much of the recent revelations about the data-mining / Facebook-pilfering company Cambridge Analytica and its dodgy roles in the Trump election campaign and the Leave EU referendum campaign.

 

It must be comforting for American and British liberals to have bogeymen like Putin and Cambridge Analytica to blame for their countries’ woes.  But those bogeymen shouldn’t be allowed to obscure an unpalatable truth.  Even without their baleful influence, an awful lot of people would have voted for Trump and Brexit anyway.  Liberals in the US and UK need to come to terms with that unhappy fact – and then figure out what they’re going to do about it.

 

© Getty Images / From thetrumpet.com

 

St Paddy power

 

From http://www.the42.ie © Dan Sheridan / INPHO

 

Today is March 17th and the day that commemorates Ireland’s national saint, St Patrick.  Among other feats, St Patrick is credited with popularising the shamrock as Ireland’s national symbol by using its three leaves to explain the Holy Trinity, with turning his walking stick into a tree during a visit to Aspatria in England’s Lake District, with punishing the heathen Welsh king Vereticus by changing him into a wolf, and with casting all the snakes out of Ireland.  Though to be honest, old Patrick missed a trick in not casting all the politicians out of it at the same time.

 

St Patrick’s Day is, of course, enthusiastically celebrated by Irish people and by the Irish diaspora the world over.  This is no more so than in Irish-American strongholds like Boston, where from all accounts they demonstrate their passion for St Patrick and all things Irish by dyeing the rivers green, dyeing the Guinness green, dyeing their hair green and probably injecting green dye into their own eyeballs so that their eyes glow green too.

 

Personally, I don’t normally take the celebration of St Patrick’s Day to such extremes – though I may make an exception today if the Irish rugby team win their final Six Nations Championship game against England, which kicks off at 2:45 GMT.  Ireland have so far disposed of France, Italy, Wales and Scotland and have already won the championship on points, but if they can beat England today they’ll also win the Grand Slam – an honour they’ve achieved only twice before in rugby history, in 1948 and 2009.  I know I’m tempting fate by writing this, but to win the Grand Slam on St Patrick’s Day, and against England, would be really something.

 

So Happy St Paddy’s Day – and let’s hope this afternoon Ireland’s rugby players can make this the happiest St Paddy’s Day ever.

 

In good company

 

© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon

 

I read recently that a new academic study has been published about The Company of Wolves, the 1984 movie directed by Neil Jordan, based on fiction by Angela Carter and co-scripted by Jordan and Carter.  The study is the latest in a series of academic film-books called Devil’s Advocates, dedicated to classic horror movies and put into print by Auteur Publishing.  Devil’s Advocates: The Company of Wolves is the work of Northern Irishman James Gracey, who describes himself in his Twitter profile as a ‘library assistant’ and ‘occasional author of books about horror films’.  Its appearance has reminded me that The Company of Wolves is one of my favourite movies of the 1980s – of any genre, not just horror.

 

No doubt part of my fondness for the film stems from its source material, because I’m a big fan of the late Angela Carter and her sumptuous gothic prose.  (While I was doing an MA in 2008-2009 at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where Carter had once taught creative writing, I was delighted one day when I got chatting with an elderly assistant at the campus bookshop and she reminisced about Carter and how she used to wander around “in a big billowy dress.”)  The Company of Wolves began life as a short story featured in her masterly 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber.  Considering how other stories in the book are adult, gothic reworkings of such fairy tales and myths as Beauty and the Beast (The Courtship of Mr Lyon), Snow White (The Snow Child) and Bluebeard (the title story), it’s no surprise that The Company of Wolves is a version of Little Red Riding Hood with, as its villain, not a big bad wolf but an even bigger and badder werewolf.

 

© ullstein bild / Getty Images

 

Carter’s Company of Wolves takes its time getting to its main plotline, though.  It begins by recounting several shorter tales and anecdotes that explore wolf and werewolf lore, and the Red Riding Hood character doesn’t set off into the forest to visit Grandmother’s house until halfway through its ten pages.  Additionally, The Company of Wolves is part of a triptych of werewolf-related stories in The Bloody Chamber – it’s sandwiched between ones called The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice (which as well as being an Angela Carter story is the name of a not-bad alternative rock / indie band).  Not only does Jordan’s movie copy the rambling, episodic and anecdotal structure of the fictional Company of Wolves, but it also borrows elements from its two hairy neighbours.

 

Translating into celluloid Carter’s ornate prose style – which, for example, has a midwinter forest containing “huddled mounds of birds, succumbed to the lethargy of the season, heaped on the creaking boughs and too forlorn to sing” and “bright frills of the winter fungi on the blotched trunks of the trees” and “a hare as lean as a rasher of bacon streaking across the path where the thin sunlight dapples the russet brakes of last year’s bracken” – was a job to which the Irish director and writer Neil Jordan was well suited.   His CV includes atmospheric and flamboyant supernatural movies like Interview with the Vampire (1994) and Byzantium (2012), plus the dark, twisted tragic-comic drama The Butcher Boy (1997); and many of his supposedly more realistic films like Angel (1982), Mona Lisa (1986) and The Crying Game (1992) are imbued with a strange, phantasmagorical quality too.

 

With The Company of Wolves, Jordan and his production team – take a bow, cinematographer Bryan Loftus, production designer Anton Furst and art director Stuart Rose – excel themselves in crafting a physical setting for Carter’s stories.  The movie mostly takes place in a pre-industrial village and a surrounding, huge Ruritanian forest.  It’s an environment that’s both quaint with thatched cottages, cobbled streets, mossy churchyards and humped stone bridges and lush with bright-coloured flowers, shaggy trees, trailing vines,  beds of fallen leaves and nests of speckled eggs (which, disconcertingly, hatch and release tiny homunculi).  Yet it’s also a claustrophobic place of misshapen branches, drifting fogs, deep snowbanks and, obviously, wolf-howls that pierce out of the dark recesses of the forest.  In other words, it’s part Romantic poem, part fevered dream and part Hammer horror.

 

© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon

 

If anything, the plotting in the film of The Company of Wolves is more disorientating than that in the original story.  The central structure is similar: we get a clutch of little stories about werewolves – here told to teenage heroine Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) by her grandmother (Angela Lansbury) and then, later, told by Rosaleen herself – before the film settles down to its main narrative, which is what happens one day when Rosaleen dons a red woollen shawl, leaves her village and takes a walk through the forest to her grandmother’s secluded cottage.

 

However, the film places this within a framing device that has Rosaleen as a modern-day girl who dreams about being in a fairy-tale village, in a fairy-tale forest, while she takes an afternoon nap in her bedroom.  (As we descend through Rosaleen’s subconscious to the main part of the dream, we also pass through a creepy transitional zone populated by human-sized versions of the dolls and toys in her bedroom, which calls to mind another Angela Carter work, the 1967 novel The Magic Toyshop.)  At the film’s end, this stories-told-within-a-dream framework collapses, for poor modern-day Rosaleen wakes from her dream to find real wolves crashing through the walls of her room.  None of which matters, of course.  The Company of Wolves isn’t a film to be processed logically.  It’s one to be simply experienced.

 

It hasn’t much character development, since the characters are archetypes rather than proper human beings, but it’s still well acted by a first-rate cast.  Sarah Patterson does what’s required of her as Rosaleen and German actor, dancer and choreographer Micha Bergese is appropriately lithe, flirtatious and, yes, predatory as the young hunstsman whom Rosaleen encounters on the way to her grandmother’s house.  (His eyebrows meet above his nose, which is a dead giveaway.)  Angela Lansbury makes a wonderfully spry and wily grandmother, so much so that I can forgive her for the subsequent dozen years that she spent clogging up my television screen with her dreary TV series Murder, She Wrote (1984-96).  The film also features the excellent trio of David Warner as Rosaleen’s father in both the dream world and the real one, Graham Crowden as the village’s amiable priest, and Brian Glover as the village’s resident Yorkshireman.  (At one point, Glover pontificates, “If you think wolves are big now, you should have seen them when I were a lad!”)

 

© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon

 

In the cast too are Terence Stamp and Jordan’s long-time collaborator Stephen Rea, both of whom appear in the first two stories narrated by Lansbury.  Stamp has a cameo as the Devil, selling a youth a magical balm that, once applied, has lycanthropic consequences.  Rea plays a man who mysteriously disappears on his wedding night and then equally mysteriously reappears seven years later, to discover that his wife has since remarried and sired a brood of children with her new husband.  In the film’s most gruesome sequence, Rea shows his displeasure by becoming a werewolf – a painful process because, to facilitate the transformation, he has to tear his own skin off.

 

With the young, virginal Rosaleen setting out on a journey and being waylaid by a literally beastly male, but then taking control of the situation and resolving it in her own unexpected fashion, there’s obviously a lot happening beneath the film’s surface.  However, I like the fact that while The Company of Wolves is concerned with themes of female empowerment and sexuality, it isn’t a polemic.  Yes, one of Lansbury’s tales ends with an instance of domestic violence, and one of Rosaleen’s tales deals with a wronged woman getting her revenge on the cad responsible.  But Rosaleen’s parents are depicted as having a loving and sharing relationship.  Despite coming to this film after villainous roles in Time After Time (1979), The Time Bandits (1981) and Tron (1982), Warner plays a gentle soul here; and Rosaleen’s mother (Tusse Silberg) points out to her that “if there’s a beast in man, it meets its match in women too.”  Meanwhile, a village boy (Shane Johnstone) who takes a shine to Rosaleen, while evidently a lustful scamp, seems good-hearted enough and demonstrates concern for her safety.

 

© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon

 

This nuance extends to the film’s portrayal of the church.  It’s hardly an institution of oppressive patriarchy.  Rosaleen’s final tale has Graham Crowden’s priest showing kindness to a feral wolf-girl (played by experimental 1980s singer-musician Danielle Dax).  “Are you God’s work or the Devil’s?” he asks her.  “Oh, what do I care whose work you are.  You poor, silent creature…”

 

You appreciate Jordan and Carter’s achievement with The Company of Wolves when you consider how many filmmakers since then have tried, and failed, to convert children’s fairy stories into darker, more adult and more gothic movies.  I’m thinking of Terry Gilliam’s disappointingly uneven Brothers Grimm (2005) or the blah Kristen Stewart vehicle Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) or crud like Red Riding Hood (2011) and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013).

 

Probably the best effort has been Matteo Garrone’s Italian / French / British movie Tale of Tales (2015) which, like The Company of Wolves, isn’t afraid to confound expectations and twist and distort logic.  Which, when you think about it, is what the original fairy and folk tales that inspired both films did anyway.

 

© Nomad Publishing

 

Cultural Thais

 

 

I’ve been in a fair few museums in Asia in my time and I’ve come to expect a standard Asian museum experience.  You see a lot of beautiful and / or fascinating artefacts, but they’re presented in a conservative fashion, i.e. they’re inside glass cases with panels of dense writing nearby giving the necessary exposition.  This is fine for an aged, pre-Internet, pre-smartphone fossil with a glacial attention span like myself, but surely less engaging for younger visitors.  Indeed, visiting school groups usually seem to pass through these museums like quicksilver.

 

What a pleasure it was, then, to venture into the Museum of Siam on Bangkok’s Sanam Chai Road one morning and discover a place that wasn’t just interesting because of its contents.  It also displayed its wares in an imaginative, colourful, relaxed, broad-minded and – most important of all – fun way.

 

The museum aims to explore Thai culture, lowbrow as well as high, and what it means to be ‘Thai’.  It isn’t afraid to surprise you and admit sometimes that things that are commonly thought to be Thai aren’t that much so at all.  For example, you’re told that the tuk-tuk, “a Thai symbol recognised internationally, is actually from Italy.  The Piaggio Ape, a three-wheel vehicle, was first produced in 1948.  After that a similar-looking model – the Daihatsu Midget DK – was created in Japan in 1957.  That model was imported to Thailand in 1960, and later, the DK Midget MP4 was imported and sent to Ayutthaya and Trang Provinces.”

 

It has much about Thai costumes and fashions and features a roomful of mannequins dressed in mythological, historical and modern garb (including, cheekily, a Thai take on Ronald McDonald) as well as a changing room where visitors can try on some local clothes themselves.  And the museum’s very first room sets the ball rolling with a mannequin of Lady Gaga from her controversial 2012 Bangkok concert – the American singer songwriter raised Thai eyebrows, and tempers, by arriving onstage wearing a chada (a classical Thai dance headpiece) with a decidedly saucy outfit.

 

 

Meanwhile, a room devoted to Thai “traditions, ceremonies, manners” takes the form of a system of shelves and boxes.  Each box is labelled with a topic – Children’s Day, New Year’s Day, graduation, weddings, smiling, humility – and visitors are encouraged to find out about the topics by removing them from the shelves and rummaging about in their contents.  The New Year box, for example, contains a party hat, gifts, a prayer booklet, a New Year card and something called an ‘Arsenal butter cookie’.  (The boxes do come with little booklets too, to explain things.)  The interactive nature of this display, alas, was lost on a party of Chinese tourists who trekked straight through the room while I was there and seemed to think they’d wandered by mistake into a storeroom.

 

 

There’s also a mock-up of a Thai school room and a section dedicated to Thai cuisine, which is equipped with a selection of high-tech plates and a futuristic console – you place different plates on the console and information about different Thai dishes is duly projected up in front of you.  It was here that I learned the truth about such local favourites as Tokyo rolls, American fried rice and ginger chilli paste.  No, the rolls don’t really come from Tokyo, the fried rice isn’t really American and the chilli paste isn’t really made with ginger.

 

I particularly liked a room dedicated to everyday items that have acquired iconic status in Thai culture.  It contains and explains such things as common-or-garden compact discs (used in Thailand as taillights for elephants, apparently), bumper stickers (used as good-luck charms) and plastic bags (used as receptacles for iced coffee).  It also features those ultra-handy vending tubes used by Thai bus and ferryboat conductors with rolls of tickets at their ends and loose change in their middles.

 

 

But my favourite room was a gallery showcasing 108 deities and icons relating to the Thais’ complex belief system.  According to the gallery’s introductory blurb, the country’s culture “is based on a belief in animism, or belief in the spirit world.  Thai belief is fused seamlessly with Buddhism and Brahmanism.  Thai beliefs are a result of this continuation.  Today we still invent new beliefs based on old ones.  Even Japanese anime characters and even some dolls can become sacred items.”

 

Among the more notable of the 108 exhibits here are Luk Thep or ‘spirit child’, basically a creepy doll that, despite its creepiness, supposedly brings good luck in “business, wealth and work”; a spirit called Luk Krok, the “soul of a stillborn foetus whose mother did not die” and who acts as a guardian spirit to that mother thereafter; and an entity called the ‘widowed ghost’, who “looks for a man to be with her.  To escape her, you must convince her that there’s no suitable man for her in your house.”

 

 

Elsewhere, I learned from the museum that Thailand’s floating markets aren’t directly descended from the floating markets of old.  The original ones died out long ago, but “were brought back to promote tourism” and because “modern Thais felt a sense of nostalgia for the lost past.  Retro was the name of the game.”  I also found out that the Thai monarch King Bhumibol, who passed away in 2016, was a fan of Western jazz and blues music and “started composing music at the age of 18 years old…  His Majesty had composed many songs in these two genres, which were a novelty at the time.”  Here’s a link to one of the King’s compositions, the nattily-titled Candlelight Blues.

 

And talking of music, I learned that Thailand has an equivalent of country-and-western music called Luk Thung, though to my ears it sounds a bit jollier than its trucks / beers / guns / jails / death-themed American counterpart.  It almost expired at the end of the 20th century but managed to rejuvenate itself: “In the early 1990s, Luk Thung… faced a major challenge as pop music dominated the market… But the trend reversed and eventually Luk Thung was brought back to life… Luk Thung singers changed the way they dressed, danced and sang, with a troop of exquisitely dressed dancers in every performance.”

 

I enjoyed my couple of hours at the Museum of Siam much more than I’d expected.  If you visit Thailand and wish to really experience, learn about and understand the country – i.e. beyond what’s contained in a regulation beach-booze-and-bawdiness Thai tourist resort like Pattaya – the museum makes a good first stop on your itinerary.

 

 

TV comic genius 7: Saxondale

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

Actor, comedian, writer and producer Steve Coogan has played the fictional TV and radio presenter Alan Partridge for 27 years now.  He’s essayed the cringe-inducing, incognizant, sociopathic, preening, Daily Mail-loving and utterly hapless Partridge not only on television – in sitcoms, chat-shows, mockumentaries, telethons and awards shows – but also on radio and stage and in YouTube shorts and a movie.  So ubiquitous is Partridge that it’s easy to forget that during his career Coogan has created other comic characters.

 

These include the drunken, philosophical and student-hating Paul Calf (“Is it a crime to want to live in a world of peace and harmony…?  Is it a crime to hit a student across the back of a head with a snooker ball in a sock?”) and his brassy and gagging-for-it sister Pauline; Portuguese singing sensation Tony Ferrino, winner of the Eurovision Song Contest and “also widely adored across Brazil and Iraq”; and the disquietingly exaggerated version of himself that Coogan played in Michael Winterbottom’s fly-on-the-wall travelogue-cum-sitcom The Trip (2010-16).

 

Then there’s Tommy Saxondale, eponymous hero of the BBC sitcom Saxondale that ran for two seasons in 2006 and 2007.  This show may not have produced as many belly-laughs as Alan Partridge in his countless permutations, but for my money it’s possibly Coogan’s finest hour.

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

Tommy Saxondale’s backstory is that in the 1970s he served as a roadie to some top rock bands and engaged in the free-thinking and wild-living that were the spirit of the era: “I was sinking yards of ale with John Bonham,” he reminisces, “and hoovering up furlongs of the Devil’s dandruff with Lucifer Reed, as I used to call him.”  Now in his grizzled, paunchy middle-age, life is less giddy and glamorous.  He runs a small pest-control business in Stevenage, but likes to think he still talks the talk and walks the walk when it comes to turning on, tuning in and dropping out and generally giving the middle finger to The Man.  “Same old, same old, eh?” he sighs at one point.  “The global corporate bully sticking the jackboot into the defenceless ginger-haired boy of humanity.”  Unfortunately, the modern world surrounding Tommy doesn’t quite share his ideals.  And as he ages, he has increasing difficulty living up to those ideals himself.

 

In other words, Saxondale deals with the tension between youth and experience that’s familiar to everyone who manages to avoid an early death.  For Tommy, though, that tension’s particularly acute.  When the tectonic plates of Tommy’s youth and middle-age grind together, the results can be seismic – particularly since Tommy has a temper.  Each episode begins with him taking part in anger-management sessions run by mild-mannered therapist Alastair (James Bachmann).  Thanks to Tommy, Alastair has his work cut out.  “The notion that anger per se is a bad thing, “Tommy tells him, “I would say, respectfully, is horseshit.   If General MacArthur’s reaction to Pearl Harbour had been to go and find a quiet place and do some deep breathing, you’d be goose-stepping into this meeting today.  And there’d be a great big eagle on the wall.”

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

Besides Alastair, people in Tommy’s life include his buxom Welsh girlfriend Magz (Ruth Jones), part Goth goddess and part earth-mother, who runs a shop called Smash the System and sells her own self-designed posters, pictures and T-shirts that offer unusual takes on religious, cultural and feminist figures like Joan of Arc (i.e. they’re naked, having sex and / or taking drugs); the youthful Raymond (played with wonderful somnolence by Rasmus Hardiker), Tommy’s lodger and apprentice in the pest-control trade who endures his boss’s endless philosophising and grumbling with a mixture of polite incomprehension and dazed indifference; and Vicky (Morwenna Banks), his contact at the agency that provides his firm with assignments.

 

The bubbly, airheaded but vicious Vicky – a sort of Spice Girl with rabies – takes huge pleasure in tormenting Tommy.  For instance, chiding him about his unkempt hair, she says: “Tommy-hobbit…  I wasn’t going to say anything, but somebody reckoned they saw you the other week outside Woolies, mumbling and having a tinkle in the bin by the escalators.”

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

In addition to Tommy, Coogan plays a second, semi-regular character: Keanu Reeves, a zonked-out gay druggie who’s changed his name by deed-poll to that of “the cassock-wearing flying man from The Matrix”.  Tommy usually encounters Keanu when he’s de-lousing some squalid premises and finds him and his mates squatting there.  A conglomeration of childishness, petulance, pathos, facial tics and Mancunian vocal inflections, Keanu is a hilarious character, though an exhausting one.  It’s probably just as well that we only get a few short doses of him during Saxondale’s two series.

 

The comic injustices inflicted on Tommy are not far removed from those experienced by Alan Partridge.  When Tommy learns that a favourite pub has installed a karaoke machine, he rails against karaoke as “the last refuge of the creatively bereft.  A night when the suits can convince themselves that hooting along to Angels in the wrong key means they don’t have a sucking void where their souls are supposed to be.”  We just know that a few hours later, drunk out of his skull, he’ll be onstage with the karaoke mic, warbling Jeffrey Osborne’s On the Wings of Love – which is what happens.  And it’s entirely predictable that after boring a class of schoolkids with a lecture about life on the road with Pink Floyd, he discovers that the little shits have superglued him to his chair.

 

The difference between the two characters is that while Partridge has zero self-awareness, Tommy is at least partly conscious of his own ridiculousness.  This self-knowledge allows him to make amends for his failings, show some empathy for his fellow characters and even, occasionally, enjoy a few victories.

 

I found Saxondale’s first series very agreeable, but I thought the second series was wonderful.  Perhaps it’s because Coogan and series co-writer Neil Maclennan realised that Tommy’s funniest moments in season one were the most confrontational ones, for example, with Vicky; so for season two they brought in some new characters to antagonise him further.

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

These were Penny (Rosie Cavaliero), a trendy-lefty friend of Magz whose middle-class Guardian-esque virtue signalling gets on Tommy’s wick; and Jonathon (Darren Boyd), an executive at the Carphone Warehouse and Tommy’s neighbour.  Jonathon’s gormless attempts to ingratiate himself (“Hey, Tommy… I was wondering if you saw that Motley Crue documentary on VH1 last night?”) are usually a prelude to his conveying a complaint from the local Residents’ Association about him mis-parking his yellow Mustang.  Jonathon’s wife Bethany (Catherine Kanter) is a member of the association and, in one episode, Tommy confronts them and accuses them of being “small-minded little Englanders who are worried about illegal immigrant stealing your James Blunt CDs.”  Bethany shoots back, “What’s wrong with James Blunt?”

 

Another second-season episode sees Tommy finally taking on the establishment, the system, The Man.  Inevitably, though, the situation is less dramatic than he believes – he has to defend himself in court after being caught on a platform at Stevenage railway station without a ticket.  (He makes life hard for himself by summoning Keanu Reeves as a witness for the defence.  Keanu reacts to being in the courtroom with a discombobulated, “Why’s everything so woody…?  Why’s everyone speaking like it’s the olden days?”)  When the judge dismisses the case, Tommy gives a triumphant speech to a couple of bemused local journalists: “We have smashed the system.  With this victory, the British rail network’s fare policy lies in tatters…  And we send a message out to all who would seek to oppress the weak and the powerless: you are arseholes and just pack it in, basically.”

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

One nice thing about Saxondale is its depiction of Tommy and Magz’s relationship.  They might be middle-aged and a little out-of-shape, but they still have a great passion for one another, physical as well as emotional.  “That sex last night was fantastic,” marvels Tommy at one point.  “I went off like Krakatoa.”  However, their amour occasionally leads to embarrassment – for instance, when Tommy forgets to remove Magz’s make-up following a kinky sex game and comes down to eat breakfast in front of a perplexed Raymond; or when Vicky accidentally gets her brightly-coloured claws on a homemade porn video showing Tommy being spanked with a table-tennis paddle.

 

It’s been over a decade since the final episode of Saxondale was aired and I suppose the chances of it ever returning are nil, seeing as many of the cast have gone on to bigger things.  Ruth Jones has enjoyed great success as the joint writer and star (with James Corden) of Gavin and Stacey (2007-2010), Morwenna Banks is now known internationally as the voice of the mother in Peppa Pig (2004-present) and Rasmus Hardiker has become a prolific voice-actor too.  Plus Steve Coogan seems busier than ever, both with ongoing Alan Partridge projects and as a general actor, writer and producer, most notably with the Oscar-nominated Philomena (2013).  Still, Saxondale should be cherished as evidence that Coogan is fully capable of doing an affectionate, character-driven type of comedy, as well as the more grotesque, heightened type epitomised by Partridge.

 

In the Guardian, Alexis Pretridis once wrote of Partridge that “one of the reasons audiences find him funny is that they recognise at least a bit of themselves in him.”  By that reckoning, if – like me – you’re on the wrong side of 40, and feel a nostalgic pang for 20th century rock ‘n’ roll, and as a youth had a hankering for what used to be called the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, and feel adrift in a modern world of spam emails, online cat videos, automated phone systems, self-service checkouts, Twitter trolls, chuggers, selfies, Strictly Come Dancing, Simon Cowell and the Kardashian family, you should find Tommy Saxondale hilarious.  Because there’s a lot of him in you.

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 10

 

 

I was whizzing back to my Colombo apartment in a tuk-tuk one evening recently when I happened to look out at the side of the street and see, hovering a foot above the pavement, the outlines of several small children.

 

“Eek!” I exclaimed.  “Sri Lankan ghost children!”  (My excitability may have been due to the fact that I’d just been in a local hostelry partaking of a couple of bottles of Sri Lanka’s finest beverage, Lion Lager.)

 

When I traversed the same street the following day, I discovered that the spooky levitating children were still there, but they weren’t actually ghosts.  In reality, they were the foot soldiers of a new traffic safety campaign: life-sized photographic silhouettes, fixed on poles and facing the oncoming traffic, each bearing a sign with a safety slogan written in English or Sinhala.  These slogans ranged from general ones like “Please drive safely” to more specific ones like “Please don’t drive while you’re on the phone” and “Please don’t drink and drive”; and some sounded personal, like “Daddy, please think of me before you drive so fast” and “Aunties and uncles, please follow the traffic signs.”

 

(Incidentally, in the local variety of English, calling someone an ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’ doesn’t necessarily mean you’re their niece or nephew.  According to my Dictionary of Sri Lankan English by Michael Meyler, ‘auntie’ can be “a term of respect / affection used by a child to a woman or by a young woman to an older woman, even if they are not related.”  The equivalent, with boys and younger and older men, applies to ‘uncle’.)

 

 

I’ve written humorously about these spooky traffic-safety kids, but there’s no denying that they’re being used to combat a serious social issue.  Sri Lankan roads are not particularly safe.  A World Health Organisation report in 2015, using data from 2013, put the annual traffic-accident death-toll in Sri Lanka per 100,000 people at 17.4 (compared with 16.6 for India and 2.9 for the UK).  In 2015 it was calculated that one Sri Lankan was dying in a traffic accident every three-and-a-half hours; while the total number of traffic fatalities in 2016 came to 3,117.  Among the reasons given for the carnage are the usual suspects: lack of adequate driver-training, immaturity, speeding, alcohol and tiredness.  (As someone who’s had some scary late-night taxi rides with drivers who’ve looked worryingly sleepy, I can testify to that last one being a problem.)

 

Among the other figures for 2016, there were 10,754 recorded accidents involving motorcycles, which doesn’t surprise me – motorbikes are ubiquitous here, but drivers of larger vehicles rarely seem to give them much consideration.  It also doesn’t surprise me that 2016 saw 7,061 accidents with tuk-tuks, given the devil-may-care, at times verging on Evel Knievel-esque, driving style favoured by many three-wheeler drivers.

 

I have to say, though, that for me the biggest villains on Sri Lanka’s streets and roads are the bus drivers, who often behave like they’re at the wheel of an armoured battle-truck in some Mad-Max-style post-apocalypse dystopia.  They seem to believe they have god-like status when they overtake – anything coming in the opposite direction had better get the hell out of the way.  (And when you’re confronted with a 15-ton bus hurtling towards you, you do.)

 

A few months back, I was having a beer one night in a pub in Jaffna when I got into a conversation with a bloke who was busy quaffing a bottle of arrack.  He spent a long time lamenting about the dangerous driving taking place on the nation’s roads and the number of road accidents resulting from it.  And he had no doubt about what the root of the problem was: “Many young guys drinking alcohol.  Then getting into their cars.”  Finally, he finished his bottle of arrack, paid the bill and lifted from behind the table something I hadn’t noticed before – a motorcycle helmet.  With that, he slouched off into the night.

 

Spooky traffic-safety kids, you have your work cut out.

 

 

My name is Amis, Kingsley Amis

 

© Vintage Classics

 

There’s been much talk in recent years about the obsolescence of James Bond.  The thinking goes that as a privileged, white, stuck-up, sexist macho-man rooted in the early decades of the Cold War, Bond has become an embarrassing anachronism in our politically correct, socially aware era today.  Here’s Laurie Penny’s contribution to the debate, for instance, in the New Statesman.

 

Well, forgive me for being sceptical about this line of thought.  For one thing, with the likes of Donald Trump and Brexit dominating political discourse just now, our times are clearly less enlightened than many would like to think.  Which means there are probably millions of unreconstructed souls out there who don’t give two hoots about political correctness and still clutch old snobby, sexist 007 to their bosoms.  For better or for worse, I don’t think Bond is going to disappear off the popular radar for a while yet.

 

Also, modern-day Bond-bashers overlook the fact that the Bond franchise – the movies, anyway – has had fun for a long time already with the idea of its hero being outmoded and anachronistic.  In 1983’s Never Say Never Again, Edward Fox’s M tells Sean Connery’s Bond: “It’s no secret that I hold your methods in much less regard than my illustrious predecessor did.”  Thereafter, he lectures Bond on healthy eating and avoiding free radicals: “They’re toxins that destroy the body and the brain, caused by eating too much red meat and white bread.  Too many dry martinis!”  In 1995’s Goldeneye, another M, Judi Dench, takes Pierce Brosnan’s Bond to task for being ‘a sexist, misogynistic dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War…’  And in 2015’s Spectre, Daniel Craig’s Bond is faced with a new, tech-obsessed superior called C (Andrew Scott), who vows to ‘bring British intelligence out of the dark ages, into the light’, where ‘an agent in the field’ can’t ‘last long against all those drones and satellites.’

 

But however fashionable or unfashionable Bond is these days, nobody can deny that well-regarded authors are still keen to follow in the footsteps of Ian Fleming and have a go at writing new James Bond novels: for example, Sebastian Foulkes (with 2008’s Devil May Care), Jeffery Deaver (with 2011’s Carte Blanche), William Boyd (with 2013’s Solo) and Anthony Horowitz (with 2015’s Trigger Mortis).  And it’s been announced that Horowitz will be unveiling a second Bond novel, Forever and a Day, later this year.

 

Long before Foulkes, Deaver, Boyd and Horowitz got in on the act, though, another writer attempted to construct a novel around Ian Fleming’s legendary creation.  In 1968, just four years after Fleming’s death, Kingsley Amis wrote a Bond adventure called Colonel Sun and published it under the pseudonym Robert Markham.  By then, of course, Amis was a big noise in British letters thanks to works like 1954’s Lucky Jim and 1960’s Take a Girl Like You.  I should say that my 2015 Vintage Classics edition of Colonel Sun makes no mention of Robert Markham on its front cover and advertises it unapologetically as a Kingsley Amis novel.

 

© The Times

 

A few weeks ago, I finally found the time to read Amis’s take on Bond and I thought I’d offer my thoughts on it.  If you haven’t yet read Colonel Sun but intend to, beware – there are spoilers ahead.

 

Set a little while after the events of Fleming’s Bond swansong, The Man with the Golden Gun (1965) (which Amis is rumoured to have polished up when Fleming died before he could revise it himself), Colonel Sun begins with an audacious attempt by some unidentified villains to kidnap both Bond and M.  They’re only half-successful – M is abducted and whisked out of England, but Bond manages to elude his would-be kidnappers and is then tasked with tracking down his boss.  He soon homes in on an island in the Aegean Sea.  There, M is being held by a Chinese officer, ‘Colonel Sun Liang-tan of the Special Activities Committee, People’s Liberation Army’.

 

The dastardly Colonel has hatched a dastardly plan.  The Soviet Union is hosting a secret international conference in the area and Sun plans to destroy it and the delegates in a mortar attack, the blame for which will then be pinned on Britain – Sun intends to make it look like one of the last mortars blew up accidentally, before firing, and leave Bond and M’s dead, but still identifiable, bodies in the wreckage.  Thus, China will benefit from the discrediting not only of the USSR for sloppy security, but also of the UK for warmongering.

 

To rescue M and thwart Sun’s scheme, Bond joins forces with a woman called Ariadne Alexandrou, a Greek communist who’s been working for the Soviets; and a Greek World War II veteran called Niko Litsas who, after fighting Nazis, fought communists during the 1946-49 Greek Civil War.  (Amis discreetly skates over Britain’s sorry role in this episode of Greek history.  In 1944 the British government decided to back the anti-communist faction in Greece against the left-leaning one, even though the former faction contained many former Nazi sympathisers and collaborators and the latter contained many partisans who’d fought for the Allies.)  Despite their ideological differences, the trio bond – ouch! – and are soon prowling the Aegean Sea in a vessel called The Altair whilst figuring a way of taking the fight to Sun and his many henchmen.

 

Amis’s plot is a generic one and a few things don’t make sense.  For example, why does Sun want to plant the elderly and normally deskbound M at the scene of the crime?  (This is the literary M we’re talking about, not the feistier and more empowered cinematic version played by the likes of Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes.)  Wouldn’t it look more believable if the body of another, physically-able British agent was found there next to Bond’s?  It’s hard to see this as anything more than a perfunctory excuse for the novel’s main gimmick, the kidnapping of M.

 

© Bantam Books

 

But Colonel Sun is still good entertainment and it feels more credible as a Bond novel than the other non-Fleming Bonds, like Solo and Trigger Mortis, that I’ve read.  For one thing, unlike the rather bland villains in the Boyd and Horowitz novels, Colonel Sun makes a memorable baddie.

 

Yes, he belongs to a long tradition of Oriental supervillains found in pulpy colonial adventure fiction – the Fu Manchu books being the most famous, and notorious, examples.  He’s not even the first bad guy in the Bond canon to follow this dubious blueprint, an honour that belongs to the titular character of Fleming’s Dr No (1957).  But Sun is splendidly eccentric.  He’s irritatingly polite and addresses friends and foes alike by their first names.  He also sees himself as an Anglophile: “Sun did not share his colleagues’ often-expressed contempt… for everything British.  He was fond of many aspects of their culture and considered it regrettable in some ways that that culture had such a short time left.”

 

Then there’s his troubling penchant for torture.  Near the novel’s end and just before he lays into Bond with an array of kitchen utensils (‘knives, skewers, broom-straws’), he explains: “True sadism has nothing whatever to do with sex.  The intimacy I was referring to is moral and spiritual, the union of two souls in a rather mystical way.”  Later still, he surprises us when he confesses to Bond that “I didn’t feel like a god when I was torturing you back there.  I felt sick and guilty and ashamed.”

 

Admittedly, I could have done without the linguistic quirk that Amis bestows on his villain.  Thanks to his ‘quick ear and passionate desire to learn’ English and a ‘total ignorance of the British dialect pattern’, he’s ended up with a bizarre accent combining the ‘tones of Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, Belfast, Newcastle, Cardiff and several sorts of London…’  As a result, every time that Colonel Sun opens his mouth in the book, I imagine him sounding like Liam Gallagher, Billy Connolly, Ringo Starr, George Best, Jimmy Nail, Charlotte Church and Bob Hoskins fed through a mixing desk.

 

Colonel Sun also feels like a proper Bond novel because Kingsley Amis’s authorial voice doesn’t sound that different from Ian Fleming’s.  Putting it more crudely, it feels closer to the originals than the modern pastiches do because Amis was as much of a curmudgeonly snob as Fleming was.  By the 1960s, Bond’s rarefied world of Bentleys, dinner jackets and private members’ clubs were on their way out; and Amis bellyaches about it as you’d imagine Fleming would.  When Bond drives through some English farmland, he writes: “Places like this would last longest as memorials of what England had once been.  As if to contradict this idea, there appeared ahead of him a B.E.A. Trident newly taken off from London Airport, full of tourists bearing their fish-and-chip culture to the Spanish resorts, to Portugal’s lovely Algarve province, and now… as far as Morocco.”  Also activating Amis’s Licence to Grump is the prospect of the great unwashed discovering the Greek islands.  Describing a waterfront, he observes: “At the near end were whitewashed cottages with blue or tan shutters and doors, then a grocery, a ship’s supplier, harbour offices, a tavérna with a faded green awning.  No neon, no cars, no souvenir shops.  Not yet.”

 

© Eon Productions

 

Still, some aspects of Colonel Sun are surprisingly liberal, considering that Amis was well-known for his cranky right-wing politics.  Ariadne, the book’s heroine, is resourceful and able to look after herself and Bond comes across as less of a sexist boor than one might have expected.  Meanwhile, some of the Soviet characters are depicted sympathetically: for example, Gordienko, Moscow’s man in Athens who believes Bond’s warnings that something fishy is afoot and will have bad consequences for both their countries; and Yermolov, the pragmatic, vodka-loving dignitary who at the end expresses the USSR’s gratitude to Bond for foiling Sun’s plan.  Indeed, Yermolov feels like a prototype for the craggy but avuncular General Gogol, the KGB head played by Walter Gottel who appeared in every Bond movie from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) to The Living Daylights (1987).  In Colonel Sun, Yermolov even offers Bond the Order of the Red Banner; just as Gogol awards Roger Moore (‘Comrade Bond’) the Order of Lenin at the end of 1985’s A View to a Kill.

 

But before we assume that old Kingsley has gone all hippy-dippy and peace-and-love, we should bear in mind that the Soviets are the good guys here only comparatively – because the bad guys are the Chinese.  The novel even postulates that the West and the Soviet Union are on the brink of working together because of the increasing threat posed by China.  (Richard Nixon’s jaunt to China in 1972 must have knocked that fanciful notion on the head.)  Happily, by the time of the 1997 Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, which has Pierce Brosnan joining forces with Michelle Yeoh to take on evil media mogul Jonathan Pryce (basically playing Rupert Murdoch), the Bond-verse had decided that the Chinese could be good guys too.

 

Talking of which, while Colonel Sun has never been filmed, it’s interesting to see how a few of its ideas have turned up in the Bond movies.  The kidnapping of M was a key plot element in 1999’s Tomorrow Never Dies, while a villain called Colonel Tan-Sun Moon features in 2002’s Die Another Day.  And if Colonel Sun’s musings during the book’s climactic torture scene sound familiar – “Torture is easy, on a superficial level.  A man can watch himself being disembowelled and derive great horror from the experience, but it’s still going on at a distance…  a man lives inside his head.  That’s where the seed of his soul is…  So James, I’m going to penetrate to where you are.  To the inside of your head….” – it’s because they were used as dialogue in 2015’s Spectre, for the scene where Christoph Waltz violates Daniel Craig’s skull using a torture device that looks like a dentist’s drill attached to a robotic tentacle.

 

In Spectre, Waltz’s character is revealed as being none other than Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  Having James Bond’s great arch-enemy nick his best lines?  I’m sure Colonel Sun would have been flattered.

 

© Eon Productions

 

The Corbynite maneouvre

 

From knowyourmeme.com

 

Two steps forward, two steps back.  That’s how I feel about Jeremy Bernard Corbyn, Member of Parliament for Islington North, cyclist, allotment gardener, pescatarian, supporter of Arsenal Football Club, keen photographer of decorative manhole covers, and leader of the UK Labour Party and Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition in Westminster.

 

Apart from a few occasions in the past when ultra-lefty stupidity has got the better of him and he’s expressed sympathy for some dodgy Irish and Middle Eastern terrorist organisations, I don’t think Corbyn is a bad bloke – certainly not as politicians go.  Indeed, I think most of his views about where British society and the world generally ought to be heading are sane ones.

 

(Please note that I’m talking about Jeremy Corbyn, not necessarily about all members of the Labour Party.  And I’m certainly not talking about the Scottish branch of the Labour Party whom, as I’ve said before on this blog, I regard mostly as a bunch of diddies whose gigantic sense of entitlement is in inverse proportion to their abilities.)

 

For instance, I cheered when Corbyn responded to a recent Twitter pronouncement by Donald Trump.  (‘Pronouncements’ hardly seems the best word for Trump’s Twitter output.  ‘Emissions’?  ‘Discharges’?)  Referring to a demonstration calling itself NHS in Crisis: Fix it Now that’d recently taken place in London and drawn thousands of marchers, President Brainless Blabbermouth Baldy-locks tweeted on February 5th that the demo was evidence of a universal, free-on-the-point-of-delivery healthcare system not working and evidence why nothing similar should be attempted in the USA: “The Democrats are pushing for Universal HealthCare while thousands of people are marching in the UK because their U system is going broke and not working…  No thanks!”

 

(This came after Trump had watched Nigel Farage on his main news source, the loony right-wing Fox News network.  Farage, whom Fox would have you believe is the only British person with an opinion on the planet, had been spouting off about how Britain’s NHS was at ‘breaking point’ and how this was all the fault of beastly immigrants.  Predictably, shit-gibbon Farage sidestepped the fact that 12.5% of NHS staff in England are non-British nationals, i.e. immigrants.)

 

Of course, the London demonstration was really in support of Britain’s National Health Service and its principles; and was protesting at what the organisers, the People’s Assembly and Health Campaigns Together, saw as Theresa May’s Conservative government’s underfunding of it and insidious moves to push parts of it towards privatisation.  Jeremy Corbyn responded to Trump’s tweet and nailed its dishonesty: “Wrong. People were marching because we love our NHS and hate what the Tories are doing to it. Healthcare is a human right.”

 

From youtube.com

 

My attitude towards Corbyn is like that old catchphrase from The X-Files: “I want to believe.”  Yet despite his good points, he’s repeatedly left me feeling annoyed, frustrated and let-down because of his determined obfuscation about another issue, the none-too-trivial one of Britain quitting the European Union.  With Corbyn at its helm, the Labour Party seems happy just to bob along in the Conservatives’ slipstream on this.  Indeed, Corbyn imposed a three-line whip in the House of Commons to make his MPs vote in favour of the activation of Article 50, which triggered the whole sorry process of Brexit.

 

And can anyone make sense of Corbyn’s position on whether or not Britain should have membership of the EU’s Single Market (like non-EU-members Norway and Switzerland) or Customs Union (like Turkey)?  Corbyn and his Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer have been contradicting each other, and themselves, about this for months.  Their incoherence on the matter has been, well, Trumpian.

 

It was especially maddening that Corbyn missed an open goal at this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, after some Treasury forecasts about the dire economic impact of Brexit on the UK found their way onto Buzzfeed.  Rather than raising the matter and using it as a rhetorical machete to reduce Theresa May to sashimi, he chose to bang on about policing and law and order instead.

 

Why has Corbyn has been so vague in his Brexit policies and so toothless about Brexit when confronting the Tories?  Well, first, I suppose Corbyn thinks it makes sense to keep schtum about the topic while the Conservative government is making such a spectacular hash of the Brexit negotiations and while pro and anti-EU factions in the Conservative party are busy eviscerating each other.  (See Anna Soubry’s recent outburst against Jacob Rees Mogg, the new champion of the Brexiting Tory right and a man who looks like the result of a sinister experiment splicing together DNA from Lord Snooty and Dr Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow in Batman).  Why shouldn’t he just sit back and let his opponents get on with destroying themselves?

 

Second, many pro-EU Labour MPs are in the uncomfortable position of having to represent constituencies in Labour’s English heartlands where a majority of people voted for Brexit.  No wonder a lot of Labour politicians, including Corbyn, prefer to bite their tongues about it.

 

And third, I’m pretty sure that Corbyn, for all his endorsements of a ‘remain’ vote before the 2016 Brexit referendum, doesn’t really like the EU that much.  In fact, he’s been anti-Europe at various times in the past – he opposed Britain’s membership of the then-EEC in the 1975 European Communities Referendum, opposed the Maastricht Treaty in the 1990s and opposed the Lisbon Treaty in the 2000s.  I doubt if his attitude differs much from that of his old left-wing guru the late Anthony Wedgewood Benn, who once claimed that “Britain’s continuing membership of the (European) Community would mean the end of Britain as a completely self-governing nation.”

 

© New Statesman

 

By ducking Brexit, Corbyn no doubt reckons he’s doing the right thing by his own beliefs and doing the wise thing by political expediency.  But I suspect it’s a policy that’s going to end in tears, especially if it entails the Labour Party sitting on their hands until it’s too late.  For one thing, those Treasury forecasts make horrendous reading and Labour areas – ones that, paradoxically, voted most enthusiastically for Brexit – are predicted to take the worst economic hits.  The UK generally is expected to see a 2% decline in economic growth under the very best-case scenario, which would be remaining in the Single Market, and an 8% decline under the worst-case one, which would be quitting the EU with no deal at all.  However, the figures range between a 3% decline and an eyewatering 16% one in what’s predicted to be the worst-affected area, England’s North-East.

 

Anyone who’s read Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine (2007) must be wondering if an economically-traumatised post-Brexit Britain is being lined up for a strong dose of disaster capitalism; whereby its resources, assets and public services get flogged off in a fire-sale to piratical corporations, oligarchs and free-marketeers by a government desperately trying to pay the bills.  The NHS would surely be top of the auction-list.  At Prime Minister’s Questions this week, it took Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats – remember them? – to raise the scary prospect of American firms taking over chunks of the NHS if Britain has to wheedle a post-Brexit trade deal out of the Trump administration.  Typically, May refused to give any guarantees.  This possibility, combined with potential losses among the NHS’s non-British workforce, suggests that the venerable institution is heading for a horror-story ending.

 

For old Jeremy, these Corbynite manoeuvres around – and avoiding – Brexit might make sense.  But I fear they may well spell disaster for his beloved NHS and for the country as a whole.